Bay city stroller

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 October, 2008, 12:00am

In the heat of the late afternoon summer sun, artist Michael Feldman stands by his easel, capturing the facade of a San Anselmo barber shop. With quick brushstrokes, the canvas comes alive with splashes of impressionistic colour.

As I interrupt him to praise his composition, a waiter from the Italian restaurant next door brings an order of pizza and the owner of the local art store, an old friend of Feldman's, pulls up in his custom-converted 1950s Chevy and strides over in comfortable shorts. It's another afternoon in laid-back Marin County.

Heading north across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the panoramic vista of ocean, bridge and green escarpment slips away as the freeway passes into the Rainbow Tunnel (aka the Waldo Tunnel), so named because of the rainbows that ring its entrances, and you enter Marin in the town of Sausalito.

Although San Francisco offers a refreshingly cosmopolitan, relaxed and sophisticated lifestyle, Marin hints at something a little more earthy. It's slower paced yet still remarkably well-endowed in terms of arts, culture and cuisine.

In the 60s, Marin became known as a centre of the counterculture movement. With the University of California, Berkeley, just across San Francisco Bay, itself a hotbed of radicalism, Marin was home to many free-thinkers.

Many counterculture figures have had ties with Marin: the Grateful Dead were based there, in the town of San Rafael; members of the Jefferson Airplane (later Jefferson Starship) and guitar legend Carlos Santana still live amid the county's valleys and hills.

With rather less in the way of hippie credentials, there's also George Lucas (and his Lucas Films production house), who not only lives there, but who shot parts of one of his first films, American Graffiti, in San Rafael.

Since the 60s and 70s, Marin has developed into a pocket of comfortable affluence. Many of the radicals of Berkeley settled down to enjoy the benefits of the economic boom times of the late 70s and 80s, capitalising on the growth of Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco.

And although the baton of ecological and political awareness has been successfully passed to the younger generation, the 60s are not forgotten. In the summer, family movies are shown outdoors in San Anselmo's Creek Park. A screening of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night packs the park one night during my stay, and the fun and energy of the 60s is still evident as the crowd sings along.

It may not come as a surprise that Marin is a buzz of culture. There are highly regarded Shakespearean and musical theatre troupes, rock and jazz bands and a thriving student music scene, with even shopping malls hosting live performances.

The natural environment is also close at hand. With its large expanse of state and national parkland - including the Muir Woods National Monument and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area - and linked by bridges and road to San Francisco and the East Bay, Marin is a popular spot among outdoor enthusiasts from around the Bay Area. Taking a leisurely stroll along the Pioneer Tree Trail, a popular hiking path in the Samuel P. Taylor State Park, it's easy to imagine that you're a long way from civilisation, nestled under a grand canopy of redwood trees.

Before leaving Marin, I visit the houseboat docks of Sausalito. On the banks of Richardson Bay, there are about 750 slips (houseboat allotments). Living on boats ranging from rough-and-ready craft to luxurious lifestyle vessels, the owners form a tight-knit community.

'If you're living in a houseboat, the whole dock becomes your neighbourhood. There's a real sense of connection here,' says one houseboat dweller. 'You get really familiar with the change of seasons living on the docks - the birds that migrate, the tidal changes. It's one of the best things about living out here instead of in the city. It's just so beautiful.'

And that pretty much sums up life in Marin County.

Getting there United Airlines ( flies from Hong Kong to San Francisco, which is a short drive from Marin.