Trip Report: Sonoma Coast with Kids

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Last week we flew to northern California for Thanksgiving. We go to Sonoma periodically to visit family, and every few trips or so we make a point of driving out to the coast to eat oysters. We haven’t made the pilgrimage in a few years, since our three-year-old daughter was a placid infant zonked out in her fleece sling, so this time we needed an outing that would satisfy rascally toddlers, and not just their bivalve-obsessed parents and grandparents. On days like these, you can either plan the details or wing it, and—being lazy and on vacation—we just winged it. Happily, what unfolded was a practically perfect, serendipitous day on the Sonoma coast. 

We headed west from Sonoma Valley through cutesy, small-town Petaluma and beneath draping eucalyptus canopies, to Route 1. (At some point, we crossed the county line into Marin, but that’s a technicality: Just an hour from Sonoma, it’s the closest bit of Pacific you can get to from wine country.)

Our first stop was the Marshall Store right on Tomales Bay in Marshall (population 50, elevation 15 feet). This clapboard oyster shack was the raison d’etre of our mission. We’d been to Marshall Store before and had sat at the counter on a drizzly fall day, slurping just-shucked oysters and eating oysters Rockefella with spinach and cheese, BBQ oysters, you name it—and the unadorned, semi-dingy vibe was just our style. Gotta love a place that's all about the oysters. 

But when we drove up this time, the lights were off and a couple of guys in rubber fisherman aprons were shoveling things into a wheelbarrow by the front door. Closer inspection revealed a sign: Closed Tuesdays. It was Tuesday. Foiled. Fortunately, oysters are not in short supply on Tomales Bay, so we went a mile or so north in the direction we’d come to the Hog Island Oyster Company. If the Marshall Store is the table, then Hog Island is the farm. Literally. This is where the eponymous oysters are raised as teensy “spats” in nurseries just offshore, and harvested 18 months later. 

Hog Island is a working farm and wholesaler, and you can buy oysters by the dozen from the outdoor Hog Shack and take them to go, or grab a picnic table overlooking the bay and shuck them yourself and slurp them on the spot. By now we were hungry and the kids were restless, so an oyster picnic brunch was a no brainer, even if it was overcast and damp and nowhere close to noon. My shellfish-obsessed husband, Steve, bought a dozen and borrowed a knife (normally, they’re for sale for $15, but it was a slow day) and we set up shop at a weathered table a few splinters shy of driftwood. 

Hog Island oysters are famous for their thick, fluted, stubborn shells, and we inhaled them as fast as Steve could shuck them. The flesh was briny, sweet, and plump, a chewy mouthful of pure Pacific goodness, and it was all we could do to keep our three-year-old from getting her paws on every last one. Like father, like daughter. The picnic bar, built into an upturned dory boat, sells wine and beer, sourdough bread, and local cheeses, so in the interest of the 16-month old in the group, we took a cue from the family of three from Connecticut at the next table and supplemented with a baguette and a hunk of organic Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam goat cheese, made just down the road in Point Reyes Station. 

Once we’d eaten our fill and sprung for another four dozen on ice, we headed north again on Route 1 to Dillon Beach, about 12 miles away at the opening of Tomales Bay, across from Point Reyes National Seashore. Unlike some of the other Sonoma Coast coves we’d been to before, Dillon Beach is a yawning expanse of sand hemmed in by rugged sea cliffs and dunes, nearly two miles long and plenty wide at low tide—a perfect place to run the kids. Though it was chilly and and overcast, there were lots of people out walking dogs, barbecuing in the fire pits by the parking lot, picnicking, and surfing. A couple of pre-teen girls showed up with shorty wetsuits and borrowed skim boards, and the cool weather didn't keep these boys from swimming.

Our own three-year-old promptly shed her shoes and ran along the water’s edge; her corduroy pants were the next to go. The Pacific couldn’t have been more than 55, but it was all we could do to keep her from submerging completely in the tide pools. Before we knew it, we’d killed a couple of hours at the ocean’s edge, building sand castles and chasing bits of flyaway seaweed. If it was this idyllic on a blustery late-fall day, we'll definitely be back in warmer weather.  

Afterwards, we tried to keep the girls awake on the 10-minute drive back to Tomales, a one-block burg consisting of: post office, musty old general store, café, antique shop, and bakery. Certain members of our party were claiming hunger again, so we hunkered down at the Tomales Deli + Café for all-day scrambled eggs and sausage, a towering roasted-lamb sandwich (local, organic, natch), and tuna melts. Animal folk art on the walls (in one, a quizzical mutt pondered the eternal question: Why am I here?), an antique wooden rocking horse, and no-fuss linoleum décor kept it real for the kiddos and made us feel like we’d stumbled on another real find. The shoebox bakery next door was closed, cramming pecan pies for Thanksgiving; on any other day, a requisite stop.

On the way back to Sonoma, we counted real roadside sheep with the inexplicably-wide-awake contingent in the back seat and then deeked into downtown Sonoma to the playground on the Plaza, just for good measure. The sun had finally come out, and the girls did laps on the swings and slide in caramel, 4 o’clock wine-country light before befriending a kid and his grandfather who were throwing stale Wonder Bread to the ducks in the pond. Driving home, eyes drooped. We’d run them into the ground and had a few dozen Hog Island oysters on ice in the trunk. What could be better?

—Katie Arnold

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