Mendocino--Can I Give it 6 Stars?
Feb 18, 2000 (Updated Aug 22, 2000)
Review by Eric Goldman
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:ocean sounds, soft lighting, flowers, redwoods, funky buildings, picturesque headlands, beautiful sunsets, fun window-shopping, good eats
Cons:lousy weather, stores and restaurants close early, hard to get to, not cheap
I've lived in many places in California over the past thirty years, including the Los Angeles area, the Bay Area, the Central Valley, Santa Barbara and the Desert. I've also traveled extensively throughout California (see my other reviews) and have visited just about every place in California you've heard of and many you haven't.
Recommend this product?
Interestingly, throughout all of my experiences in California, one place stands out as my all-time favorite, and honestly, it isn't even close. Mendocino is, in my opinion, the best place in California.
Mendocino is a feast for the senses. Consider:
* the sounds. The sound of the ocean crashing against the headlands can be heard, at least faintly, throughout the town. This "white noise" begets a peaceful calm. You won't hear honking horns, sirens or screamers in Mendocino. Instead, you'll be tempted to speak in hushed tones yourself.
* the lighting. Mendocino is often overcast and shrouded in fog or at least marine haze. This casts an interesting glow over the town. When the skies are dark during the day, everything looks slightly washed out and even a little blurry. When it is bright, everything shines in a muted way. The effect is a little disorienting at first, but it becomes addictive!
* the flowers. Flowers thrive in Mendocino, and many in the town pride themselves on displaying a wide variety and large number of flowers. They grow everywhere! We saw blooms even in mid-December, but in summer they are spectacular.
* the smells. The faint musky smell of seawater pervades the town, reminding you of your proximity to the ocean.
* the redwoods. For those of you who've never experienced redwood forests, you're missing out! A good redwood forest will expand anyone's worldview. There are a few good redwood forests within a few miles of Mendocino, although they are mostly second-growth forest and thus you can see and feel the effects of logging. But even a logged second-growth forest will still rejuvenate your soul.
* the buildings. For some of the reasons above, the buildings in Mendocino are especially interesting to look at. The predominant theme is New England with some Victorian thrown in--Mendocino served as the New England surrogate for the opening montage of the TV show Murder She Wrote. Many of them have a weathered look that reflects the rugged weather conditions. In any case, I find the buildings so intriguing I often will spend time just gazing at them.
* the headlands. The headlands, which contain rocky palisades, small beaches, sea caves and tidepools, wrap around the town. While you're in town, you're never more than a few minutes from the headlands. I could spend hours watching the tide come in and out, crashing against the rocks and creating spectacular sprays. There's always something better than TV playing at the headlands.
* the sunsets. Because of the fog and the clouds, you won't always get a glorious sunset in Mendocino. But when you do, they tend to be beautiful feasts of color over a green/blue Pacific stretching uninterrupted to Japan. In those cases, there are few more enjoyable pleasures in life than to stake out a seat at the headlands, watch the colors change, and kiss the one you love.
OK, enough waxing philosophic. Let's get down to specifics:
The drive to Mendocino takes a full 4 hours from SF. Some of the other reviews suggest you might be able to do it in 3--no way! The 101 takes you over the Golden Gate bridge, through suburban Marin strip-malls, through Marin/Sonoma cow country, then through crowded Santa Rosa, and finally through Sonoma wine country. I like to stop in towns like quaint but bustling Petaluma and Healdsburg (with its classic town square) on the way. The shopping fiend (uh...like my wife) likes the outlets in Petaluma.
At Cloverdale, you leave the 101 and take the 128 through Anderson Valley. 128 is pretty twisty until you get to the Valley proper--during the twisty stretch, the going is slow, and usually you're behind an RV. The Valley flattens out and has a nice straight stretch lined by wineries and produce stands. I personally find Boonville an interesting stop. Boonville is so remote, it actually had its own 1500 word dialect that has almost died out. Beer fans must stop at the Anderson Valley Brewing company, which makes fine beers. The produce stand on the south side of 128 in Philo is also an excellent stop. There are some wonderful redwood trails in the Hendy Woods park near Philo, just a short detour off the 128.
After Philo, 128 dips into the Navarro River valley. For about 15 miles, the road dances in and out of the redwood forest narrowly lining the river. It's a wonderful drive and the forest would be great to explore if it were not right on the highway.
Finally, 128 intersects with Highway 1, and you get some dramatic ocean cliff views (if it's not foggy). After you go through some micro-towns (Little River and Albion), you arrive in Mendocino proper. Fort Bragg is another 10 miles or so up Highway 1.
Mendocino is a fun town to stroll around. I especially enjoy window-shopping; usually this takes at least half a day. The shops range from kitschy to tony but in most cases are interesting. I especially like the toy store on Lansing (I've often found unique slinkies there!) and the Melting Pot (in the Mendocino Merchantile Building at the corner of Lansing and Main), a funky eclectic store with lots of ceramics, arty stuff and kaleidoscopes. Lisa and I have literally spent hours just looking at all of the different kaleidoscopes. Also check out the second story above the Melting Pot--interesting stuff up there too. Make sure to time your shopping right--most stores in town open at 10 or 11 and close at 5 or 6. After that, the town is very quiet.
There are good eats in town, although your selection is not huge. Everyone raves about Cafe Beaujolais, but we've not made it there yet (not cheap, and get reservations in advance). I personally love the Mendocino Cafe on Lansing, which is very popular. They have several wonderful dishes with tofu. There is also an intimidatingly skanky-looking shack to the immediate west of the health food store on Ukiah where you can get good, nutritious and reasonably cheap lunches if you're willing to sit outdoors.
We have stayed at the Joshua Grindle Inn in town (see my$.02's review of this) and at the Surf Motel in Fort Bragg (think "cheap" ($60+) motel on the main drag with vibrating beds). My sister stayed at the Albion Inn and loved it, but watch out for the foghorn! If you're into camping, there are a number of state campgrounds along Highway 1, but in season these are packed and also have the disadvantage of usually being in earshot of Highway 1 and those very loud logging trucks. My recommendation--splurge on a B&B room with a fireplace and a tub, and you'll win mega romance points.
Hiking opportunities are plentiful. We've hiked to the waterfall in Russian Gulch, a lovely but crowded hike on an old logging trail. We've also hiked the Ecological Staircase at the Jug Handle park to the Pygmy Forest, which I thought was a little overrated.
There is no need to go far from Mendocino, but if you do want to expand your horizons, check out Fort Bragg. Historically, Fort Bragg was a
logging town, and its roots still show. But the town has undergone a renaissance and is worth a look in its own right. North Coast Brewing Company makes good beers.
Other fun things to do in Mendocino that we've not done:
* watch whales from the headlands
* rent a kayak at the Van Damme park
* ride the Skunk train from Fort Bragg to Willits (this always struck me as a little too touristy).
As much as I love Mendocino, it does have its downsides:
* the weather can be pretty foul. As I said, it's often overcast and foggy. It also is generally pretty windy, and it rarely gets "warm." When a storm comes, watch out! Storms are pretty brutal on this part of the coast. You should expect huge quantities of rain, and usually there is a power outage that knocks out power to the entire town (except those places with their own generator).
* no nightlife. The town gets really quiet after dark. If you're looking to do anything after 9 p.m., you have to go to Fort Bragg.
* not easy to get to. My wife always gets nauseated on the drive.
* not cheap. Don't expect to do much bargain hunting in Mendocino for anything, including services such as gas, food and lodging.
But let's face it--these downsides are details and quibbles. They really don't detract from the idyllic nature of a visit to Mendocino--the best place in California.
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