Why: Because debating the topic of greatness is almost as fun as discovering something that is truly great.
What: Revered chef Julia Child was wrong, wrong and triple-dog wrong about Santa Barbara’s La Super-Rica Taqueria. Or else Julia Child was right, right and triple-dog right about La Super-Rica Taqueria.
Why: Below the green hills and muddy shores of the Point Reyes Peninsula, the San Andreas fault lurks. Meanwhile, above ground, cows graze and cyclists zoom down two-lane roads. In its beauty, fragility and increasing wealth, this is an emblematic piece of the Bay Area.
What: Seismologists say the peninsula sits atop the Pacific plate, which slowly lurches to the northwest while the North American plate (on the other side of Highway 1) lurches to the southwest. The seam between those plates is the San Andreas fault , California's most notorious physical flaw, stretching about 800 miles north and up to 10 miles deep from the Salton Sea to Mendocino County. Consider its disastrous potential as you walk the Point Reyes National Seashore's 0.6-mile Earthquake Trail (wheelchairs and dogs welcome), which starts near the seashore's Bear Valley Visitor Center and leads to a reconstructed fence that was displaced 16 feet in 40 seconds in the quake of 1906.
Or just look at Tomales Bay, which follows the path of the fault.
Why: You can have a drink and toast the history of a well-loved author, all in one stop in Oakland. Afterward, you’ll have a great appreciation for the words “catawampus” and “Call of the Wild.”
What:Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, which dates to 1883, sits in at the edges of the now presentable Jack London Square in Oakland. Thanks to the 1906 earthquake, the bar sank irreparably and now requires a step down. Inside the slanting saloon — especially sitting at the bar — you can feel drunk even when you’re completely sober.
The other reason to visit: Writer Jack London used to hang out here, perhaps to escape his dismal, impoverished life in Oakland, where he lived with his mother, Flora, and his stepfather, John, whose surname he took.
Why: The fresh oysters are just so good. And the views of Tomales Bay aren’t bad, either.
What: The Marshall Store, on Tomales Bay in Marin County, is a casual joint, with more tables outside than inside. It’s also a renowned spot for eating oysters fresh from Tomales Bay. The Tomales Bay Oyster Company is owned by the same family that owns the store. And the story of recently deceased owner Tod Friend is a remarkable one.
There are often crowds on weekends. (For years, Marshall Store management has tussled with Marin County officials over terms of its permits.) But you can dodge that trouble the way I did: Show up on a weekday at 10 a.m. (opening time) for half a dozen breakfast oysters. I liked the ones that were barbecued, loved the sharp tang of the ones on ice with lemon.
Why: The story of A.P. Giannini, a San Jose native born in 1870 and founder of what would become Bank of America, parallels the story of California. His tale unfolds bit by bit in five 25-foot-high mosaics that decorate the front of a San Mateo Bank of America branch in bold, colorful style.
What: As you face the mosaics, designed by Louis Macouillard and executed by Alfonso Pardiñas of Byzantine Mosaics, you’ll notice depictions of farmers and the film industry, which speak to the outside-the-box thinking of a man who was willing to take a chance on people and endeavors that other bankers tended to dismiss.
Maybe it was because Giannini didn’t come from high finance. He started in the wholesale produce business. Then, in San Francisco in 1904, he founded the Bank of Italy, which not only survived the great quake of 1906, but by the late 1920s had become the Bank of America via merger. Giannini’s growing venture, bolstered by a network of branches, withstood the Great Depression and bought bonds during those financially troubled times to help finance the Golden Gate Bridge.
Why: Because if you’re going to do something loony involving old artworks, living people and an open-air stage, you might as well do it with passion, precision and invention for decades, until your act involves a live orchestra, gondola, actors, singers, dancers, horses, balloons and a $230 tab for a seat up front.
What: Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters has its roots in 1932, when the artsy area was looking for a spectacle to lure Olympic visitors south from Los Angeles. The core idea is a tableau vivant— an arrangement of live models in poses (and costumes and backdrops) to mimic famous artworks, peppered with visual, narrative and musical surprises. All these years later, this summer event usually recreates about 40 great artworks (mostly paintings, but not all), organizing them by an annual theme and attaching a loose plot to keep the evening moving.
Until you see one of these things, you may expect a static event with occasional muted tennis-tournament applause. Not so. Witty narration, music, acting, projected animation and old-fashioned schtick all play parts in creating a strangely potent, family-friendly night of entertainment in a 2,600-seat amphitheater. Dozens of professionals pitch in along with perhaps 500 volunteers. And because the area’s artists are still eager to sell, there’s also an juried art show with widely varied works from 140 artists (this year presented in a newly rebuilt complex of indoor-outdoor gallery structures).
Why: The Whoa Nellie Deli near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park serves up uncommonly good road food from the back of a service station, with live music twice a week on a wind-kissed vista overlooking Mono Lake.
What: This is one of California’s finest summer pit stops, a place to gas up, buy a souvenir and munch almost anything your stomach desires. Perched as it is just outside the national park, it’s far better than it has to be.
The family-owned complex was established in 1996 by Dennis and Jane Domaille, and is currently managed by their daughter Denise. The Whoa Nellie got its name from the reaction of motorists suddenly braking after spotting the gas station at the junction of the 395 and 120. The station and deli quickly became a favorite for Eastern Sierra campers and tourists on the move.
Why: As soon as you step down into Forestiere Underground Gardens, the temperature will drop about 20 degrees and the strange, wonderful story of Mr. Forestiere will begin to unfold. If you've heard the history of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, this is largely the same thing, upside down.
What: Forestiere came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1901 as a young man and bought land to start a citrus farm in West Fresno. But nobody warned him how hot it would be, or how hard the soil would be. So he adapted. He dug himself a cellar, savored the coolness, devised a system for turning hard-pan dirt into bricks, then set about building a mostly underground home with citrus trees whose top branches poked up through the skylights. For 40 years he dug and built, as deep as 33 feet beneath the surface. To make ends meet, he sold fruit and dug canals for other farmers. He never married but had plenty of friends, whom he entertained in his growing network of rooms and shady courtyards. (Plumbing? No.) After his death at 67 in 1946, a brother preserved part of the property and opened it for tours.
About 60 years later, the gardens are owned by 89-year-old Rick Forestiere, a nephew of the old man, and the tours continue, from March through November. A guide shows you the ballroom, the kitchen, the bedrooms (one for summer, one for winter), the rooms Forestiere hoped to make into a resort, the glass-bottomed pond, the many surviving citrus trees he planted. (He loved grafting, and one used to yield seven different kinds of fruit. It still grows two different kinds of oranges.)
Why: Bolinas, a lagoon-adjacent haven of 1,600 bohemian souls in an oft-overlooked corner of Marin County, has been operating incognito for decades. Locals steal road signs so that outsiders can't find their way in. Now that attitude might be softening, and the town, surrounded by hiking, surfing and kayaking opportunities, is fascinating.
What: About 50 years ago, hard-core Bolinas locals started stealing the town's highway sign and they never stopped. The goal, conceived in back-to-the-land idealism, was to build a nature-friendly community without the distractions and economic distortions of tourism. But as properties turn over and GPS renders signage moot, Bolinas seems to be evolving. Whether you're on the water or Wharf Road, it's a great place to think about hippie legacies and the nature of community at a time when Bay Area real estate is very nearly a blood sport.
Don't expect a tourist welcome center, but if you show up mellow and humble there's no reason you shouldn't drop in for a bite at the Coast Cafe; browse the tiny but well-appointed Bolinas Museum (open Fridays through Sundays only), or drink at Smiley's Schooner Saloon and Hotel, which goes back to the 19th century. In fact, Smiley's (which got new owners in 2015) offers live music four nights a week and rents out six rooms in back. I slept comfortably in one. On the street and in Smiley's, I was an obvious outsider with a camera around my neck, but everyone I met treated me well and Enzo Resta told me how his uncle may have been the first to take the town sign back in the day.
Why: Good things do come in small packages — sometimes, very small packages with hoofs. Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch in Solvang will have you oohing and aahing over its mini-Flickas and, if you’re lucky, their babies too.
What: If Solvang’s Scandinavian flavor seems a little surreal for you, this horse farm just outside of town feels real and relaxed. It’s quiet. The tiny horses (about 35 of them) and their offspring are mesmerizing. How enchanting can a critter munching grass can be? You’ll be surprised.
And if you’re lucky there will be foals. There were three births this year, and half a dozen are expected in spring 2018. You will chuckle at their gangly attempts to act like the big kids. The cast of characters changes each year as some of the herd is sold and new ones are born, which means you can go back again and again and see new faces.