One of the prettiest towns on the California coast (as seen in TV shows like Murder, She Wrote and numerous movies), Mendocino (pop. 894) is an artists and writers community par excellence. Now firmly established as an upscale escape for wage-slaving visitors from San Francisco (hence the local nickname, “Spendocino”), the town was originally established as a logging port in the 1850s. In recent years, Mendocino has successfully preserved its rugged sandstone coastline—great for wintertime whale-watching—while converting many of its New England-style clapboard houses into super-quaint B&B inns. The area is ideal for leisurely wandering, following the many paths winding through Mendocino Headlands State Park, which wraps around the town and offers uninterrupted views across open fields, heathers, and other coastal flora to the crashing ocean beyond. For field guides, maps, or a look at Mendocino in its lumbering heyday, stop by the visitors center in the historic Ford House (45035 Main St., 707/937-5397).
Two miles north of town, one of the north coast’s most perfect places is protected as Russian Gulch State Park (07/937-5804), where a waterfall, a soaring highway bridge, lush inland canyons, a swimming beach, and an impressive blowhole are yours to enjoy along more than a mile of undisturbed coastline. There’s camping too, and sea kayaking, plus a fairly flat three-mile paved bike trail and miles of hiking.
Along with its many fine art galleries and bookshops, the town of Mendocino also has a delicious collection of bakeries, cafés, and restaurants. If you’re not getting a breakfast at a B&B, come to the friendly Mendocino Café (10451 Lansing St., 707/937-6141), where locals have been starting their days for more than 20 years. For a total splurge, try one of California’s most famous (and expensive!) restaurants, Café Beaujolais (961 Ukiah St., 707/937-5614, lunch and dinner Wed.-Sun., dinner Mon.-Sun.), two blocks from the waterfront, which serves California cuisine delicacies.
Places to stay in Mendocino are rather expensive but generally delightful. The lovely MacCallum House Inn (45020 Albion St., 707/937-0289, $159 and up) includes a beautiful garden, good breakfasts, and a cozy nighttime bar and restaurant. Another place to stay is the circa-1878 Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites (45080 Main St., 707/937-0511, $89 and up), on the downtown waterfront.
Mendocino, as you might expect from a well-heeled artists colony, also has a pretty lively music scene. If you just want to drink and unwind after a long day on the road, head to Dick’s Place (707/937-6010) at the west end of Main Street.
Van Damme State Park
Three miles south of Mendocino at the mouth of the Little River, Van Damme State Park stretches along the coastal bluffs and beaches and includes some 1,800 acres of pine and redwood forest. The park’s unique attribute is the oddly contorted Pygmy Forest, a natural bonsai-like grove of miniature pines, cypress, and manzanita, with a wheelchair-accessible nature trail explaining the unique ecology. There’s also a small and popular campground, concession-guided ocean kayak tours, and a seasonal visitors center (707/937-4016) housed in a New Deal-era recreation hall.
The nearby hamlet of Little River is home to some rural-feeling peaceful alternatives to Mendocino’s in-town accommodations. At the comfy Inn at Schoolhouse Creek & Spa (707/937-5525, $179 and up), quaint cottages sit in nine acres of dog- and child-friendly gardens around a historic ocean-view home. At the luxurious gourmet food-and-wine indulgence of the Little River Inn (707/937-5942, $205 and up during the high season), five generations of the same family have been welcoming travelers since 1939.
While the coastal scenery is stupendous all the way along the Mendocino coast, one place worth keeping an eye out for on the drive along Hwy-1 is the tiny roadside community of Elk (pop. 208), 15 miles south of Mendocino. Elk is a wonderful little wide spot in the road, with what must be one of the oldest and most characterful service stations in California—the Elk Garage, in business since 1901—alongside a great little veggie-friendly breakfast-and-lunch road-food stop: Queenie’s Roadhouse Café (707/877-3285, Thurs.-Mon.).
If you have the time and means for a splurge, the peaceful oceanfront Elk Cove Inn & Spa (707/877-3321, $145 and up) is a delightful small B&B inn. Elk also boasts a general store and a steep trail leading down to the Pacific shore at Greenwood Cove.
Detour: Anderson Valley
From Hwy-1 south of Mendocino, Hwy-128 cuts diagonally across to US-101 through the lovely Anderson Valley, home to numerous fine wineries (including Husch, Navarro, and Kendall-Jackson) and the Anderson Valley Advertiser, one of California’s most outspoken local newspapers. Anderson Valley also has its own regional dialect, called “Boontling,” combining English, Scots-Irish, Spanish, and Native American words into a lighthearted lingo created, some say, simply to befuddle outsiders—or “shark the bright-lighters,” in the local lingo.
To find out more, stop in the valley’s tiny main town, Boonville, where the Boont Ferry Farm grocery store is an ad hoc information center. Fans of local food and wine will want to cross the highway to The Boonville Hotel (14050 Hwy-128, 707/895-2210, $145 and up), which has a wonderful restaurant (dinner only, alas) and wine bar. The historic building has upstairs rooms filled with art and furniture made by local craftspeople. Beer fans can make a pilgrimage east of town (toward Ukiah) to the partially solar-powered home of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company (17700 Hwy-253, 707/895-2337), where you can sample some of the world’s best beers, including the legendary Boont Amber Ale.