Mendocino – In and Out of the Movies

More than forty films have been made in the tiny Northern California town of Mendocino. Some of these films are a little dated, “Same Time Next Year,” “The Summer of ’42.” They belong to a time when America was a more distant, glossier place, when both love and travel could evoke glamour and romance and when we thought the global village was probably a ride at Disneyland.

Mendocino belongs to that same time and there is nothing wrong in that. This artists’ colony, a hundred and fifty miles north of San Francisco, has no supermarkets, fast food chains or motels. The town does, however, have Bed and Breakfasts -. They are not cheap – a room costs a minimum of $100 but Mendocino’s location, perched on the cliffs high above the Pacific ocean, makes them some of the most romantic B&Bs in America. And, being Californian B&Bs, hot-tubs and wood-burning fireplaces are as automatic as unlimited coffee with breakfast.

Built by escapees from the bitter Northeastern winters in Maine, the town originally lived off fishing and logging from the surrounding giant redwood forests .Most of the buildings have the white clapboard New England style of architecture. They also film “Murder She Wrote” here but, because of the change from East to West coast, they have to be careful where they situate the sunsets.

Both tourists and fog are drawn to the little town in summer. Better to come in the crisper, brighter autumn or winter. The ocean is the dramatic, turbulent Northern Californian version – excellent for long, bracing hikes along the beach but definitely no swimming or sunbathing. In November, the town holds a Mushroom and Wine Fest with wine and mushroom tastings and fungi forays into the forest. Also in November, when the Arctic grey whales begin their annual migration south, the wooden water towns that are scattered throughout Mendocino provide excellent viewing platforms. In late January come the “Crab and Wine Days” with more tastings and the chance to ride out with the crab fishermen.

In high season, a lot of the B&Bs ask for a minimum three day stay. In such a tiny, secluded, stupendously beautiful spot as this you could easily spend three days just watching that ocean and waiting for the sunset. I started my stay with an hour long walk around the headland, just minutes beyond the shops of Main Street, on precarious cliffs high above dark caves and the smooth beige beach far below.

There are fine hiking trails all around the town but save some time to walk through the spectacular ferns, fuschias and other flora just a few miles north at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (134 Highway I – tel:707 964 4352) the only public garden in the USA situated directly on the ocean. During the Mushroom and Wine Fest, fungi forays are led through the gardens.

Just a mile or so north of the gardens at Fort Bragg, California Western Railroad’s Skunk Train, with a steam engine on selected days, will take you deep into the redwood forest. You can even pay a supplement and ride in the cab with the engineer.

Back in Mendocino, the Kelley House Museum on Main Street is dedicated to the history of the Mendocino Coast. Also on Main Street the Ford House Museum will tell you more about those thirty or so water towers that make the skyline so unique.

Many of the shops are quirky and unique: Wind and Weather in a water tower on Albion for the paraphernalia of weather, Papa Birds, also on Albion, for organized bird walks and all the paraphernalia of birds. WilkesSport combines elegant men and women’s clothing with a gallery featuring local art. Old recordings can be found at Alphonso’s on Main.

One of my all time best breakfasts was a guacamole and salsa omelette with a freshly baked cranberry muffin, taken out on the upper deck with the locals at the Bay View Café. Comfortable, small-town, early morning bustle and views out over the wildflowers and the royal blue Pacific just a few hundred yards away.

If you are visiting the Botanical Gardens or taking the Skunk Train, stop by the wharf at Fort Bragg for seal watching and seafood lunch at The Wharf or Sharon’s by the Sea. Try Mama Carini’s for fat crab sandwiches- all at North Harbor Drive.

Back in Mendocino, Café Beaujolais on Ukiah St is nationally famous, has its own cookbook and a changeable menu that features fresh local ingredients in dishes such as tuna wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon and rosemary roasted chicken. Next door at “955 Ukiah Street” seafood is a speciality.

At the end of a peaceful, if bracing day stop by the ornate Mendocino hotel for drinks or the small, cosy, Irish Patterson’s Pub on Lancing .

And then where? In a town where the best thing to do is nothing, the place where you do it is important. I stayed at the John Dougherty House – it has an English garden tumbling towards the Pacific, fireplaces, early American antiques in the rooms and a fabulous breakfast around a communal dining table. Notices warn that the two house cats are pushy. I ignored the notices, let Tristan sleep on the bed and woke up convinced that my room was haunted when the cat started to snore. Other lovelier night sounds are the Pacific crashing against the rocks and the foghorn groaning like a mournful old sea monster in the bay.

Further up the coast at Fort Bragg is the Weller House Inn, right next to the Skunk Train depot. This working town provides a welcome contrast to all that unrelenting Mendocino loveliness. Run by Ted and Eva Kidwell, a couple of classical musicians, the entrance hall of the Weller Inn looks like the James Stewart house in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Breakfast is served in the third floor ballroom. Along the road is a glass beach…Many years ago it was the town dump. People threw thousands of discarded bottles there – the Pacific went to work at tumbling the glass of all colours and now it glitters with flashes of blue, red and green on a sunny day.