San Francisco Stories and Tips

It's all about the O: An Oyster Orgy In Tomales Bay

Point Reyes Station Pit Stop Photo, San Francisco, California

When the weather in the Pacific Northwest turns nice during the short interludes between winter and spring rains, day trips are the perfect cure for the season’s cabin fever. It reminds us of a stock market that can plummet for weeks and have a spectacular up-day, sucking investor mentality into false hopes of better days ahead. Sucker or not...no better day than today to invest in a fast road trip. Such is the mind frame you must have this time of year in the Bay Area.

There are few things as relaxing as a drive north from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway, Route 1. It is a spectacular way to see the coast and experience West Marin; especially with weather in the 70’s, brilliant sunshine and the top down. Not many places to do that in the first week of March .

There are several ways to get to Tomales Bay’s Oyster Country. Heading due west through San Rafael via Fourth Street (Central San Rafael Exit) continue that bearing on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. If you are coming from the North on Highway 101 this probably works best. If you are coming from the south, then the San Anselmo/Richmond Bridge exit will do you even better. Bear left towards San Anselmo and stay on Sir Francis Drake. You avoid having to circumnavigate Mount Tam, Muir Woods, Stinson Beach and save an hour of winding roads. Not that the winding roads don't offer one of the most panoramic and awe-inspiring drives in the country but today time is part of the essence. This day trip is about oysters, old country stores, and small towns along the way.

Take Sir Francis Drake through San Anselmo, Fairfax, Woodacre, Nicassio, and a host of really cool small hamlets we pierce through a band of Redwoods in Samuel P. Taylor Park. One minute the sun blares and glares (definitely get a pair of polarized lenses for this trip) and in the next instant you are enveloped under the cool canopy of the tallest trees in the world. Redwoods dim daylight and the mood is set by an effervescent green light, glowing fairy-like while the temperature immediately drops about 10 degrees. Mark this place for return, to barbeque away a scorching summer day. There are fresh water streams to cool off in between bites of burgers too.

The shady respite of mighty redwoods are soon left behind. We push forward on a narrow ribbon of road winding evermore west. Passing a llama farm and then rounding the last set of rolling hills we run out of road in Olema, California.

Olema is an incredibly quaint town drawn and quartered by the intersection of Route 1 and Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Make a right and pass the gates of Pt. Reyes National Seashore on the left. Next stop is Pt. Reyes Station, a small coastal hamlet and last chance for gas for a while. Stop in grab great coffee and carbo-load at the Bovine Bakery 11315 Highway 1 Point Reyes Station, CA 94956

Toby's Feed Barn (just a block before the Bovine) on Route 1 delivers a Rockwellesque feeling as you walk up the wooden steps, and it delivers a tourist's menu of foods, condiments, souvenirs, and other things to tap your plastic. Don't miss the photography exhibit hall in the back. It is filled with award-winning views through various local artists' eyes.

Caffeinated and gassed up, we start to push north out of Point Reyes Station. The oyster beds of Tomales Bay lie to the left. Sun shining brightly overhead, the bay is a sky-blue water world between the gravel-gray, double yellow-lined Route 1 and the peninsula of Point Reyes National Sea-Shore. It runs approximately 20 miles parallel while cloaking the Pacific beyond with its tree-lined ridges. Every bend in the road takes the breath away. Rugged coastal cliffs serve as land's end to West Marin's coastal dairy pastures. Rolling green hills give way to grasslands flowing under the road, spilling off into the bay...

The trip is broken up into half-mile stopping segments as we approach Marshall, CA, population 50 and home of oyster-bed eateries. Each turnout becomes the stunning photo-op that great vacations or weekend getaways yearn to be. Misty peaks yield translucent for the camera as the morning fog lifts. The coastal mountains take a short swim into the Pacific beyond the ridge. Looking south towards the wetlands formed by Tomales Bay's foray inland, fisherman's boats roll gently in a warming sun.

It is hard to saddle back up. Thirty mph might as well be 75mph when moving through incredible country like this. There are plenty of hiking trails and horse stables nearby if inclined to spend more than the time allotted for the day's mission.

The pearls of this trip are not only in the oysters, but in the old ramshackle restaurants along Tomales Bay. Today's stop is part grocery and part indoor/outdoor oyster bar. The Marshall General Store nestles between the shoreline and the road. It is built on stilts and flanked by embankments of 5 feet of discarded shells of patrons like us! Once inside and then out a door behind the cash register, you hap upon a huge barbeque grill in a small garden. You can eat here with a couple of the owner's pet turtle and have a full view of the boats, bay, birds, and mountains beyond.

We opted for the narrow band of wooden decking along the outside back wall of the store with the same view. Locals sit at a few small tables or stretch out in a couple of Adirondack chairs reading paperbacks or the news. You are now sitting in some of the most well-known, well-traveled, and most often visited boondocks in the country. As if to reassure us of the surrealism here, we noted the local weekly paper’s headline and page one breaking news story of a wild turkey that hit a power line. Depriving the majority of residents in several towns of electricity, it nourished itself on 120,000 volts but did indeed survive. This is a tree-huggers paradise or fodder for a Stephen King novel. We decided to keep conversation among ourselves.

All this and more while you suck down gigantic freshly shucked raw and barbequed sweetwater oysters. There is no escaping it, figure a dozen and a half per person, and when done, you leave still wanting more... of everything. Three dozen oysters and beverages should run about $50 to $60, but the million-dollar views are free.

And now the secret. What you can’t see beneath the surface of this rustic building, just as you can’t see the millions of oysters beneath the surface of the bay, is the operation of one of the largest oyster farms in the country. The Marshall General Store was purchased in 1982 by Michael Watchorn and John Finger. They fell in love with the history of the hamlet, where, over 100 years ago, "trains chugged around Tomales Bay carrying passengers, lumber and barrels of East Coast oysters bound for the booming San Francisco Bay before being sold to restaurants" and founded the Hog Island Oyster Company. Taking years to perfect their farming techniques, the San Francisco Chronicle recently named the Hog Island Sweetwater, in blind taste testing, the Best American Oyster and received the Award of Excellence for Animal Husbandry from the American Institute of Food & Wine. Hog Island delivers over 3 million oysters a year to the marketplace. Depending on your time parameters, your next stop can be at the farm itself just another turn up the road from the general store. Click here for Oyster info . Okay, so it is not exactly the boonies.

We begin our trip back, and it was as beautiful as the trip here. I wanted to head south at the intersection in Olema and take Route 1 through Stinson Beach. The sun and the temperature had other ideas for us. After all those raw oysters, a great sushi meal makes great justification for getting home early. Just to be fair to ourselves, of course.

Tips and Suggestions:
Distance from San Francisco is about 50 miles.

Distance from San Rafael is about 37 miles.

Plan about 5 to 7 hours depending on how long you want to dawdle in the great towns along the way!

Bring a light jacket and sweater, as the coast can get chilly, even in summer.

If you forget a camera, turn around and start over!

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