Vast and strikingly beautiful, a little quirky and in ways still undiscovered, or at least untarnished, Mendocino County is one of the Bay Area’s great refuges to the north.
Some days, fog blankets the coast, its villages and waterways cool and quiet in eerie splendor. Inland, the warmer and sunnier valleys and mountain ranges are home to hundreds of miles of forest, farmland and an increasingly raved-about wine region. Traffic is nearly nonexistent. You will even (gasp) pass through areas without cellphone service. And guess what? You probably will not notice.
Mendocino County made headlines in March when President Barack Obama declared more than 1,600 acres of its southern coastline part of a federally protected national monument. The Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands are accessible from state Highway 1 for hiking, bird and wildlife viewing, and fishing. The area features dramatic cliffside vistas, dark, striated rock emerging from the ocean, a river estuary and the Point Arena Lighthouse.
For folks staying at the lovely Cape Cod, Mass.-style Coast Guard House Historic Inn, a former military station in Point Arena, proprietor Mia Gallagher will be happy to describe the history of the area and point the way from her property to a lesser-known southern entrance to the monument lands.
Where the Big River in the town of Mendocino meets the Pacific Ocean, you can rent a handcrafted canoe made of redwood at the Stanford Inn’s Catch A Canoe and forge upriver for miles. (The other direction is much rougher and normally not advised.) The waterway’s modern history was, like much of coastal California, hewn by the logging industry, which used the current to transport timber.
Today, though the salmon are no longer plentiful, you may see herons, ducks, turtles, beavers, seals or river otters, along with the remains of an old boat or railroad bridge. At night, bioluminescent algae sparkle below the surface.
Down the road in Little River, the newly reopened 37-acre luxury Heritage House Resort is dramatically set atop the rocky coastline. Shuttered for a few years until reopening in September, some construction is still taking place, but the rooms that are complete offer contemporary-style opulence, including Duxiana beds and fireplaces to go with stunning views. A new restaurant is also in the works.
The restaurant at the nearby Little River Inn also offers magnificent views and a talented chef to match. With a sweeping panorama of the water, the aptly named Ole’s Whale Watch Bar has been slinging drinks of one form or another since 1939. Chef Marc Dym’s superb New England clam chowder may make East Coast visitors question which ocean they’re facing. You can follow it up with a perfectly cooked steak and sweet-and-tart berry cobbler.
A short drive up the coast lands you in Fort Bragg for a unique journey: an antique train on an even older rail line, passing through a yet more ancient redwood forest. It’s called the Skunk Train, named in homage to early 20th-century single-unit motorcars burning a potent mix of gas and crude oil. Nowadays, the line’s several trains, including a 1924 steam locomotive, are cleaner-smelling as they ferry passengers along the former logging route built in 1885.
The train rambles slowly through the trees and over the meandering Noyo River at, we are told, 12 to 15 mph. There’s plenty of time for history, nature photographs and reflection. Every so often, you’ll see a cabin used by summer vacationers, or a ramshackle hut that once housed loggers. And part of the fun is the Skunk Train’s ever-so-gentle attempt at easing passengers back in time without entering the unfortunate realm of theme park re-enactment.
State Highway 128 cuts inland from the coast past the Navarro River, marking the territory of Anderson Valley. Like other wine regions where pinot noir thrives, its proximity to the coast affords warm days and cool nights. Wineries here also produce Alsatian varietals like gewurztraminer.
The area, once known mainly for its apples, has gained notoriety in the wine world as one of the next big spots to get your fermented grape juice.
Between the towns of Navarro, Philo and Boonville, there are some three dozen wine producers. But it’s not Napa, or even Sonoma. The vineyards are smaller, and not all are open to the public.
Wineries such as Philips Hill, Goldeneye and Toulouse have fantastic products. Philips Hill — its tasting room formerly used to dry and preserve apples grown on the property — produces a gewurztraminer redolent of apples. Goldeneye’s picturesque property is developing spectacularly lush and flavorful pinot noirs. Toulouse has equally enjoyable representatives of the earthier Burgundy-style and fruitier Californian pinot profiles.
According to one owner, himself a Bay Area native who fled for the lush green hills of Mendocino County years ago, there’s hope the region can maintain its focus on quality over quantity. Whether the bankers and venture capitalists eyeing a new pet project in this newer wine country get the message is an open question.
Keeping Anderson Valley’s produce history alive with a delicious apple product is Boonville hard-cider maker Bite Hard, opened in 2010. The cider is made from mostly local apples and is available on tap at local bars.
You will, of course, need some cheese with your wine and apples. That’s where local cheesemonger Pennyroyal Farms comes in. Since 2012, the small Boonville farm and creamery has been producing gorgeous blends of goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, which have become so popular that they are served at high-end restaurants throughout Northern California. All of the animals are raised on-site, and the names of the cheeses are inspired by Boonville’s own local language, Boontling. A tasting room and tours are planned for late 2014.
There are few places to stay overnight in Anderson Valley. The exotically named Sheepdung Estates is one of them, a fun and offbeat alternative to a hotel stay, renting stand-alone cottages in Boonville. One located in the downtown area overlooks a vineyard and is within easy walking distance of restaurants, cafes and shops. The cottage is clean and modern, with a full kitchen. And just to be clear, it contains neither sheep nor dung.
The friendly proprietors will tell how they came up with the name, including the original version that was, they say, censored by another publication.
Just up the street, Lauren’s restaurant serves comfort food done well. Old favorites such as chicken pot pie and meatloaf are joined on the menu by Asian-influenced dishes, and many of the recipes are made with local, organic ingredients. If you’re looking to get even farther away from it all, head north into the coastal mountain range near Ukiah. Miles out along a winding country road is Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, where a creekside walk among old-growth redwoods will clear your mind, and a dip in the waters at Orr Hot Springs Resort will clear your pores.
The 27-acre, clothing-optional resort set in the hills has been offering its sulfurous, 106-degree mineral water springs to weary travelers since it was a stop on the Ukiah-Mendocino stagecoach line in the late 1800s. It also has a spring-fed cold pool, a sauna and steam room, and cabins for overnight stays — including a small yurt with a living roof.
If the numerous travelers who have visited or made their homes in Mendocino County were seeking beauty, quality and simplicity, they apparently found it and more.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay:
Heritage House Resort: 5200 N. Highway 1, Little River. Rooms $225 to $600. www.heritagehouseresort.com
Little River Inn: A family-owned and operated inn, with restaurant and bar, spa and golf course. 7901 N. Highway 1, Little River. www.littleriverinn.com
Sheepdung Estates: Multiple locations, Boonville. Downtown cottage $150 to $200; country cottages range from $150 to $350. www.sheepdung.com
Orr Hot Springs Resort: 13201 Orr Springs Road, 13 miles west of Ukiah. Day use: adults $30; kids $25. Rooms, yurts and cottages: $155 to $250. For more info and reservations email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to eat: Lauren’s restaurant: Comfort food made with fresh, local ingredients. 14211 Highway 128, Boonville. www.laurensgoodfood.com
Mosswood Market Café and Bakery: Delicious baked goods and strong coffee. You may even overhear a few old-timers whiling away the morning in refreshingly thoughtful conversation. 14111 Highway 128, Boonville.
Ukiah Brewing Company: The first certified organic brewpub in the nation serves up great food and several organic ales and lagers. 102 S. State St., Ukiah. www.ukiahbrewing.com
What to do:
Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve: A 3-mile loop trail through the redwoods takes about an hour. Entrance on Orr Springs Road, 13 miles west of Ukiah past Orr Hot Springs Resort. www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=434
Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands: Off state Highway 1, Point Arena. www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/ukiah/stornetta.html
Catch A Canoe: Canoe, kayak and bike rentals and tours. Stanford Inn, 44850 Comptche-Ukiah Road, Mendocino. Adults $28 to $40; kids $14 to $20. www.catchacanoe.com
Skunk Train: Regular four-hour trips go from Fort Bragg or Willits to Northspur and back. Adults $54, kids $34. 100 W. Laurel St., Fort Bragg. www.skunktrain.com
Anderson Valley Winegrower’s Association: For info about wineries and vineyards in the valley, visit www.avwines.com.
Pennyroyal Farms: 14930 Highway 128, Boonville. Tours not yet open to the public. You can sample and buy Pennyroyal cheeses at Navarro Vineyards in Philo. www.pennyroyalfarms.com
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com.