Crossing into Mendocino County, I arrive In Gualala. First order of business: a breakfast at Trink’s Cafe, where the baked goods are amazing, full breakfast and lunch is served, and they’ve even started doing dinner twice a week. Shelves are laden with local olive oil, mustard, and jam. Exploring town, I wander into lovely Discovery Gallery, a co-op for local artists where I admire abalone shell jewelry, fine-tuned glasswork, watercolors, and ceramics. In Dolphin Gallery, run by the invaluable Gualala Arts, there’s more local work: flame-painted copper dishes, pine needle baskets, alabaster carvings, and uniquely patterned hardwood boards. The arts center itself, on the south end of town in a gorgeous angular building, sponsors rotating exhibits of area artists and a variety of workshops, musical performances, and lectures.
Outside of Gualala, I head up towards Point Arena, but there’s an unmissable stop about three miles south of town, and this one’s going to require some planning. Bowling Ball Beach is a natural wonder whose eponymous rock formations are visible only at low tide (when I go, that’s 9:04 am). I head down the northernmost of the two beach trails, descend the cliff, scramble over some rocks, turn right and walk down the sand, and there they are! Dozens, possibly hundreds, of large stones polished smooth by the wind and water, lined up along the water’s edge like an aquatic bowling alley. I walk on the rocks, behind the rocks, around the rocks. The only words that escape my mouth during the whole experience are: “Wow. Just. Wow.”
Then it’s on to Point Arena. There’s something really appealing about this quintessentially Northern California town. Almost everything has a natural-feeling kind of name, from the Wildflower Motel to the Bird Café to Roots Herbal Apothecary. There’s a gorgeous vintage theater, and the friendly and well-stocked Outback garden store. There’s also the wonderful Little Green Bean Coffee Roaster, where they roast their own coffee and chocolate. A short drive from the “downtown” area lies the Point Arena Lighthouse, originally built in 1870 and the tallest climbable lighthouse in California. The graceful tower (rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake) overlooks a spectacular sea-view that’s great for whale watching.
I reluctantly drive on. My next stop is the tiny town of Elk, where there’s a major discovery: Elk Artists Collective, a beautiful gallery of art and craft work, with offerings from paintings to jewelry, photography, ceramics, wood, and glass. The last thing I expected to find in this town of 366 people was a gallery so chock-full of admirable work!
THE PLEASURES OF MENDOCINO/FORT BRAGG
From Elk to Mendocino, I head through low-lying hills, the ocean to my left. This is one of the most satisfying stretches of the drive, particularly as it leads to Mendocino, as charming a seaside town as you could hope to discover, its long streets lined with shops, galleries, and restaurants, and more than a few natural wonders of its own.
For lodging, you can’t do better than Glendeven Inn and Lodge, located in Little River, a five minute drive from the heart of Mendocino. Choose between the farmhouse rooms, more traditionally styled, or the recently opened Lodge, where rooms have a more sleek, boutique feel to them, all done in soothing earth tones. Owners John and Mike have really accomplished miracles here, and the staff is universally welcoming and knowledgeable. Visit their chicken coop, garden, and llamas (yes, llamas). Enjoy Mendocino county wines with light bites. Hang out on the deck, gazing over pines, lawns, and sea. When a three-course breakfast is delivered to your room, are you tempted to while away the hours here much longer than you really should? This is Mendocino County. There are no “shoulds.”
A very different lodging experience can be found at Mendocino Grove, right on the southern edge of town. Here, spacious, nicely furnished tents with heated beds are scattered around a meadow and tucked away among the fir, Bishop pine, and redwoods. It’s as close to roughing it as I want to get, and a perfect combination of “get away from it all” and “not too rustic. Be as private or social as you like, with some tents secluded among the trees and some right near the meadow area. Cuddle up by your outdoor “fire ring,” or settle into an Adirondack chair with a bay view. With thirty-seven acres, you’re bound to find a spot to call your own.
I browse shops, check out the Mendocino Art Center, and stop in Mendocino Café, where I take a seat on the deck under the warm sun, the ocean just visible in the difference, and order a Healing Bowl (soba noodles in a miso broth with kale, shiitake mushrooms, and tofu) because what could be more Mendocino? At Goodlife Café and Bakery, look at the amazing variety of baked goods and light meals and choose chia seed pudding, laced with hazelnuts, strawberries, blueberries, and mangoes. It’s possibly the most perfect thing I’ve ever eaten. Wild Fish, in nearby Little River, is a great dinner choice. They use local farmers and sustainable Pacific fish, and it’s put together in a way that’s creative without being fussy. You can’t go wrong here at this elegant oceanview spot.
Whenever I’m in Mendocino, I return to the Mendocino Headlands and remember just how much I love this glorious place. I take a short trail through the grasslands to a viewpoint amid rock formations jutting out of the water, distant cliffs draped in unfathomably rich green. Gulls dive through the air, purple, white, and yellow wildflowers are everywhere, and this very exposed spot gives new meaning to the word “windswept.” Whether under the bold sun or returning for sunset, watching the orange-red orb descend over darkened cliffs, I find this one of the most inspiring places on earth.
From Mendocino, it’s about ten minutes to Fort Bragg and the Skunk Train depot. This tourist train through the Pudding Creek Estuary has long been a favorite activity, but they’ve added something new: “rail bikes,” bicycles adapted to run along the tracks through that same glorious countryside but powered with a combination of your own pedal power and, if you engage your throttle, a motorized assist. Debuted last March, they’re a great way to get out into nature. Our little caravan pedals along, stopping for a perfect view of Pudding Creek snaking its way through the trees, a family of Canadian geese enjoying the view. We cross three bridges spanning the creek. We explore the woods at the end of the line. On the trip back, the sun starts to blaze, glinting off the water, and the trees seem to reach up toward the sky even more majestically: the ever-changing quality of nature at its finest. This is a perfect way to get to the heart of it.