Troy Hightower

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Serenity at Sea Ranch

We’ve been going north to The Sea Ranch for a weekend getaway or two each year for a couple of decades, now, staying in a succession of rental houses throughout that coastal communithy. Recently two of our oldest and closest friends, who live nearby in the Sonoma Valley, made a pretty significant northward shift when they sold a pair of flats in the Marina in San Francisco that had been in his family for three generations, and bought an iconic oceanside house in Sea Ranch.

Located a two-hour drive north of Sonoma, The Sea Ranch was planned and developed in the mid-60’s by noted Bay Area architects Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, Bill Turnbull, and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The design intention was for the houses to organically and naturally fit into the seaside landscape—to “lie lightly on the land” as they put it then. Houses are low-lying, driftwood colored, and clustered to leave large areas of open space available to all residents. Successfully meeting this intent, Sea Ranch has won environmental design awards and been internationally recognized as a harmonious and ecologically sound marriage of human habitation and preserved wild land: “an unparalleled melding of architecture and landscape”. And it’s a fabulous place for a relaxing weekend getaway.

The house is dubbed Frank’s Cadeau, in tribute to Ken’s grandfather who originally bought the Marina flats, which ultimately made a weekend place up the north coast possible. It’s emblematic Sea Ranch architecture—clean and modern, beachwood gray exterior, low native meadow landscaping, with interiors of sweeping glass, high beamed ceilings and rough-sawn Douglas fir siding. There are incredible blue ocean and whitewater views, with the sound of crashing surf always in the background.

A recent recharging weekend started with an early Saturday rising to wander down through the meadow adjacent to the Sea Ranch Lodge a couple miles south out to a jutting point overlooking a pair of black rock islands that are nesting grounds for Western gulls and other seabirds. This is a Sea Ranch Stewardship project for the Buruea of Land Management which monitors gull and other seabird nesting populations and colony attendance pattens, and we spent two hours glued to field glasses, counting nests, nesting birds, and hatched chicks. There were dozens of gull nests, a couple of red-headed oystercatcher nests, circling Brandt’s cormorants and the occasional dippy line of lumbering pelicans passing, all punctuated by the gulls’ cries over the sound of the surging surf.

Counting completed, we made a stop up the hill at the Two Fish Baking Company for loaves of warm, crusty just-baked Rosemary Raisin and Country Wheat bread, and then returned to the house for breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and strong coffee on the deck overlooking the cobalt ocean. There are miles of hiking trails along the bluff tops, through the grassy meadows and up into the coastal forest, and we hike an hour or more every morning and most afternoons—usually following the bluffs outbound, and cutting into the meadows on the way back. The reddish-dunn bluffs drop straight into a lacework of rocky coves of surging surf. Colonies of harbor seals populate several coves, lounging on the beach or rocks like large, ungainly pale sacks of lard. There are still seal pups in evidence, rollicking in the coves and around the kelp and black rocks. In spring and fall the migration of Gray whales offshore goes back and forth, and it’s not unusual to spot these leviathins spouting or sounding in the distance, and sometimes close in. There are sandy beaches in a few of the coves up and down the ten miles of Sea Ranch coastline, with stairs or trails leading down to permit beachcombing or tide-pool watching. Rockfish, ling cod, ocean perch and more abound in the surging water, and it’s quite possible to sit out on the rocky points with a surf-casting rod and catch dinner in a couple of hours.

The northern boundary of Sea Ranch ends at the Gualala River and Mendocino County line, just inside of which sits the eclectic little seaside town of Gualala (which is pronounced wa-la-la). A few restaurants, a bar and a historic hotel, several galleries, a handful of beach-house rental agencies, a bakery, hardware store, bait & tackle shop and a few home furnishing and gift shops make up the town. It’s fairly heavily tourist-dependent, but doesn’t have a very touristicated feel. There’s a miniscule Saturday farmer’s market, where we stop for a few fresh vegetables and lettuces, a jar of local honey, and a bamboo-tube container of Mendocino sea salt, harvested locally from sea water in a method similar to that used in the south of France to produce Fleur de Sel.

We lunch on the deck of Bones Roadhouse restaurant overlooking the Gualala estuary on barbecue wings, salads and burgers and pulled pork sandwiches washed down with drafts of Mendocino Brewing Company’s Red Tail Lager and Blue Heron Pale Ale. Good if not great food in a spectacular setting. We nose around the Four-Eyed Frog bookstore and a few galleries and fashion shops in the Cypress Village marketplace, and then stop at the Surf Super for some thick-cut pork chops for the grill, before heading back to the house for an afternoon nap. Post-nap reading in the lulling sound of the surf takes up the balance of the afternoon until it’s time for an early evening walk.

We hike south along the bluffs, through the Coastal Strand and Prairie plant communities of yellow and blue flowered bush lupine, mock heather, dwarf coyote brush, velvet grass and California oatgrass. The Sea Ranch plant ecosystems are comprised of the beach and bluff-top strands, backed by the coastal prairie meadows. These meadows, which divide house clusters and act as common openspace, are punctuated by native rock outcropings and large green Monterey pines, and divided every mile or so by hedgerows of dark, wind-twisted Monterey Cypress. These hedgerows, as much as anything are the landscape icon of Sea Ranch. A bit further back still, low coastal hills rise with forest of shore pine and western red cedar with pockets of coast redwoods, densely underlayed with flowering currant, ferns, blackberry and wild huckleberry, which locals search out to harvest for pies and jam. This varied hiking terrain makes for walking diversity and even combo hikes. Another Sea Ranch pasttime is an occasional a bike ride to replace a morning or afternoon walk. Bikes are permitted on only some of the trails, but the road system makes it possible to wander north and south throughout the ten miles of the community.

Returning through the waving meadow grasses, the hour of cocktail has arrived, and, shortly we sip revivifying beverages as the last orange fingernail of the sun sinks into the pacific. I look every time for the green flash, that rare atmospheric refractive condition that renders the last rays a brilliant green, but am again disappointed. As dusk gathers we dine on Laura Chenel Sonoma goat cheese salad, grilled spice-crusted pork chops and fresh local pole beans and zucchini from that little farmer’s market, paired with biodynamically produced Sonoma coastal pinot noir and Stone Farm cabernet gleaned from Ken’s association with Benziger Winery.

One of the most amazing things about Sea Ranch is the night sky. Far from any light polution, when it’s fog-free the sky is an incredible blaze of stars—Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions”: the dazzling sweep of the Milky Way, the intense reddish twinkle of Mars or Venus, and the major constellations so easy to pick out with so much contrast. A brandy or last glass of silky red wine in hand, sitting back to a massage from the bubbing jets of the hottub and looking up at that vast canopy of starry heavens is a perfect way to drift from a delightful and satisfying seaside day into a deep and restful surf-induced sleep.


Lawrence Halprin's early studies captured the design essence of The Sea Ranch in amazing capsulized form:

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