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Escape from Real Life, Go on a Mystery-Solving Caper in Marin

The task: crack a case using only an iPad, the keys to a Mustang, and your wits.

Your ride for the weekend: It's no mere Mystery Machine.


If the idea of a mystery dinner party is your personal hell, this is not the weekend excursion for you. But if you want a new way to explore the North Bay’s funkiest tiny towns and most beautiful beaches—without knowing where you’re going before you get there—adventure company First Person Travel has a lead for you: A racehorse is missing.

Your assignment: Spend the next 30 hours trying to find it. Other than that, you walk into Golden Gate Fields with only a name, and no idea of what to expect or do next. At $1,225 per person, this mystery caper is not cheap—but meals and accommodations are included, and when you think about it, the whole thing is kind of like a 30-hour interactive play. (You can also opt to bring your own car and pay for your own meals, knocking it down to $825 apiece.)

The trip is organized for twosomes, and the travel company ominously suggests that you choose your partner wisely, since there’s problem solving to be done (and a full-size bed to share). I’m pretty sure they meant romantic partner, but I brought my sister, since she’s always up for a good adventure.

Looking for clues at a horse ranch.

On a Saturday morning, after wandering around like dummies for a bit, we found the horse trader we were supposed to meet, and she fed us breakfast in the stands and apologized for being flustered. “Something horrible happened,” she said. I assumed the travel company was running late, and told her not to worry, and then I realized, oh, nope, she’s upset about the missing horse. From the moment you start your adventure, all the people (potential suspects) you meet are acting and in costume, laying out their character’s side of the story. It feels a little weird at first, but if you can buy into playing Carmen Sandiego, it gets pretty fun. You start to analyze everything they do or say, compile clues, and make up your own theories about who took the horse, and what the motive was.

The horse trader left us with the background story, an iPad, and the keys to the Mustang convertible. From there, it was up to us to tail another suspect (via the route in our iPad), collect evidence, meet up with the mystery’s main players, and explore the trails, beaches, and small towns of Marin. As we investigated, we found ourselves catching up on local history at tiny museums and popping by local cheese shops and art galleries.

Messages and tips led to secret meetings, and all of sudden we had to start strategizing whom to tell what, what kinds of questions to ask, and whom to trust. Late in the day on Saturday, when we met up with a sketchy jockey at a horse ranch, my sister and I were giving each other looks to try and figure out exactly how much information we should reveal. We’d already heard that he’d been fighting with the horse’s owner, and that he might be involved in a drugging scandal. Should we believe him? That’s when I realized how quickly we went all in. 

I won’t spoil too much for potential detectives, but it’s not all pavement pounding: There are plenty of opportunities to relax. Before we headed to dinner in a cozy beachside restaurant that serves up meatloaf and mashed potatoes alongside fresh seafood and local IPAs, we took the beer someone had conveniently left in our room and watched the sunset from a dock. It was a nice break from the action, and yet: Our conversation veered back to the potential suspects.

In the morning, after breakfast sandwiches and fruit on the deck of the B&B, we watched fishermen on the beach and walked the main street of our tiny town as we waited to Facetime with a suspect. After our final lunch stop—at an iconic inn where I’d always been meaning to go—we discovered the California history books someone had conveniently left in our convertible.  

The experience wasn’t exactly the height of luxury—the room in our tiny B&B had a clawfoot tub, but neither a shower nor a television—but that’s kind of the point. We forgot about everything else.

The weekend also included a surprise activity (remember, no spoilers!), and all of a sudden we were thrown right into it. That’s really what was fun about the weekend—having no idea what was going to happen from the moment a driver picked us up to the time we landed back on San Francisco’s shores. This was a definite adventure. And I’m happy to report that after two days, we were able to help return the horse to its rightful owner.

Good luck, gumshoes.


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