West Marin Hospitality
Is the life of an innkeeper all it’s cracked up to be?
Guest room at Blackthorne Inn in Inverness
Photos by Tim Porter
How many of us have thought about cashing out our homes, retiring early and opening a little bed-and-breakfast somewhere? We envision a charming inn full of hand-sewn quilts, Granny’s antiques, floral valances and the aroma of French toast. Here, we fantasize, a panoply of chatty and beguiling travelers will come to sit on our porch and share our Madeira, arriving as strangers and leaving as friends. Or even dive naked into the hot tub and serenade us with an aria from Aida, as two opera singers once did at the Blackthorne Inn in Inverness.
The reality of innkeeping, of course, is far less romantic. The hours are long, the work unglamorous, and if you forget the poppy seed cake or run out of bath gel you’re no hero. Not to mention the expenses—huge. Still, for many there is a pull to the idea of welcoming people into a personally created home-away-from-home, one where BlackBerrys and cell phones are useless accoutrements of a hectic life left behind.
In the western reaches of Marin, many small inns sit among the rolling hills, quaint hamlets and expansive coastal pastures. Here, out in the good old salt air, visitors have access to the wonders of the Point Reyes National Seashore, and traffic is slowed not by too many cars but by just enough deer.
It’s no surprise this idyllic setting is what first attracted many of West Marin’s innkeepers. What is surprising, however, is that they opened their B and Bs not to fulfill a longtime desire to own an inn, but to pay for fulfilling their dreams of living here themselves.
Susan and Bill Wigert
Susan and Bill Wigert converted their weekend retreat for friends and family into the five-room Blackthorne Inn in 1982. The whimsical four-story structure, cut into a wooded mountain canyon, has been likened to a giant redwood tree house—narrow spiral staircase, turrets, stained glass windows, a huge stone fireplace, carved wood beams, and numerous decks overlooking the pine and oak forest. The octagonal uppermost abode, Eagle’s Nest, has a private sundeck.
The Wigerts fell in love with the area on their first date in 1972 when Bill, an intellectual property rights attorney, and Susan, once manager of the art department at Rolling Stone, went hiking at McClures Beach. They returned every weekend thereafter.
“We kept thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a place to stay here and not have to drive back to the city?’” Susan recalls. “When I’m asked if it was my dream to own an inn, it was really more the desire to get away from our jobs in San Francisco and out here and have gatherings with our family and friends.”
In 1973, Bill bought a small cottage where the Blackthorne Inn now stands. “Soon we saw what a wonderful, peaceful place this is,” he recounts, “and our friends said, ‘Why can’t you build some rooms for us?’” He and a carpenter friend did just that.
In early 1982, however, ferocious storms hit. “We had mud slides and the trees came down,” says Susan. “Our road, electricity, water and telephone were all wiped out.”
Facing extensive repairs, the Wigerts’ co-owners in the house wanted out. “There was no way we could pay for the repairs,” says Susan. “It was either sell or become innkeepers. We had to rebuild and make the place pay for itself.”
They got to work, using salvaged items like windows originally designed by Julia Morgan for University High School in San Francisco and planks milled from a 180-foot Douglas fir on the property that was dying. By Memorial Day they had three rooms up and running.
All kinds of interesting visitors soon arrived, including a group of jugglers.
“They asked if they could entertain the guests and we said, ‘Fine,’” says Susan. “But when they started trying to juggle flames I had to step in and insist they stop. One flame over that deck and the whole place would have gone up!”
Dividing their time between San Francisco and Point Reyes, the Wigerts decided they needed a place of their own again. In the late ’90s, with some partners, they bought a house in Point Reyes Station and remodeled with the intention of using it for guest overflow from the Blackthorne Inn. Once again, their partners opted out and so, once again, the Wigerts turned their home into a B and B. The Black Heron Inn opened in 2004 and the Wigerts left San Francisco to live there full time.
The Black Heron, a tall structure crafted from redwood, cedar and Douglas fir, has unimpeded views of Tomales Bay and Inverness Ridge with front-door access to the national seashore. Its three rooms, while not fancy, are comfortable and have private bathrooms, small fridges, phones and free Internet wireless access for guests.
The inn sits on a tranquil dead-end road next to a pond that’s home to turtles, herons and ducks. There is self-check-in, help-yourself-breakfast in the room and lots of peace and privacy. The Wigerts live on site but stay out of the way of guests.
“Some people don’t necessarily want to interact with the innkeeper,” says Bill. “For guests who do want to talk to you, you’d better have a getaway line in mind. Otherwise you’ll never get any work done.”
The Wigerts agree that innkeeping is fun. “However, it’s a lot more work than people think it is,” says Bill. “ It’s a lifestyle job, not a moneymaking job.”
The couple advises prospective B and B proprietors to make sure they understand this is a capital- and labor-intensive pursuit.
“We are constantly in a state of repair,” says Susan. “You have to keep maintaining and upgrading, like putting in Wi-Fi. Recently we lost electricity and I was so upset. I moaned to Bill, ‘I don’t want to be a pioneer anymore.’”
While the Wigerts’ properties are true B and Bs, Kelly Emery’s funky Olema Cottages enclave in Olema is more like life on the farm.
Eight friendly chickens, three cats, Yogi the dog, and two ducks greet and escort you across the paths as you make your way through the one-acre farmstead to three homey one-bedroom cottages or two private-entry rooms in a renovated farmhouse dating back to 1892.
Rooms, abutting horse farms and pasture, are modestly furnished and have private baths, queen beds with down comforters, wireless Internet, DVD and CD players and mini kitchens. Two of the cottages have woodstoves and full kitchens; Sunflower Cottage has a skylight perfect for star-watching at night. Life is casual with no check-in deadline and no front office.
Emery, who grew up on a farm in Maine and looks much younger than her 47 years, moved to the Bay Area in 1990 and lived in San Francisco and Fairfax before buying her property eight years ago. “I wanted to have chickens and ducks and a big garden,” she says. “When this place became available I bought it to fix up and live in.”
Four years later, she was thinking differently. “It’s just so costly to fix up a property out here, yet I love being here. I decided I had to turn the place into an inn.”
Economics also affected her decision to scrap the breakfast service. “We would drop breakfast off at the cottages in the mornings with all this organic stuff and sometimes the food would just sit at the door for hours and then get thrown away. You can keep your rates more reasonable by not doing breakfast.”
Emery advises would-be inn owners to make sure they want to live in the place where they open an inn. “Because it’s almost impossible to get away unless you’re willing to have someone else run the show,” she says. “I try to anticipate everything my guests need. Did I give them enough kindling? Did I give them enough towels?”
She stays away from guests to preserve their privacy, although once in a while a guest will approach her saying he or she found an egg on the doorstep. “I tell them Yogi probably found it and put it there as a gift.”
Tongue slightly in cheek, Emery says the most important thing in running her property is to make sure there’s enough cracked corn in the bin for the chickens. “Because if there isn’t, they’re at the guests’ front doors begging for—and getting—their bagels.”
Karen Gray has operated Old Point Reyes Schoolhouse for 25 years, first as a B and B and more recently as a vacation rental, breakfast not included. Gray bought the 1879 former schoolhouse and private home in 1977 with her husband.
“When we bought it, it was an old pile of sticks with a saggy roof and a rock under each corner instead of a foundation,” she says. But Gray liked it because it sat at the top of a hill bordering open pasture and overlooking the town and Inverness Ridge. She and her husband gutted the house, moved in and renovated.
“We had no water or heat for the first two winters,” she recalls. “We were such fools. But we didn’t have enough money and no one would loan on the place and we wanted to live here.”
Once work on the schoolhouse was finished, Gray, who has a degree in landscape architecture, turned the property’s carriage house into Jasmine Cottage, complete with full kitchen and fireplace, as a way of making money.
“At that time there was no way to make a living here besides waiting on tables,” Gray says. “This was before cell phones and computers. I worked from home and did Jasmine as a way to create a business.”
In 1990, Gray added the barn-style structure that now houses Gray’s Retreat and the Barn Loft, whose high French windows and doors frame the views of the Point Reyes Peninsula to the west and the sunrise over Elephant Mountain to the east. The rooms have small televisions, patios, fireplaces, kitchens and a laundry room.
Though turning the property into an inn was a business move, it coincided with other concerns that are important to her.
“I come from a ranching family in a tiny town in the San Joaquin Valley where hospitality is in the blood,” says Gray. “And the idea that I could combine that with being a guide to show people the enchanted environment out here was just irresistible.”
She recommends writing a support staff into a business plan and maintaining guests’ privacy. “I can’t do that Martha Stewart thing,” she says. “Many times I never meet my guests at all and so I’m not drained by their constant chitchat. It has to be like that; otherwise I’d end up like John Cleese,” she adds, referring to the actor who played the harried innkeeper in the British comedy Fawlty Towers.
There is nothing faulty about the Olema Druids Hall. In contrast to the bucolic ethos of most of West Marin’s B and Bs, the inn is a more luxurious animal, rated by Travel & Leisure as the area’s “Best Place to Stay.”
With three large guest rooms and a grand suite in the main house and a separate cottage set amid a Tuscan-style garden, the place feels like a grand European estate.
Victoria Swift and her husband, Robert Cain, meticulously restored the 1885 structure, a former meeting hall for the pagan Druids Association. The renovation is swank, comfortable and replete with amenities: art and fine antiques, spacious rooms with fireplaces, private decks, tile and Jerusalem Gold marble baths, plush linens, Aveda bath products, wireless Internet and heated Douglas fir floors. The cottage and grand suite have full kitchens, wood-burning fireplaces and whirlpool tubs.
The hall was Cain’s family vacation home while he was growing up. Cain and Swift moved into the house in 1972 and raised their children there. The place had been neglected. “When we first moved in there was no hot water, the kitchen was a lean-to, and the bathtub was in the garden,” says Swift. “So we had to heat water on a hot plate and take it out in pots to the garden and pour it into the tub!”
Winters were a challenge. “We had a potbelly stove that you had to be within six feet of to make it through the winter,” she adds, laughing. “We lived without heat for two winters.”
After a time, Cain and Swift, who also own Cove Construction, built themselves a house in Point Reyes and rented out the former Druids Hall. “And then we realized we had to do something with it,” Swift says. “As much as we would have liked to improve the property for ourselves, the scope and cost of the work was reliant on a more expanded use. We said, ‘How can we do this so it can generate income?’”
The makeover took six years and the inn opened in 2001. Swift takes pride in having transformed the property from shabby to showplace. “The grandeur of the structure made it right for developing a refined elegance,” she says. “Also, our construction company has always been geared to innovative projects and quality finishes. We had long-term working relationships with great craftspeople. It is rewarding for us to create environments we love and are proud of.”
Swift aimed for a style that was quietly luxurious but unpretentious, along the lines of the gracious small inns of Europe she and Cain have visited. “We wanted the inn to be different from a ‘regular’ B and B experience,” she says. “To offer what we love to find ourselves.”
Running an establishment like that takes a lot of time, attention to detail and patience, notably when it comes to the occasional difficult guest.
Swift grins. “The daughter of a famous female newspaper publisher came to stay one time,” she says. “At night, we always get the coffeemaker ready for the morning in the kitchen bar area next to the main gathering room. That way, all guests have to do when they get up is go in there and push a button. The first morning, the publisher’s daughter came in and said, ‘Where’s the coffee?’ And we said, ‘Oh, it’s all ready, all you have to do is push the button.’”
The woman drew herself up to her considerable height and said, “I don’t push buttons.”
“So every morning after that we waited until we heard sounds coming from her room,” says Swift. “And as soon as we heard her moving around, we ran and pushed the button.”
Black Heron Inn 51 Cypress Rd., Point Reyes Station, 415.663.0871, blackheroninn.com
Blackthorne Inn 266 Vallejo Ave., Inverness, 415.663.8621, blackthorneinn.com
Old Point Reyes Schoolhouse 11559 Shoreline Hwy., Point Reyes Station, 415.663.1166, oldpointreyesschoolhouse.com
Olema Cottages 9970 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Olema, 415.663.1288, olemacottages.com
Olema Druids Hall 9870 Shoreline Hwy. One, Olema, 415.663.8727, olemadruidshall.com