At a Glance: John’s Favorites
Thank God for the art freaks. In the 1950s, Mendocino was falling apart, its tiny New England-style saltbox cottages decaying, the entire 19th-century fishing village nearly abandoned. Enter the bohemians, who fixed up the town and made it what it is today: a storybook village of rose-covered cottages, surrounded by white picket fences, on a rocky headland jutting into the icy-blue Pacific.
No place on the California coast conjures the romance of Mendocino. Fog swirls like evanescing ghosts. The scent of jasmine and lavender floats on the salt air, while the ocean roars in the distance. Front-yard gardens explode in a riot of colors and fragrances.
When I’m beginning a new love affair, I book a stay in Mendocino to seal the deal.
Mendo is not without its problems. On summer weekends, crowds turn the quiet village into a Disney-esque parody of itself, earning it the nickname ‘Spendocino’. The freaks are getting harder to spot: many of them sold out long ago, making way for second- and third-home owners, whose houses stand empty most of the year. Land prices have shot through the roof, and families are few and far between. Mendocino has become a victim of its own charm.
But life still moves at half tempo (God forbid you ever need an ambulance in this town), and art remains the cultural currency. There’s not a single billboard, fast-food joint, or cell-phone tower for miles around. And because the whole town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the surrounding lands protected in a series of state parks, nothing is going to change anytime soon, at least visually. Just remember to bring your platinum card.
- Fire up your romance in a coast-side hideaway.
- Ride the ebbing tide up Big River in an outrigger canoe.
- Roast marshmallows at a beach bonfire.
- Fall asleep to the ocean’s roar.
- Ditch your cell phone.
- Three hours from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Sky-high lodging prices; to economize, stay in Fort Bragg.
- Weekend crowds; don’t even think of coming without reservations.
- Pea-soup fog is the norm; pack layers.
See & Do
If you’ve never seen it, spend a day exploring the village. A good starting point: the Ford House Visitors Center, where you can fuel up on hot cider—an inviting detail on a foggy day—and check out a scale model of town in 1890. Ask about guided walks in nearby Mendocino Headlands State Park. Pick up a map too, if you want, but part of the fun of visiting Mendo is finding your own way as you explore the sleepy side streets. Fear not: it’s (nearly) impossible to get lost (for very long), since the ocean surrounds you on three sides.
On summer weekends, the Kelley House Museum hosts walking tours of town for ten bucks. Call ahead. The museum’s early-California collection entices history buffs and bookworms, but if you’ve got kids in tow, expect them to whine with boredom if you linger.
Seek out the tiny Kwan Tai Temple. Climb the rickety wooden staircase and peer through the glass to see the frozen-in-time 19th-century Taoist altar. It takes only seconds to see, but it’s compellingly eerie and collars me every time I see it.
Shopping is huge in Mendocino. Of the arty shops, I most love visiting Color and Light; it’s a working artist’s studio, and the stained-glass work is gorgeous. At the Village Toy Store, browse a huge selection of kites and wooden toys and games that don’t require any batteries—a godsend for harried parents who inevitably forget to buy the proper accessories for their kids’ toys. Astronomy geeks and birders: Don’t miss Out of This World, where you can drool over a fancy pair of binoculars or a new telescope; there’s a cool selection of science games too. If you like to make your own jewelry, check out the awesome selection of glass beads at Rubaiyat Beads.
The epicenter of town’s art scene, the Mendocino Art Center hosts cool exhibits, scores of classes, open studio tours, live performances, and second-Saturday gallery walks. Check the site for current offerings, or pop in while you’re here—but don’t be surprised if nobody can answer your impromptu queries; the artists here are myopic and usually can’t help with broader questions about the center.
The Mendocino Theatre Company puts on some damn good shows in the art center’s 90-seat black-box theatre. If there’s a show up while you’re here, book tickets.
Wish you could draw better? Visit the World of Suzi Long, a tiny shop in an old redwood water tower, and take a one-day landscape-drawing class. The 90-minute course costs $35; throw in another $35 for a pocket-sized sketchpad and watercolor set, and start painting pictures of the places you visit during your travels—very nifty indeed. Call ahead; this is strictly by reservation.
The town’s quiet streets dovetail into the windswept prairies of Mendocino Headlands State Park, where rocky bluffs rise from the surf. If it’s warm and lovely outdoors, bring a picnic, then trek along easy walking trails to watch the changing light on the ocean. This is the place to watch the sunset in Mendocino. In spring, take a guided wildflower walk (ask at the Ford House Visitor Center). In winter, the whale-watching is superb, but the season ends in early April and won’t resume again till November.
The longest undeveloped tidal estuary in Northern California runs 8.3 miles from the mouth of the Big River, which opens to the sea just south of the village. Rent a canoe, kayak, or (best of all) a redwood outrigger canoe from Catch a Canoe and Bicycles, Too!, and float upriver with the tide. The further inland you float, the quieter and warmer it gets. The wildlife viewing is spectacular. At present a debate rages about whether dogs should be allowed on the beach; if you’re bringing a pooch, read on.
If you’d rather laze on the sand of Big River State Beach at the river’s mouth, don’t park at the main parking area on the inland side of Highway 1; instead park by the Presbyterian Church on Main Street and take the stairs down. In the evening, bring wood and light a bonfire (buy firewood at Harvest Market at Mendosa’s, next to the hardware store on Lansing Street).
If you’re like most, you’ll walk a lot in Mendo. Soothe your aching gams in a hot tub at Sweetwater Spa. Tubs are available by the hour; book massages appointments in advance. Skirt-and-sweater travelers, take note: this isn’t Elizabeth Arden. Attendants don’t wear white lab coats, they wear Indian print skirts. (Bring your own spleef.)
State parks surround the village of Mendocino. South of town, divers and kayakers favor Van Damme State Park, but don’t overlook the fascinating pygmy forest, where a layer of hardpan beneath the topsoil prevents trees from growing tall, yielding bonsai-like redwoods and pines, decades old but barely a foot high. Take the 3-1/2-mile-long Fern Canyon Trail. If you’d rather explore sea caves than miniature forests, contact Kayak Mendocino; no experience necessary. Kayak tours cost $50.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse sits on a 300-acre wildlife preserve. It’s picturesque, but the one at Point Arena is way more dramatic, and you can climb up that one (for more, see our Sonoma-Mendo Coast guide). Still, the photo ops are good at Point Cabrillo, especially if you’re into lighthouses. It’s a couple miles north of the village.
Five miles north of the village, Jug Handle State Reserve is famous for its ecological staircase, where five wave-cut terraces rise like stair steps, each one 100ft higher than the next, and 10,000 years apart in geological evolution. (One of the steps has a pygmy forest, but the one at Van Damme is better.) Jug Handle mostly appeals to rock geeks; otherwise it’s just a lovely, 2-1/2-mile-long walk through the woods to a rocky promontory and beach with drop-dead ocean views.
The money shots at Russian Gulch State Park are the Devil’s Punchbowl, a collapsed sea cave with ocean water swirling round and round; and the ‘blow hole,’ a 100ft-wide, 60ft-deep hole in a rock outcropping, where you can peer inside and watch the ocean churn and roil. Nearby are critter-packed tide pools. Check the tides: come at high tide for the blow hole, low tide for the tide pools. The park is two miles north of the village.
It’s worth a ten-mile drive to visit (some of) the sights in Fort Bragg, the blue-collar lumber town north of Mendo. The last of the mills closed a few years ago, leaving the town to reinvent itself. Downtown is cute, but you have to navigate through suburban sprawl to get there. Alas, Fort Bragg is the only town on Highway 1 north of the Golden Gate where you’ll spot Golden Arches.
Into gardening? You’ll drop your jaw at the stunning Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, one of the most spectacular botanical gardens in Northern California. From wild and fragrant pine forests, to lush rhododendron dells, to wildflower-studded fields of native grasses, these gardens are among the most beautiful I’ve seen, partly because of their location on cliffs above the Pacific—the ocean’s roar is never out of ear shot. Check the website to learn what’s in bloom.
If you’ve got kids, a trip on the Skunk Train is a must. Originally a logging train through the redwoods, trains run from Fort Bragg into the woods along the Noyo River, ultimately reaching Willits. The open-topped cars are a treat on a warm day. Unless you’re a train fanatic, the ride gets a bit monotonous; the 3-1/2-hour roundtrip to Northspur (the half-way point to Willits) is plenty long. Trains leave at 10am. Make reservations.
Go wine-tasting in tiny Westport, 15 miles north of Fort Bragg. Pacific Star Winery sits high atop an ocean-view bluff, a gorgeous spot for a picnic (b.y.o.). The Italian varietals
are surprisingly good, and tastings are free. Best of all, the view. Bring your camera. And do not get hammered—you’ll need your wits about you to navigate curvy Hwy 1.
Road-trippers and off-road aficionados: Get a taste of the Lost Coast, that wild stretch of land that juts like a burl off the California coast, north of Mendocino and south of Eureka. The terrain is so rugged that Caltrans couldn’t successfully build a road through, which is why coastal Hwy 1 cuts inland and ends at Hwy 101 in Leggett. (Hence the coast being ‘lost.’)
Much of the land is protected in wilderness areas and state parks, and it’s unlike anyplace else in California. Mountains rise a mile straight up from the sea. Landslides are the norm. If you want to disappear, this is the place.
Here’s the itinerary for your teaser trip to the Lost Coast. Pack a picnic basket and head 30 minutes north of Fort Bragg. Continue to where Hwy 1 cuts inland; at mileage-marker 90.88, turn onto County Rd 431 and follow the rutted dirt road atop high cliffs six miles to Usal Beach Campground, where you can spot roaming elk and picnic by the beach. The road is graded once annually, in spring. Take it slow! To travel past the campground, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle and a chainsaw. No kidding. Don’t take this road in winter or during rainy season. Nervous drivers: Forget you read any of this.
Mendocino and Fort Bragg Restaurants
There are some great mid- and high-end dining around Mendo, but the local culinary landscape doesn’t change often. Here’s a quick rundown.
At the top of everyone’s list of places to dine in Mendocino, Café Beaujolais ($$$$) put Mendo on the culinary map. And it’s totally worth a visit, if only once. Beaujolais may be the most famous, but the best cooking is at Rendezvous Inn ($$$$) in Fort Bragg. Firmly rooted in French technique but tempered by a California sensibility, the menu changes with the seasons. At the MacCallum House ($$$$), expect hearty Euro-Cal cooking like roasted meats, lamb and duck, house-made gnocchi, and fresh seafood. Great breakfasts too.
The cooking is heartfelt and earthy at Moosse Café ($$$–$$$$), with soul-satisfying dishes like macaroni-and-cheese and braised short ribs. The Ravens ($$$–$$$$), at the Stanford Inn, elevates vegetarian cooking and healthful eating to high art. It also makes Mendocino’s best breakfast.
Thank God the only midprice restaurant in the village of Mendocino is good: the Mendocino Café ($$–$$$) blends American, Asian, and Mexican. When cocktails are as important as dinner, head to Patterson’s Pub ($$), an Irish bar with good pub grub.
Fill up on organic-veggie burritos at Lu’s Kitchen ($), a tiny order-at-the-window shack with outside seating. The burgers are awesome at hard-to-find Mendo Burgers ($). Stock up on picnic supplies, grab-and-go prepared foods, staples, and wine and beer at Harvest Market at Mendosa’s ($), on Lansing St. Or pick up sandwiches at itty-bitty Mendocino Market ($).
Surprise, surprise: there’s a stellar French-Thai restaurant in Fort Bragg, called Nit’s Café. ($$$–$$$$). Also in Fort Bragg, overlooking the water, Chapter and Moon ($$) serves folksy American cooking like chicken and dumplings. For thin-crust pizza, microbrews, and local wine, head to Piaci Pub and Pizzeria ($–$$).
Read full-length reviews of my favorite Mendocino and Fort Bragg restaurants.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
On a cold and foggy evening, cozy up to the bar at the 1878 Mendocino Hotel and surround yourself with dark-wood paneling and Oriental rugs. Keep your eyes peeled for the resident ghost.
The Irish-style Patterson’s Pub ($) is a cozy, middle-of-the-road spot for cocktails—not too fancy, not too shabby—safe enough to bring your parents, but also good for buds who want to get hammered and watch the game.
Inside a lovely Victorian inn surrounded, the Gray Whale Bar at the MacCallum House is an atmospheric spot for wine and appetizers, especially on the window-lined veranda overlooking the gardens outside.
Mendocino looks pretty on the outside, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a surprising number of dirt bags. And they all seem to get wasted at Dick’s Place. It’s not for me, but if you like to drink till you black out, stumble on in and join the party.
Mendocino Inns, B&Bs, & Hotels
I’ve seen all of Mendocino’s inns and B&Bs, but have only listed the inns I like best.
My favorite place to stay in Mendocino is the Stanford Inn ($$$$). On the edge of the village, Alegria Oceanfront Inn & Cottages ($$$$) is Mendocino’s only inn with private beach access. For the classic Mendocino experience, book the Joshua Grindle Inn ($$$–$$$$), town’s original B&B.
The John Dougherty House ($$$–$$$$) is one of Mendocino’s only inns that was styled by real decorators. Likewise the Packard House ($$$$), which looks like something off the pages of Architectural Digest. For a rural retreat, get off the grid at Howard Creek Ranch ($–$$$).
The rates are great at the Blue Heron Inn ($$) and the beds are deliciously comfortable. If you’re tight on cash but want the classic Mendocino experience of a Victorian B&B, try the Sea Gull Inn ($–$$).
I have mixed feelings about the Mendocino Hotel ($–$$$$), but some of the rooms are a bargain in pricey Mendocino—never mind the (friendly) ghost. Across Hwy 1 from the village, the Blackberry Inn ($$–$$$) has comfy rooms with traditional American furnishings and fireplaces.
Read full-length reviews of my favorite Mendocino inns.
Fort Bragg Motels, Inns, and B&Bs
You’ll get more bang for your buck in Fort Bragg, a blue-collar lumber town 10 miles north of Mendocino. Think of Fort Bragg as Mendo’s ugly stepsister. The best reasons to stay here are: a.) you can’t afford Mendocino, or b.) Mendocino’s inns are full. Here’s a selective list of Fort Bragg properties.
Budgeteers: If you’re considering one of the motels on the suburban strip of Hwy 1 south of downtown, be forewarned that most do not have air conditioning, which means you’ll have to sleep with the windows open an endure truck noise. Of these cheap motels, the Super 8 ($) has totally generic rooms, but indeed has air conditioning.
The best bargain on the entire north coast is the Colombi Motel ($); every unit has two rooms, either two bedrooms, or a bedroom and a kitchen—a boon for families on a budget. And it’s off the main drag. For the most family-friendly amenities, stay at the Holiday Inn Express ($$), which has an indoor swimming pool.
On ocean-front bluff north of downtown, there are several motels in a row with the ocean roaring right outside the back door. The Beachcomber ($$) is my first choice. It’s a bit fancy-pants for a motor lodge, but service is good and oh! those views.
Of Fort Bragg’s B&B inns, the Weller House ($$–$$$) is by far the nicest. A beautifully restored 1886 Victorian, the inn has a grand floor-to-ceiling redwood-paneled ballroom on the third floor, where guests congregate over backgammon boards. There’s a hot tub in the adjacent water tower, town’s highest structure. The decor is traditional Victorian; leave the kids home or they might break something.
I love the Rendezvous Inn ($–$$), if only because the best chef on the Mendocino coast cooks your breakfast (really). Rooms are upstairs in a Craftsman-style house. They’re nothing fancy (at all), but they’re clean and have the basic comforts. Out back there’s a freestanding cottage ($$$) that sleeps four, good for families.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up