Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, you arrive in Marin even before landing on solid ground. The county line hangs above the water’s edge, which is fitting, since the county itself feels suspended — ethereal, privileged, a place apart from the rest of the Bay Area. Fearing the perils of suburban sprawl, Marin invested early and often in conservation. Outside of a handful of small cities (San Rafael and Novato the largest among them), Marin is a surprisingly rural landscape of cattle ranches, rolling hills, redwood groves, houseboat communities and roadhouses. Among the wealthiest counties in the country, Marin’s affluence is apparent in towns like Mill Valley. But Marin, one of the state’s smallest counties, also has small towns, like Bolinas and Fairfax, that retain an endearing Northern California eccentricity.
1. Past and Present
Housed in a Victorian on a hillside in old San Rafael, the Marin History Museum (1125 B Street, San Rafael; marinhistory.org) has an intriguing collection of local mementos and exhibitions about county icons and institutions like the Golden Gate Bridge or the notorious San Quentin Prison. Around the corner, the Falkirk Cultural Center (1408 Mission Avenue, San Rafael; falkirkculturalcenter.org) is a magnificent Queen Anne mansion with floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows and a creaky staircase that leads to a gallery that features local artists.
2. Dead and Alive
Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead modeled Terrapin Crossroads (100 Yacht Club Drive, San Rafael; terrapincrossroads.net), which opened last spring in San Rafael’s Canal district, after Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, N.Y. On the waterfront, the music space, restaurant and bar often hosts jam sessions featuring Mr. Lesh and his friends. Tuesday through Friday happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.) has an exceptional list of Northern California draft beers for $4, half-off pizza from a flaming wood-fired oven and appetizers like the Hangtown Fry, a taco-size crepe with wilted spinach, crispy fried oysters and bacon ($11.50).
3. For the Soul
Occupying an imposing lime green building in downtown San Rafael, Sol Food (901 Lincoln Avenue, San Rafael; solfoodrestaurant.com) is a bright, plant-filled space with communal tables and Puerto Rican classics like shrimp sautéed in a garlic, onion and tomato sauce, with mofongo (mashed green plantains), salad and fresh avocado (from $11.95). Sol Food serves no alcohol; wash dinner down with mango ice tea ($2.45) or Mexican Coke ($2.25). Save room for Fairfax Scoop (63 Broadway Boulevard, Fairfax), an elevator-size ice cream shop where there’s almost always a line. Try classics like mint chip and cookies-and-cream and more exotic options like vanilla honey lavender and toasted hazelnut (from $1.75 to $3.95). Open until 10 p.m.
4. Fairfax for All
For an after-dinner drink, head over to 123 Bolinas (123 Bolinas Street, Fairfax; 123bolinas.com), a new wine bar across from Bolinas Park that serves small plates, local beer and regional wines. The bar top is carved from a 100-year-old fallen oak, the furniture is built of reclaimed barn siding, and there’s a U.F.O.-shaped fireplace. For something more casual, head to the cycle-centric beer and sausage spot, the Gestalt Haus Fairfax (28 Bolinas Road, Fairfax), which has board games, a CD jukebox, cyclocross posters on the walls and 20 or so tap beers ($5 to $7). Then sample one of the several lively spots in downtown Fairfax, a 7,500-person town that claims to have had live music every night for more than 30 years.
5. Head for the Hills
Start the day with beignets and chicory coffee at the homey, New Orleans-inspired Hummingbird (57 Broadway Boulevard; Fairfax), which was opened by a Hurricane Katrina-displaced fine art photographer in 2010. Afterward go mountain biking in the sport’s self-proclaimed birthplace. Stop by Sunshine Bicycle Center (737 Center Boulevard, Fairfax; sunshinebicycle.com) to rent a high-performance mountain bike ($60 or $90 a day, including helmet), grab a map and get directions to the Lagunitas Lake loop (known locally as the “Gentleman’s Loop”), a relatively nontechnical trail that travels past lakes and through chaparral, oak groves and meadows.
6. Coastal Picnic
Stop into the Cowgirl Creamery (80 Fourth Street, Point Reyes Station;cowgirlcreamery.com), which sells exceptional cheeses, like triple-cream Red Hawk and Mt. Tam, along with baguettes, charcuterie and wine, in a restored barn in downtown Point Reyes Station. Then head to Hog Island Oyster Company (20215 Highway 1, Marshall;hogislandoysters.com), where the $5 shuck-your-own oyster picnic gets you a picnic table and grill, rubber shucking gloves and knife, oyster condiments (lemon, hot sauce and freshly grated horseradish) and views of Tomales Bay. There are two three-hour time slots each day, and reservations are required, often weeks in advance. For bivalves without the elbow grease (or the planning), Hog Island also has a walk-up oyster bar (Friday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) housed in a half-buried boat. The Marshall Store (19225 Shoreline Highway, Marshall;themarshallstore.com) is a waterfront seafood shack that serves barbecued oysters in chorizo butter ($14), smoked oysters on crostini ($13) and grilled fish tacos with chile lime slaw and avocado-tomatillo salsa ($13).
7. Down to Drakes
At the entrance to the historic Drakes Bay Hereford Ranch, take theEstero Trail, one of Point Reyes’s lesser-known hikes, through grasslands and a Christmas tree farm and egret rookery. Then descend to a wooden bridge across a narrow inlet of Drakes Estero, an estuary that’s a breeding ground for seals. From the bridge, it’s possible to spot the leopard sharks gliding back and forth at the water’s surface. If time allows, continue to Sunset Beach, for a total round-trip hike of eight miles.
8. Get Fresh
Opened in June in the town of Inverness (population 1,300), Saltwater (12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Inverness;saltwateroysterdepot.com) is an unusual restaurant. A partnership with Pickleweed Point Community Shellfish Farm, which trains “underserved youth” to work in the oyster industry, the 34-seat bistro was crowdsource-financed. Painted in grays, white and mustard yellow, the restaurant has exposed rafters, local wines on tap and an open invitation for local fishermen to sell their catch directly at the kitchen door. The menu changes with the harvest and includes artfully executed dishes like local king salmon with garbanzo beans, eggplant relish and arugula pesto ($20), and pizza with lamb sausage, Padrón peppers, Manchego cheese and picholine olives ($16) and crispy lamb tongue with lentils and fingerling potatoes ($17).
9. To Market, To Market
The third largest farmers’ market in California, the 26-year-old Sunday Marin Farmers Market (10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael;agriculturalinstitute.org) in San Rafael has 160 vendors selling everything from radishes to prepared foods at the Marin Civic Center, Frank Lloyd Wright’s last major commission. Pick up one of the mini pies at Little Ladybug Bakery, which come in seasonal flavors like heirloom pumpkin and pecan-walnut, or the So Good Belgian waffles at the Waffle Mania food truck. For a local take on Mexican, Donna’s Tamales makes vegetarian enchiladas, breakfast burritos and tamales in flavors like smoked Cheddar, black bean and yam. The Sunday market is open year-round, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
10. Over the Hill
Take your picnic breakfast and join the slow Sunday parade of drivers winding their way over Mount Tamalpais. The views, which sweep back toward the bay and then west to Stinson Beach, are worth the crawl. On the coast, stop in at the Bolinas Museum (48 Wharf Road, Bolinas;bolinasmuseum.org), which opens at noon and has a regional history museum, three contemporary art galleries and a permanent collection of works by West Marin artists. Another option, for those averse to the drive, is the short but breathtaking 1.7-mile walk through the Tennessee Valley to the cliff-flanked Tennessee Beach.
11. Through the Woods
Back in East Marin, stop in Mill Valley, at the base of the Dipsea Trail, which is known for its 670 or so steps (give or take a few) that climb toward Muir Woods. Next continue on to the Sun Trail, which leads to the Nature Friends Tourist Club (touristclubsf.org), a Bavarian-style private lodge and hiking club that serves beer on an open deck from 1 to 5 p.m. most weekends (except the second and third weekend of each month). Check the Web site for details and trail directions. Tucked away on a dead-end street beside a marina, Fish. Restaurant (350 Harbor Drive, Sausalito; 331fish.com) serves a decadent Dungeness crab roll ($25), among many other worthy offerings, at picnic tables overlooking the water. Beware the aggressive sea gulls. Then walk the waterfront for a glimpse of Sausalito’s eclectic houseboats.
IF YOU GO
Part of a local three-hotel chain, the 25-room Mill Valley Inn (165 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley; marinhotels.com/mill-valley-inn) is surrounded by redwood trees at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. Rooms start at $189, with a two-night minimum on weekends. An evening wine reception, continental breakfast, with an espresso bar, and hybrid bikes are all included.
The Gerstle Park Inn (34 Grove Street, San Rafael;gerstleparkinn.com) is a self-described “English-style estate,” with eight opulent rooms (from $189), elegant gardens, free wine, and a full eggs-to-order breakfast.