Irish Independent, February 23rd, 2013
Thomas Breathnach gets close to nature on a road trip with a difference on the USA’s west coast
The clang clang of a trolley, the whirring fan in my period hotel room, and the morning kiss of coastal fog: where could I have been but San Francisco? I’d landed out west the previous night, coordinates at the ready for my great Californian road-trip. However, rather than routing towards the southern hotspots of Santa Cruz, Monterey or Big Sur, my path of Pacific enlightenment was Google-Mapped for the lonesome wilds of the northern state. A vast coastline of surf shacks, sequoias and hippy hideaways awaited and there was no question of leaving my heart or Hertz behind.
Driving in San Francisco, with its steep hills and rattling trams, may have appeared initially daunting, but, heading west of Fisherman’s Wharf, all roads seemed to lead to the city’s epic artery north, the Golden Gate Bridge. Traversing this wonder of engineering was tantamount to a road-tripper’s roller-coaster ride – four miles of exhilaration unfolded as its magnificent amber Art Deco towers loomed towards me before slipping into my rear-view, its mighty cables strumming alongside to the backdrop of a hazy Alcatraz.
Now in Marin County, the freeway dipped and dived over the fishing village of Sausalito until an exit for Pacific Highway 1 marked an immediate shift of pace. I wound through a spectacular coastal corkscrew of sheer cliff drops and, while I may not have had my dream Mustang or The Mamas & the Papas (instead, a Toyota Yaris and Ryan Seacrest), nothing could curb my sense of escape.
My first eco-stop was Point Reyes, a remote seashore peninsula flaying into the ocean. Encountering little more than a park ranger patrolling the terrain with his electro-jeep, I cruised across sweeping wheaten moors and deserted ghost ranches before stretching my legs at Tomales Point Trail. On the hillside, an antlered harem of tule elk punctured the horizon; the prevalent warning signage for mountain lions in the area suggested something was keeping their numbers in check.
I journeyed north, snacking at roadside fruit stalls and hitting the buffet at America’s much-parodied Whole Foods Market (think M&S, with granola pic ‘n’ mix and a workforce cast from Greenpeace and ‘Glee’).”Would you like to add a $2 donation to our Planet Foundation?” piped my cashier as he rang through my gluten-free chickpea curry. “Sure thing,” I replied, being offered a free wedge of red Cheddar. Ah! A land where altruism was rewarded with cheese: California was my kind of terroir.
First base for the night was Jenner, a coastal hamlet home to a gas station, the Seagull gift store and a beach-pad dwelling population of 136. Strewn across a rocky bluff where the Russian River dramatically bodyboarded into the Pacific, Jenner conjured a halcyon aura of enigma and my cliffside cottage, Mystic Landing, was just the scenic spot to soak it up. To think, just two hours south of San Francisco I would have been dazzled by the megabyte bling of Silicon Valley but here, two hours north, I was left without a cell phone signal. The ultimate disconnect.
Dinner that evening was at River’s End Restaurant & Inn (ilovesunsets.com), where a peach melba sunset over the sea was luring diners on to the viewing deck. The fare was just as sublime: a zingy shrimp and cod ceviche starter followed by fresh Russian River salmon, forbidden rice and a watermelon salad. Being California, the service was as forensic as it was personable, with my waitress bantering about yoga classes in between providing the organic lineage of my strawberried dessert and the farm-to-fork traceability of its fresh mint garnish.
After breakfast the next morning with my resident herring gull, I embarked on a river kayaking tour with local enviro-educationalist Suki Waters (from $25/€20; watertreks.com). Suki, a descendent of the native Pomo tribe, traces her roots to a tiny islet in the Russian River mouth – and was quite the woman to tell a yarn. ”A lot of people think we Northern Californians should secede from the state and join up with Oregon,” she joked, pointing to the region’s less Botoxed view of life than LA and beyond.
Keeping well abreast of Pacific swells, Suki and I tandemed downriver as snowy egrets glided past us and curious seals bobbed around within paddle length. Down on the shore, my newly acquired wildlife interpretations led us towards deer marks, snake trails and the paw pads of a bobcat, ominously traced to the carcass of ill-fated pelican. I’d just been given the Discovery Channel treatment on a lazy inlet off Highway 1.
After reaching the wilds of Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County, I horseshoed inland towards the Bohemian Highway, the historic homeland of California’s original artsy pioneers. My refuge was the West Sonoma Inn & Spa; a tranquil, vineyard-flanked hideaway in the retro, river beach resort of Guerneville. Beyond the rows of Zinfandel lay Armstrong Woods, hallowed demesne to California’s towering redwoods.
Venturing out for an afternoon trek, a sun-drenched scape of mountain meadows brought me deep into a darkened forest floor, soaked in silence but for the echoes of labouring woodpeckers. While not matching the drive-through proportions of Yosemite’s specimens, landmark lumber such as Colonel Armstrong (the oldest tree, at more than 1,400 rings of age) and Mr Parsons (the tallest, at more than 100m) were nonetheless gargantuan spectacles of flora. Thank goodness, designated tree-hugging platforms were on hand to show my appreciation.
Now with my finger firmly on the placid pulse of the ‘NorCal’ lifestyle, I retreated to the hotel spa for a post-hike massage treatment. “So, Thomas,” probed my masseuse, “what’s your body telling you right now?” ”Well, Megan, I’m fighting an addiction to Creatine [dietary supplement] and can suffer with my Achilles tendon.” Deep tissue was her suggested elixir. ”Now, breathe in that air like one of those giant redwoods,” she whispered, before kneading me into a supple state of nirvana.
Buddying up with hotel owner Karen, my spiritual odyssey was about to climax with a local yoga class, gathered in a skylit forest cabin ($10/€7.30; wildorchidyoga.net). Sanskrit instruction may have been somewhat beyond my ken, but I was soon limbering out to strike a range of asanas, from downward dog to a back-creaking upward bow bridge. ”I’m going to end today with a quote from Jerry Garcia,” said Lisa, the instructor. “Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Indeed, with the sun shimmying through the sequoias, my chakras pushed to their limits, I’d certainly found the light in California.
Even if I was upside-down.
The Know How
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin and Shannon to San Francisco (via Chicago/ Boston) from €598 return with partner airlines JetBlue or United Airlines. For car hire, Hertz offers fly-drive discounts to Aer Lingus passengers: my rate came to €24 per day. Tel: 01-870 5777; hertz.ie.
A pensione-style townhouse with Victorian heirloom furniture, the San Remo is a charming trip back to 1920s San Francisco – complete with shared ablutions. $40pps (€30). Tel: 001 415 776 8688; sanremohotel.com.
Mystic Landing in the Pacific paradise of Jenner comes with incredible views and a deck hot tub – who needs wi-fi? $149pps (€110). Tel: 001 707 865 2377; jennerinn.com.
Run by Dublin-born American dreamer Karen O’Brien, the West Sonoma Inn offers excellent luxury value and a great gateway to the wineries. $82pps (€60). Tel: 001 707 869 2470; westsonomainn.com.
Five great things to do
Take your woodland visit to the extreme by zip-lining across the fern-fringed ravines of Sonoma’s mighty redwood forests. ($89/€65; sonomacanopytours.com)
Saddle up for a bike and winery tour across the postcard vineyards of Sonoma. Feeling tipsy? The two mile cycle runs will soon have you peddling off the Pinot. ($89/€65; sonomavalleybiketours.com)
Hang ten at one of Northern California’s most happening surf spots; Stinson Beach. Just 20 miles north of S.F, expect higher waves and lower SPF.
Embark on a full day whale-watching expedition around the dramatic Point Reyes seashore. Humpbacks, elephant seals and albatross are some of the region’s highlights. Fingers crossed for a breach. ($110/€80; sfbaywhalewatching.com)
Get romantic with a hot-air balloon ride over Northern California’s winelands and forests. Coastal trips available if you’re a little more trusting of tail winds. ($225/€165; balloontours.com)