If you’re mulling over your summer-fall travel plans, I have a thought. The coastal town of Mendocino, offering some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in California, is an undiscovered jewel relative to other NorCal seaside destinations (and I seriously considered leaving it that way).
Mendocino’s somewhat remote location is both its challenge and its charm. Zigzagging (literally) 3.5 hours north of San Francisco, it’s not as easily accessed as some of the more popular tourist destinations which is one of the reasons we love it so much.
Remember the fabled town of Cabot Cove in Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote? It was filmed in Mendocino!
10 Reasons I love Mendocino:
- The Drive Up. The drive up to Mendocino is like none I’ve ever experienced. If you take highway 128 north from San Francisco (which I recommend), you’ll twist and turn through 3 separate ecosystems starting with the lush rolling hills of Anderson Valley flush with open farmland, vineyards and dog-friendly wineries; then you’ll come into the deep redwood forest bordered by trees so enormous you’ll feel an instant drop in temperature and light as the sun struggles to make its way through; finally you’ll exit to the most brilliant views of the pacific ocean along California’s Lost Coast with dramatic cliffs, sea caves and tabletop headlands greeting you as you corkscrew your way into town (it will have been worth the motion sickness!).
- Unspoiled Nature. Mendocino is surrounded by tangles of nature in every direction and you don’t have to go far to experience it. Taking in the ocean views from the deck of our airbnb one morning, my husband and I spotted wild rabbits bounding in the grass in front of us while a couple of deer quietly grazed on the other side of the property. The setting is surreal in its untamed beauty. A short 10 minute drive brought us to Jug Handle State Natural Reserve where we walked cliff side (with seemingly nobody around us in the depth of summer), soaking in the ocean views, meandering through the forested hiking trails and exploring a half million years of ecological history.
3. Sparse Commercialism (and no Ferris wheel!): Every time I see an amusement park ride gumming up an otherwise quaint town or seascape, a little piece of me dies inside. You won’t find a Ferris wheel (or a Starbucks for that matter), in Mendocino. The town, much of it designated a National Historic Preservation District, has the look and feel of its rural roots while offering all the refinements visitors could hope for — from quality organic coffee roasters (let’s get our priorities straight) and top notch farm-to-table cuisine to a thriving artistic community and holistic health services — a rare mix of bucolic and urbane.
4. Dog Friendly: from the beaches to the wineries, to the inns and restaurants, you’d be hard pressed to find a more dog-friendly setting than Mendocino. When I was researching places to stay, I came across the perfect, affordable set-up for our family (a cabin for mom & dad with a separate teenager bunkie) everyone’s dreams were coming true and then I had to brace myself for the owner’s response when I asked about bringing along our sweet, and delicate, 80 pound fur girl with us (virtually every airbnb greets this question with a resounding No). Not in this case: absolutely, we are very dog friendly, and welcome all of your family members! Okay, so when do we move there?
5. The Local Food: after the logging boom, Mendocino eventually turned its attention to other natural resources including fishing and foraging (notably grapes and mushrooms) and many of the restaurants do an excellent job showcasing their commitment to food quality and consciousness. Cafe Beaujolais’ farm-to-table cuisine was a highlight (the cozy home ambiance is wonderful too) but our favorite night was spent outside on a picnic table at Django’s Rough Bar Cafe on the Noyo River listening to a live rendition of Don McLean’s American Pie while eating fish & chips (it doesn’t get better than that).
6. The Gardens — everywhere you turn, from the main strip with its abundant outdoor seating areas, to the residential side streets, and all the nooks and crannies in between, you’ll find sweeps of flowers and assorted greenery hanging from fences, cascading down walls and decorating yards in that wild and free look at how messy yet exquisitely gorgeous I am kind of way. I just wanted to stop every few feet to take it all in.
7. The Honor System: walking towards town one morning, my husband & I stumbled on some handmade pottery (you know how some of us love shoes? well that’s how I feel about pottery…). So I picked up a few pieces and then poked my head around trying to spot the owner before realizing that there was a box set up on the fence with a note asking people to leave payment with purchase. W.O.W. Where am I?
8. Respect for Nature – the many protected areas in Mendocino county mean that visitors can experience the natural habitat in its original, or near original, form. From the famed Glass Beach in Fort Bragg to the eco-thriving state parks – every effort is made to preserve and conserve. And you don’t have to pay a fortune to stay here either; while there are many luxurious Inns you can treat yourself to, there are just as many coastal campgrounds and rentals of every description and budget. A little bit of planning goes a long way. Here’s just one helpful resource.
9. The Night Sky — the area’s minimal light pollution is a stargazer’s dream. My husband and son packed up all of their telescoping gear in the hopes of a clear night. They waited out the fog and cloud and got a stellar sky on our last night; it was worth the wait.
(photo of our galaxy captured by my son)
10. The Eclectic Mix of People – the longer we stayed, the harder we fell and the more curious we became. Many chats with locals had us coming back to the big central question: who the heck lives in Mendocino? As it turns out, quite a diverse crew from fifth generation loggers and farmers, to retired CEOs to aspiring artists, healers and budding entrepreneurs. A small but diverse population that gives this Bohemian enclave its soul.
(taking in the views from our airbnb)
Cheers Mendocino, can’t wait to see you again!