A Calif. lagoon to return to — and love

A rental cottage on the Bolinas Lagoon in California has a ladder that can be lowered from a rear deck into the channel.
Bonnie Tsui
A rental cottage on the Bolinas Lagoon in California has a ladder that can be lowered from a rear deck into the channel.

BOLINAS, Calif. — When my husband was a young boy, he spent one week of every summer at his grandparents’ cottage on Lake George in the Adirondacks. There’s an old YMCA camp there, a resort of the rustic, shuffleboard-and-square-dance variety. Life centered around a big main house with a generous, open-air porch, lined with rocking chairs that faced the water. Kids soldered stained-glass tchotchkes for their parents at the crafts cottage and took sailing lessons from the boathouse dock.

If you ask my husband, this is the place that has defined summer for him his whole life long. Seven years ago, we got married there, as did my husband’s parents and grandparents before us.

This returning to, I decided, was something special. I’d never had a place like that growing up, but I wished for it. This year my husband and I made a pact to spend one long weekend a month in Bolinas, a quintessential funky surf-hippie-artist community an hour north of San Francisco, with our two young boys. We rent a cottage on the Bolinas Lagoon, with a ladder that we can lower from a rear deck right into the channel. With the outgoing tide, I drop in with a surfboard and let the current whisk me out to the ocean. When the water hits its low point, our son Felix, 2, makes sand cakes in the muck and walks around looking for hermit crabs, seals, and birds.


The main street in town has a western-style saloon, grocery, art museum, and the wonderful Coast Cafe, a bare-feet-and-damp-hair kind of place with surfboards on the ceiling and fishing buoys serving as decor. This being the Bay Area, it also features fresh-caught fish, hard-to-find bottles by the local winemaker Sean Thackrey, and perfectly chilled drafts of Lagunitas beer. Our younger son, Teddy, is just 6 months old, but he’s been there enough times that Rudolfo, one of the staff, commented on how he’s grown and asked if we’d moved there permanently.

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The house we rent isn’t fancy — we all sleep in the one bedroom — but the views are big. Late in the day, as dusk creeps across the silvery calm of the lagoon, I look out the big picture windows and observe more than the wisps of fog drifting in or the golden hills of Mount Tamalpais State Park. I see something of our future in the timelessness here. In returning to the same places over and over, we mark ourselves against this unchanging watery backdrop. Felix’s first hermit crab and seal sightings are behind us; ahead are his first swims and surfs. To feel at home makes you big-hearted. That’s the promise of a place like Bolinas.

I remember a favorite essay by Oliver Sacks, on how his aquatic wanderings led him one day to City Island in the Bronx. It’s a mere speck, about a mile wide and 1½ miles long, that a City Island native once described to me as a small fishing community, “like Cape Cod, but maybe not as nice.” Sacks got out of the ocean, toured a house, bought it, and got back in the water, the transaction with the real estate agent completed while he was still in his swim trunks. Through the baptism of dripping seawater, it became his place, to go back to again and again.

As our boys get bigger, I want them to feel the kind of magic that comes from this investment of time and self in a place. One morning, as I paddled out with the tide to the sea, Felix spotted me from the sandy beach where he was skipping stones with his father. I waved and grinned at him. He jumped up and down, unbridled joy in every hop.

“Are you surfing, Mama?” he cried, clapping his hands.


Oh, I thought, the watery places we’ll return to.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at