I have vivid memories of driving across the Australian Outback 20 years ago as a storm of locusts battered my windshield; ringing around Cape Breton 15 years ago and stopping at every single tea house and following the wrong roundabout sign in Scotland 10 years ago a dark and stormy night, dead-ending in the front yard of a dairy farm at 3 am.
“Who’s there?” the farmer had demanded, poking a rifle out a second-floor window before pounding down the steps and lumbering across the yard in a puddle of light to inspect me with his giant flashlight. “Don’t shoot, I’m lost!” I had cried, handing him my map with the famous golf course circled.
He sighed and hailed his wife, still standing guard at the second-floor window. “Fiona, she’s just a bitty thing -- cold, wet, American? You’d better come down and put on the kettle.”
Over tea and cakes, he said I wasn’t just lost but on the wrong side of Scotland. “Best you stay with us tonight.”
Which brings up the best thing about road trips: You get to meet and bond with the locals, and maybe even become life-long friends.
I’ve done road trips all over the world, but until recently I’d never driven the back route from San Francisco to Mendocino, considered one of the country’s most dramatic scenic drives. When an opportunity arose this spring to visit Mendocino, I couldn’t fill my gas tank fast enough.
You’re in the army now
It was nearly dark by the time I arrived in San Francisco, a 7-hour high-speed Interstate drive from my home in the High Sierra. But they had kept the porch light on for me at the Inn at The Presidio, a restored Georgian inn that once housed bachelor officers at The Presidio, once America’s oldest continually- operating military post and now a 1,491-acre national park and National Historic Landmark.
Perched on a hillside, the inn overlooked million-dollar views of the sea and twinkling city, with the Golden Gate Bridge outlined in white lights. Inside my quarters, the huge living room housed several period sofas, chairs and coffee tables – you could almost envision officers seated there discussing a The Battle of the Coral Sea. The king bed in the giant bedroom had crisp linens folded in military corners and the bathroom had a deep soaking tub with bath salts laid out. I was ready to enlist!
The next morning, following a hearty complimentary breakfast in the restored mess hall downstairs, I spent an hour trying to get a handle on The Presidio, but with 24 hiking trails, hilltop gardens, hidden beaches, wild coastal bluffs and headlands and countless facilities housed in restored barracks, officers’ quarters, pharmacies and storerooms (restaurants, cafes, bars, a spa, fitness center, museums and much more) you’d need a week.
The rebirth of the Anderson Valley
Back in my car, I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and took Interstate 101 north about 80 miles past Marin County’s exclusive suburbs and malls.
The minute I turned onto Highway 128, the pace slowed to a crawl and the rumble of Interstate 101 was replaced with the faint hum of distant tractors.
The barely-two-lane highway corkscrewed up and over the forested coastal mountains, throwing in some blind curves and loop-de-loops to ensure I was paying attention, and then crossed the 16-mile-long Anderson Valley.
The road told its own story as I passed smoke curling from a distant ridge and farmhouses that had fallen in on themselves, their chimney bricks scattered on the ground like a toy train.
At the bottom of the mountain, the highway headed west along the 16-mile-long Anderson Valley, a sleepy agricultural region through the 1970s, where tumbledown farms were dotted with cows, sheep, apple orchards and Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco Barns in various stages of decay.
Then someone discovered that the lost valley’s coastal fog, cool breezes, warm, sunny days and chilly nights were ideal for growing world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, White Riesling and Alsatian varietals -- and a star was born.
Today, the old farms and orchards have been replanted in vineyards that climb to the sky, and the hillsides are dotted with lavish estate wineries and villas that look like they were airlifted in from France, Italy and Spain.
A boom in Boonville
The Anderson Wine Region is now on every oenophile’s bucket list, and some of the region’s small towns have been gussied up, too.
In Boonville, once known for logging, apple orchards and sheep pastures and was now lined with trendy shops, cafes and eateries, every colorful mismatched table and chair was already taken inside the Mosswood Market Café & Bakery, where you could get anything from a Chicken Mango Wrap to a Potato-Basil-Goat Cheese Empanadas.
A barista told me that millennials who had grown up in the Valley but left to pursue careers in big cities were now moving back home in droves with plans to open boutique wineries, farm-to-table restaurants and yoga and Pilates studios.
The final leg to Mendocino
Just past The Philo Apple Farm, with an honor-system fruit stand, the vineyards gave way to the 11-mile “Redwood Tunnel of Trees,” the highway chasing the Navarro River past filtered sunlight and gigantic ferns before dead-ending at Highway 1 and the sea.
Mendocino was another 10 miles north, the highway spiraling past verdant pastures, folded green hillsides, drop-dead cliffs and scenic overlooks. I stopped to peer down into a rugged cove where thundering surf was exploding in spray and leaving gleaming tidal pools in its wake.
Near Mendocino, lights flickered invitingly from barns, lighthouses and inns perched atop the town’s tabletop headlands and I made a mental note to explore it when I lodged in Mendocino later that week.
Home on the Ranch
For the next two days, however, I’d be staying 21 miles north at The Inn at Newport Ranch, a 2,000-acre working cattle ranch and luxury resort set on dramatic sea cliffs, rolling pastures and towering redwood ridges.
Even before I turned onto the dirt road leading to the Ranch complex, I could see it was a collection of minimalist architectural masterpieces – and was that a hot tub perched on top of the water tower?
I stepped inside the Main Inn to redwood planks, exposed beams and a 20-foot-wide fireplace made of massive stones; some so heavy they had been lifted in by crane before the walls or roof had been built. Complimentary wine, cheese and hors d’oeuvres had been set out and the manager said a complimentary farm breakfast would be served in the morning the kitchen table, a long, single plank of polished redwood.
A ranch hand escorted me across the grass to The Redwood House, an architectural marvel supported by 24 redwood trees that rose from the lower-level spa and up through three guest suites to the roof. Then he opened the door to the Bird House and said “Welcome Home!”
Nesting at the Bird House
One of the most unusual “suites” I’ve ever stayed in, the Bird House was everything most hotel rooms aren’t: Whimsical, artsy and one of a kind, with seashells and other small treasures scattered on the top of bureau tops and an open floor plan of four small rooms, including a tiny, well-stocked kitchen, a designer bathroom bath with a pounding rainforest shower, and a living room with a gas wood stove and a bedroom with my own private redwood.
Handcrafted windows framed picture-perfect views of the pastures, cliffs and rugged coast and outside on my patio balcony, someone had thoughtfully removed the heavy lid from my wooden soaking tub and left a small stack of wood by the grill.
Nearby Fort Bragg was crammed with restaurants, but I love to cook, and how many hotel rooms had a set-up like this? I headed into the town’s Noyo Harbor. Nemos Fish Market was still open and someone had just snagged a salmon, so it was whisked it away and returned to me in a tidy package ready to grill.
A local market had crusty home-baked bread, butter, huge bouquets of organic spinach, gigantic local blueberries and fresh-whipped cream. Within an hour I was back in my “nest” soaking in the hot tub and keeping a hawk-eye on the grilling salmon.
A wild ride around the Ranch
The following morning, Will Jackson, founder of the Ranch, dropped by as we were polishing off omelets and homemade biscuits. In 1985, the self-described “Connecticut Yankee with a hankering for the West,” spied an ad in the Wall Street Journal for an 850-acre cattle ranch in Mendocino County featuring more than a mile of oceanfront. He bought the Ranch in 1986 and has spent the past 31 years expanding and developing it.
The Ranch has 20 trails you could explore by foot, horseback or ATV. I was only here another night, so I joined a couple for the ATV “Grand Tour” and hung on tight. Our driver, a Parnelli Jones in the making, zoomed to the edges of treacherous cliffs, deposited us at the foot of promontories for careful hikes down stony staircases and barreled up steep pastures into the redwood ridges, a moss-upholstered landscape where tiny streams trickled from unseen sources and miniscule wildflowers bloomed in puddles of light on the forest floor.
By the time I returned to my room, I was ready for a drink -- and it was only 11:15 am! Armed with one of the Ranch’s gourmet box lunches, I spent the afternoon exploring the Ranch’s miles of cliff-side trails and checking out several pristine beaches within a 10-minute drive. At Glass Beach, a former dump site that sparkled under the sun, I collected colorful pieces of sea-smoothed glass for a wind chime.
A warm oasis on a rainy night
Storm clouds were gathering as I left the Ranch for dinner at The Little River Inn & Restaurant near Mendocino, a fifth-generation family-owned resort.
By the time I reached the eatery 20 minutes later, the roads were slick and the shoulders flooded. I sat in my car for a few moments to collect myself as hail pinged off my windshield and the sky rumbled, then made a run for it just as a zag of lightning cracked open the dark heavens with a CR-ACK!”
Inside, the bad weather only seemed to amplify the restaurant’s cozy, candle-lit charm and when the waitress brought the menu, I knew I was in for a treat.
Executive Chef Marc Dym, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, cooked at many world-class restaurants before moving to Mendocino in 2006 to escape the LA rat race and take over the kitchen and menu at Little River.
He tweaked the American classics so they were more elegant and modern, developed creative small plates and tantalizing appetizers that became an instant hit with guests, and turned Little River into an award-winning restaurant.
An organic and locally-sourced gourmet feast
Every dish on the menu seemed to reflect his creative flair, and I had a hard time deciding what to order. Since I was a guest of the chef, the waitress said he could prepare a “tasting plate” consisting of several small portions of entrees and sides I wanted to try.
I started with a delicate abalone fritter and fresh steamed clam chowder, polished off the pine-nut crusted salmon with spinach puree, parmesan polenta and basil coulis and demolished the “Osso Bucco”— slow braised pork shank over polenta with fennel marinara sauce, roasted garlic and red chili broccoli. Dessert was warm Olallieberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream “soup.”
As I was dawdling over my decaf cappuccino, the waitress came by to see if I needed help prying myself from my chair and then added she had taken the liberty of “jotting down a few things in Mendocino you seriously must see before you leave.”
She handed me a napkin listing 27 places. I’d need a Hovercraft to do it all in two days!
From a lumber town to an art colony
After breakfast, I put on my hiking boots for a long day of sight-seeing, bid adieu to The Birdhouse and drove into Mendocino.
Settled in the 1850s by New Englanders who came to work the mills, the thriving lumber town flourished throughout the 19th century but nearly went under during the 1940s and 1950s when the local sawmills closed and the New Englanders moved on.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, artists, craftspeople, hippies and back-to-the landers flocked in, lured by Mendocino’s spectacular setting and small-town charm. Today, the town has a thriving art colony and more artists per capita than any county in California.
The historic downtown was pint-sized, lined with B&Bs where flowers spilled from window boxes as well as several restaurants, cafes and bars (including one housed in a restored rectory), art galleries, a museum, book store and a scattering of eclectic shops, including a toy store and chocolatier.
I dropped by The Good Life Café & Bakery, which the waitress had told me was a good place to see the locals in action. At a corner table, a group of young girls in mirrored peasant blouses were sitting on their long hair devouring hot cinnamon buns while two artists in paint-stained shirts and jeans were diving into steaming breakfast burritos bursting at the seams with organic eggs and veggies and an elderly couple dressed for afternoon tea sipped lattes and shared a homemade morning bun. Two grizzled cops who looked as if they’d had a rough night were trying to decide between the tuna and chicken salad sandwiches.
I walked up through residential neighborhoods lined with Victorian homes in Easter egg colors and saltbox cottages wrapped in roses and picket fences – both testament to New England craftsmanship that was built to last, and reaching the edge of town, followed a narrow footpath along a rocky, wind-lashed headland to the dramatic Blowhole at Mendocino Headlands State Park.
They grow it all here
By the time I got back I was hungry for lunch. At Rhody’s Garden Café, a pretty little outdoor eatery at Mendocino Coast Botanicals Gardens, the waitress swore everything from the Reuben sandwiches to the meatless barley soup was locally sourced and that the greens in my Salad Nicoise were grown right here at the Garden.
Afterwards, I wandered the grounds, a pretty place to hike with 47 acres of rose and dahlia gardens, camellias, rhododendrons, foxgloves, wildflowers, perennials planted in banks of color, succulents and a coastal forest of pines, magnolias and ferns leading to bluffs overlooking the Pacific.
Stopping by Mendocino’s outback winery
There was no way I was going to drink and drive (or even wine-taste) while navigating Highway 1. But several people had had told me the setting at Pacific Coast Winery alone was worth the 9-mile drive, so I headed to Mendocino’s “outback winery.”
Perched on an earthquake fault atop a bluff the picturesque winery had a front porch lined with Adirondack chairs where guests were sampling unrefined sparingly-filtered signature blends and soaking up views of whipping winds and waves for as far as the eye could see.
I returned to Mendocino for a stroll through a prehistoric wonderland of sword ferns, moss-covered forests and cascading carpets of wildflowers at Russian Gulch State Park, a deeply indented, steep-sided little valley with many trails.
Then, with time for one more “must-see” before checking into my hotel for the night, I drove three miles south to Van Damme State Park, where a quarter-mile elevated platform meandered through the little forest that could, an awe-inspiring forest of pine, cypress and redwood trees -- all under ten feet high!
The perfect inn for foodies and wine lovers
Brewery Gulch Inn, located two miles south of Mendocino, is a classy, sophisticated inn nestled in pines, redwoods, wetland ponds, gardens and wooden glens overlooking the beach.
Built in 2006 from redwood eco-salvaged from Mendocino’s Big River, the inn has 10 luxury suites, each one bathed in relaxing earth tones and decorated with craftsman-style furnishings and windows, a balcony, gas fireplace and a soaking tub with a private window overlooking the sea.
The inn also serves a daily complimentary gourmet breakfast as well as a daily complimentary gourmet “light dinner and wine buffet.” Both are prepared and served by the inn’s team of resident chefs in the inn’s beautiful Great Room, with a four-sided glass and steel fireplace, craftsman-style furnishings and a wall of windows.
Past favorites include Salad Cote du Nord, Mussel Bisque, Lentilles Du Puy, pepper-seared scallops, Moroccan lamb, Halibut Escabeche, Dungeness crab cakes and homemade pecan pie and the chefs are always working on creative new entrees to add to the mix.
Breakfast in bed
Dinner would be served in about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, my king bed beckoned, a still life in white, with silky, high-thread-count sheets, huge down pillows and comforters. I took a bubble bath and then slipped between the sheets for a cat nap before dinner.
I didn’t wake up until nearly 9 am the following morning. Fortunately, the inn was still serving breakfast and guests could order anything (or everything) on the menu – from fresh-squeezed juices to whipped Belgian hot chocolate and artisan coffee; house-made pastries to homemade blueberry pancakes, organic granola sundaes topped with yogurt and berries and custom egg dishes served with homemade bacon and toast.
I pondered the killer curves, drop-off cliffs and serpentine switchbacks between Mendocino and San Francisco, then picked up the house phone and ordered room service, deciding a long day of driving deserved a decadent breakfast in bed.
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