Romantic Mendocino
by Karen Misuraca

Twisting and turning atop steep cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, Highway One traces the dramatic shoreline of Mendocino County on California's North Coast. Wildflowers and baby lambs gambol in the knee-high meadows, while gray whales leap a few hundred feet offshore. Each curve in the road presents another tiny fishing village or a postcard view of a pebbled beach, jagged with seastacks and foamy with surf.

At the end of the scenic, three-hour drive from San Francisco, the small town of Mendocino appears, floating like a mirage in the mist. Clinging to a wooded bluff above the sea are Cape Cod-style saltbox houses, Victorian-era mansions and white, steepled churches. Built more than a century ago by loggers and sea captains who sailed from New England around Cape Horn, Mendocino boomed and busted during the Gold Rush of the 1880s. Mansions fancy with filigree mouldings and wide verandahs are now bed and breakfast inns. Sailors' cottages are quaint shops and art galleries guarded by picket fences that scarcely hold back rampant old-fashioned gardens. Purple clematis vines and yellow honeysuckle clamber unchecked over old water towers and tilting-over barns. Wild strawberry creeps along the wooden boardwalks and up the fenceposts, bursting into white blossoms in the spring.

It is easy to imagine when horse-drawn carriages tied up in front of the Temperance House and ladies with parasols swept along the boardwalks in their long gowns. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark. Today, Mendocino is an art colony and a retreat for weekenders who love to explore the rocky coves, to bike and hike in the redwood and fir forests, and hide away in cozy inns.

The best view of the town is from the meadow trail which traces the bluff in Mendocino Headlands State Park. Far below, sea lions bob in swaying kelp beds, and the sea churns and boils in the rocky arches and dark grottoes. The visitor's center for the State Park and a museum, Ford House on Main Street is a good place to see how the town is laid out. A scale model of the 1890s shows dozens of tall, wooden water towers that existed at that time. More than thirty of the towers, some double- and triple-deckers, remain today.

Across the street in an old garden, the Kelley House Museum, built in 1861, displays historical photos of burly loggers hand-sawing redwoods of a size no longer seen in this region. Another repository of artifacts from early times, anchoring Main Street like a dowager queen from Victorian times, the Mendocino Hotel is museum-like with nineteenth and early twentieth century art and furnishings ( Vibrant Oriental rugs and Tiffany lamps are warm backdrops for the fluted, scrolled and finialed mahogany sideboards. Sepia-toned photographs of the town's founders line the hallways.

In the hotel bar, the catbird's seats are the wing chairs at the window overlooking the ocean as it funnels into the Big River and smashes against the cliffs. The Big River meets the sea in a driftwoody beach, accessible by a steep wooden stairway. Great Blue herons share the river valley with ospreys and wood ducks, harbor seals and otters. Canoers and kayakers paddle upstream past a dense forest, wild rhododendrons and old train trestles. The trick is to paddle up-river when the tide is coming in, and make the return trip as the tide goes out (Catch a Canoe rents boats, 707-937-0273).

Step out of the hotel and down Main Street to Out of This World, for up-close views of the waves through high-powered telescopes which are trained on the coastline. The store specializes in premium optics, including top notch binoculars and scopes, and space and science. Sea- and shorebirds flock and swirl outside a shop called Papa Birds, where outdoor feeders attract hundreds of feathered creatures. This is a unique emporium of bird paraphernalia, birdhouses, bird kites, windsocks and recorded bird sounds.

Hub of an artistic community which supplies more than forty galleries, the Mendocino Art Center offers classes, exhibits and special events related to county-wide arts. From artglass to sculpture and wood turnings, paintings and exotic jewelry, the works of nearly fifty artists are seen in a striking, circa 1870 building, the William Zimmer Gallery (Kasten and Ukiah Streets). Gleaming redwood burl bowls are on display at Highlight Gallery on Main. With glorious ocean views from their studios, artists are often found working on seascapes, photography and eclectic works at the Artists' Co-op of Mendocino (45270 Main Street). April through December on the second Saturday of each month, many Mendocino galleries hold public openings and receptions.

Artists are inspired by the rugged beauty of the coastline, which is easily accessible in a string of state parks. Abalone diving is popular in the cove at Van Damme State Park, just south of town. Guides from Lost Coast Kayaks lead kayak tours from the beach, in and out of sea caves and nearby coves, while explaining the marine ecosystem of kelp forests and tidepools. In the state park, easy walking trails meander through sword-fern canyons to the Pygmy Forest, a spooky woods of dwarf, lichen-encrusted cypress and pine trees. Kingfishers swoop along the stream, where coral root orchids and creamy-white trilliums bloom beneath the redwoods.

Wine aficionados take the half-hour drive up Highway One to the westernmost winery in the continental U.S., Pacific Star, which is perched just yards above waves crashing over magnificent rocky outcroppings ( Aged in oak barrels rimed with salt from the sea air, rare, hearty Italian varietals like charbono and barbera take on plummy, spicy flavors.

From late November through March, visitors enjoy their wine and their picnics on the bluff, keeping their eyes peeled for gray whales who cruise by on their annual trip to and from Baja, California. Mendocino celebrates the magnificent mammals at the "Whale Festival" in March, with seafood chowder and wine tasting, wooden boats and art, street musicians and carriage rides.

Dungeness crab cakes and local wines are on stage at "Mendocino Crab and Wine Days" in January. Year round, restaurants feature the county's fresh seafood and organic produce. Caramelized scallops with porcini mashed potatoes and port wine reduction may be on the menu at MacCallum House Restaurant, in a rambling, circa 1882 Victorian. Wild mushroom crepes with Zinfandel sauce are a specialty at The Ravens, one of California's most acclaimed vegetarian restaurants, located at the Stanford Inn. In a lush garden on a hillside above Big River, the inn has wood-burning fireplaces in every room, a warm, indoor swimming pool and spa, and a welcome policy for pets and kids. With a bottle of Mendocino County pinot noir and a view of the Pacific, romance may be in the salt air!

Places to Stay in Mendocino:

Brewery Gulch Inn
(800) 578-4454, (707) 937-4752

Stanford Inn by the Sea
(800) 331-8884, (707) 937-5615

Whitegate Inn
(800) 531-7282, (707) 937-4892

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.