Bodega Bay and The Birds
Going far away, not far from home
The fog-shrouded pier at The Tides Wharf
Only Alfred Hitchcock could take a sun-washed fishing village on the bucolic Sonoma County coast and turn it into a tableau of horror, transforming seagulls and ravens into frenzied instruments of death.
And only Bodega Bay could take the horror of Hitchcock's The Birds and turn it into a badge of pride and an enduring tourist attraction.
Here's a hypothetical conversation between Hitchcock and his location scout:
Scout: "It's perfect, Hitch. Sleepy village, plenty of extras, lots of birds."
Hitchcock: "How d'you suppose the townsfolk will feel when we destroy their peaceful image. I mean, tourism will die."
Scout: "Not to worry, Hitch. We won't show them the script and we'll be out of town before they know what hit them."
Who knew that, instead of recoiling from Hitchcock's horror, Bodega Bay would embrace the dark side, celebrate its killer birds, even advertise them in its visitor's center, and become the incongruous location for even more horror flicks, including The Pack (rampaging wild dogs), Puppet Master (rampaging psychics and slasher puppets) and Sleepwalkers (rampaging, shape-shifting, energy-sucking vampires).
Then there's the town's brief confrontation with real-life horror when PG&E bought a chunk of land on Bodega Head, the peninsula framing the actual harbor, and began building a nuclear power plant almost on top of the San Andreas fault. The harbor is actually formed by the fault, a branch of the San Andreas passes directly through the reactor site, and in retrospect the utility's plans had the surreal aura of inspired lunacy. Who, some townspeople asked, could be so utterly mad as to conceive such a thing? Dr. Strangelove?
So a handful of prescient citizens took it seriously, took up political arms and drove a stake through the heart of the nuclear monster. One of those citizens was a waitress at the Tides restaurant named Hazel Mitchell who, during filming of The Birds, frequently served the perpetually dieting Hitchcock his standard lunch of a piece of sole, a serving of string beans and some lettuce. Hazel was the sparkplug behind citizen opposition to what PG&E called the "Nuclear Park," but after winning the battle she quit waitressing, took up real estate, and helped broker the land deal that created Bodega Harbour, the subdivision at the south end of town that created its own extended controversy and a long battle with the state's Coastal Commission over appropriate shoreline development.
So much for local history. What Bodega Bay has to offer, beyond political controversy and deadly seagulls, is a sense of blessed isolation, the feeling that you're very far away even when you're only an hour from home. With a reasonable mix of sunshine and fog, beaches, rocky shores, protected coves, hiking, camping, horseback riding, sailing, surfing, kayaking, deep-sea fishing, whale watching, tours of the Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory, a working commercial fishery and a real Robert Trent Jones golf course at Bodega Harbour, it's the ideal place for a weekend staycation, or a preliminary honeymoon while you save for a month on Kauai.
Knowing where to stay in Bodega Bay depends on your budget, but for my money the choices are ultimately quite simple. There's the Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa adjoining the Links at Bodega Harbour, or the Inn at the Tides, which has the patina of history, an endless collection of movie photos, a family restaurant on the waterfront, the high-end Bay View Restaurant & Lounge across the street encircled by the actual inn, not to mention a wholesale fish business, a gas station and the official greeting center, all on Highway 1.
My choice on a weekend recon trip was the Inn at the Tides, partly because General Manager Carlo Galazzo is an Italian of overwhelming charm, and partly because he hosts a monthly winemaker's dinner at the Bay View Restaurant with some of the top vintners from Sonoma and Napa counties who shape four-course wine and food pairings for the absurdly low price of $79.
On my visit he had Mike Grgich on hand, the legendary founder of Grgich Hills Estate, and we shared a table along with some of the most consistently fine wine I've had anywhere. That shouldn't be a surprise since Grgich crafted the winning chardonnay for Chateau Montelena that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris and was featured in the 2008, Sonoma-produced film Bottle Shock.
The dinner was assembled by Galazzo's executive chef Ken Schloss and featured Alaskan halibut with a 2006 chardonnay, red wine risotto with a 2005 merlot, roasted beef tenderloin with a 2005 cabernet, and a hazelnut pudding with vanilla bean gelato and Grgich's 2006 Violetta, a botrytised white blend with the lingering flavor of peaches and honey. To die for is an understatement.
Upcoming dinners feature wines from Mondavi, Coppola, Hall and Roederer Estate.
But that is just one of the pleasures at the Tides.
The grounds are lavishly landscaped on the side of a steep hill with a nice balance between carefully tended shrubs and flowers and the kind of semi-cultured heather you find in the towns of Devon along England's Jurassic Coast. The inn has 84 rooms on its six-acre plot, and every one has some kind of ocean view.
During our first morning we watched the fog dissolve like a parting curtain, revealing an abandoned sailboat listing in the mudflats of the bay while colorful kayaks moved slowly through the mist and the no-longer-demonic gulls wheeled across the morning sky.
Breakfast at the Tides Wharf came with the room so we took it at a window seat and watched sea lions chasing a school of mullet back and forth, erupting repeatedly from the water with fish in their mouths. The wharf is newer and bigger than it was when Hitchcock came but we understood why he chose to put it in the film and accepted the terms of former owner Mitch Zankich who had three demands: Hitchcock couldn't give the town some fictional name; the film's hero-played by Rod Taylor-had to be named Mitch; and the real Mitch would get a speaking part in the film. He ended up with three words and a footnote in cinematic history.
Across the water from the wharf, Bay Flat Road leads past Spud Point Marina, where most of the fishing boats dock, and although the commercial fishery has been hammered by federal closures on the plummeting salmon stocks, Bodega Bay has historically been home to the largest salmon port between San Francisco and Eureka.
Beyond Spud Point you'll pass the entrance to the UC Bodega Marine Lab, which offers public tours and spectacular views of the coast. The road leads on to Campbell Cove and a small parking lot with access to an idyllic beach with water shallow enough for kids to safely romp. Around the point past the entrance jetty we found a juvenile elephant seal sprawled on the beach and looking uncertain about its solitary future. Just above the cove is the infamous Hole in the Head, the now water-filled cavity dug by PG&E to house its ill-fated nuclear reactor.
A three-mile trail circles the head and leads along the top of the bluff with views out to sea, south to Tomales Point and east to Bodega Harbour, where the Links course unfolds in undulating, seaside splendor that will remind some duffers of courses in Scotland.
The Bodega Head trail is a memorable place to hike but the cliff plummets in places a couple of hundred feet into the sea, and every now and then someone goes over the edge. Be careful.
If a tent suits your budget and your lifestyle better than the luxuries at the inn, Doran Regional Park, a two-mile spit of sandy beach, sits across the harbor on the mainland and offers camping, an RV park and a lot of spectacular surf.
But for my particular form of research there was still work to do back at the inn. You can't swim the Sonoma Coast without a wet suit, but the inn has a heated pool and thick cotton robes to lounge in, and there was wine waiting in the room and a massage table with my name on it in the spa.
It's amazing how far away you can get, without going very far.
The Inn at the Tides,
800 Coast Highway One,
Bodega Bay, CA 94923.