Marin County's slick PR piece invites visitors to "step out to the end of the earth." Consider yourself lucky that the end is near.

San Rafael's famed Lucas Valley Road off 101 is a portal to a place seductively frozen in time. Almost immediately, you'll enter a storybook setting of white picket fences and sprawling old oaks. Carmel-colored horses graze lazily on endless acres of velvet grassland punctuated by red barns and the occasional wooden sign marked "Winery ahead."

It wasn't a special occasion that prompted this road trip for my husband and me. There was no anniversary -- not even a birthday on the calendar. We were simply burned out. Taking a sick day wouldn't begin to undo the damage -- but we knew something that would. We booked a cottage at the venerable Nick's Cove on Tomales Bay in Marshall -- a beach retreat known more for seafood and solitude than swimming and sunbathing.

Built more than 80 years ago and beautifully restored, Nick's 12 guest cottages look out on what's believed to be the California coast's largest unspoiled coastal bay. We opened our living room window and lit the potbelly stove and settled barefoot, under the blanket, on the beckoning couch. The sun was waning and the wine was breathing next to a plate of warm barbecued oysters -- compliments of the house upon check-in.

Later that night, at dinner, we learned a secret about Nick's that intrigued us. "Please don't tell a soul," said our waitress, "but out there -- at the end of the pier -- is an old boat house where you can sit with your drink and feel the magic of this place."


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Earlier in the day, we'd noticed that shack from a sunny spot on our cottage deck. We'd seen kayaks launching from the end of the pier and fishermen baiting their hooks and casting them into the surf. We'd watched oyster boats coming and going and pelicans diving for their midday catch.

Now, as the fog crept in and darkness settled like a soft hush over the bay, the lure of that old wooden shanty was impossible to escape. We walked along the pier, the glow of Nick's restaurant behind us, and opened the old wooden door to the boat house.

"Hello there! You've found the place," echoed a smattering of like-minded people sitting at an old farm table, sipping apropos drinks like Irish whiskey and the rum-laden Dark and Stormy. "Some secret, huh?"

Still, the place seemed magical to me -- the kind of magic a child would feel when he or she stumbled across an old clubhouse. FYI: The website www.nickscove.com gives you information on things to do in the area, as well as room rates, the restaurant, and the resort's new pet-friendly waterfront patio.