Ranches with a view
Local farm stay getaways offer rest or revelry
Need some down time to fan the fires of romance or bask in much-needed solitude? Maybe you’re searching for the perfect place to celebrate a special ceremony or host a company shindig?
If country charm is what you’re after, you’re in luck. West Marin is home to a number of unique bed & breakfasts, secluded cottages and magical event venues situated on working farms and ranches. These beautiful properties offer more than a chance to escape urban life and soak in epic landscapes; they offer visitors an up-close-and-personal glimpse into this county’s rich agrarian heritage, and vibrant present and future.
Each of the family-owned and operated retreats profiled here is accessible within a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, and offers all the creature comforts and amenities of home. Bring a sense of adventure or a just good book, and be sure to pack your hiking shoes (or maybe your dancing shoes). Whether peace, play or party is your heart’s desire, these West Marin farm stays have what you’re searching for.
STRAUS HOME RANCH, MARSHALL
Once upon a time, there was a farm, a family and a couple of cows …
So begins the story of the Straus family, one of West Marin’s best-known dairying names, who established residence in this historic Colonial-style farmhouse in 1941.
Patriarch William (Bill) Straus was a German-born immigrant who fled his native homeland for Northern California in 1936 after Hitler came to power. Despite being a self-professed “city boy” who had never milked a single cow, he fell in love with 166 acres of choice ranch property overlooking Tomales Bay, and the grand old farmhouse that peered though the cypress grove to the water beyond. He bought the farm along with 32 Jersey cows, which he named after friends and relatives, and started a small dairy.
But the life of a bachelor dairyman in this isolated region was a lonely existence, so when family friends on the East Coast offered to do some matchmaking, Bill jumped at the chance. In 1949, he met his soon-to-be-wife, Ellen: a spirited, “whip smart” 22-year-old whose family had fled Amsterdam nine years earlier to escape the Nazi occupation. They married three months later, after a whirlwind 16-day courtship, and settled into life on the dairy with plans to start a family.
Today, the couple’s four adult children—Albert, Vivien, Miriam and Michael—have fond memories of growing up on the ranch where they rode ponies, made hay forts in the barn and helped with the never-ending stream of chores that were a part of daily life on the dairy. Vivien remembers the stately farmhouse as a place where friends and strangers alike were greeted warmly with a slice of homemade berry pie or her mom’s famous lemon cheesecake.
Though the house remains largely unchanged by time, the family has not. Bill and Ellen have passed on, and the dairy business is now managed by their eldest son, Albert. Recently, the family has made the home available for rent so that others can experience a piece of their treasured family legacy.
Situated off Highway 1 between the tiny village of Marshall to the south and Tomales to the north, Straus Home Ranch can comfortably accommodate up to 10 guests. A wrap-around veranda, lined with columns of climbing antique roses, invites guests to pause and enjoy peek-a-boo views of Tomales Bay at the entrance to the house. Inside, black-painted wood floors curve through the rooms on the main floor, which include a spacious living room with a 1910 Steinway grand piano. Gaze out the rippled antique glass windows and you will likely catch a glimpse of heifers grazing in the fields surrounding the property as they have for more than 60 years.
Across from the main house you’ll find a large red barn and a smaller structure known as The Shed, which, along with the house and gardens, may be rented as an event venue for up to 100 guests. The large lawn in front of the home serves as a natural gathering area with a wood platform, made from a fallen 150-year-old cypress, that can be used as a stage for musicians. A short walk up the hill brings guests to a popular ceremony site where couples can exchange vows in a grove of old eucalyptus and cypress trees above Tomales Bay.
The Strauses hope The Shed will also be a future hub for local community events including yoga classes, family movie nights and art exhibitions. A private caterer is available on site for an extra fee.
THINGS TO DO NEARBY:
Sample award-winning cuisine and enjoy beautiful views of Tomales Bay at Nick’s Cove. Patrons travel from near and far for Chef Joshua Seibert’s seasonal dishes made with sustainably sourced ingredients from local farms, and fresh seafood from the nearby Pacific.
If you’re an oyster lover, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Marshall Store or Hog Island Oyster Company (both off Highway 1 within a 10-minute drive), where you can down freshly shucked or barbecue oysters at a ringside outdoor seat overlooking Tomales Bay.
Bring your kayak and put in at Miller Boat Launch to explore the waters of Tomales Bay. At certain times of the year, visitors can paddle out to witness nature’s bioluminescence phenomenon at night. Tours are available through PointReyesOutdoors.com. If you’re an angler, bring your fishing pole for a chance to catch seasonal striped bass, perch, rock fish, halibut, salmon and crab.
During April through August, on the second Sunday of each month, Straus Home Ranch hosts farm tours of the property. Guests are treated to a walk around the grounds, including a chance to commune with local dairy cows, and a tour of the main house. The visit culminates at The Shed with a tasting of local cheeses paired with Apple- Garden Farm hard cider. Reservations are required.
STEMPLE CREEK RANCH, TOMALES
Three miles northeast of Tomales as the crow flies lies Stemple Creek Ranch; a thousand acres of lush pastureland tucked in the folds of a valley where the thread of its namesake creek winds to the Pacific.
The Poncia family’s roots in local agriculture trace back to 1897 when patriarch Angelo “Pa Nono” Poncia arrived at the nearby outpost of Fallon from his native Italy. At that time, West Marin was an attractive destination for many European immigrants who found work in the dairies that dotted this coastal corridor.
For three successive generations the Poncias worked the family dairy, which delivered fresh milk, cream and butter by railroad from Fallon to Sausalito, where cargo was ferried across the bay to waiting patrons in San Francisco.
Over 100 years later, fourth-generation rancher Loren Poncia and his wife, Lisa, have rebuilt the family business around sustainable meat production. Their superior-quality grass-fed and -finished beef and lamb are prized by top chefs, specialty butcher shops and gourmet markets in the Bay Area and beyond.
While California’s ranchers have faced the grim realities of unprecedented drought in recent years, the Poncias have managed to thrive with a business model that hinges on grass as its foundation.
The abundance of natural forage is no accident. Loren Poncia is a visionary with a keen understanding of best management practices that is evident in his land’s productivity. In fact, Stemple Creek Ranch is currently one of three cutting-edge West Marin test farms participating in a decade-long study with the Marin Carbon Project. The study is helping researchers learn how to capture atmospheric carbon to improve soil content on farms. The insights gleaned are providing a road map that shows how sustainable agriculture can help mitigate climate change on a global scale.
The Poncias have two unique lodgings available for rent on their ranch. The 150-year-old Cabin, with its hardwood floors and original interior walls, is a cozy retreat perfect for couples or small families. Affectionately dubbed the “Love Shack,” it’s charms include a claw foot tub/shower. A sturdy ladder leads to an elevated sleeping loft. Guests can take in panoramic views of open pastureland to the east from the front porch deck, where stars shimmer bright in the dark night sky and early birds can catch a breathtaking sunrise.
The charming Writer’s Cottage is ideal for those seeking solitude to spark creativity. This one-room gem, with reclaimed redwood interior paneling and an enclosed outdoor shower, sleeps one person comfortably (or up to two people who really like each other). West-facing windows provide a portal for soaking in epic sunsets.
For weddings, farm dinners and corporate gatherings, Stemple Creek’s classic red Barn is a destination venue bursting with quintessential country elegance. The spacious interior can accommodate up to 350 guests and has rustic wood floors, string lights and wrought iron chandeliers with ample room for tables and plenty of space for dancing. A fully equipped kitchen is ideal for caterers. Sliding barn doors allow guests to spill out onto a large outdoor deck overlooking the pristine rolling hills to the east. A magical ceremony site in a circular grove of eucalyptus trees on the ridge above the ranch completes the setting.
In addition to dining and dancing, the Barn is a gathering place for educational events where the Poncias share insights into their philosophy of agriculture, and help visitors develop an appreciation for where their food comes from.
THINGS TO DO NEARBY:
Head into downtown Tomales for delicious fresh-baked pastries and savories at the acclaimed Tomales Bakery (open Thursday—Sunday)—a favorite stop for cyclists and passersby. Go early—they sell out! For great grub-on-the-go, be sure to grab hearty gourmet takeout specials at K & A Take Away (open Thursday—Sunday).
From Tomales, follow Dillon Beach Road west four miles to Dillon Beach, where you can stroll the Pacific shore, picnic in the dunes or catch a wave.
A short drive north on Highway 1 heading toward Bodega Bay takes you through Valley Ford, where Estero Café serves up generous portions of comfort food for breakfast and lunch made with ingredients sourced from local farms. Across the road, Rocker Oysterfeller’s (open Thursday—Sunday) in the historic Valley Ford Hotel offers a Southern-influenced dinner menu, with a focus on seasonal, sustainably farmed ingredients, as well as Sunday brunch.
Sign up for a Stemple Creek Ranch Tour, which includes a walking tour and overview of the Poncias’ history and philosophy, along with a barbecue tasting of their grass-fed meats.
Reservations required; check the website for dates and information.
COW TRACK RANCH, NICASIO
Since 1986, Liz and Bruce Daniels have called this 500-acre working cattle ranch home. She, a native San Franciscan and former horse trainer, and he, a retired veterinarian, have carved out a living raising beef cattle and running a rustic bed & breakfast with a barn venue that is in demand for destination weddings and events.
Spilling into the valley basin two miles outside Nicasio at the end of a winding dirt road, Cow Track Ranch embodies rustic charm. Its eclectic collection of outbuildings includes a historic barn built in 1871 from redwood harvested on the property. Vegetable, herb and flower gardens yield a variety of seasonal organic produce—some of which is handcrafted into elegant soaps at Moon Essence spa in nearby Petaluma.
Visitors can settle in and enjoy a tranquil stay at the rustic Bunk House, which can accommodate up to five guests. Crafted from recycled barn wood with hardwood floors throughout, this retreat is furnished with homey comfort in mind, and splashed with antiques that reflect the ranch motif. An exterior deck with barbecue overlooks the rolling hills surrounding the ranch, and offers glimpses of the Black Angus and Texas Longhorn cattle that graze free range nearby. In the morning, guests enjoy Liz’s homemade coffee cake for an extra treat.
For rustic weddings with country ambience, the Barn at Cow Track Ranch offers event space for 200+ with optional event design and coordination. Decorated with an elegant collection of antique gold mirrors, crystal chandeliers and bistro lighting, the partially enclosed barn has a sawdust floor and views of the surrounding valley. A large stage provides a platform for entertainment or special seating, and there is a fully equipped catering kitchen in an adjacent space.
THINGS TO DO NEARBY:
Drive into nearby Nicasio for lunch, dinner or weekend brunch at Rancho Nicasio Restaurant & Bar (open Wednesday—Sunday).
While you’re in Nicasio, be sure to swing by the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company tasting room where the Lafranchi family crafts their award-winning line of artisan farmstead cheeses using fresh organic milk from their dairy.
A 15-minute drive west lands you in Point Reyes Station with its quaint main street where you will find noteworthy eateries like Osteria Stellina and The Station House Café along with galleries showcasing local artists. Be sure to visit Toby’s Feed Barn, an upscale general store; Tomales Bay Foods, the West Marin home of Cowgirl Creamery with a gourmet deli and cheese counter to die for; and Bovine Bakery, where the fresh baked pastries have patrons lined up out the door. Venture five minutes farther north on Highway 1 to sample Gordon Hull’s dry sparkling honey wines at the Heidrun Meadery tasting room (check for hours of operation).
Bring your mountain bike and hiking shoes to explore the scenic trails of Point Reyes National Seashore, where abundant wildlife and rugged natural beauty are the order of the day. Stop by the Bear Valley Visitor Center and grab a trail map.