Searching for history and rustic luxe in an overnight getaway in the Bay Area?
Then follow the call of the tidal waves that gently swirl round time-worn, stilted wooden footings of Ruthie's Cottage, overlooking the wilds of oyster-rich Hog Island, by the side still so ravishingly remote Tomales Bay.
Visitors have been holing up for overnights at historic Nick's Cove on the legendary Pacific Coast Highway State Route 1 since hard-saving Slavic immigrants Nick and Frances Kojich converted a ramshackle herring curing plant into a restaurant, fisherman's depot and lodgings, back in 1931.
Construction of the highway that followed the contours of the east shore of Tomales Bay, coupled with the advent of the automobile (and the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937) had opened up access to the largest, most unspoiled coastal bay on the California coast, a mecca for hunters, fishermen, sailors and nature lovers drawn to the pristine beauty and bounty of the bay's calm, relatively shallow waters, secluded coves and rich marine wildlife.
It's not hard to picture yourself pulling up at Nick's today, side by side with classic American sports tourers, built for the pursuit of adventure and romance of the early open road. In fact, the most photographed of Nick's Cove's original vintage roadside paraphernalia is probably the resort's own signature red truck, parked in a permanent pit-stop in the primo spot, out front. The fact that there's no cell phone coverage in this far-flung outpost of coastal California makes a detour from modern stressers all the more compelling.
The view from Ruthie's Cottage (looking straight ahead, and not to the right and the lighted boat shack pictured above) conjures a rare and convincing vision of how the area must have appeared to its first inhabitants. For this was the richly bountiful territory of the Coastal Miwok, hunter gatherers, who settled harmoniously for centuries in the protected estuaries and areas of water surrounded by land of Tomales Bay and Point Reyes National Seashore.
Who was Ruthie? And Where does her story fit into the lore of this distinctive locale? Alfred Gibson and his wife Ruth purchased the place from the Kojicj family, following that first, fabled, 40-year-run, back in 1973.
After her husband passed away, a widowed Ruth stayed on out at Nick's, for several years as sole proprietor, particularly isolated on winter nights. Determined to outwit any would-be opportunists, it is said that she took to sleeping in a different cottage each night.
Ruthie, whose well protected property was eventually sold to restaurateur Pat Kuleto in 1999, lives on in the lending of her name to one of the most popular of the resort's 12 charming little cottages, each with its own very distinct personality and appeal thanks to Kuelto's vision to carefully preserve the authenticity and character of each structure, meanwhile, infusing heritage coastal style and comfort factor inside and out.
Imagine a place where your home away from home for a well deserved night of rest and relaxation welcomes you with the cheery sight of a pot belly, wood burning stove, thoughtfully pre-stacked with paper and logs. Walk through a back door off the bedroom opening onto a waterfront deck, overlooking an aquacultural haven. The only sights and sounds are those of wildfowl, your footsteps and the crackle of the stove. Sometime, during the night, you'll awake to the idea of a dream, though it is, in fact, a gentle tide, swooshing beneath the stilts and pilings, to shore.
I've stayed in a couple of different cottages at Nick's at various points over the past decade, but a mid-week overnight at Ruthie's Cottage, this February, was my first visit since the Cove changed ownership, very quietly, last year. I was keen to see how the return to a more localized approach might have influenced the atmosphere in a small, boutique resort that relies as much on its friends and neighbors in such a remote outpost, as the urban coastal escape crowd. You're every bit as likely to be seated at a water view table next to the folks from nearby Bellwether Farms, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, a weathered, long retired coastal cattle rancher, cool climate winemakers, oyster farmers, fishermen and women as a destination diner, or overnight guest.
That's the beauty of the place and one that General Manager and Director of Operations, Petaluman, Dena Grunt, takes obvious pride in presenting with a greatly expanded locavore's menu, nicely depicted in the new addition of a hand drawn menu illustration featured below:
And why not focus on the cavalcade of choice from artisan food and wine producers in the area? As increased agri-tourism continues to be drawn to the region, it's all about terroir and taste of the land and waters surrounding a gem of a rustic showcase such as the dining room at Nick's.
An inspiring sampling of proud Petaluma native, Executive Chef Auston Perkins' dinner menu took appropriate launch with a haul of always outstanding Hog Island Oysters (harvested 200 yards from our table), eaten fresh from the half shell (enjoyed with a pairing of a well balanced, bone dry, minerally-slate scented Chateau du Cleray Muscadet 2009 from the wine list's 'Interesting Whites').
Next up on this tasting adventure were succulent scallops and beets, delicately paired with aromatic, locally produced, organic dry Reisling from West Marin's cool climate Pey-Marin Vineyards.
How does halibut with poached panchetta and asparagus sound? Every last morsel was as marvelous as you'd hope it to be if you'd picked it out yourself, paired with a buttery Chardonnay, followed by fresh tuna over carrot reduction with chantrelle mushrooms with a French oak barreled small production Belle Vallee Cellars 2008 Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, Oregon.
Topping all of these flawless tastes was a side of absolutely delicious, highly distinctive, Rissotti Ranch grass-fed goat meatballs with melted leeks, da very dry creek estate olive oil and a pairing of locally produced Rancho Bodega's coolest of the cool climate medium-bodied reds, its robust 2008 Que Syrah.
Smoked veal gnocchi with tomato preserves and cippolini mushrooms, Nick's Cove (Oakville) Merlot and a zesty salad covered all the bases for me, though I found just enough room left for sweets, in the form of chocolate torte with Three Twins Ice Cream, and poppy seed biscuits with a citrus twist. Pastry Chef Gillian Helquist's historic homage to the history of Nick's Cove combined with nostalgic memories of childhood inspire her classic American dessert menu, sparked with the freshest Californian seasonal ingredients. Just the ticket for an after dinner stroll through the mist to the pot-belly-stove-warmed boat shack at the end of the pier and back again, with thoughts of the next morning's in-room continental breakfast tray of warm, baked scones, muffins and a freshly brewed Petaluma Coffee & Tea Company roast already crossing my mind. Calories don't count on an overnight, at least when the food's as good and fresh and wholesome as this.
There's always something happening out at Nick's, not just to keep destination diners and overnighters entertained during the dinner hours and holiday season daytime draw - for it's the locals from coastal West Marin and inland Petaluma who keep the place hopping and the vibe real.
In fact, local's night each Tuesday is as big a hit as ever these days. Whether seated at the bar, out at the lighted boat shack or, if you're really lucky, tucked in at one of the prime, newer fireside seats, the food will be local, the brews will be local and most of the folks around you, will be too.
One of the best things about holing up for the night in the Ralph Lauren-fishing-shack sort of spirit, that is, has to be the added bonus of having no cell phone reception. No emails, no texts, no pesky Facebook perusing. In fact, the only things worth doing with an iPhone at Nick's Cove are snapping photos of the sunset, sunrise, scenery and playing tracks from iTunes via a handy,in-room docking station.
Who's Who at Nick's Cove? Pictured above on second row, left to right: Executive Chef Austin Perkins; General Manager, Dena Grunt; Pastry Chef, Gillian Helquist; Sonoma County Native, and fellow Petaluman, Restaurant Manager, Dean Castelli
If You Go:
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
Breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays starting at 8 a.m.
Lunch Daily starting at 11 a.m.
Dinner Daily starting at 4 p.m.
Cottage Rates - visiting on a budget, despite the urge to splurge? Look for AAA rates before March 31st.
How to get to Nick's Cove - don't forget to gas up before you go, depending upon which direction you're headed from, you'll likely not pass a gas pump for miles.
Activities - if you're looking for outdoor adventure during your stay at Nick's Cove, it's advisable to book ahead for your choice of a wide variety of activities.