If you’re driving down Highway One north of San Francisco don’t look for the road sign to Bolinas, CA, because this quirky coastal hamlet is the only California municipality without a sign to lead you from the highway to the city limits.
There used to be a sign that said “Bolinas, 2 miles”-- many of them in fact, but each of the signs put up in the last 20 years has enigmatically disappeared—the longest-standing sign lasting only 36 hours. Residents refer to their town as “The Republic of Bolinas,” and have torn down the signs marking the turnoff so often that the highway department finally gave up erecting new ones.
Bolinas, an unincorporated town of 2,500 located 30 miles north of San Francisco at the southernmost tip of the Point Reyes National Seashore, is surrounded by ocean and well-preserved parkland. Known for its ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude, this spirited community of environmentalists, poets, surfers, artists, writers, and aging individualists doesn't have a mayor or a city hall. Its colorful population, along with its breathtaking scenery, rare wildlife, easy-to-surf waves, handful of good restaurants and art galleries make Bolinas a perfect destination for weekenders to experience one of California’s most culturally unique communities.
Bolinas has a rich history as a counter-culture enclave. Residents have included such bohemian luminaries as the Jefferson Airplane and poets Lawrence Ferlenghetti and Richard Brautigan. But in recent years, there has been a clash of hippie van and BMW cultures. Artists and musicians have had to make room for well-to-do San Franciscans fleeing the city, as well as more mainstream celebrities like Martha Stewart or Susie Tompkins Buell (the founder of the Esprit Corporation).
Bolinas is perched on a peninsula formed at the point where the mouth of the Bolinas Lagoon meets the Pacific Ocean. The town is divided into two neighborhoods: a residential area called, “La Mesa,” which looks over the sea and a “downtown Bolinas.” Homes on La Mesa run the gamut of architectural styles and it’s worth taking a drive through the neighborhood to see the huge Tudor-style residences and rancheros, geodesic domes and even mobile homes. Along the way, stop to snack on wild blueberries growing along La Mesa’s unpaved roads.
Downtown Bolinas sits on a horseshoe shaped road that curves past a handful of restaurants and shops, ending at the beachfront and wharf at the Bolinas Lagoon. A walk down Wharf Road offers a look at some of the town’s old Victorians, remnants of the burg's days as a summer colony for San Franciscans in the late 1880s. The downtown area is also home to Smiley's Schooner Saloon, a relic of the days from 1849 to 1933, when sailing schooners hauled lumber and dairy products from Bolinas to San Francisco and returned with food staples and farm supplies. Established in 1851, Smiley’s predates San Francisco’s North Beach tavern, “The Saloon” (1865) as California’s oldest established watering hole. These days, Smiley's serves food as well as drinks, and boasts a “simple but elegant” hotel for $69 to $89 a night. Step over the large but friendly dog that guards the door of Smiley’s, and head for the jukebox to play “Bolinas” by John Stewart. This 1990 ode to the town begins with the lyrics:
Time in Bolinas is so very small
The clock on the courthouse ain’t workin’ at all
And the Mayor of Bolinas is digging for clams
But the folks of Bolinas
They don’t give a damn.