Northern California - Only in America

He's behiiiind you!

A lot of people come to San Francisco and photo snap 
their way across the Golden Gate Bridge, stop at the vista point, more photos, then back over the bridge back to the city. The trick is to keep on going.

Dad and GG Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge
But first, let me mention the bridge, due to the bevelled shapes and it’s ‘verticality’ it is considered the world’s largest example of the Art Deco style, who knew! It’s not a golden colour but a colour painters call ‘International Orange’ (non painters call it ‘red’). It was supposed to be grey like it’s sister the Bay Bridge but everyone liked the primer so much, they left it be! There’s a local rumour that it takes 7 years to paint the bridge so once they finish, they start all over again (sounds to me like ya got some cowboy contractors on your hands, 7 years?! 365 days painting the bridge International Orange, 2,190 days painting the town red!).

It’s 1.7 miles long, so easily walkable or cyclable, and cycling the bridge is one of the best things you can do in the city. Even walking it you can tell in each step that you are pounding along the back of a global icon. It makes you feel important, and there’s nothing quite like that satisfaction when you look back at those soaring red iron arms that cradled you as you crept across San Francisco Bay. Remember, it’s often windy and foggy on the bridge (pretty much always) so you need a jumper (sweater/pullover/geansaĆ­ - depending on where you’re from!).

If you survive the windy bridge and follow the windy decent you’ll come to Sausalito. It describes itself as a fishing village, but if you’re expecting Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, forget it, it’s a posh, well-to-do, beautiful little township. I’m pretty sure every visitor I’ve had has been whisked over there on day 2 in SF, usually on a bicycle, I even marched my poor Dad over the bridge (he loved it!).

As you enter the town you get to walk/cycle along the seafront and watch the ‘village’ unfold. The very first bench you’ll pass is where Otis Redding reputedly sat and penned his famous hit ‘Sittin on the dock of the Bay’ (one of my favourite songs of all time).

There are lots of great spots for lunch, a delicious old fashioned ice cream parlour, and a year round Christmas shop. We met friends for dinner in Sausalito one night, our friend happens to be a wine merchant, so alongside the tip at the end of the meal he produced a fancy bottle of wine for the waiter, after much protestation the waiter humbly accepted the gift. It was a nice moment and very American, I just can’t imagine any other country where something like that might happen. Not to be outdone, I did think about giving the waiter the half packet of Polo mints I had in my bag, but I didn’t want to steal the limelight ;)

When you’ve biked, walked, ice creamed yourself to the hilt and have given all your wine away, you can simply hop on the ferry back to the city. It’s worth it for the views alone.

Marin County
However, there is more to Marin county that just Sausalito. If you go a little further along the bay you get to Tiburon. I would give my right arm to live here, so picturesque. Dom often disappears at the weekends for long cycles up this way. I have joined him a few times, Paradise Loop from our front door and back is about 30 miles, I’ve just done it the once, the climbs nearly burst my lungs but the scenery was worth it. 

Further on again, Larkspur is a gorgeous spot (Dom lured me there on another cycle trip with talk of the worlds best ice cream - sun burnt and wind beaten I was ready to jack it in when we got there, luckily for Dom the ice cream was delectable). Larkspur was also home to the sadly belated Robin Williams :(

So what happens if you go over the bridge and take a left…

What a beach

Stinson Beach
SF has beaches but aside from the odd very hot day they aren’t really top destinations for the city dwellers. Out of 365 days of the year, SF normally gets 72 sunny days. That’s a lot if you’re Irish, that’s Siberia if you’re from LA. However, if you leave the city, for example, cross the bridge, the temperature jumps up 10 degrees.

Stinson Beach lies across the bridge. When Dom’s brother Tim was in town we scooted over the bay, took hairpin turns traversing the Marin headlands, all to show him some California sunshine. Dom was in charge of supplies, I opened the car boot expecting to see some Fortnum & Mason style picnic hamper, chilling champagne, deck chairs and oodles of sun screen. Instead I saw a frisbee, one towel, a 6 pack of beer, and a guitar (?!).

As it happens, it all worked out beautifully, the frisbee was thrown, beer was drunk, the towel stretched enough for 3 and Tim strummed out tunes as we watched the sun fall lazily to its amber eve. 

Bodacious Bodega
Bodega Bay
If you carry on from Stinson Beach you’ll pass through a curious little town called Point Reyes, I’ve yet to slam on the brakes and explore the place but friends tell me it’s worth a weekend. However, I have gone further along the coast to Bodega Bay. Once I found out that this was where Hitchcocks The Birds was set and filmed I became obsessed with visiting the place. I am a big fan of Hitchcock movies, I think if I was trapped on a desert island a box set of Hitchcock classics would entertain me just fine (that and a Bear Grylls 101 on how to get the hell off a desert island).

The Birds
I like Bodega Bay but it’s not my favourite place. If I’m honest, it looks better in the movie! Once you’ve visited the spots that appear in the film, take a drive out to Bodega Head, visit the Bodega Country Store which says it’s a Hitchcock museum (that’s pushing it), you’ve pretty much covered the highlights.
Me and Al
I have a number of friends who adore Bodega Bay and repeatedly visit it, so maybe I’m missing a trick. Don’t get me wrong I like simplicity, I am a simple person (check my school report card), I’m not some attention deficit generation Xer who needs constant stimulation to appreciate and engage… I’ve forgotten my point, but Bodega Bay, great place for a (day) visit. 

Muir Woods

Another great day trip is to Muir Woods. It’s home to all those tall redwood trees synonymous with California. On the way there swing by Mount Tamalpais, Dom assures me it’s an incredible bike ride but the steep incline and sharp narrow turns terrify me in a car let alone on a bike. 

Hug a tree
When I had my pancreas operation in 2013, Dom picked me up from the hospital and I insisted we go on a drive (having been cooped up in a hospital room for more than a week). We thought we’d go to Muir Woods. I can testify that making 90 degree turns at swift intervals with your seat belt digging into the site where you just had major surgery does not make for a pleasant Sunday jaunt!
My friend Sinead visited from New York a while back and we took her on our pilgrimage to the woods to see those crazy california trees you don’t see on the east coast. Despite years of driving in New York city a normally gregarious Sinead fell into sheepish (possibly petrified) silence as we zig-zagged along the mountainous coil. I’m glad to say she was very taken with the trees (or had possibly decided we were highly dangerous out of control people and must be smiled at for fear of being flung from the car while rounding a bend, falling headlong into the butt of a massive redwood!).

Speaking of trees, the best of them all is in a place called Chandelier.

Chandelier drive through tree

Beignet Booya!
My two brothers, Lochlann and Colm, arrived into town earlier this year to see their new niece. Their arrival nicely coincided with Colm’s 40th birthday. We happen to live walkable distance from a nice swanky Michelin star restaurant ‘Spruce’ in Presidio Heights, so I lined that up. I felt like a 40th required something else so I organised a round of golf for the brothers in the Presidio Golf Club. It’s old, it’s prestigious and it has unequivocally the best view in the city, it sits atop the Presidio (former military garrison, current national park) and casts a watchful protective eye over the City by the Bay. 

Dream fulfilled
But I still felt like the 40th celebrations were missing the ‘Wow’ factor. Then I remembered something Colm had banged on and on about throughout our childhood [you can talk like that about your siblings ;)], he wanted to drive a car through a redwood tree -having seen a sketch of it in a book someone gave him as a young boy. Maybe it was I who saw the sketch, maybe the life long dream was mine, anyway it didn’t matter, we had a car, I had found a redwood 3 hours away big enough to drive through. ‘Dream fulfiller’ would now be added to my resume. 

Women drivers, tsk!
I just had to hope that two 6 foot 1 brothers, a month old baby, an exhausted husband and little ole me could all squeeze in the car for a 6 hour round trip to see… a tree. I’m not saying we were ready to form a travelling family show band by the end of the day but we managed not to rip each others’ heads off.

Was it worth it, yes, most definitely. We all took a turn driving through the colossus and reverted to little kids with shouts of ‘again’, ‘again’, ‘you get out and take a photo’, ‘no you do’, ‘film me, film me, film me’ ...ok, once again, maybe that was all me ;)

Another thing ticked off the bucket list. But north of San Francisco is not all about day tripping...

Russian River
Dom’s mate Patrick is a legendary trip organiser, they are always hassle free, ‘lets just do it’, collaborative casual escapes to beautiful spots. Everybody had had a long few weeks at work, it was perfect timing to skip out of town and drive from the noisy city to the peaceful spectacular surrounds of Russian River.

You pass through a cutesy town called Guerneville on the way. It looked like a place laced with memories of times gone by. There and thereabouts are popular places for San Franciscans to have summer houses. A short while beyond Guerneville we hung a left at Duncan Mills, over a teeny bridge, a sharp right and we were coasting down a country lane with houses peeking out from behind brambles and long reeds of grass.

We pulled up outside the house at the same time that Patrick, Erin and their gorgeous little son Charlie arrived. It was a VRBO jobbie (Vacation Rentals By Owner), I loved the idea of staying in someone’s summer home. More friends arrived and the games began.

We took turns making the meals, the ladies lazed in the expansive lawn by the river while the boys went for a lengthy cycle (“one of the best bike rides of my life” Dom told me repeatedly as half the group stripped down to their swimmers and plunged into the still water). 

Train to nowhere
As other members of the commune ;) cooked dinner, Dom and I strolled to the nearest ‘town’ Duncan Mills. I would call it a one horse town only for the fact they had a sign for a rodeo, which I’m guessing involves many horses. There were a handful of shops, most memorably an antique store with nothing in it older than 50 years, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. There was an antiquated steam train that marked the fact that trains no longer run through the area. It really saddens me that the arrival of the motor car in America marked the demise of the rural railways. This wasn't’ the first ‘historic’ station we had encountered, damn you motor vehicle and your seductive ways!

Back in our gaff by the river, a sumptuous dinner was had, we talked about everything under the sun until various cards and board games were unearthed. I stole to bed early but I did hang around for a game of Cards Against Humanity, I had never played it before, it’s absurd and hilarious at the same time. The Scrabble game got very competitive when Dom and Patrick went head to head, talk of a re-match, re-count and re-election filled the beery air.

We had to creep out the final morning at the crack of dawn to get back to the city for the Bridge to Bridge run (run from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge). As we left everyone dreaming about Russians and rivers and triple word scores, we inhaled the clean clear country air one last time and vowed to return next summer.

I do love it here in California but I still have my ‘only in America’ moments…. For example, I noticed they have the childrens TV show ‘Bob the Builder’ over here, I was curious to see if it was the UK one so I clicked the information button on the TV, a description popped up, it said… “Show about a UK construction worker with a ‘can-do’ attitude”... I swear to God I’m not making that up… Only in America :)

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