This bucolic enclave is full of surprises
Photos by Tim Porter
History is replete with stories of how the railroads created cities. Here’s a tale of how a railroad’s location all but decimated a city. “In the 1870s, Olema was a raucous and booming dairy town,” says West Marin historian Dewey Livingston, “but because of a steep hill and Lagunitas Creek, when rail came to the area, the stop was put about two miles to the north, in what’s now Point Reyes Station.”
As a result, while Olema’s importance gradually diminished, Point Reyes Station blossomed as a terminal connecting Marin County with Northern California destinations. Even so, Livingston says, “for a while the railroad’s stop was dubbed Olema Station.” The town’s name itself stems from a nearby Miwok village called Olemaloke, roughly translatable as “little coyote lake”; thus Olema translates as “little coyote.”
These days the little coyote is, “well, nowadays it’s mostly a little intersection,” admits shopkeeper Barbara Martin—that confluence being Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and California State Highway 1 (aka Route 1 / Shoreline Highway). But don’t let that flashing stoplight surrounded by a few buildings fool you—there’s a lot going on in Olema (pop. 55), the town the railroad passed by some 130 years ago.
“Oh my gosh,” says Carole Wiltshire, who with her husband, John, recently acquired the circa-1876 Olema Inn & Restaurant, overlooking Sir Francis Drake and Highway 1. “Last Wednesday we did 120 dinners and over half were walk-ins; we had to turn away 15 people.” If some of the folks turned away were looking for a night’s lodging there are several nearby options. In addition to the Olema Inn, just across the street and south a bit is Olema Druids Hall & Cottage, a beautifully restored 1885 meeting hall turned luxury inn, rated a “Best Place to Stay” by Travel & Leisure and likened by Conde Nast Traveler to “a private weekend estate with the appointments of a contemporary hotel.” Who needs railroads anyway?
Other Olema overnight options include An English Inn at Ridgetop and Olema Cottages, both on Sir Francis Drake and surrounded by open space, and Bear Valley Inn and the 22-room Point Reyes Seashore Lodge, both on Highway 1 and backing up to the 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore. Also within the “little intersection” is the Olema Farm House, a restaurant and bar popular with locals and visitors alike.
Olema Cottages owner Kelly Emery (pictured on page 155) is one of the town’s contented locals. “I grew up on a farm, then lived a while in San Francisco,” she says, “and now, after living in Olema for eight years, everything seems just perfect.” That even goes for the weather: “It’s surprisingly beautiful,” she asserts. “We get lots of sunny days—less fog than neighboring coastal towns—and I think it’s because of the tall mountains between here and the ocean.” The upbeat innkeeper is an incurable animal-lover with a menagerie of six chickens, several ducks, a couple of cats, a bunny and lots of birds. “I’ve always related to animals,” she explains, “and the people who stay in my cottages, especially children, really love seeing them up close; sometimes it’s for the first time.”
Another unexpected roadside attraction in Olema is . . . would you believe, world-class shopping? “Travelers from all over drop in at our shop,” says Dana Davidson, owner of The Epicenter, named for being the historical epicenter of the 1906 earthquake. “It’s because we have clothing and fun things they don’t see everywhere they go.” Next door on Highway 1 is Vita Collage, an equally unique emporium featuring fine jewelry, leather purses and one-of-a-kind accessories. And next door to that, the Olema Trading Company sells locally handcrafted objects, including intricate stained-glass windows.
Less commercial pursuits are also possible. Across Highway 1 and to the south is the unforgettable Vedanta Retreat meditation center, with a spectacular tree-lined entry, expansive lawn and 135-year-old two-story house. Aligned with the Ramakrishna Order of India, it’s open 10 to 6 daily to “people who will value it as a spiritual sanctuary,” says Vendanta’s secretary, Marianne Quinn. The retreat also offers private or group meditation sessions (call 415.922.2323).
Olema’s other contemplative spot lies across the street and half a mile farther south on Highway 1. The 175-year-old Olema Cemetery is where local dairy farmers of the 19th century—Luigi Mazza, Guiseppe Martella, Ballista Tomasini—have been laid to rest, along with modern environmentally minded farmers William and Ellen Straus. Acclaimed abstract expressionist artist Sam Francis is also buried here (see related story on page 122).
As for living in Olema (zip code 94950), your chances are slim—if only because just a couple of dozen homes exist there. “However, one of them is for sale,” says Joe Soule of Coastal Marin Realty in nearby Point Reyes Station, “and it’s a nice one.” Listed for $1.5 million, it’s (Soule’s words) a “hillside five-bedroom four-bath two-story, with 3,100 square feet and several fireplaces, on nearly two acres of well-tended land with a nice view of the Inverness Ridge.” He stops for breath. “Oh, and there’s a guest cottage.”
Olema is full of nice surprises like that.