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Diana Yen’s Family Road Trip to Sea Ranch

Pebbly beaches, grilled Dungeness crab, and wood-burning fireplaces.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Diana Yen
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Diana Yen

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep down into TripAdvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google Docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations and itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you, and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took, that you can actually steal.

Food stylist, recipe developer, and author of A Simple Feast Diana Yen first heard about Sea Ranch, a ten-mile stretch of private homes along Sonoma County’s coast, as a product-design student at art school in San Francisco. “Sea Ranch was this place I studied in my textbooks and probably saw for the first time in Dwell,” says Yen, who always dreamt of visiting some day. “It’s this idealistic housing community that is the pinnacle of good design.” This May, when she finally felt ready to travel again, Sea Ranch’s remote location and idyllic natural setting seemed like a good way to test the waters. Yen, who went with her parents and two sisters, recommends booking early and, for the best availability, focusing on weekdays. She’s also very particular about cooking in rentals, which is why she always packs her own chef’s knife and other pantry staples. “Bye-bye dull Ikea knives in Airbnbs!”

Day 1

Stop overnight in Monterey

Most people will fly into San Francisco or Oakland and rent a car (it’s about a three-hour and-45-minute drive from SFO, three hours from OAK). We drove up from L.A. and it’s a nine-hour drive, so we broke it up. We did a stopover in Monterey on the way up; we stayed at Asilomar Conference Grounds (from $149) which has a retro summer-camp style and a private boardwalk that leads straight to Asilomar Beach. (One of my biggest tips for budget traveling is to look up state parks and conference centers for lodging.) Then on the way down, we stopped for a night in Big Sur at Deetjens (from $275); it’s a classic and central to everything.

Day 2

3 p.m.: Pick up groceries on the way

Before we went, everyone was like, “Make sure you bring your own groceries because there aren’t a lot of options close to Sea Ranch,” and I obviously like to cook and eat, so we prioritized food shopping on the way and even brought a cooler along. If you drive up on a Sunday or a Thursday you can hit the Marin Farmers Market (3501 Civic Center Drive, San Rafael) which is great, and, a few minute’s drive away, there’s Farmshop (2233 Larkspur Landing Circle), where you can stock up on baked goods and fancy snacks for the house. Bodega Bay Oyster Company (12830 Valley Ford Road) in Petaluma is really worth a stop, too. We got sandwiches for lunch there and picked up cheeses and fresh local oysters (like Miyagis and Kumamotos).

6 p.m.: Settle in at the house and catch the sunset

We timed our arrival to get to Sea Ranch before sunset because the view is so majestic, and also the roads can be rugged and narrow, so we wanted daylight for that. The homes are finished in grayish, weathered wood that melds into the hillside to blend in with nature, and the floor plan was amazing: All the bedrooms were downstairs, with a communal area upstairs that framed the view of the ocean and had an open kitchen with lots of light coming in. Once we arrived and got settled we walked down to Shell Beach (39200 CA-1), which is a small sheltered cove, to catch the sunset. Then we came back to the house, lit a fire in the house’s wood-burning fireplace, and my mom and I cooked a BBQ Chinese pizza with lap cheong sausage. It’s like a Chinese scallion pancake meets BBQ pork bun in pizza form.

Day 3

8 a.m.: Take an early morning walk along the bluffs

When you’re at Sea Ranch it’s mostly just spending time walking around in nature and at the house. We got up and took a morning walk along the bluffs to Green Cove Harbor Seal Rookery; we were there for the birthing season, so there were all these baby harbor seals sunning themselves. When we got back to the house, I cooked a sheet-pan hash with local trout for my family.

11 a.m.: Get out for some day excursions

After breakfast we made our way to the Sea Ranch Chapel (40033 CA-1) which was designed by James Hubbell and commissioned by one of the Sea Ranch residents. From far away it looks like a funky wizard’s hat or a Smurf hat, but when you get closer it’s reminiscent of a shell and is super-charming. Someone wrote me recently that they got married inside! Then we drove to Gulala, the closest little town, and Point Regional Park (about five minutes away) to hike along the coastal bluff to Walk-On Beach. When we got back to the house, we did an afternoon hot tub (a lot of the homes at Sea Ranch have them and most of the time they come with a view of the ocean), snacked, and sampled a few Pinot noirs from Sonoma.

7 p.m.: Watch the sunset from the Mendocino coast

We drove up to Point Arena Lighthouse (about an hour and 20 minutes from Sea Ranch) to catch the sunset. A bit further north there’s Harbor House Inn (5600 CA-1), where you can go for drinks and dinner; they do a kind of Japanese prix fixe menu. It’s a really famous place so just remember to make a reservation.

Day 4

10 a.m.: Cozy up with a book in a nook

Woke up and took our daily morning walk. This time we followed a trail to Stengel Beach, which is small and rockier. The beaches here are so beautiful but kind of cold and melancholy (think Big Little Lies) and it gets pretty windy; they’re perfect though for brisk walks and picking up pebbles and shells. We came back to the house and I had breakfast and coffee in a window nook staring at the ocean. The house had cushioned built-in seating all around the windows so that you could cozy up with a book or check out sea life with a telescope.

1 p.m.: Swim in the Sea Ranch community pool

There’s a community pool for residents (and visitors) at Sea Ranch but we didn’t end up going because we were too cold. There’s a big golf course there too; none of us golf but I imagine it must be one of the most beautiful places to do it! We made lunch and then headed to Salt Point State Park (about 15 minutes south) for a walk around the trails. The wildflowers were in full bloom when we were there, and some of the ice plants looked like bright-colored shaggy carpet all over the hillside (in Monterey they call it the magic carpet).

7 p.m.: Make chowder with local Littleneck clams

When we got back to the house I worked on dinner; I cooked Dungeness crabs on our grill with browned-butter fish sauce and made a chowder with local Littleneck clams. After dinner we soaked in the hot tub. It’s so quiet there, especially at night. You can’t even have your light on past a certain time because of light pollution. But because there are so few lights, other than the occasional TV in a distant living room, all you see are the stars.

Day 5

2 p.m.: Stop for Coyuchi linens and discounted Heath ceramics

In the morning we took one last walk down to Pebble Beach, which has little tide pools. Then I made gochujang shrimp and grits for everyone for breakfast and we got ready to leave. On the drive back toward San Francisco you can head west through Sausalito or east along the coast. If you go west, stop to shop for discounted plates and mugs at Heath Ceramics (400 Gate 5 Road; they sell factory seconds at this location) and then have lunch at Hook Fish at Proof Lab (254 Shoreline Highway, Mill Valley), an amazing fish shack at a beer garden with fish tacos and fish and chips.

If you head east, stop for lunch at Hog Island Oyster (20215 Shoreline Highway, Marshall), where there are picnic tables outside and you can grill your own oysters, or The Marshall Store (19225 CA-1), which is famous for its barbecued oysters. Then stop again briefly in Point Reyes to check out the Coyuchi store (11101 State Route One, Suite 201; I always stock up on bath towels, robes, and bedding here) and, most essential, to pick up cheeses (like Mt. Tam and Red Hawk) at Cowgirl Creamery (80 4th Street).

Diana’s Sea Ranch Packing List

Chef’s Knife

Photo: Jed Egan

I’ve stayed in many rentals that had dull (or nonexistent) chef’s knives. After one vacation where I used a serrated steak knife to do all the cooking, I’d had it! Bringing your own chef’s knife from home is a must if you love to cook. Knife guards come in pretty handy for this so you can bring a few select favorites.

[Editor’s note: Diana’s preferred chef’s knife — the Korin Togiharu Hammered Texture Damascus Santoku — is currently out of stock, but it will be available in about four months, according to the retailer.]

Flaky Maldon Salt

Salt is really crucial for cooking and finishing your meals. If you’re really not sure what kind of salt there might be when traveling, it’s best to bring your own. I always pack a box of flaky Maldon salt and use this both for cooking and finishing my dishes.

Compact Binoculars

There’s nothing like being able to see nature up close with binoculars. When I’m traveling along the coast, there are many opportunities to see dolphins, seals, and birds. I always feel like David Attenborough when I bust mine out of my back pocket.

Bandana

If you’re traveling somewhere windy like Sea Ranch, it’s great to have a neckerchief or bandana handy. It can get pretty chilly and it’s nice to have something around your neck to keep cozy.

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The COVID situation there: California is expected to reopen fully on June 15. All indoor and outdoor businesses can increase capacity to 100 percent, and fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear face masks. However, regardless of vaccine status, you will likely have to wear a face covering while in any airports or planes. Additionally, museums, restaurants, and other businesses may still require mask-wearing on a case-by-case basis, so it’s still best to keep one with you at all times. Due to COVID, reservations are required. Book an appointment for in-store shopping.
Diana Yen’s Family Road Trip to Sea Ranch, California