Best Place to Catch a Moonrise
I am not flowers-and-chocolate romance. I am not love ballads or sappy movies. I am mud-puddles-and-tuna-sandwiches romance. I am wild strawberries and dirt under the fingernails. My idea of romance is visceral and gritty, and probably a lot less pretty.
Hiking up Mt. Tamalpais one day in October, with sandwiches and snacks in tow, we leave the parking lot across from the Mountain Home Inn. It is late afternoon because we are not great planners. The short hike to the summit is more enjoyable than strenuous, and in this case, a complete accident. We meant to meet for a bowl of clam chowder, but Mt. Tam looked like more fun. So we start walking and talking about useless things—whether we'd get giardiasis from drinking the water off the mountain, what we'd eat if we got stuck on the mountain. He laughs at me, saying I'd give up after four hours and never make it.
Some bikers pass us and we laugh like naughty kids, talking of sticking a branch in their spokes. Our mean-spirited chatter warrants instant karma as a bird relieves itself on me. The October air is unusually warm and sweet, my stomach hurts from laughing, and, easily prone to sweating, I've already saturated my oversized T-shirt. He's shirtless, and sweating too, slipping on the gravel with almost every step. Neither of us wore appropriate shoes, so it's become a journey of just trying to stay level. Discussing superheroes and favorite Otter Pops doesn't help. At the top of the mountain, San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean shake hands before us. We share our sandwiches, and he says he's starting to like mayonnaise thanks to me. The sun sets and the sky fades to a dusty pink on our descent back down. The slippery terrain becomes masked in darkness, and the Mountain Home Inn shines like a lighthouse. The dirt and sweat have dried on our bodies, so even though the winds are warm I get goose bumps. He grabs me one of his old sweatshirts from the car before we make our way into the inn. We get a bottle of Chilean Cabernet and take a seat on the deck overlooking the bay.
Just over to the left, the full orange circle of a harvest moon begins to peek up over the hillside. He says he can see the face of the man in the moon. He says Mr. Moon is clearly winking. I think it looks like he's sneezing. That moon is big and bright, and looks close enough to touch. He says it looks like someone has clumsily spilled a glass of water all over the landscape, accidentally leaving behind the San Francisco bay. We smirk at our good fortune, get tipsy on red wine. We stop at a taqueria on the way home and devour tacos al pastor, so good I almost want to eat my fingers. No makeup. No heels. No collared shirt. No reservations. All romance. 810 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley. 415.381.9000.—L.P.
Best Place for a Renegade Wedding Ceremony
In the farthest reaches of Sonoma County, where the forest meets the sea, lies a lovely bishop-pine-enveloped bluff where love don't cost a thing. For the betrothed who do not want to spend their waking hours working to pay off credit debt for one mere day of marital bliss, alternatives do exist. Salt Point State Park, located about 20 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1, is a lovely spot for a nearly free wedding ceremony. Why not invite 20 friends to jump out of the car and join you above a sparkling cove, provided for cheap (remember to pay the parking fees) by nature and the California State Park system? Bring in a cooler of Champagne and a few blankets and chairs for the guests. And after the nuptials are over? Reserve a couple of campsites at nearby Woodside Campground for under $30 a night, barbecue some oysters and veggies, crack open a few bottles of wine and enjoy a simple, elegant reception that lucky guests will remember fondly. Leave the lavish, elephant-studded galas to Céline Dion. There will be no regrets when the honeymoon is over, married life truly begins and you have one less credit card bill to pay and one more rocky promontory over the wide blue yonder on which to celebrate your love. For camping reservations, call 800.444.7275.—L.C.
Best Place to Hold Hands
Who knows what it is about bridges that makes people want to cuddle up close and hold hands with the one, or ones, they love? The North Bay certainly has its share of old romantic bridges, but there's something über-romantic about the famous Golden Gate Bridge. After nearly 60 years, the Bridge is still a thrilling experience to walk over, hand in hand, contemplating the weird fact that while we may have grown accustomed to its face, the Golden Gate is dreamed of as a destination by millions of people all over the world, most of them wishing they could be here, holding hands with someone they love.—D.T.
Best Place to Get a Bit of Heaven for Two
"Honey?" she says.
"Yes?" he replies, his eyes never deviating from the baseball game on TV.
"We really need to get out more. You know, have more culture in our lives." Long pause.
"Yeah . . . OK."
And before he knows it, they're smack in the middle of the audience at the Santa Rosa Symphony, and there's nothing more cultural, more romantic and more breathtakingly beautiful than settling into those red upholstered seats and letting the symphonic glory of 80 highly skilled musicians wash over them. Bruno Ferrandis, the new but already beloved music director and conductor, delights as he passionately throws his entire body into the musical score, coattails flying. The orchestra follows Ferrandis' lead, their eyes moving only from him to the sheet music. And for a few too-brief moments, she and he forget about baseball and laundry and homework and dishes. They close their eyes and think only of how nothing is more gorgeous than a long bow stroke on a violin string, nothing more heart-stopping than the trills of a flute, and nothing more inspiring than an orchestra playing their hearts out, just for the two of them.
Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 707.546.8742.—B.H.
Best Cheap Wedding—for All
It's the matrimonial version of one-stop shopping. For just $125, a happy couple can get a marriage license, and the ceremony too, from the Sonoma County Clerk. "This is a fairly inexpensive way to get married," says Janice Atkinson, the County Clerk herself, noting that the license alone costs $75. Those seeking maximum efficiency can submit their paperwork online ahead of time, then collect it and step into the modest white-walled room next to the public office, where the simple services are held. "It takes 10 to 15 minutes," Atkinson smiles, "including the pictures." The county office got extra attention for this service last June, when they were among the first to offer weddings for same-sex couples in the wake of the State Supreme Court decision that temporarily legalized them. How many? Atkinson doesn't know. "After the first couple of weeks, we stopped keeping track," she says, "but I do know our volume went up." In recent years, her office has conducted around 600 weddings annually, but Atkinson wants to do 800 this year. She's well on the way, after opening the office specially on Saturday, Feb. 14, when 53 couples seized the chance for a bargain wedding on Valentine's Day.
2300 County Center Drive, Ste. B177, Santa Rosa. 707.565.3800.—B.R.
Best Wedding Reception: St. Vincent's
Founded in 1855 as part of an 800-acre land grant from the charmingly named Irish-Mexican landowner Don Timoteo Murphy, what is now called St. Vincent's School for Boys was initially established to serve young women. But by 1884, the grounds housed and schooled well over 500 orphaned boys. It's of slight irony that your pick for best place to host a wedding reception in Marin is St. Vincent's, given that the 60 or so boys who live there only do because they have been so tragically abused by their families. But it's also a healing thing. And the grand old place—nearly a palace by today's standards—must surely have something to do with that healing.
Palm trees line the long rural drive up to the school, a flagstone path circles 'round the entrance fountain, and the buildings themselves ring an enormous center patio made of a cool stone, their height built with 19th-century European attention to latticework and molding. Under the auspices of Catholic Charities CYO, St. Vincent's students gradually move toward normal lives. Sharing the loveliness of their setting with those so hopeful for fidelity, honor and the future pays dividends in more than just cash.
1 St. Vincent Drive, San Rafael. 415.507.2000.—G.G.
Best Weekend getaway: Jenner inn and cottages
A DIY backyard wedding is a happily exhausting project. Cleaning the house, clearing the yard, making the food, arranging the flowers, writing the vows, practicing the music—indeed, opening the Champagne—it all takes its marvelous toll. What a relief, then, to duck out of one's own driveway in a shower of rose petals smartly snatched from the side yard by longtime friends and head away from the dishes and smear of the revels to the Jenner Inn and Cottages, your wise choice for Best Weekend Getaway in Sonoma County. A DIY backyard wedding can leave a distracted bride and groom unfed, but with a hamper full of one's own feast in tow, the short drive up the coast may as well be a plane trip to Hawaii. Except colder.
Exhilarated by the day, excitedly discussing its strange distractions (Ben Cohen, cofounder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, was a welcomed but uninvited guest), all talk stopped once the door was opened to a Jenner cottage. Windows revealed the estuary relieving the Russian River into the Pacific Ocean, birds hunted the last day's meal and in the dusk, seals lumpenly spread out below. Still in wedding clothes, including the hateful "foundation" garment securing body to dress never to be seen by the groom, the hamper is unpacked at an outside table, a private patio hanging over the wilderness scene. Candles thoughtfully tucked in by longtime friends are lit, the Champagne bagged in ice is uncorked, and the feast is eaten with fingers on plates from home as the bride and groom, more slowly now, remember the delights of the day.
The sun completes its exit. Night comes on soft. The birds quiet. The seals slumber. The cottage bed embraces the embraces of two happily exhausted newlyweds.
10400 Coast Route 1, Jenner. 707.865.2377.—G.G.