If you’re the type that likes to hop in the car on Saturday morning and hit the backroads for some fun and adventure, keep reading. Just a couple of hours north of San Francisco in on one of my favorite weekend getaway regions in the state: Mendocino County. With more than 4,000 square miles of unexplored wilderness, breathtaking coastal vistas, towering redwoods, adorable towns and villages, and world-class food and wine, Mendocino County offers endless discoveries. Here are a few of my top picks.
The darling of Northern California’s coastal towns, this refurbished replica of a New England-style fishing village—complete with a white-spired church—is the region’s most popular tourist destination (it’s cute beyond words). To tour Mendocino proper, lose the car and head out on foot to the Tote Fête Bakery. Fuel up with a double cappuccino and cinnamon bun, then throw away your map of the town and start walking—the shopping district of Mendocino is so small it can be covered in less than an hour.
One must-do while you’re in town is a visit to Mendocino Headlands State Park. The park’s flat, 3-mile trail winds along the edge of a heather-covered bluff, providing spectacular sunset views and good lookout points for spotting seabirds and California whales. As for lodging, my favorite place to stay is the Stanford Inn by the Sea, a beautiful lodge along the Big River that happily welcomes pets and has the only totally vegetarian restaurant on the Mendocino coast: Raven’s Restaurant.
Back in the old days the small coastal community of Gualala (pronounced wah-la-la) was a vivacious logging town, and you can still spot a few real-life, suspender-wearing lumberjacks ending their day at the Gualala Hotel’s old-school saloon. I love to stop in here for a beer after renting a canoe or kayak at Adventure Rents and spending the day paddling up the beautiful and serene Gualala River. Along its banks you’re likely to spot osprey, herons, egrets, ducks, and even river otters (you will LOVE this experience).
About 15 miles north of Gualala is one of the smallest incorporated cities in California, Point Arena. The town’s highlight is the Point Arena Lighthouse & Museum, which was built in 1870 after 10 ships ran aground here on a single stormy night. For small fee visitors can visit the lighthouse museum and get a guided tour of the historic lighthouse, which includes a trek up the six-story tower’s 145 steps to look through the dazzling 6-foot-wide lead-crystal lens (the views of the coast are amazing up here).
There’s a secret in the tiny town of Little River that will astound you: The Little River Cemetery Sinkhole, an amazing natural phenomenon that hardly anybody knows about. To get here, park across from the Little River Cemetery on Highway 1, walk to the southwest corner of the cemetery, look for a small opening in the chain-link fence. The sinkhole is only a few dozen yards down the trail, but be prepared to enter and exit the hole VERY carefully or you might end up buried alongside it. At low tide you can walk through the wave-cut tunnel to the tide pools at the bottom of the bluff, and at high tide you can sit on the tiny sandy beach and look at the tunnel as the waves blast through.
Little River is also home to a wonderful family-owned and -operated resort that I love play golf and tennis at called the Little River Inn & Restaurant, complete with a nine-hole golf course, full-service salon and day spa, restaurant, and two lighted tennis courts. The nearby Inn at Schoolhouse Creek is also a wonderfully romantic place to stay, especially their adorable cottages.
Originally built in 1855 as a military outpost, Fort Bragg is still primarily a logging and fishing town proud of its century-old timber-and-trawler heritage. Three places I always visit when I’m up here are the Noyo Fishing Center to go on a whale-watching tours and stuff myself on great fish-n-chips; Antique Row on Franklin St between Laurel and Redwood to load up on gifts; and the North Coast Brewing Company, my favorite brewpub on the planet (seriously). And if you’re toting along kids, be sure to take them for a ride through the forest on the town’s beloved Skunk Train.
Where’s Willits you ask? It’s that little town on Highway 101 that you’ve passed through on the way to somewhere else. But that’s because you didn’t know about Ridgewood Ranch, home of the world’s most famous racehorse, Seabiscuit. Ever since the widespread success of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 novel and the subsequent 2003 blockbuster film, the sensational racehorse has put this pinprick of a town on the map. It’s worth visit just to take a tour of the ranch—you can see the tour schedule at www.seabiscuitheritage.com. And if you need a place to stay there’s a wonderful inn here called the Baechtel Creek Inn & Spa. Note: You can also board the Skunk Train from Willits, too.
This speck of a town in the heart of the Anderson Valley is best known for a regional dialect called Boontling, developed by townsfolk at the beginning of the century. No one really speaks Boontling anymore, though a few old-timers remember the lingo. Most people don’t know what the Boontling word for beer is, but the folks at the Anderson Valley Brewing Company definitely do and will tell you during their fun and informative brewery tours. Another must-visit is Boont Berry Farm, an organic-produce market and deli in a small weathered-wood building that turns out terrific treats. And if you want the ultimate romantic Anderson Valley getaway, book a room and dinner reservation at the charming Boonville Hotel & Restaurant.
For a glimpse of what Napa Valley looked like 30 years ago, visit the quiet, bucolic Anderson Valley and the productive little town of Philo . Once noted only for sheep, apples, and timber, the Anderson Valley has become the premier producer of cool-climate California wines such as chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and Riesling, and Philo is it epicenter. Even some of France’s best champagne makers have successfully set up shop here.
Some must-see wineries with tasting rooms in Philo include Phillips Hill Estates Winery, which specializes in producing small lots of superb Pinot Noirs; Esterlina Vineyards a family-owned boutique winery known for its handcrafted Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Husch Vineyards, the oldest winery in the Anderson Valley serving samples of their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer in a former 1900s pony barn.
If you have your own tips and recommendations on your favorite North Coast getaways that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments below. We’d love to hear from you.