Mellowing Out in Mendocino

Whales, wine, redwoods, art—all come together blissfully in this picturesque Northern California community.

There are plenty of terrific destinations within a few hours’ drive of the Bay Area, where I lived and explored for the better part of the past two years, but none that captivated me as much as Mendocino County, a nature, wine and artist’s haven in Northern California, about 150 miles north of San Francisco—from its scenic drives along redwood forests, lush vineyards, rushing rivers and coastal cliffs, to the welcoming and relaxed atmosphere prevalent from artists and business owners to the old-school and modern-day hippies who make Mendo, as it’s called locally, their home.

Mendo Culture

One of Mendocino County’s main draws is that it offers up a variety of activities for individuals and families alike, but without the crowds and often excessive prices found in other Northern California vacation destinations. It’s known, but not entirely discovered. It’s also an ideal place to unwind and unplug—cell phone service is scant.

From early on, Mendocino was known primarily for its redwood lumber, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that artists and others looking for an alternative lifestyle were drawn to the region, particularly the coastal village of Mendocino and the larger Fort Bragg, to the north.

The inland town of Hopland, along Highway 101, is home to the Solar Living Institute, a fascinating center that promotes sustainable living through environmental education. It’s a mecca for green advocates and those looking to live off-the-grid. While at the institute’s store I met such a man in jean overalls with crystal-blue yet puss-filled eyes, who proudly has been grid-free for nearly 20 years. (He likely was a pot farmer, an industry that thrives more in the northern reaches of the county, near Humboldt.) Walk the grounds and relax by the lake, see the yurt-style homes and tents the volunteers live in and wander among old rusted cars left alone for so long trees grow through them. 

As the culture scene thrived, tourism—coupled with a burgeoning California wine industry—also grew, and today you’ll find plenty of attractions, award-winning restaurants, Victorian-style bed and breakfasts, art galleries, boutiques and vineyards throughout the county.

Things to Do

The village of Mendocino proper along the Pacific coast, with its white church steeples and wooden water towers, makes for a great home base. It’s chock full of boutiques and eco-shops, bed and breakfasts, day spas and art galleries. Its walking trails along the cliffs make for a wonderful place to take in the rugged coast and watch the sunset, or consider taking one of artist Suzi Long’s drop-in watercolor sketch classes, specifically designed for travelers. Offered Thursdays through Sundays, the 90-minute classes are $35, with materials available for purchase, and meet at 10 a.m. at 611 Albion St.

Just 10 miles to the north is the relatively bustling Fort Bragg, with even more shops, galleries (where the artists just might be standing next to you as you peruse their work) and restaurants. The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens ($10 general admission) are stunning and have coastal trails, some of which are wheelchair-friendly.

Ricochet Ridge Ranch offers popular horseback rides along Ten Mile Beach and through redwood forests ($45), while rail enthusiasts can check out the Skunk Train ($47 adults, $22 children), which runs three- to four-hour trips through spectacular scenery between Fort Bragg and Willits.

Hikers have more than 250 miles of trails to wander in Mendocino County, with Jackson State Forest an easy jaunt for those staying on the coast. Try the five-mile Jughandle Ecological Staircase trail for a look at coastal evolution from ancient dunes to pygmy forests. A great resource for hikes is The Hiker’s Hip Pocket Guide to the Mendocino Coast, by Bob Lorentzen (Bored Feet Press, updated 2003; $15).

Kayakers can head out into the Pacific Ocean, explore coastal sea caves or ride the Gualala, Noyo, Albion and Russian rivers. Outfitters vary, so check the Mendocino Tourism Web site for more information. Watch California’s gray whale migrations during whale watching season, from December to April. Spot them from the Point Arena or Point Cabrillo lighthouses or take a boat tour.

Of course wine tasting and dining are key activities for just about any type of trip to Mendocino County.

Next: Mendocino Wineries, Where to Eat and Stay

Mendocino Wineries

If you’re heading to Mendocino from San Francisco, you can get in some quality wine tastings along the way with a more affordable and personalized experience than typically found in Napa and Sonoma vineyards. Most of the places I visited either didn’t have a fee at all, or a nominal one ($5 to $10), that would go toward purchases, and most of the bottles I bought ranged in price from $15 to $25.

Highway 128 Vineyards

An increasingly popular wine-tasting route is along California Route 128—the connector between inland U.S. Highway 101 and California Highway 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway—through the Yorkville Highlands and Anderson Valley, including the towns of Yorkville, Boonville, Philo and Navarro. During the dry summer season, the foothills along the way look like they’re covered in gold dust.

Recommended stops include Lazy Creek Vineyards for pinot noir and reisling, and Goldeneye, also for pinot noir, both near Philo. I’m a dedicated fan of red wines, preferring cabernet sauvignon to just about any other grape (the cabernet at Husch Vineyards near Navarro is worth a stop), but I was surprisingly taken with Navarro Vineyards’ crisp, dry estate bottled gewürztraminer and its rich muscat blanc, which tasted like honey with overtones of apricots and mangos. Sparkling wine fans should make sure Roederer Estate, near Navarro, is on their itinerary.

For a food break during your day of tasting, try the restaurant at the Boonville Hotel in tiny Boonville. Blink and you might miss it. If you’re looking for something less formal, there’s the filling Moya’s taco cart on the edge of town. (My favorite place, the Highpockety Ox, is now closed.)

Highway 101 Vineyards

Vineyards in the Redwood Valley, Ukiah Valley and Sanel Valley region around Hopland are accessible from U.S. 101. In Hopland, some vineyards have tasting rooms in town, including Brutocao Cellars and McNab Ridge Winery, so you don’t have to worry about driving from place to place. If heading this way, I recommend a stay at the historic, 21-room Hopland Inn (rates start at $139). It’s under new ownership since April; the restaurant and bar—retaining a mostly-organic menu—reopened in June. Be sure to also try the hearty diner fare and fantastic homemade pies across the street at the Bluebird Café.

Organic Vineyards

And true to its alt-culture heritage, Mendocino has many organic and sustainable farms, and claims to have the largest number of certified organic producing vineyard acres in California. More than a few vintners I spoke with said that about 2 percent of California’s vineyards are certified organic, with 20 percent of them in Mendocino County.

The first organic winery to open in the United States is the award-winning Frey Vineyards in the Redwood Valley, which uses biodynamic winemaking methods—the use of cultured yeast, malolactic bacteria, acid and sugar adjustments are prohibited.

I made Yorkville Cellars along Route 128 my designated organic stop, tasting its bottles of cabernet franc (hints of licorice and red cherry) and a rather light merlot, and picking up a relatively rare bottle of 100 percent petit verdot.

For more information about Mendocino wineries, tastings, wine festivals and more, visit the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission.

Where to Eat and Stay

There are plenty of places for excellent food in Mendocino. For light bites and excellent sandwiches, don’t miss the Mendocino Market in Mendocino village. Walk around the corner for your java fix at Moody’s Organic Coffee Bar. If you’re in Fort Bragg, Mendo Bistro serves terrific seasonal fare, but at an exceedingly relaxed pace. For a quick fix, especially if children are in tow, try the Wizard of Oz-themed Egghead’s Restaurant.

Mendocino’s popular Café Beaujolais (entrees, $24 to $36) put the village on the foodie map years ago, and it lived up to its reputation. The duck, paired well with a local Esterlina pinot noir, was a perfect medium rare. The menu changes seasonally, and there are only 15 tables, so be sure to reserve early.

The MacCallum House Inn & Restaurant is another venerable spot for top-notch romantic dinners (entrees, $25 to $42) as well as stays. The Victorian-era main house, built in 1882, features period furnishings, stone fireplaces, gourmet breakfasts and private decks. Rooms start at $275, and often sell out on weekends.

The Alegria Oceanfront Inn & Cottages bed and breakfast, has comfortable rooms (starting at $159), but the reason to stay here is for co-owner Elaine Wing Hillesland’s amazing breakfasts. My favorite: orange pancakes served with chicken, apple and potato sausage, edible blossoms and homemade orange syrup.

Those seeking to get even closer to nature—deer, quail, birds, cats and goats included—should opt for the Fensalden Inn, a renovated 1860s-era stagecoach stop located off Highway 1 in Albion, with rates starting at $149. All rooms (one supposedly has a ghost) include a fireplace, and Innkeeper Lyn Hamby offers a nightly cocktail hour in the parlor and makes guests feel like family.

At the end of my visit, I had a hard time saying goodbye. Suzy Long was right, it did feel as if I belonged in Mendocino.

Destinations: Mendocino County, Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Hopland

Activities: Hiking, Arts and Entertainment, Horseback Riding, Kayaking, Shopping, Sightseeing, Wine Tasting, Whale Watching