Bolinas, North California

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It was a dark and stormy night . . . Eventually we find Bolinas, hidden by trees on the edge of America beside a lagoon, and observe it for a bit through the windscreen with the wipers going. There are three buildings with lights on, although the trading post style store is closing up. All the action seems to be at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon & Hotel – blues, (Tuesday being designated ‘Bluesday’), the clack of pool balls, throaty laughter and some banging. Despite the name – at least the ‘hotel’ bit, Smiley’s is one of those places where locals drink, play cards and pool tournaments, and there’s surprise and detached interest as we, strangers, shove through the saloon doors to discover them gathered there in the warm gloom.

The town is summed up in a brochure I found in Smiley’s: “Just west of infamous San Andreas fault on the edge of the continent is Bolinas a well-hidden enclave of artists, writers, musicians, fishermen and just plain folks. Although the community doesn’t promote tourism there are a limited number of guest accommodations available . . .” I like that ‘well, if you must’ approach to tourism.

There’s a history of furtive activity. Smiley’s was built for a Captain Morgan in 1851, “the gold rush days of growth. Those were days when one gambled with one’s dreams and then watched them either shatter and splinter or one crafted and honed them into realities” read the brochure in the warm, creaky room.  The bar is only one of 14 in California to have been in ‘continuous existence’ for over 100 years. That means it survived the dark days of the Temperance Movement (despite several Temperance Movement members living in town) and managed to stay open during Prohibition in the 1920s, apparently by painting all windows black except one through which passersby would see the paraphernalia of a barber’s shop. Drinkers would go in purportedly for a haircut and come out drunk. Rum runners did well out here in Bolinas, “roaring in and out of town in their new fangled automobiles”.

There’s good food at the Coast Cafe, and daylight revealed a smattering of interesting stuff – bookshops, a gift shop, a place to get vegan banana bread, a community centre, boats and a sandy beach, beautiful houses under dripping trees – and a lot of trees. In some ways it’s not far from San Francisco, in other ways it is.

Smileys, Bolinas. Tel 415 868 1311

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