You are Ferdinand Magellan, and you are having second thoughts.
Ever since you passed through the strait at the southern tip of South America, you have been in a new ocean, which you called the “Pacific” because it seemed so peaceful.
And as you stand on the shore of what will become Bodega Harbor in what will become California, you are feeling more secure with that name. That’s because the ocean’s water in Bodega Harbor is flat and placid, a polished sheet of gray-blue marble.
So you text your PR group in Manhattan and announce, “OK, I’m certain: Go with ‘Pacific.’ Perfect name.”
Relieved that your first impression was valid, you jump in your Prius and drive 15 minutes west on Westshore Road to what will become known as Bodega Head, and you stand on that massive bluff and watch in horror as Mike-Tyson-like fists of angry ocean waves pound ceaselessly into the rocks and cliffs of this promontory on what will become known as the northern coast of California, and you wonder, in your native Portuguese: “How could I have been so wrong?”
OK, so I made up most of the above because a trip to Bodega Bay, Calif., (68 miles north of San Francisco, 53 driving miles west of Napa) illustrates that kind of contrast: the harbor’s quiet serenity, the head’s beautiful violence.
And golf, which combines the two.
Bodega Bay has history, some of it popular (Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller “The Birds” was set in the community, although much of the filming was done elsewhere), some of it frightening (a ’60s-era attempt to place a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head was scuttled after local activists, with help, showed the earthquake threat was extreme).
My wife, Sharon, and I live in Sparks, Nev. (approximately Reno, if you can’t be bothered to consult a map.)
We’re a four-hour drive from San Francisco, where we met in the early fall of 1971, and visit there often. We love downtowns, large and small, because we love walking to restaurants, bars, bookstores … well, now that I think about it, that’s about the entire list: restaurants, bars and bookstores.
But we also love getaways, exploring out-of-the-way places, and in our struggle to decide on a getaway for our 44th wedding anniversary (Nov. 4), we hauled out the road atlas then googled around for places that met three criteria: (1) at or near the water; (2) less than a full one-day drive; (3) with the possibility of 18 holes of golf.
We also preferred a reasonably active downtown, but the lack of one wasn’t a deal-killer.
Bodega Bay fit the first three. Through the internet, Sharon —the brains of our operation — booked two nights at what sounded like a cottage or at least a private unit right on the water of Bodega Harbor, which is just north of the bay.
We also booked a Thursday, Nov. 3, round of golf at The Links at Bodega Harbour, which is right on the Pacific Ocean.
Although the weather forecast was promising, the sheer geography of the place prompted us to dress for semi-Arctic conditions. For once — take a bow, meteorologists everywhere — the forecast was, if anything, unduly pessimistic; Nov. 3 was sunny, with little wind, the temperature either approaching or topping 70 degrees, and the course was spectacular. Even as we were teeing off, we were stripping down, removing jackets and long-sleeve shirts so as to soak up what seemed more like Southern than Northern California.
The first four holes go straight uphill and will strain not only the skills of even excellent golfers (Sharon and I don’t qualify, so our scores were suitably embarrassing) but also the horsepower of the golf carts. No. 5 is a mystifying downhill par-5, a vivid example of slalom golf, whimsically zigging and zagging, like flying from Rapid City to … well, to anywhere.
It’s not a long course — about 5,500 yards from the white (men’s) tees and 4,800 yards from the gold (women’s) tees — but its challenges are as plentiful as its breathtaking views.
We finished the quirky 18th and stopped at the adjacent Bluewater Bistro, a restaurant and lounge that overlooks the ocean. After a drink in the lounge, we headed north up California Route 1, known as the Coast Highway, to Bodega Bay, less than two miles away.
Restaurants and inns squeeze the two-lane highway, and although we were still in our golf attire, we knew that casual was the code for dining in this resort area, so we stopped at one of the seafood places, expecting the best in fresh fare.
Maybe the exceptional golfing experience had heightened our standards. The food was good, for sure, but also pricey and lacking in the “Wow!” factor. (In fact, for the duration of our two-day stay, we were mildly disappointed in the restaurants. One exception: At the Fisherman’s Cove, on the road to Bodega Head, we had a superior — though expensive — lunch of raw oysters, shrimp po’ boys and a strong beer.)
After dinner, we searched for our harborside lodging, which, at first, we couldn’t find. The directions we got from the owner of the place were complicated, and when we finally spotted the correct, though barely visible, driveway, Sharon and I looked at each other and said, “You don’t think … nah, can’t be … .”
But it was. The driveway was narrow, steep and dark, as if designed by Edgar Allan Poe, complete with some potential murderous peril lurking at the bottom. However the peril was simply a difficult-to-maneuver-in parking space. The cottage itself was warm and, for a dozen little reasons, quirky.
Nevertheless, we had a small deck that was 20 feet above the water, and with a 180-degree view of water, boats, hills and blinking lights, we found peace.
(OK, that was a bit much; but we did enjoy that deck, especially when a curious seal or sea lion cavorted only a few yards from our shore and smiled at us. Really.)
Friday morning, as she has every year of the previous 43, Sharon got in the first “Happy anniversary!” rendering me woefully in arrears all day as I tried to compensate for my lack of sensitivity.
I started the day by hiking the steep driveway so I could buy a newspaper (or two, or maybe three, depending) from the Diekmann’s Bay Store, which seems a community gathering spot. I bought both the San Francisco Chronicle and The Press Democrat from Santa Rosa. (Hey, I spent 40 years in newsrooms; for me, having only two daily newspapers is a hardship.)
The top story in The Press Democrat, headlined “A fresh start for Dungeness crab season,” told of how the previous crabbing season was postponed from November 2015 until March 2016 because of a toxic algae bloom, but this year, the season was to start at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 5. Sharon and I unwittingly had barged right into the opening of crab season, although the convoys of RVs on the road should have told us something was up.
As to plans for the anniversary day, we really hadn’t researched where to go to experience Bodega Bay, which is consistent with the Stasiowski trait of blundering around. The night before, however, Sharon had spotted a steady progression of headlights apparently westbound on a road across the harbor from our cottage, and she was curious about where they were going. When Sharon is curious, I am inclined to follow.
On to the beach
Sheer geography suggested that to get to that road, we needed to go north on the Coast Highway then find a westbound road, so off we went, studying every sign at the very few intersections. A couple of miles later, well past the logical spot for such a turnoff, we arrived at North Salmon Creek Beach, part of the Sonoma Coast State Park State Beaches system. (Yeah, “State” is in there twice, according to a website; like most things in California, understatement is discouraged.)
The parking lot was busy but not full, so we pulled in. I’m not good at heights, and the fact we had to walk down a path from about 30 feet to the beach level was disconcerting, but I was still trying to make amends for my tardy “Happy Anniversary!” and Sharon is more daunted by raw onions than by death-defying hikes, so descend we did.
The beach itself wasn’t remarkable; the seashells were all fragments like so much confetti, and there wasn’t much worthwhile people-watching aside from the woman sitting reverently beneath some skeletal driftwood structure — it resembled tent poles without the tent — that apparently was her idea of a church.
But the ocean was frantic, with six or seven waves breaking simultaneously and seeming to chase each other to shore, kicking up parallel blizzards of foam and enough noise to drown out normal conversation.
We walked north on the sand, with the overhanging bluffs to our right looking craggier with every step, so we turned around after a half-mile when Sharon said the narrowing beach meant we were risking “sneaker waves” that might wash us out to sea hours before we could finish off the celebratory bottles of booze back in our rental.
We retreated to the car and rode back south, turning off twice, futilely seeking that elusive road that headed directly west on the perimeter of Bodega Harbor.
Finally, as we reached the outskirts of Bodega Bay, we saw a sign for the Westside Regional Park, a most promising clue. Sure enough, it was the road we were looking for, and pretty soon signs pointed us to Bodega Head, about which we knew little except at certain times, it is a prime spot for whale-watching.
After about a 15-minute drive, we found it a fitting climax to our exploration. On a bluff — one of several — high above the restless, relentless ocean, we looked out to waves that must have been 25 feet high, roaring directly at Bodega Head’s granite barriers that have withstood such attack for centuries. I refuse to say the sight was “awesome”; that’s a beaten-into-submission word that today describes everything from candy bars to total eclipses.
In fact, Bodega Head is more than a mere sight. It is an affirmation of nature’s majesty, a collision of two of the planet’s most powerful forces, an ocean unaccustomed to being denied versus a regiment of stolid granite. Eons from now, the waves may win, so if you’re interested, visit soon.
I’m the writer, so I usually get the last word, but I’ll leave that to Sharon, who for a long time silently stared straight west.
Finally, she said we should have brought along our books so we could sit on the bluff and read until sundown.
“This,” she said, “is the best place I’ve ever seen.”