North America's most underrated road trip

NZ Herald
By Gemma Price

It's been a while since I went beachcombing, but Chef Matthew Kammerer, who runs The Harbor House Inn in Northern California's Mendocino County, takes a daily trip to the black-pebbled shoreline fronting the property to scout for products for dinner.

His pared-back, seasonal tasting menu recently earned a Michelin star for showcasing products unique to this rugged Pacific Coast culinary terroir – morels with grilled pine and California kosho; artichoke and trout roe – most sourced from within 15 miles and a large proportion grown, foraged and fished from the property's grounds, beach and bay.

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As we hop between tide pools, walled in by craggy, lichen-carpeted cliffs and waves crashing through dramatic rock arches, Kammerer gathers seaweed loosed from rocks to bake into his house-made bread, served as a standalone dish with house-churned, kelp-infused butter.

"It's actually one of the most labour-intensive courses," he explains, as we head back up the steep cliffside steps to tour redwood-framed culinary gardens and wild, overgrown patches where he points out chard, allium flowers and sheep's sorrel.

Historic, nine-room Harbor House inn first opened its doors in the tiny town of Elk, population 200, in 1916, but re-opened in 2018 after undergoing eight years of meticulous renovations.

It's just one of many good reasons to take a drive north from San Francisco along the Shoreline Highway – part of California's scenic Highway 1 – where the cliff-hugging road curves 320km between redwoods and the seething Pacific, national parks and small towns and hamlets offering charming, cosy places – many new, or newly refurbished – to stay and sup by the fire.

Over the bridge

Just over the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County is renowned for its counter-culture heritage – it's where writers Maya Angelou, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg lived (at different times) on the houseboat S.S. Vallejo, now an artists' residency.

Rounding the Marin Headlands into Stinson beach, you'll still see surfboard-laden Volkswagen Kombis parked haphazardly in front of houses where windchimes tinkle beneath tie-dye awnings, and curbside chalkboard signs advertising fresh eggs and rooms for backpackers in curlicue script.

Mendocino, California. Photo / Getty Images
Mendocino, California. Photo / Getty Images

A little further north, separated from Shoreline Highway by a lagoon, Bolinas is famous for discouraging outsiders – every time the highway department posts a road sign pointing to the town, residents pull it down.

Assuming you do find your way in, the free-admission Bolinas Museum – where exhibits span regional history, contemporary art galleries and a permanent collection of works by West Marin artists – is a good touchstone, as is Smiley's Schooner Saloon, the oldest saloon west of the Mississippi (Est. 1851).

Bolinas is also renowned for its excellent produce, sold at Marin's numerous farmers' markets. One of its smallest, anchored by Toby's Feed Store in West Marin's historic Point Reyes Station, population 848, has been patronised by royalty: in 2005, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles visited the market and Bolinas farms as part of an eight-day US engagement. They petted goats and sampled local breads and cheeses before crossing the street for a pint of California's Boont Amber Ale at the Old Western Saloon – a lively clapboard watering hole heated by a potbellied stove set in the middle of a floor illuminated by coloured fairy lights and carpeted in rugs that stick to your feet. Above the bar, the royal visit is commemorated extensively in a series of framed photos.

"They stayed somewhere just out back for a couple of weeks, you know," the bartender tells me as he pours me a stiff Tanqueray and tonic. In fact, Charles and Camilla had only spent three days in the Bay Area, total, but never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn, especially in a rural pub.

While much of the Bay Area has been developed for business and residence, Marin County has remained relatively undeveloped because of the land protections of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), founded by rancher Ellen Straus and biologist Phyllis Faber in 1980.

Grazing black-and-white Holsteins cut a striking contrast to green pastures here, but driving east from the Station to Point Reyes Beach along Francis Drake Boulevard – this headland road is one of myriad landmarks named for the explorer, whose first continental US landing was right here in 1579 – I spot groups of tule, a brown indigenous elk that was almost hunted to extinction but were reintroduced and now have a dedicated sanctuary at the northern tip of the peninsula.

"We've tried dispersing them across the Bay but they keep swimming back," a park ranger tells me when I reach the shoreline. Wide-brim hats pulled down and collars turned up against the stiff breeze coming off the steely grey, she's one of a small group clustered at the muster point to guide visitors to this year's brood of elephant seal pups, born six weeks earlier and currently lolling in sandy heaps at the foot of the cliffs. They turn their heads in curiosity at my sudden appearance and the clicks of the camera, but decline to move their 200kg bulk across the beach to investigate.

Don't forget to stop

Photo stops include the Tomales Bay Shipwreck, an iconic fishing boat beached on a sandbar in Inverness, and the Cypress Tree Tunnel – two rows of Monterey cypresses planted around 1930 to flank the Point Reyes Receiving Station access road, and now connected to form a deep green, Insta-ready tube.

The shipwreck at Point Reyes, northern California. Photo / Getty Images
The shipwreck at Point Reyes, northern California. Photo / Getty Images

And there's plenty to eat and drink as you meander up the coast.

Just north of Point Reyes, Hog Island Oyster Co. does a roaring trade in sweet kumamotos from its reservation-only Oyster Bar, a shanty pitched against an upturned wooden boat and picnic tables where a booking includes access to shucking gear and a grill; you can also pick up a bag to go, or head to The Marshall Store less than a mile up the road where staff will prepare and serve your selections to tables perched right on the waterfront.

If you turn inland, the majestic redwoods thin to reveal rolling vistas of the lush vineyards of Mendocino County's most lauded wine region – the Anderson Valley, renowned for excellent pinots, chardonnays and highbrow accolades. Roederer Estate, an offshoot of esteemed French Champagne house Louis Roederer, produces some of the best bubbles in California. Goldeneye Winery's 2005 Pinot Noir was served at the Obama inaugural luncheon.

As the saying goes – and any vintner will tell you – it takes good beer to make great wine and Mendocino does not disappoint. The aptly named Hopland Brewery (now Hopland Tap House, under new ownership) was the first brewpub to open in California following the repeal of prohibition in 1933 and quickly became a local landmark.

The Cypress Tree Tunnel at Point Reyes, California. Photo / Getty Images
The Cypress Tree Tunnel at Point Reyes, California. Photo / Getty Images

At Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, you can tap draft amber nectars and a lesson in speaking Boontling – an elaborate turn-of-the-century jargon patched together from regional Appalachian, Spanish, and the local Pomo Indian language by hops field workers and women wanting to exclude "brightlighters", city folk, from the conversation.

Further north, Mendocino town proper, the only spot on the California Coast listed on the National Register of Historic Places and beloved by poets and artists for its saltbox houses and rambling Victorians, is a great place to weekend, not least for its charming places to eat, drink and stay.

Better go now, before everybody else catches on.

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