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Best of 2004 

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The Best of the North Bay 2004

Writer's Choice

Best Place to Get Really, Really Lost
The residents of Mercuryville, both of them, apparently don't take kindly to outsiders, if the "No Trespassing" signs placed on the gate leading to this ghost town on Geysers Road can be trusted. That makes it the ideal place for getting away from it all. The problem is getting there. Geysers Road begins near Jimtown on Highway 128 (follow the signs), and after leaving the Alexander Valley floor, winds and climbs seven steep miles up a 10 percent grade. That makes it attractive to serious bicyclists, whose legs are pumped up tighter than sausages by the time they reach the Mercuryville summit. There, aside from the aforementioned two residents and perhaps a stray geologist monitoring the Mercuryville strike-slip fault, they'll find the type of serenity that comes only in wide-open, empty spaces. If this is getting lost, who wants to be found?--R.V.S.

Best Geological Oddity
Formed out of the grand geologic mess known as the Franciscan Complex, the low bedrock hills of San Rafael's China Camp State Park are a scrambled assortment of sedimentary rock, sandstone and chert, encroached upon by salt marshes, rocky shoreline and occasional bits of beach along the San Pablo Bay. It's pretty. Rat Rock, a tiny multiangled blob of rock jutting up from the waters just offshore of China Camp Village's scenic promontory and picnic area, is also pretty, a beloved landmark known for having once been shaped like a hunkering rat--its head long ago eroded and lost to the bay waters--and also for being the smallest island in the San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay waters. While San Rafael firefighters occasionally do practice swims out to Rat Rock, its only inhabitants are birds, crustaceans and, according to legend, an actual rat or two. Four miles east of San Rafael on the shore of San Pablo Bay. From Highway 101, go east on North San Pedro Road for five miles until it enters the park. 415.456.0766.--D.T.

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Best Reward During a 10-Mile Bike Ride
I am not one of those cyclists who lives for hills, yet I have become aware over the years of a certain perplexing dilemma: you cannot get the reward of the downhill unless some uphill effort is involved. This is true of course for my favorite short ride, but the entire return trip is a bugs-in-teeth smiler of a downhill. You start by the Sebastiani Tasting Room, ride to Lovell Valley Road, go past the little burros and begin to climb. It's not so bad, and suddenly you're at the newt crossing sign and you pass into Napa County, which feels like you're really covering some ground. Turn around wherever you like and it's yeehaw all the way. Sebastiani Tasting Room, on the Plaza, Sonoma. 800.888.5532, ext. 3204.--J.K.

Best Place to Avoid Slow-Moving Ferry Boats
While some journeys are best experienced at high speed, others benefit from being savored slowly. The journey from Sausalito to Angel Island, over that stunning stretch of water known as Raccoon Straits, is frequently made by folks on sailboats or ferries. But those laid-back explorers are missing out on the real adventure being had by those who choose to make the same crossing--in a kayak. Simply put, when made under your own paddle power at wave level, the passage over Raccoon Straits is among the most thrilling you can experience in the Bay Area, with views of the bay that are simply not available to those standing atop some lumbering ferry boat. For experienced kayakers, a solo journey across the straits is a physical and aesthetic rush--and an excellent upper-body workout. But the deep water of Raccoon Straits, with its intense currents and unpredictable conditions, should not be attempted alone by those who are first-timers in a kayak. Fortunately, during the warmer months, Sea Trek Ocean Kayaking Center in Sausalito offers guided tours out to the island, across the straits and/or all around the island, and with the right package, they'll throw in lunch on the beach as well. For fledglings, or for those just looking for a peak outdoor experience with friends and family, Sea Trek offers a monthly Angel Island crossing for groups of six to 12. 415.332.8494.--D.T.

Best Reminder to Fight Urban Sprawl
The Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve in Sonoma is 160 acres of private land that could have become a Walgreens, a Super Kmart or a sprawling 60-screen multiplex. But thanks to those fighting the good fight, from the Open Space District to the Sonoma Ecology Center, it has been preserved for the future. This April, docent-led tours begin, and it's a spectacular sight, though frightening when you think about how many similar, gorgeous and important natural habitats have been pulverized like an Enron exec's paper trail, leaving cement and steel in the wake. In spring Van Hoosear boasts flowers with lyrical names like meadowfoam, suncups and zygadene, and quite simply takes one's breath away. Someday people will bring children here and say, "Look! Flowers. They used to have these all over when I was growing up." Tours by appointment only, April through September. 707.996.5701.--J.R.

Best Place to Watch Baby Fish Being Born
Ichthyobstetric fans take note! While there are numerous excellent fishing spots around the Sonoma, Marin and Napa areas--pleasant places in which to watch fish being caught and reeled in, and packed on ice--there are also a number of locations in which to watch the little slippery buggers being tumbled into this crazy old world. Some of these are in the open, and some are definitely not. Within the walls and water tanks of the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery, watching a fish making its flippy-floppy emergence is easy as, ahem, shooting their elder brothers in a barrel. Educational displays make sense of all the gooey biology stuff, and afterwards a juicy salmon steak may never taste the same way again. Behind the Visitor Center at Lake Sonoma, 3333 Skaggs Road, Geyserville. 707.433.9483.--D.T.

Best Way to Find Serenity
I wasn't sure that I would like canoeing. It sounded sort of overly wholesome and possibly a little boring. Boy, was I wrong. The 10-mile canoe trip down the Russian River was, simply put, good for the soul. We drifted on the emerald water past mountains, redwoods and summer cabins. We bird-watched and had a picnic on a sand bar. We got really, really sunburned (hey, nothing's perfect). Burke's Canoe Trips in Forestville charges $45 per canoe, but for five hours of fun and peace, it's worth it. 8600 River Road at Mirabel, between Forestville and Guerneville. 707.887.1222.

Best Place to Become Spiritually One With a Four-Hoofed Beast
Big trees. Big horses. The nature-loving folks at Armstrong Woods Pack Station in Guerneville know that few things say "outdoor adventure" like traipsing through a forest of giant redwoods while seated atop a gentle, well-trained American quarter horse. Run by Laura and Jonathan Ayers, the Pack Station offers a variety of horse-riding trips, from short treks and daylong rides to sunset romps and full-moon overnight pack, tent and campfire adventures. Reservations must be made by phone. Weather permitting, the horses go out every day of the year. Giddyup! Armstrong Woods State Park, 17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville. 707.887.2939.--D.T.

Best Place to Be Eaten By a Shark
Used to be that Marin's Stinson Beach was the go-to spot for folks eager to be chomped by a great white. For years before that it was Tomales Point, where a string of doll-eyed Jaws wannabes started showing up in the early '60s. Not to be outdone, Sonoma County's Salmon Creek Beach just north of Bodega Bay now seems to be slowly warming up as a pretty good place for sharks to find lunch, too. Surfers have long talked about the Really Big Sharks that patrol the waters and even if the most recent attack was in December of 2002, don't be lured into thinking it's safe out there. For great whites, the lunch counter is always open.--D.T.

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From the March 17-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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