Nick's Cove in Tomales Bay, CA
While you don't have to venture very far outside San Francisco to find places that offer an old-school sense of waterfront serenity, we recommend pushing it a little farther – just an hour-and-a-half north – to hit Nick's Cove, off Highway One, in Tomales Bay. The '30s-era collection of unique wooden cottages, along with a public boat-launch ramp and signature restaurant, reopened after an extensive 2007 renovation of the historic buildings. Since then, it's quickly earned kudos for its gorgeous, personalized lodging and impeccable seafood – not least the joint's now-famous barbecue oysters, a complimentary plate of which awaits guests in their cottage on arrival.
Our preference is for one of the waterfront cottages (in lieu of the ones on the inland side of the street) although all of the residences offer a similar blend of quaint rusticism – like house-baked pastries delivered for breakfast every morning – and modern luxury, in the form of plasma HDTVs, Wi-Fi, and heated marble floors. Our favorite suite is the simple Ruthie's Cottage, which has a private deck set over the bay as well as wood paneling, a pull-out couch for guests of your own, and the sort of leather chair Hemingway would have happily plopped down in. All of the suites have amenities like claw-foot tubs, wood-burning stoves, and honor bars (some are even designed like the interior of a boat, but in an acceptably kitschy way) and there are two-bedroom cottages for larger groups.
At night, after our complimentary oysters and a kayak trip around the bay to watch the sun slowly descend over Point Reyes, we meandered into the restaurant and began with the savory Tomales Bay chowder, cooked with smoky bacon. It's a seasonal menu here, and there's always a daily selection of local oysters, like Preston Point, Drake's Bay, or Marin Miyagi. An addictive side is the house-smoked steelhead trout dip with old bay potato chips and light crème fraiche, and a surefire entrée is often the special fish – say, a sautéed grouper with eggplant puree, chard, corn, Himalayan red rice, and snappy leek butter. The key is to keep things light so that you wake up with enough energy to hike the area's surrounding hills as well as keep up that kayaking in a sea-front land where luckily cellphones rarely get enough bars. [From $202.50 (low season), two-night minimums stay on summer weekends; nickscove.com]