Sunday, Sep. 28, 2008

To Big Sur with Love

As I sit here writing this, I'm still trying to cope with the fact that we had to cancel our last trip to Big Sur because of forest fires. What Nature giveth, Nature taketh away, I guess. That said, I assume that Nature will rapidly restoreth Sur to all its verdant beauty.

There's a ton of stuff to do in Big Sur, the stunning 90-or-so-mile stretch of the California coast about two hours south of San Francisco, from staring at the breathtaking view to hiking along the coast to naked hot-tubbing at famous Esalen. (Hunter S. Thompson was once a security guard here.) In fact, you'll never hot tub in a more glorious place, on the cliffs over looking the Pacific Ocean. If you're not staying at Esalen as part of one of its 400 humanist workshops, you'll have to book a massage (831-667-3002) to use the property's hot tubs during the day. Otherwise, the mineral baths are open to the public only between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., with a reservation and a $20 fee.

We usually stay at Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, where you rent an efficiency cottage for $200 or less among the redwoods by Highway 1. If you stay here, be sure to have at least one dinner and breakfast. Also, read the turgid in-room diaries of past occupants' amorous adventures. People with more disposable income stay at the very posh Post Ranch Inn, where the cheap rooms start at $600 a night.

Be sure to have sunset cocktails overlooking the coastline at Nepenthe, and a breakfast pizza at Big Sur Bakery.

Also, if you're a seaquarium type of person, make a pit stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, either on your way down to Big Sur or on your return. The aquarium is about an hour from San Francisco, and well worth the detour for the shark tank alone. Likewise, the charming town of Carmel, 122 miles from San Francisco, just south of Pebble Beach, is a lovely spot to stop for lunch en route; I can't recommend any restaurant in particular here, but I've never had a bad meal either.

Marin County

Just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco is Marin County. Locals know it simply as Paradise. It offsets San Francisco's chilly, foggy weather by being sunnier (the fog burns off in Marin by mid morning) and 15 degrees warmer. It's also stunningly beautiful, with a mountain gently rising from its core. Mt. Tamalpais, where mountain biking was invented, is perfect for day hikes. And if you look at it just so, it resembles a nude woman in repose, with a cigarette butt between her lips. I'm not making this up; it's something that was probably first noted long ago, perhaps by the Miwok Indians, and exploited by locals.

In any event, Marin County, which is 85% protected open space, is must-see territory — though how you go about seeing it is a discussion. Many people come to Marin via the ferry to Sausalito, which leaves regularly from the Ferry Building in San Francisco's Financial District. Others rent bikes in San Francisco and cruise over the bridge, drop down into Sausalito, and pick up a protected, off-road bike path that runs deep into the county. Some take their bikes on the ferry, which is the best of both worlds, and allows you to wander farther than you would on foot. However you do it, make sure to see the Marin Headlands, a hilly park area along the southernmost coast of Marin — you'll get fabulous views of the Bay Area and the Golden Gate Bridge from here. Check out Rodeo Beach, not far from Sausalito, which is itself an excellent destination.

The Sausalito ferry takes a half-hour from San Francisco, and the town — with marinas, art galleries and waterfront restaurants — is fun to explore on foot. It's a great place to picnic; pick up food and wine at the Ferry Building on the San Francisco side and sit along the waterfront when you get to Sausalito. Sausalito also has one of the best sushi restaurants in Northern California, Sushi Ran, which is open for lunch and dinner.

Calistoga Mud Baths

I love wine country as much as the next gluttonous wino pig, but for the past few years, we've been doing our "wine tasting" as a kind of afterthought, preferring instead to take in the mud baths and good life of Calistoga, 75 miles from San Francisco in Napa Valley. My family and I make an annual sojourn to Indian Springs, a classic, efficiency-cabin kind of a place. The style of it is some weird and wonderful combination of 1940s motorcourt-sanitarium (but it was recently redone and swankified!). Indian Springs features an Olympic-size "geyser-fed mineral pool" that's basically like an enormous bathtub — for most of its length, it's only about 3 feet deep, so it's great for kids. Best of all are the on-site mud baths, complete with no-nonsense, matronly Slavic women who hose you down post-bath — you'll still be gritty for days, though, in places you didn't know you had.

From Indian Springs, you can walk into town to eat; or, better yet, go across the street to the terrific grocery store with many meats marinating in anticipation of you barbecuing them on the Indian Springs grills. If you must taste wine while you're here, Calistoga is centrally situated, putting the many fine vineyards of Napa and Sonoma within close range. Our favorite is Rombauer Vineyards, probably because we once won a private tour at a raffle. Also, the Zinfandel tastes like crushed violets. Designate a driver or hire Affiliated Limo (800-351-4377), my favorite San Francisco–based car service. Ask for Sammy and tell him I sent you.

People's Republic of Berkeley

Berkeley is a half-hour BART ride or a short hop by car over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, and it's as far from a red state as you can go without needing foreign currency. (It is, for one thing, the first big American city to convert its municipal trucks to run on recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants.)

Berkeley champions all things environmentally conscious, which for the casual day-tripper translates to really good eats, viz. the Berkeley Bowl. Open every day, the Bowl is the sprawling, 8,000-sq.-ft. organic market where the uber-eating author Michael Pollan shops, and it boasts what looked to me the other day like the world's biggest museum-quality collection of fist-sized beefsteak tomatoes.

From the Bowl it's an easy three-block walk to the Ashby Street BART station; take the train to the Downtown Berkeley stop, just north of which is the aptly named Gourmet Ghetto district (on Shattuck Avenue, between Hearst Street and Rose Street). Proceed immediately to the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective for "Today's Pizza" — there's only one kind per day, but don't worry, it's always the best kind you've ever tasted. A slice will hold you over until dinner at Chez Panisse, which is still the gold standard of nouveau California cuisine and, after all these years, still requires you to make reservations a hundred years in advance, preferably through someone related to Alice Waters.