By CARY ORDWAY
As if the sights and sounds of San Francisco weren't enough to keep visitors completely enthralled, Mother Nature invites you to drive just a few minutes north of the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into a suburban area that seems like the other side of the planet from downtown.
Of course, that's why people live in Marin County, where as much as half the land is open space and there are so many trails and vistas you might think you were in a national park. It's expensive to live here, all right, but then how many places offer you a multi-cultural city of sophistication on one side of the bridge, and quiet trails and solitude on the other? If you crave recreation in the Great Outdoors but drive a Mercedes, you just might be a Marin County resident.
The good news for the rest of us is that we can drop in and sample this lifestyle for ourselves. We took a little time to visit the southern part of the county, setting up our base of operations in San Anselmo, Northern California's antiquing capital. From there, it was easy to explore a few of the Marin County communities and their visitor attractions. The streets in San Anselmo are narrow and buildings close together, giving the city a kind of European feeling. On a bright fall weekday, a wide variety of shops and stores - including 130 antique dealers -- welcomed locals and visitors alike. It wasn't a busy atmosphere, but more a casual, relaxed feel that seemed ideal for the many young mothers and babies we noticed enjoying a stroll on this colorful street.
Everything in this small town is within walking distance. We would explore the town's shops, or hike nearby trails and then it was off to experience some local recreation. One nearby hike recommended to us was the Phoenix Lake Trail, a 2.8-mile trail that takes visitors around the lake through a mixture of oak, bay and redwood trees. Like most trails near San Anselmo, this one was quick and easy to get to - although be prepared to wait for a parking spot. Local joggers and walkers love the combination of lush redwood forests, lake views and wide trails, so the 20-plus parking stalls were full-up when we visited about 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. No matter, though - we only had to wait about 10 minutes. Another local point of interest is the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which relocated its school here from San Francisco in 1892. You can't miss the seminary with its castle-like grand stone buildings standing above Ross Valley.
Even more history is revealed in the many historic buildings downtown, which are easily visited by taking a self-guided walking tour prepared by the San Anselmo Historical Society. At your hotel, you can pick up a copy of a very detailed magazine produced by the San Anselmo Historical Commission, which provides an excellent description, history and photo of each of the town's major historical points of interest. Be sure to check out the Robson-Harrington House and Park, the Carnegie Library and the American Legion Log Cabin. There are so many fun communities in Marin County, but very close to San Anselmo is Larkspur, whose downtown area is officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town's historical buildings, including Queen Anne Victorians, make this an excellent place to glimpse what one of San Francisco's suburbs looked like at the turn of the century. The historic downtown area is west of Highway 101.
It's also in this area that you can hop a ferry to San Francisco. A foot bridge over the highway will take you to Golden Gate Ferry terminal where you can get on a ferry departing for the San Francisco Ferry Building. The ferry ride is a great place to get photos of such attractions as Mt. Tamalpais, Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. Those particular attractions all have great hiking trails nearby - for example, Mt. Tamalpais has more than 100 miles of trails and fire roads and the trail system will take you to many lakes and reservoirs on the northern slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, the highest point in Marin County.
There are more than a dozen miles of trails at Angel Island State Park which offer stunning views of the San Francisco Bay Area and that famous skyline. Probably the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge are from Marin Headlands, where you can hike the nature trails that meander this national park, visiting such attractions as Fort Barry and Fort Cronkhite. These sites are on the National Register of Historic Places and are beautifully preserved. You can also visit Point Bonita Lighthouse, which has been in existence 150 years.
Out at the Point Reyes National Seashore, you can hike year-round on more than 150 miles of hiking trails. Take the Earthquake Trail, Chimney Rock Trail or Woodpecker Trail, for example - or, if you have your dog, Kehoe Beach Trail is a good choice.
Just below majestic Mt. Tamalpais is Mill Valley, which feels to many like a charming European village. The city is surrounded by national parks, including Muir Woods, an ancient coast redwood forest, and this area is especially popular for hiking, mountain biking, golf and running.
You'll want to visit Lytton Square, where everyone seems to get their coffee at the Book Depot Café and settle in for some serious people-watching. The downtown area is loaded with fashionable boutiques and restaurants, and the locals recommend Sweetwater, one of the top roots music clubs in the nation, where you can see top musicians perform in an intimate atmosphere.
Nearby San Rafael is a bit larger city - in fact the largest in Marin County. The downtown shopping area offers the stores, ethnic restaurants, large banks and other services that aren't found in the smaller towns of Marin. It's the only place in these parts where you see high-rise buildings - yet there still is a lot of rich, Victorian architecture that gives San Rafael a feel all of its own. One particular point of interest is the authentic re-creation of Mission San Rafael Arcangel. This was founded in 1817 and today you can visit a replica of the original mission and tour a museum. Also check out the Marin County Historical Society Museum and the Falkirk Cultural Center.
Novato is a popular destination in West Marin County where you can stroll the historic Main Street and find an abundance of shopping - everything from candy shops and boutiques to gift shops. Novato is a really easy place to shop because all of the parking is free.
209 INFO BOX
WHERE: San Anselmo and other nearby Marin County cities are located just a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
WHAT: These southern Marin County communities are a little bit off the beaten path for tourists, but each of the cities and towns offers a distinct character and charm, and are fun to explore.
WHEN: Year-round. The weather can turn cold in these areas - the San Francisco climate is often compared with Seattle - so bring warm clothing. Even in the warmest summer months, the occasional cold weather can settle in.
WHY: This area north of San Francisco is rich with history and offers an unusual combination of upscale shopping and dining, along with numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation.
HOW: For more information on Marin County, phone 866-925-2060 toll free or go to www.visitmarin.org.