Back Yard Rambles

Here, now and wow: Exploring the sights, sounds and flavors of the North Bay

When it comes to fun stuff to do and places to go, the North Bay is loaded. Great food and drink destinations? We’ve got that covered and then some. Ocean, mountains, hill, trails, rivers and winding roads? Check. Lively music venues and cultural attractions? We’ve got them in spades, too.

Our annual Resident Tourist issue celebrates our land of plenty with three themes—food and drink, outdoor recreation and music. We’ll leave many of the more well-known attractions to the real tourists. This insider’s guide is by no means exhaustive. We’ve had to pick and choose some of our favorites, lest we get started and never stop.

I’ve lived here just over three years, and I am very much a resident tourist myself, eagerly discovering new things about the North Bay that make me continually thankful I live here.

How do you play resident tourist in your own back yard? Let us know at [email protected].

—Stett Holbrook

Our Great Outdoors

In the Whitmanian sense of the expression, the North Bay contains multitudes when it comes to outdoor adventures. Thing is, there are so many outdoors destinations, you might as well pick a few, get in the car and save some for next time. Life’s short, but let’s hope it’s not that short. And jeez, there’s more than enough natural splendor to enjoy just looking out the window of your car.

Walt Whitman, who coined the multitudes phrase in his poem “Song of Myself,” was an inveterate beachcomber in his 19th-century day. Ol’ Walt would have flipped out over the 70,000 sublime and accessible acres of Point Reyes National Seashore, the vast and rugged coastal redoubt in Marin County where one can spend a day or a month or a life getting blissfully lost and found in nature.

A recent morning found your Bohemian scribe on a hike out to Limantour Beach. It’s an exquisite, white-sand stretch of total abject pleasure along Drakes Bay. And it’s just a few steps from parking lot to beach. On a recent visit to Point Reyes, and despite the warning signs, I did not encounter any Fukushima flotsam (or jetsam, for that matter) as I walked a mile or so down the beach. But it was very cool to score a large piece of weathered, blue beach glass, a rarity for collectors of such things. Limantour beach is friendly to families and free-spirited nudists alike, if the light crowd on a recent weekday morning was any indication.

Another nearby bonus for an overnight sensation, if you are so inclined, is the nearby Point Reyes National Seashore Hostel, the only on-site lodging in the park, where a bed can be had for as little as $25 a night. But I had miles to go before sleep on this daylong, three-county roundabout adventure.

Next stop, Bodega Bay. Before heading up the coast, I pulled in to Point Reyes Station for some coffee from the legendary Bovine Bakery. Now I was ready to hit the highway, jacked on caffeine with the Dead Kennedys cranking in the cassette deck, and the fog rolling across the coast.

When you get to Bodega Bay, we suggest you drive out to the marina area and wander for a while among the fleet here, but don’t bother the crows—they’re deadly, sayeth Hitchcock. Just as you’re heading out of town to the north, keep an eye for the Bodega Dunes Campground. It’s a state campsite and you’ll need to book it in advance, but the campground is centrally located and provides a great and inexpensive ($35 a night) launch point if you’re spending a few days in Bodega Bay and don’t want to drop $275 on a tony B&B experience (though we recommend that, too, if you can swing it).

Now that you’ve got Bodega Bay in the rearview mirror, the rugged Sonoma coastline beckons for a few more miles northward—and then there it is, the mighty Russian River and, with it, a fork in the road. As Yogi Berra famously said, take the fork. Scenic Route 116 runs along the river awhile before you hit the fringes of civilized Sonoma County, and there are lots of places to stop off and hike, bike, swim or whatever suits your fancy. There are canoe rentals in Forestville and there’s Armstrong Redwood State Park in Guerneville, where you can also rent kayaks, or head to Steelhead Beach on the river.

The road was long and winding as I made my way toward Napa County, and the final destination of the day: the Petrified Forest in Calistoga.

Oh darn, it was closed.

Instead, I regretfully reflected back to the petrified wood I saw in the nude section of Limantour beach. When you’re playing resident tourist, it pays to plan ahead.—Tom Gogola

Ear Candy

The North Bay is home to some outstanding music destinations. The most recent addition, Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center, is truly a masterpiece of sonic architecture. Modeled after the famed Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, the main hall at the GMC is the aural equivalent of a cashmere blanket. Warm, rich, luxurious sound emanates from the maple stage, filling the 2,000-seat hall with the sounds of a trio, solo piano or full symphony orchestra with choir. The likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang have graced the stage, and on April 27 violinist Hilary Hahn (the 34-year-old virtuoso was named Time magazine’s best young classical musician in 2011) come to play.

But it’s not just about high society here. There are plenty of student and faculty ensembles taking the stage, with ticket prices sometimes in the single digits. In a stunning transformation, the home of the Santa Rosa Symphony opens its rear wall to a sloped grass field for afternoon picnic performances, giving a view of the musicians inside, without having to worry about a toddler’s impatience ruining the mood.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Bottlerock festival in Napa, running May 30–June 1. Music festivals are not unique, especially in California, but with headliners this year like the Cure and Outkast (who also headlined Coachella), it’s an event that many are planning vacations around. After a popular success (and business disaster) in its first year, the show is back with a renewed focus on music and, vendors hope, paying its bills on time. Add to it the location—the center of world-renowned Napa Valley—and there arises the niche.

Winetasting and culinary adventure await festivalgoers, and we’re not talking three-buck Chuck and greasy pizza. There will be sushi, there will be artisan tacos with handmade tortillas, there will be boutique wine. Of course, winetasting in Napa isn’t a new concept, but having dozens of wineries and high-end food choices at a music festival setting sure is. And to top it off, it’s at the Napa Expo Center, officially making it the coolest thing ever to happen at the Napa Expo Center.

Napa’s summer music scene is not just about expensive music festivals. Take, for example, the wonderful walking tour that is Porchfest. That veranda isn’t just for sittin’ anymore; it’s for pickin’, grinnin’, strummin’, bowin’, drummin’ and singin’. The historic porches of Napa are a sight on their own, but add some ol’ timey music, and they become a musical delight.

Fifty porches in the city are on the books for this year’s free festival on July 27, and so far, more than 70 bands have signed up to play—that’s right, bands just sign up for a spot and they’re in. No booking agents, no radio payola, no radius clauses—just music. Some are intimate concerts to passersby, some are full-blown blanket-and-chairs events, depending on the location and musical guest.

Picnics are encouraged, as there are no $3 bottles of water for sale, nor are there souvenir hats or foam fingers. This is about the music, plain and simple. Young bands, old bands, folk bands, rock bands—with so much music going on, there’s bound to be something everyone can enjoy.

If all this feel-good acoustic music stirs dead memories to life—Grateful Dead memories, that is—there are a couple pf great spots in Marin County to reminisce: Terrapin Crossroads, founded by Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and Sweetwater Music Hall, opened by Dead guitarist Bob Weir. The two spots have featured former Dead members and their friends regularly, and you never know when Lesh or Weir might be feeling saucy enough to jump on the stage and jam with the band.

But the entertainment extends beyond just the Dead—both feature big names on a weekly basis, like the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, who play a three-evening residence at Terrapin at the end of April, and Michael Franti with members of RatDog, playing Sweetwater on April 30. Both feature local favorites, too, like the Easy Leaves and Dirty Cello. With music served up nightly (and during daylight hours on weekends), it’s time to get truckin’ down Shakedown Street to Terrapin Station with a friend of the devil.—Nicolas Grizzle

Food & Drink

What and where to eat and drink are important questions that carry special significance in the North Bay. The choices are bewildering. Here are a handful of places on my short list. I’ll start from western Sonoma County, head down to Marin County and cross over in Napa County.

Eating at the Casino Bar and Grill for the first time nearly four years ago helped seal the deal on my move to the area. The Bodega restaurant-in-a-75-year-old-bar is run by a changing lineup of chefs who whip up a new menu every night from a tiny kitchen in the town’s watering hole/gathering place. I’m partial to Mark Malicki. Simply check Casino’s Facebook page to see what’s for dinner. Recent standouts include rabbit rillettes, Sriracha chile crab, short rib pot stickers and smoked salmon. That’s a far cry from the peanuts and pretzels served at most bars. On sunny days, eating barbecued oysters and sipping cold IPA out on the little patio is a quintessential West County experience.

I’ve long been a fan of the Tomales Bakery, but K&A Take Away is my new favorite. The 240-square-foot shop was once the town’s post office, but now the diminutive space is a showcase for Amy Carpenter’s inventive sausage sandwiches. The self-taught sausage maker always has Italian links and bratwurst on the menu, but she saves the third slot for something creative like date and orange chicken sausage or curry-potato chicken sausage. Don’t miss her great side dishes like the sweet potato and poblano chile salad or quinoa, roasted carrot and black bean salad. The name is more than a rhyme. K&A Take Away has nowhere to sit, so you will be taking your food to go.

Western Marin and Sonoma counties have become a destination for cheese lovers. But if you call this place home, your trip to cheese nirvana is a short one. Point Reyes Station’s Cow Girl Creamery is justly known as a cheese wonderland, and Santa Rosa’s Oliver’s Market has an equally strong cheese selection, particularly when it comes to local cheese. Freestone Artisan Cheese is the newest cheesemonger on the block . The little shop specializes in local cheeses, including some hard-to-find ones like the excellent Bleating Heart and Barinaga Ranch sheep’s milk cheese. The other thing that gets me into the shop is the Olive Tree Hills olive oil on tap. The Sebastopol-grown oil is delicious and affordable. Bring your own bottle and fill ‘er up.

Kombucha is a great alternative to soda pop, and Windsor’s Revive kombucha is my favorite by far, but did you know there is another probiotic beverage made in Sebastopol? Get in on the trend early and check out the Kefiry, makers of a great assortment of water kefir. You’ve probably had milk kefir, but water kefir is dairy-free and has the same beneficial bugs in it. I don’t go for the stomach-friendly bacteria but, rather, the great flavors they swim in—O.M.G. Chocolate, Guayusa Cola and Tulsi Rose are some of my faves.

Next stop, Thistle Meats. The seven-week-old butcher shop in downtown Petaluma is a beauty. While many people will focus on the fact that the butcher shop is run by the lovely Molly Best and Lisa Modica (I can already see the glossy Sunset and Bon Appétit magazine spreads), it’s the quality meat and sausage that will earn them a reputation. The impeccably clean, white-tiled shop specializes in whole animal butchery from a who’s who of local, responsibly minded meat producers. In addition to house-aged cuts of meat and sausage, they serve a hearty sandwich of the day made on crusty Della bakery ciabatta.

Further down the road in Larkspur, Bel Campo Meats is another meat palace. The butcher shop and restaurant sources all its meat from its own ranch in Mt. Shasta, giving new meaning to the term farm-to-table. Like Thistle, the meat is pricey, but that’s how it should be. Just eat less of it. So-called cheap meat exacts a much higher price on the environment and on animal welfare. Bel Campo’s burger with beef fat-fried fries will make you a believer.

Heading east to Napa County, the attraction is, of course, wine. But how does one avoid the tour bus crowds and all those nonresident tourists? You gotta know where to go.

Velo Vino Clif Family Winery, the winery from the Clif Bar folks, caters to enophiles and cyclists alike with cycling maps to various Napa Valley bikes routes and a cycling theme. St. Helena’s Raymond Vineyards has a guest house for dogs and lots of funky, cool stuff like the crystal cellar tasting area. The rustic feel of Rustridge Ranch and Winery isn’t painted on. It’s real. The winery is on a horse ranch and offers a guesthouse if you want to spend the night.

If you appreciate serious Cabernet Sauvignon, make a pilgrimage up to Spring Mountain to Cain Vineyard and Winery. Stagecoach Vineyard offers winetasting, of course, but it also has 60- or 90-minute tours of the stunning 1,100-acre property. On a clear day, you can see all the way to San Francisco.

While many of the best things in life are free, some are definitely not. To my fellow resident tourists I’d argue that it’s worth dining at St. Helena’s Meadowood restaurant at least once. Along with French Laundry, which will soon reopen in a new location, Meadowood is the only North Bay restaurant with three Michelin stars. Executive chef Christopher Kostow’s cooking is hard to pin down, but let’s go with cerebral and madly, creatively, out-of-this-world delicious.

Happy travels.—Stett Holbrook

Sonoma County Library