To get to Tomales Bay from San Francisco, you must travel 50 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge and 80 years back in time. Along the bay's 15-mile inlet, it's all cattle farms and one-stoplight towns. "Highway 1 doesn't get quieter than this," says Steve Doughty, owner of Point Reyes Vineyards and a 30-year resident. "There are more cows and boats than people." By the shore sits Nick's Cove and Cottages, a small hotel and restaurant built in this Depression-era fisherman's village that has quietly developed into California's least-known high-end hideout.
The outpost has legit waterman roots: Tough-skinned Northern Europeans docked along these parts in the 1930s, tonging oysters and raising cattle. There was a roadhouse for beer and clams and a set of cabins for travelers, and because the bay's banks are either mostly protected farmland or part of the 100-square-mile Point Reyes National Seashore (est. 1962), it remained untouched for 60 years.
The decades wore roughly on Nick's Cove: The tavern took on layers of smoke, wood slats rotted, and mildew soaked the rooms. But in this dilapidation Pat Kuleto saw charm. A lifelong sailor and the restaurant guru of Bay Area institutions Boulevard and Farallon, Kuleto bought the tavern and cottages in 1999, closing down for a long-haul reincarnation. Eight years later, after salvaging mounted moose heads, refinishing knotty-pine floorboards, and turning the end of the pier – formerly home to a shark-fishing derby – into a dreamy boat-shed bar, Kuleto reopened. "Our deck looks out onto the dock where most of our seafood gets delivered by locals," says Kuleto, whose menu is notable for its barbecued oysters, Tomales Bay clam chowder, and Dungeness crab cakes. "Fresh catch goes without saying."
For the cottages, Kuleto, who spent over $10 million on the renovation before selling the property last August, handpicked antique armoires and leather couches, plus copper tubs and potbellied stoves [from $295; nickscove.com]. "We wanted to bottle the legacy," Kuleto says. And he has. Nick's is a throwback to America's fishing villages that have mostly been shuttered and bulldozed, and is possibly the last place where you can sip Chardonnay with a working oysterman.
If you want to hit the trail, then jog or hike the 9.5-mile Tomales Point Trail, along the Point Reyes ridge crest. The prize? Cutting through scores of tule elk. Visitors in late summer (mating season) may get to see bulls sparring [nps.gov/pore]. At night, it's time to hit the water, where you can take a kayak tour among harbor seals, and watch Tomales Bay set aglow by tiny bioluminescent organisms called dinoflagellates. [$78; bwkayak.com]