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Bodega Bay north along coast is impressive drive

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Bodega Bay north along coast is impressive drive

The photo shows the grounds of the Coast Guard House Historic Inn.

Photo contributed/


POSTED August 8, 2012 6:15 p.m.

One of the state’s most scenic coastal drives is just a couple of hours north of San Francisco – an enchanting coastal highway you’ll want to savor as you experience breathtaking scenery as well as many historical attractions from elaborate wooden forts to picture-postcard lighthouses.

The drive starts in Bodega Bay, just 22 miles through rolling hills from Petaluma and Highway 101. For us, Bodega always reminds us of the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The Birds,” which was, of course, was filmed at Bodega Bay. While it’s been nearly a half-century since Cary Grant was in town to make that movie, birds are still big business in Bodega.

You can’t cross the street without some reminder that the movie was filmed there. The Tides Restaurant – featured prominently in the movie – now has a gift shop that has become a near-museum with its shelves and shelves of stuffed birds, Hitchcock posters, location photos and just about any kind of clothing you want emblazoned with some variation of Bodega Bay or "The Birds." Of course, no matter that the "real" restaurant burned down long ago and the replacement buildings bear no resemblance to those used in the movie.

What does remain is the same sleepy seaside village that appeared in the movie. Down at the Tides Restaurant, there still is a bit of the waterfront flavor seen in the movie. Fishing trawlers bring their fresh catch to a seafood company on the dock, and there are always plenty of barking sea lions hoping to dine on leftovers. In the movie, Tippy Hedron rented a small motorboat at this dock before motoring across the bay to her new boyfriend’s house.

About 20 miles north of Bodega is Jenner, a small coastal town with commanding views of the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean. Vacation rentals are popular in Jenner, and you’ll be tempted to stop at Goat Rock State Park, a photographer’s favorite with its views of the craggy rock towers that poke dramatically through the frothy waves.

About 12 miles north of Jenner, we stopped at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a well-preserved piece of California coastal history. One of the oldest parks in the state system, Fort Ross had its beginnings in 1812 when a party of 25 Russians joined with 80 native Alaskans to start construction of a fort including a stockade, blockhouses and several log buildings. They chose a relatively flat bluff overlooking the Pacific that offered plenty of space for Native American encampments that would sprout up alongside the fort.

Fort Ross was established as a California colony for the Russians, who could not grow enough food in Alaska to support themselves. Not only was this area a source of food, but also of sea otters which proved quite profitable for the Russians. Today, visitors can tour the buildings, some of which offer authentic displays with artifacts such as 19th Century musket rifles or household tools and other items actually used by the Russians. Out in the courtyard we noticed there were several real cannons – we know they were real because Park Service employees were firing them off in a demonstration for a group of school children. The park, in general, is well worth the $6 per car admission.

Heading northward on Highway 1 there are almost continuous vistas of the ocean, including many opportunities for beach access. The day we were touring, a thick layer of white fluffy clouds was just offshore and had descended enough that tourists could stop at the coastal vistas and actually look down on the clouds.

Another 40 miles of spectacular views and we approached the Point Arena area, where we planned to spend the night. About a mile off the highway is the Arena Cove and perched on a hill overlooking the cove was the Coast Guard House Historic Inn, a popular bed-and-breakfast that figures prominently in this area’s history.

The Coast Guard was preceded by the U.S. Life-saving Service which was established in the late 19th Century as a means of providing rescue to the many mariners who lost ships or got into trouble in the fog or on the stormy seas just off the point. In 1901, the Cape Code-style building now known as the Coast Guard House was built as a “life-saving station” --  a place for members of the Life-saving Service to live. Much like today’s firehouses, the rescuers lived together and were available on short notice for emergencies. In those days, they rowed out to the stricken ships in long boats that seemed almost as hazardous as the ships they were rescuing.

Innkeeper Kevin Gallagher has turned this historic building into an especially charming inn that offers guests a choice between rooms in the main building or separate cottages just behind the building. We enjoyed a tiny, yet unique accommodation called the Flag Room which was ideal for a couple or single person. The room basically is a Queen bed, a private bathroom and a dining or reading area that includes a couch-like bench, table and three large windows overlooking the Arena Cove and the sea beyond. The bedroom area, while small, seems open because it also has a wall full of windows. Furnishings, floors -- everything in this room is upscale.

Judging from the conversation at the breakfast table, guests do find the inn to their liking. Over an elaborate Spanish-style omelet, fresh pastries, juice and coffee, we enjoyed meeting an extended family that had booked several rooms for their group as they toured California with family members from Israel. The guests who stayed in the cottages enjoyed their breakfast in their rooms. Like innkeepers at many bed-and-breakfast inns, Gallagher – a Philadelphia native -- is a gracious and affable host who makes a point of getting to know each of his guests, whether at breakfast or while they are enjoying some quiet relaxation in the reading room.

The life-saving station helped, but there also was the need for a good, strong light beam to guide ships away from hazards. During the 1860’s, ships carrying lumber past Point Arena would go aground almost weekly. So it was in 1866 that the government funded the Point Arena Lighthouse. While the original was damaged beyond repair in the 1906 earthquake, the replacement lighthouse stands to this day and is a popular stop just a couple miles north of the town of Point Arena.

Near the base of the Point Arena Lighthouse is a small museum and gift shop where visitors can spend a few minutes while they wait for the next tour to the top of the lighthouse. With more than a hundred steps, the stairs to the top can be challenging for older visitors, but the spiral staircase leads to a unique up-close look at the famous Fresnel lens – a lens that makes the light visible 18 miles at sea. There are also great views of the coastline from the top, although the best photo opportunities are just a quarter-mile or so from the lighthouse where you can also look out on the rocks and tidepools.

Maybe the best place of all to view the rocky coastline is the Stornetta Public Lands, just a short walk on a trail located at the first bend in the road once you leave the lighthouse. For wide open beaches, there is no better place along here than Manchester State Park, with its dunes and scenic views of the Point Arena Lighthouse.

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