Travel: New England's Pacific coast

Should they have been celebrating St George's Day on the northern Californian coast yesterday? Yes, says Tamsin Murray Leach
Most Americans would be rather surprised to learn that the original New England is not their beloved land of white clapboard churches, colourful autumn leaves and Puritan pilgrims. It isn't even on the East Coast. The New England, or Nova Albion, claimed by Sir Francis Drake for Queen Elizabeth I in 1579 is in fact a small peninsula in California, just north of San Francisco.

Historians surmise that Point Reyes - a popular R&R spot for weary Bay- area dwellers - is the place most likely to have provided Sir Francis and the world-weary crew of the Golden Hind with rest and repairs on their journey around the Americas.

Drake spent more than a month shored up in the natural harbour that is now known as Drake's Bay, fixing his ship and blushingly attempting to persuade the native Miwok Indians that all good Christians ought to keep their privates covered. Pronouncing it "a goodly country, and fruitfull soyle, stored with many blessings fit for the use of man", Drake returned home to deliver the news of this promised land to his queen, only to get distracted by the nasty Spaniards and their Armada. He never returned to settle his claim, and subsequent English colonists took the short route to America, sensibly heading straight across the Atlantic.

Which is a good thing, too, because for the last 420 years, Point Reyes has been largely left alone. After the Spanish discovered San Francisco Bay towards the end of the 18th century, a succession of newly independent Mexican lords held the title deeds to the peninsula. Still undeveloped, it was turned over to dairy ranchers when the Republic of Mexico lost California to the United States in 1848.

You pass by these ranches as you drive through the area's pastoral lands along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, with each ranch originally titled after a different letter of the alphabet. About a dozen are still in operation today, but Point Reyes remains a wilderness for the most part, a peninsula of rugged coastline, redwood forest and inland estuary.

The area was declared a National Seashore in 1962, with the inland buffer of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area serving to protect it from the encroaching suburbanisation of the San Francisco region.

The park, which is less than two hours' drive from the Bay, seemed surprisingly empty when I arrived. I asked a young and healthy-looking park ranger whether it ever got crowded. He replied pleasantly enough that yes, it did get relatively busy during summer weekends, with campsites filled up two months in advance.

"But it's empty during the week," he said as he leant forward and lowered his voice, suddenly conspiratorial. "The people who come here are city folk," he whispered, almost vehemently, "and they need to work weekdays to pay for their $100,000 houses and $100,000 Visa bills." He shook his head in disgust at such types. I backed away sheepishly, feeling that my credit card was burning a hole in my back pocket.

Though tourism has been responsible for the regeneration of the small towns that lie just outside the park's boundaries, locals are fiercely protective of their rural, secluded lifestyle. While some have been fishing or ranching on the Point for generations, many are relics of the Sixties counter-culture, and are strongly opposed to the values of big- city society.

Down in Bolinas, a tiny town on the park's southern tip, the old hippies and young runaways who call the place home have built somewhat of a reputation for uprooting road signs. They want Bolinas and its tempting organic bakery to be left in peace, stranded in obscurity for them to enjoy.

It is not quite the enthusiastic welcome that the Miwoks gave Drake. They crowned him with feathers and fell to their knees in supplication, tearing at their chests because they believed that he was a god.

The Miwoks are long gone, sold into slavery by the Spanish, and their name was mangled by a local resident, George Lucas, for the fuzz-balls in Return of the Jedi; the locals today are a little more offhand. But then, you don't visit Point Reyes for the company - quite the opposite.

There are 150 miles of hiking and horseback-riding trails in Point Reyes, providing plenty of options for solitude on even the busiest weekends. I hardly saw a soul along the Bear Valley route, which was fine by me. I peered earnestly at the sign which informed me that I was walking directly along the San Andreas Fault; wandered along a fairy-tale babbling brook that meandered through a mossy wood, with the ground carpeted with spring flowers; and startled a small herd of big-eared deer in Divide Meadow.

If it had been a little warmer, I would have camped in one of the four back-country sites. But the weather here is reminiscent of the old England, subject to change at any minute, with plenty of sunshine but a tendency for fog and rain to roll in quickly from the shore.

I began my Bear Valley trek on a fresh and breezy morning, picnicked under a blazing sky and speed-walked the last half-mile in a downpour, with memories of childhood holidays in the West Country fresh in my mind.

Wet clothes and the cold spring nights prompted me to stay in the old wooden youth hostel with its cosy reading-room and sunny porch, located in a secluded valley right in the centre of the park. The hippie hosts show guests the communal kitchen and dorms, assign chores and then withdraw gracefully, leaving everyone to just get on with it. After sorting linens, I strolled down to Limantour Beach, within sight of the spot where Drake supposedly landed.

The beach and estuary are marked as a wildlife sanctuary, and it was here that I first realised the biggest difference between my new and old Albion. I must have spent hours straining my eyes in English wildlife sanctuaries trying to convince myself that a partially submerged log was the head of an otter, or that a seagull constituted wildlife. Limantour Beach rewarded me immediately with herons, seals frolicking in the surf close to the shore, and a pelican fly-by over a tide that gilded the sands with reflections from the setting sun.

Over 400 species of birds have been sighted at Point Reyes, and some of the seashore's rarer mammals include the elephant seal and a herd of Tule elk, practically extinct until their reintroduction here in 1978. The park is also famous locally as the best spot to watch for grey whales during their annual 12,000 mile round-trip migration from the Gulf of Alaska to the Sea of Cortez, with buses ferrying hordes of visitors out to the lighthouse on weekends during the prime watching periods between December and April.

The days have gone when I could follow Sir Francis Drake's example and just nail the Queen's arms in the form of a shiny sixpence to a post on the Point Reyes shore, thereby claiming the area for my fellow Englishmen. The sixpence is no more, and pound coins are a little too thick for such deeds. Thanks to new technology, I can however spread the word about my discovery of New Albion a little faster than Drake was able to.

Just don't tell the im- migration officials when you arrive in San Francisco that the purpose of your trip is to visit New England - they might get a little confused.

Fact File

How to get there: There are plenty of discount fares to San Francisco until the end of June. Non-stop from Heathrow, you can fly on British Airways, United or Virgin Atlantic. Through Trailfinders (0171-937 5400), there is also a return fare of pounds 348 on United in May.

If you are prepared to change planes en route, you can get an even lower fare; Flightbookers (0171-757 3000) quotes pounds 291 on Delta via Cincinatti or Atlanta. The Point Reyes National Seashore is situated off Highway 1 in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Crossing Mount Tamalpas, passing giant redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument and following the rocky coastline of Marin County, the drive alone is practically worth the trip.

Permits are required for camping. They can be bought for $10 per site at the Bear Valley Visitor's Center, or reserved by credit card up to two months in advance by calling 001 415 663 8054 between 9am and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time (-8 hours BST), Monday to Friday. Reservations are recommended at weekends and during the summer. Campsites are located anything up to six miles from the nearest parking lot and are accessible by foot or mountain bike. Toilets are provided. Water is available, but must be treated; no wood fires are permitted.

Dorm beds at the youth hostel cost $12 a night; you do not need YHA membership. Linen and towels can be rented for $1 each. One private room is available for parents with children aged five or younger. Office hours are 7.30am- 9.30am and 4.30pm-9.30pm PST. Reservations are recommended for Friday and Saturday. Hostelling International - Point Reyes, Box 247, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956 (001 415 663 8811); ushostel/ pnwreg/pointr.htm

Provisions can be purchased in the nearby towns of Olema, Inverness and Point Reyes Station. The latter is the biggest settlement in the area. The Bovine Bakery produces scrumptious pastries and great coffee, while the Station House Cafe is a favourite for its seafood and generous bread- baskets. Both are on the main street.

More information: consult National Park Service website, or call Bear Valley Visitor's Center (001 415 663 1092).