One of the greatest joys of living in California is that you can hop in your car at a moment’s notice and create the instant epic road trip of your dreams. Snow, surf, forest, mountains, desert—whatever your heart desires, it’s right here for the taking. And if you’re like us and dream of wearing stripes while sipping rosé by the waterfront in Nice, then it’s time to head up to Northern California for a taste of the French Riviera in our own backyard!
We feel the call of Northern California quite often. Big fans of a road trip, we answer that call by piling our gang into our (eco-friendly) cars and making the drive up the coast. It’s the perfect time to get in some 80’s-power-ballad sing-alongs, have some deep and meaningfuls, explore sleepy unknown towns and their many dried fruit & nut options, and of course—catch up on Serial and backlogged This American Life episodes.
On our last trip up, even though we were seeing Hall & Oates play The Greek in Berkeley, we opted out of staying in San Francisco for a Marin County adventure. Located just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin offers a complete treasure trove of experiences for curious adventure seekers. Just beyond the Golden Gate, the fog suddenly dissipates into warm sunny skies guiding your way as you wind down to beautiful Sausalito. THIS is the French Riviera of California. The sleepy little seaside town has managed to keep its quiet charm for the past fifty years. But as you drive along the sun-kissed coast, brilliant white boats sparkling along the water’s edge, you’ll swear you’ve landed in a completely different country.
Stop off at Cibo for a coffee or tea to rival (possibly outdo) your favorite LA haunt. Take your hot bevvy and have a wander through the docks just across the way, where you can admire the gorgeous boats bobbing in the water and make up stories about their owners. For the more adventurous, you can even charter a boat for a relaxing bay sail. If you’re into arty home goods, the original Heath Ceramics headquarters is open to the public for factory tours, where you can also buy overstock of the coveted tableware at discounted prices. Check out the famous houseboats of Sausalito while you’re over there—a culture that sprang up in the 60’s and hasn’t stopped growing, full of Crayola-color homes as unique as the folks who live in them. But skip all the tourist shops along Bridgeway for the main event: the food. San Francisco is known as a foodie town and its seaside cousin Sausalito is no different.
For lunch, go to Fish. Located along the wharf, Fish focuses on sustainable fishing practices with new specials created every day accordingly. It’s the perfect place to grab a beer and the freshest seafood you’ve had in ages while supporting a conscious local business. Another popular spot amongst locals is Bar Bocce, supposedly home to the best pizza in Marin, but you can judge for yourself. Grab a drink, hang out by the outdoor firepit and even get in a few rounds of bocce ball on their tiny private strip of beach.
Hands-down, our favorite restaurant in Sausalito is Le Garage, a true French Bistro dining experience right on the waterfront. Sit outside on the patio to continue your French daydream: order a glass of wine, watch the sailboats snoozing in the bay and dig into the best mussels and steak frites this side of Cannes. Everything on the menu is delicious, there’s no way to go wrong. We recommend you order as much as possible between friends and share it all—you won’t regret it. And this is one place where you don’t want to skip dessert: the chocolate molten cake is to die for.
If you’re ready to take in some wine country, continue North into Sonoma County to Scribe Winery. Our favorite little winery, Scribe is about as picturesque as it gets. Even their bathroom is Instagram-worthy. Pick a farm table under the trees or grab a picnic blanket and spread it out on the hill overlooking the vineyard. Baskets of cheese, bread, fruit and nuts are available for purchase along with their wines, which you can also do tastings of. This is the perfect afternoon to share with friends and an even better romantic outing with your sweetheart. Just be sure to book a reservation before showing up, which you can do: HERE.
On our last trip, we decided to stay in Mill Valley. Located just north of Sausalito, Mill Valley is home to stunning Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais. Here, you can Airbnb a treehouse-style cabin in the redwoods. Our place had a huge zen hot tub surrounded by redwood trees. Nothing beats soaking outside under the stars with the world’s largest trees looming overhead to reconnect you to the bigger picture. Take a day hike into Muir Woods, a real live Fern Gully with giant redwoods covered in bright green moss, and get in touch with your inner wood nymph. If you take the Ocean View Trail up to the top, head directly across the street on Panoramic Highway to Mountain Home Inn for a drink and light meal with quite possibly the best view of San Francisco anywhere. HOT TIP: It’s the perfect spot to watch an early evening moonrise over the city.
Continuing our foodie adventures, we headed north to Saison Farm, the local farm of three-Michelin star restaurant and culinary sensation Saison in San Francisco. The Bay Area was one of the originators of the farm-to-table movement in the 70’s and that passion never ceased. Saison recently decided to buy its own farm so it could ensure the absolute best produce, dairy and game to meet its incredibly rigorous and discerning standards. We didn’t have an extra grand to spend on dinner at Saison, but we luckily got to take a small tour of the farm to see how the operation worked, courtesy of Adam Rusk who built and runs it.
Set on a sunny hillside, Saison Farm looks like something out of a children’s story. Sprawling veggie patches, happy dairy cows, greenhouses overflowing with exotic edible greens we’d never heard of…I was waiting for Peter Rabbit to come by in his blue coat at any moment. Seeing the incredible care and attention to detail put into every single piece of food grown and raised was incredibly inspiring. Though to be honest, we’ll always take a tomato hot off the vine any day over hot off a chef’s plate….but that’s just us.
Saison Farm is not open to the public and the restaurant carries a steep price tag, but for those of you curious and with the means, they also have a bar where you can order a la carte items without having to do the traditional 18-course tasting menu. If anyone tries it, let us know what you think!
Heading back towards Mill Valley, we stopped in at adorable Fairfax. A very progressive community with a small town throwback feel, Fairfax is like taking a stroll through Pleasantville, once all the colors are shining brightly. Stop in at Casa Manana for a traditional Mexican meal to blow your mind. It’s a simple order-from-the-counter affair, so take your food to-go and sit across the way in the park where you can savor all the perfectly spiced flavors amongst a cathedral of redwood trees. Be sure to grab an ice cream cone from tiny local organic ice cream shop Fairfax Scoop for the road—creamy, delicious and handmade with love.
No trip to Northern California would be complete without at least one visit to the big city. Head into San Francisco and spend the afternoon wandering the Ferry Building Marketplace along the Embarcadero, where you can sample all kinds of delicious local delicacies from chocolates to pickled grapes and purchase one-of-a-kind handcrafts from local artisans. It’s Etsy come to life!
Be sure to do yourself a great big favor and make a dinner reservation at NOPA. If you can’t get a reservation, show up right when they open and put your name in for a sneaky table. A deeply revered modern SF institution, this place is no joke. We were almost crying with joy from our meals here—every single dish done to delicious perfection. Not at all snooty, the food here FEELS GOOD to eat and is plentiful. The roast chicken tastes more like juicy bacon somehow, in the best of all possible ways. The salads are umami perfection, hitting all the right notes. This was the meal we never wanted to end. In fact, we still dream of NOPA with hearts in our eyes—the one that got away that we’ll hopefully return to someday…
If you’re up for some unusual fun after dinner, stop by Urban Putt for a drink. A restaurant-bar unlike any other, this one comes with a small indoor miniature golf course. Lines can get long, so be prepared to have some leisurely drinks and good conversation between putts. But when was the last time you were allowed to play golf indoors without getting yelled at?
If Bay Area folks are serious about their food, then they’re deadly serious about their ice cream game—being home to many a dueling organic ice cream company. Residents line up outside the streets of their favorite ice cream shops at night like they’re waiting to get into a club—velvet ropes and all. And trust us, it’s worth it. If you haven’t had Bi-Rite yet, you haven’t had ice cream. That’s a big statement, but it’s also true. Bi-Rite Creamery makes small-batch, organic, handmade ice cream right in the heart of the city. With flavors like Blue Bottle Coffee with Alfiere Almonds & Chocolate Chips, Honey Lavender with Sonoma Honey, and Spicy Hot Chocolate with Marshmallows and Fudge Swirl, you’ll have plenty of reasons to die and go to Ice Cream Heaven. And for all you foodies, the attached Bi-Rite Market is your artisanal, organic, farm-fresh food porn dealer. Our resident foodie Sarah was almost hyperventilating in there. Gluten-free vegan home-baked French pastries? Artisanal fair-trade dark chocolate bars with locally sourced ingredients? Organic hand-churned cheeses? Got it. And they’ll teach you how to do it too in the class they’re teaching at 8:00pm. Also, all the people who shop here are really pretty. Just a side note.
We hope you’ll use our recon to create your very own build-your-own-adventure to all the exciting places waiting to be explored just outside San Francisco! Check out our spotlight on Le Garage: HERE. And if you want to learn more about Sausalito houseboat culture and bay sails, you can read our article from Destinations magazine: HERE.
Now enjoy some sultry French tunes, brush up on your French with your Duolingo app just because everything is sexier en français and start planning your Riviera excursion without ever having to leave our beautiful home state of California. How lucky are we?
*~Bon voyage et bon chance, mes amis!~*
© 2016 Sirens and Scoundrels