Okay, “pilgrimage” may be an overstatement. But we do love the tiny, lovely town (all of which has been designated a National Historic Area). We also love the awesome coastline (although it is quite a challenging drive) and even the inland drive to Mendocino, through the lovely Anderson Valley wine region (although you do have to monitor your wine and beer consumption in preparation for the final leg of the drive to Mendocino).
And did we mention the accommodations and the restaurants? The entire area is filled with charming Inns and B&Bs and has far more than its share of good (albeit not great), and atmospheric restaurants. And let’s not forget the myriad of outdoor activities:
- Strolling and kayaking along the imposing headlands;
- Sea fishing trips:
- Horseback riding; and
- Hiking through the areas numerous state parks.
The region also has its share of tourist opportunities:
- Educational local history museums;
- Touristy things like the kitschy, but still fun Skunk Train; and
- If you haven’t had enough wine in Anderson Valley, more wineries (such as the fun and wonderfully suited Pacific Star Winery.
Following are some of the highlights of our latest trip, through each of the three stages.
Route 128: The Road to Heaven
When we drive up from San Francisco, we skip past the many temptations of the Sonoma Wine country to save ourselves for Anderson Valley. We do, however, typically make one exception. To prepare for a long afternoon of tasting, we typically stop for lunch, either at one of the many good Healdsburg restaurants or at Francis Ford Coppola’s Geyserville winery, with its wine tastings, movie memorabilia, and surprisingly good restaurant (and for those who already need a break, a swim in the giant pool or a friendly bocce ball match).
On this trip, we chose one of Healdsburg’s many new restaurants, Bravas Bar de Tapas. After a short, appetite-building stroll around the plaza and a tasting at the La Crema tasting room (check out the 2010 Bennett Valley Pinot) we went lunch. The four of us shared eight small plates, only one of which (the brussel sprouts) was disappointing. We particularly enjoyed the quail, skirt steak, maitake mushrooms, clams, and scallops. And the service was very good. We shall return.
It was then time for Anderson Valley. Although we have stopped at virtually all of the valley’s open wineries on one trip or another, this trip, we bypassed the wineries in the warmer inland section of the valley to focus on the cooler region’s Pinots, Chardonnays and Syrahs. First stop–the charming town of Boonville, with its historic hotel, shops and, of course, tasting rooms.
Then into the heart of the valley, where we stopped at a few of our other traditional favorites and a couple of others. Three of our Anderson Valley favorites–Londer, Lazy Creek, and Claudia Springs–were, unfortunately, closed. And, since we still have a number of bottles of L’Hermitage sparkling left after New Year, we passed on our normal stop at Roederer. We did, however, fully enjoy our stop at our absolute favorite Anderson Valley winery, Goldeneye. We particularly enjoyed three of the wineries 2010 Pinots: Migration Anderson Valley, Goldeneye and especially Goldeneye Estate Grown Gowan Creek Vineyard. Meanwhile, Breggo Cellars pours some nice Alsatian varietals, especially its 2011 Pinot Gris, and a couple of nice Pinot Noirs (such as its 2010 Donnelly Creek Vineyard. Toulouse, meanwhile, also offers some credible Pinot Noirs, especially its 2008 Anderson Valley and Estate wines, Husch, as always, has a very nice dessert wine in its 2011 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer.
After driving through the town of Navarro, we exited the valley and drove along the scenic Navarro River to the coast: past the towns of Albion and Little River (each of which has its own charming namesake Inn, and good accompanying restaurant), we arrived in Mendocino.
A Day in Mendocino
While we have stayed at a number of the town’s hotels, inns, and B&Bs, our base for this stay was one of the prettiest, and most upscale of them–the MacCallum House (see the below Restaurant and Accommodations section.)
There is, as mentioned above, a lot to do in and around Mendocino and its “big city” neighbor, Fort Bragg. This trip was devoted primarily to outdoor activities, along with mandatory eating and drinking stops. Although we thought about revisiting Fort Bragg, with its harbor, its seaside botanical gardens and its tattoo museum, we had too much to do in Mendocino.
A walk through the historic town is a must–ideally in the early evening when the shops and galleries are open and the sun, low in the sky, shines on the rugged headlands. Speaking of the headlands, the area across from the boardwalk-clad (at least the part that hasn’t been paved over with concrete), is devoted to the Mendocino Headlands State Park, with trails through the headlands and paths down to a small (very cold-water) beach and plenty of rocky coves and tide pools to explore. If you want to learn more about the town and its logging days history, you can visit the Ford House Visitor Center with its scale model of the 1890-era town.
Back on Main Street is the expected range of galleries, a wonderful telescope and binocular shop, and the centerpiece of the street, the lovely, Victorian, Hotel Mendocino. Nor should one miss the side streets, with their quaint homes, beautiful gardens, historic water towers, and driftwood sculptures. And then there is the old Masonic Hall (now a bank), topped with a large hand-carved sculpture of Old Man Time and the Virgin.
A few miles out of town, both to the north and to the south, there are more opportunities to explore nature. To the south is Van Damme State Park, highland meadows, majestic redwood, and Sitka spruce forests, and in contrast, a pygmy forest formed by highly alkaline water and soil.
To the north is Russian Gulch State Park and the historic Cabrillo Lighthouse. The fully restored 1910-era lighthouse has a small sealift museum and three fully restored lighthouse master (and assistant) houses, two of which are available for rental and one restored to 1910 live-in state, complete with its stove and telephone.
Russian Gulch, meanwhile, is all about nature, from its inland Fern Canyon, to its craggy headlands, with its sand beach spanned by a graceful bridge and a 60-foot deep sinkhole formed by a collapsed sea cave.
But while it’s nice to see sea caves from above, it’s even better to see them from the inside. So we visited Kayak Mendocino for an ocean-level sea cave tour. We spend a fun 1.5 hours paddling leisurely along the coast (pocked with caves and topped by luxury homes), weaving our way through three caves and positioning ourselves next to a dramatic blowhole and around a cormorant rookery. We had the option to but decided against kayaking out to a buoy, which is home to a lave seal colony. We preferred to spend our time along and under the shoreside cliffs.
The tour also included a bit of a nature lesson, with discussions of the growth cycle of kelp, the reasons that kelp beds form, and a description of how to dive for, identify and harvest abalone. We also had an opportunity to hold and feel the slimy, jello-wy texture of washed in jellyfish to get a taste of an edible form of brown algae. Overall, a very fun trip which we heartily recommend.
Mendocino Restaurants and Accommodations
When we called for a room at the MacCallum House, we were faced with a choice—a spacious room in the main house that was filled with period detail, or a slightly larger room in a garden cottage that had lacked the detail, but had a wood-burning stove and, the deal-closer, a private hot tub. Since our friends had one of the lovely Main House rooms, we had a chance to see what we missed, before retreating to a nice long soak (accompanied by a souvenir of our Anderson Valley wine sojourn). Given the amenities of each room, combined with the responsive service and good meals we had at the Inn’s restaurant (see below), we would have been happy with either choice.
- Cafe Beaujolais has been one of the town’s best restaurants for more than 40 years. Although our service was a bit spotty, our food did not disappoint. We began with duck pâté, followed by sturgeon with truffle emulsion sauce, tagliatelle and wild mushrooms, and a pork chop with mushroom risotto. All were very good. While most of our friends also enjoyed their dishes, one was less than thrilled with her crab cake.
- MacCallum House Restaurant. Two of the four different dishes among the six of us were wonderful. The scallops with a light wasabi cream sauce (with braised bok choy and ton choy and mashed potatoes) and seared duck breast (with duck and potato hash and frisée).
- Mendocino Hotel Garden Room for lunch. Where we shared two dishes: a nice-sized serving of grilled sea bass with fig cream sauce and creamy mushroom risotto and a crab melt sandwich with rock shrimp. While the crab melt was a bit light on crab, I thought the sea bass was delicious.
- MacCallum House Breakfast. The first morning, Joyce had. Cheddar cheese omelet with avocado and I had Eggs Benedict with alderwood-smoked bacon. The second day, I had banana pancakes and Joyce had another omelet.
But while we generally loved the taste of our food at each of the restaurants, we had one problem across all three–none of these dishes (nor the other dishes our friends had) were served at the proper temperature. Every dish was lukewarm: perfectly cooked, which prevented us from sending the dishes back for reheating, but only lukewarm.
Mendocino Coast–Rolling Down Route 1
The third day of the trip was devoted to a leisurely drive down the winding, slow-driving, but incredibly scenic U.S. Rt. 1. The road is slow-going but very rewarding. The steep cliffs down the ocean (especially from Mendocino down about to Point Arena), the pretty coastal fishing and tourist towns (such as Gualala and Bodega Bay), an impressive regional art center (in Gualala), a huge, natural coastal resort (Sea Ranch), pretty rolling pasturelands the entire trip and all types of trails where you can hike into the woods, along with cliff faces and down to more remote beaches. And there are even a few good restaurants, in addition to the many touristy places.
Speaking of restaurants, we usually time our lunch stops (and occasionally dinners and overnight stays) at the Black Point Grill at the Sea Ranch Resort. On this trip, however, we had bought a Living Social deal for 18 oysters at the new Fisherman’s Cove restaurant in Bodega Bay. It is not much as far as restaurants go. In fact, it’s more of a dockside fishing Bait & Tackle shop with a few tables, a galley kitchen, and a standard home barbeque next to the front door. As if we didn’t have enough reservations on seeing the “restaurant,”, we found that the lunch menu is limited to four items—a Dungeness crab salad sandwich on ciabatta, oysters on the half shell and two types of grilled oysters, one with chorizo butter and one with wasabi butter. (Our coupon entitled us to six of each of the three oyster preparations.) Our reservations, however, melted away when we spoke with the friendly staff (the cook and the server) and especially when we ate the oysters. While we had initially debated making another stop for the rest of our meal (after the oysters), we ended up staying, ordering another 18 of the same. Overall, a very good find.