POSTCARD FROM NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Part 2 – Mendocino
There are a number of different ways you can get from the Napa and Sonoma to Mendocino, but as is often the case, the shortest route is not necessarily the best. If you have the time, I would recommend you follow Hwy 12 from Santa Rosa to Bodega Bay, stopping along the scenic blacktop to admire the beautiful farms and ranches, and definitely stopping outside of Sebastopol at the French brick oven bakery you’ll see advertised on the right side of the road. Inside, you’ll find a long, large table with scattered newspapers, customers consuming purchases family style, and the unmistakable smell of homemade bread permeating the establishment. You’ll be offered samples of over a dozen breads to try, and I suggest you take the friendly proprietors up on their largesse. My personal favorite was the sunflower bread, but it was almost a dead heat with 7-grain and the sourdough loaves. We purchased a loaf to enjoy on a picnic later in the day, and wound our way into Bodega Bay. If you happen to be in this picturesque fishing village close to lunch or dinnertime, you owe it to yourself to stop at the Harbor Club’s Blue Bistro Restaurant.
The restaurant is located inside the clubhouse of the golf course, but is open to the public. It serves wonderful food at ridiculously low prices, and offers its diners a panoramic view of the Pacific. The young chef is a refuge from the food wars in the Bay Area, and provides visitors with a memorable gustatory experience. My crab cakes were moist, filled with large chunks of crab, and served with the best remoulade sauce I’ve had since I moved away from New Orleans. The string potato fries were fresh and crisp. Miki and Peter were both equally satisfied with their choices.
Hwy 1 curves, switches back, climbs up steep cliffs, drops down to deserted beaches, winds its way through moss covered forests, and provides a driving experience to fuel the enthusiasm of the most sated adventure traveler. You don’t need to be behind the wheel of a Ferrari or Lamborghini to experience the pleasures of this road, though I’m sure that would add to the excitement. Hopefully, you won’t attempt to race through all the hairpin turns of the highway, but will take the time to pull over repeatedly at the numerous turnouts and vista points, and take in the magnificent scenery that unfolds around you. Sheer cliffs dropping to crashing surf below, basalt mountains leaping from the ocean floor, turquoise lagoons and white sand beaches, tree lined rivers emptying their waters into the ocean, doors and windows carved for giants by eons of waves answering the tidal siren call of the Moon – all will reward you for your attention.
Halfway between Bodega Bay and Mendocino you will find the Point Arena lighthouse. If you arrive after 3:30 PM, you’ll have to be content with taking photos of the lighthouse from a few hundred yards away, as the gates will be closed to all except those few who have chosen to stay overnight at the small adjacent hotel. I suppose that if you enjoy isolation on a rocky point, and entertainment by the screeching of gulls overhead along with crashing waves below, it is an excellent choice. I’ve always marveled at the people who have chosen careers as lighthouse keepers, though in the age of telephones and the Internet, it need not be as lonesome an occupation as it once was.
Mendocino is a tiny village, four square blocks, perched on a small peninsula, offering scenic vistas of the Northern California Coast. We arrived during the time of the annual grey whale migration from the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, where they calve, then journey 5000 miles to the Arctic waters of the Alaskan coastline. We saw numerous hopeful whale watchers with their binoculars scanning the horizon for spouts from the passing leviathans, but that was about as close as we came on this trip to seeing an actual whale. It’s a good thing I had witnessed this exodus in prior years, or I might have concluded that the whole thing was a snipe hunt cooked up by the local Chamber of Commerce to draw in tourists.
Through a small (and I assure you, quite unusual) oversight, I had left the folder containing the reservation information and directions for our next two stops back at the Doubletree, where phone calls were unable to secure their whereabouts. Fortunately, just as we turned off Hwy 1 at the sign that read “Mendocino – Tourist Information”, I spotted our B&B, the Mendocino Village Inn, two doors away. A large, blue and white three story Victorian, the house fronted Main Street, looking out at the New England style steepled church across the way, and the bay immediately beyond. Due to the combination of facts that we had arrived on a weekday, that the rains had been pouring out of the heavens for the past 26 out of 31 days (and were still continuing to do so), and, I suspect, that someone had leaked word down South that the whales decided they deserved some privacy, and were staying out of the range of prying binoculars – all these conspired to give us sole possession of our B&B for the duration of our stay. We were handed keys, told to lock the doors after ourselves when we went out, and never saw another soul in the building except during breakfast, of which I’ll speak in a moment.
Each room is furnished with period antiques, and each is different. The parlor, where we spent our evenings, contains a fire place (complete with kindling and wood – just set a match to start the blaze going) along with a chess table, a rack of magazines, an old globe of the world, an antique organ with foot pedal pumps, and a feeling that Jane Eyre was about to walk through the door at any time. There are no televisions on the premises, and the only phone (free local calls) is off the dining room. The makings for tea and coffee are set out, along with dishes, a tray of cookies, and a refrigerator filled with complimentary bottles of juices and water for the guests.
The first two mornings of our stay we were greeted by Katie and the aromas of her breakfast preparations. Katie is a young woman with a soft voice, a pleasant smile, and a somewhat plump figure that hints at her cooking abilities. She baked homemade rolls, served with fresh, local jam, offered with an assortment of juices, and strong, dark coffee. Her egg frittatas were heavenly, and her fluffy, light, blueberry pancakes contained fresh berries that burst in your mouth with an explosion of flavor I’ll always remember. She was gone by the time we returned in the afternoons (we eventually learned she had another job as a masseuse), but she left out plates of moist chocolate brownies for an afternoon snack, as well a large plate of fresh fruits with a variety of cheeses and crackers, along with a bottle of good local wine. I tell you, we had found Shangri-la! Unfortunately, we were to learn that Katie did not work there the entire week, and while her stand-in was pleasant and competent, she was nowhere in Katie’s class. So, if you ever decide to get a room at the Inn, book on the days Katie is working – you’ll be glad you did.
One more thing I should warn you about if you stay in Mendocino. Our first night, being worn out after a long drive and a good dinner, we went to bed early – only to be awakened at 11 PM by the sound of a very loud siren. This was not a fire alarm; rather, it was the unmistakable sound of an air raid siren. Anyone who grew up in Europe during or after the war, or who lived in an American city during the height of the cold war when we had “duck and cover” drills on Tuesday, knows the sound of that blood-chilling banshee wail. And here it was, seemingly right in the room with us. There was no one in the B&B to ask what this meant, as we were the only occupants. We didn’t see or smell smoke. We looked out the window to the street, and saw a young man run out of the neighboring house, jump into a white truck, and speed off. After that, it was quiet everywhere, except for the wailing of the siren. That, too, soon stopped, and we decided that if a catastrophe was coming, we might as well be well rested to meet it, so we fell asleep. The following morning, we asked a local about the siren. “Oh, the folks at the B&B didn’t warn you about that?”
“No, no one said a thing.”
“Hmmm, must have been pretty loud! (Chuckle) It’s right next to you. They set it off when the winds get above a certain speed, as well as to summon the local volunteer fire department.”
O.K. – now you all know, so you won’t have to decide whether to flee or fight.
We had enough breaks in the weather to walk on the bluffs around the city, as well as explore one of the trails leading to a pretty waterfall in nearby Van Damme State Park. There are a number of nice galleries in town, but we weren’t in the mood to be inside. One night we ate dinner at the Moose Café, which we found to be quite good, serving California cuisine in a pleasant setting. I also discovered The Gallery Bookshop, that rarest of treasures – a shop selling a wide variety of quality used books, from out of print sci-fi classics to the world’s great literature, not just the latest Ludlum thrillers or Harlequin romances (of which there were mercifully few.) I bought several volumes, and would have bought more, except the lack of room in the car would have meant leaving Miki or Peter behind, and I surmised they probably would not have appreciated the sacrifice.
Our days in Mendocino passed quickly, as we fell into the rhythm of local life. However, we still had more adventures ahead of us, as Miki discovers why there are no soldiers in Fort Bragg, we learn how Glass Beach got its name, and why you shouldn’t show up for dinner in Carmel without a reservation.
Next: Carmel and Sunshine