BOLINAS, Calif. – We awoke to the sounds of waves washing up to the house, built right onto the retaining wall.
The picture window in the downstairs guest room of the private home in which we were staying gave us a front-row view of the public beach. That first morning, before our feet even hit the floor, we watched surfers roll in on whitecaps and families walking dogs and playing catch on the sand below.
My husband and I had arrived the night before in near pitch-blackness so we couldn’t really take in the beauty of Bolinas Beach until our first full day of our long weekend getaway. We were staying with three other couples at what is arguably the best beach house in Bolinas.
The out-of-the-way boho beach community in west Marin County – with its spotty cellphone reception, spectacular sunsets and smattering of charming shops and eateries – offered a picturesque setting for unplugging, catching up with friends and simply slowing down. And the spacious waterfront home – once owned by Jefferson Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner and now highly rated on AirBnB – provided the perfect launch pad.
Kantner bought the beach house in late 1970, living there with girlfriend and Airplane singer-songwriter Grace Slick when their daughter, China, was born, then selling it – not too long later – in 1973. But the building’s history dates further back than that, starting out about five decades earlier as the Ship’s Lantern Casino, hosting dances and housing a tea room along with – on the downstairs level – dressing rooms for beach-goers.
The property boasts more than 300 feet of ocean frontage. And, throughout the decades, the sea kept creeping closer. Author Earl Thompson, who owned the place from 1976 to 1978, borrowed $15,000 after a particularly brutal winter storm to erect his own seawall. I’m not sure if it’s the same one still separating the house from the tides; maintenance work and renovations have been ongoing. But, to pay homage to the home’s brief rock-and-roll history we turned up classics like “Somebody to Love” during our otherwise quiet beach weekend.
We could see the ocean from almost every window, and enjoyed drinks on the back deck every night while watching the sun go down. In the dark, we could make out the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the water.
Bolinas is only about 20 miles north of the city. But San Francisco seems very far from this unincorporated enclave of about 1,600 people who have a history of being somewhat reclusive. Street signs signaling the way to this peaceful coastal community have been stolen – and rather proudly so – for decades, dating at least to the late 1960s.
Nowadays, there’s GPS, and my husband and I – having been warned about the street sign-stealing – made sure to look up the directions online in a Mill Valley parking lot before reception started cutting out.
From the Golden Gate Bridge, it took about an hour to Bolinas via the windy, cliff-top, rollercoaster of a road that is State Route 1. We took the hairpin turns slowly, coming across several deer and a coyote in the dark.
The next day, the host at Coast Café referred to Bolinas as “out in the boondocks” when we stopped in looking for noontime espresso. Their machine was broken, and the next-door Coffee Kiosk was already closed for the day. A relative who’s lived in the Bay Area her entire life – four decades and counting – texted she’d “just looked it up,” adding, It would be cool to check out.” She didn’t make it for a day trip.
But we spent four full days hiking the nearby eucalyptus-scented cliffs and beachcombing, usually looping from Bolinas Beach through the village and back – or vice versa – two or three times a day. Our home for the long weekend sat on the street that dead-ends into the public access pathway to Bolinas Beach. By 9 each morning, surfers were already in the water and beachcombers were already on the sand. Not long after that, we joined them. At low tide, we were thrilled to spot two sea stars along with countless clam, crab, mussel, limpet and spiral snail shells and the occasional sand dollar. The next day proved to be even better: a six sea-star day.
It was warm enough mid-winter to not need a coat, but too cold to go in the mosaic-lined pool, anchored by a statue of a smiling, upright dolphin. One night we roasted marshmallows for s’mores in a fire pit on the patio.
We wanted to grab a beer at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel, but the 1851 tavern – with its white clapboard façade and false front – is closed for renovations until late spring or early summer. So, of course, we’re already talking about a return trip.
Despite their history of wanting to hide out and away from the rest of the world, everyone we met – particularly proprietors at shops and eateries – were welcoming. When our order at Eleven, an intimate bistro in an old farmhouse, didn’t get put in, our server bought us a round of beers while we continued our wait. The menu was written on a roving chalkboard: oysters, cheese plates, buffalo milk soft serve, lime-ginger custard pie. When it did arrive, our pizza – chorizo, kale, mozzarella – was quite perfect.
The vibe – not just at Eleven but the entire town – was laid-back and friendly, the kind of spot creative, artsy, surfer, hippie types seek out. Actress Frances McDormand and filmmaker husband Joel Coen have a house here. So does Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins; his place – right up the hill from the old Airplane house – was a stone’s throw from where we were staying.
Also nearby: Bolinas Surf Shop, which enticed us with its woolen but irregular socks with a handwritten sign saying they were just $5. Established in 1962 and located in an old barn next to Bolinas Gallery and Bolinas Museum, this cozy gem of a clothing store specializes in silkscreen T-shirts and sweatshirts with images of sharks, whale tails, mermaids and more. Almost everyone in our group bought something as a souvenir. I got an owl sweatshirt. My husband got an octopus T-shirt – and six sets of those socks.
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