Mendocino County ranks with Monterey and Tahoe among the best long-weekend getaways from the Bay Area. You already knew that. But to get the most from the north coast, try veering off the beaten path.
More than once, you have probably tooled up Highways 101 and 128, stopping to sample the newest vintages at your favorite Anderson Valley tasting rooms before bedding down in charming Mendocino village. After a coastal hike and beach break on Highway 1 the next day, you head home fully refreshed.
It’s tough to top that itinerary, but there are new, different and off-the-radar things to see, taste, and experience in Mendocino County, as I learned on a recent weekend trip with my mate. It started with a winery, but not one of the usual suspects. Few Mendocino visitors notice the Pacific Star Winery because they don’t go that far north. America’s only winery located right on the ocean is a strikingly scenic 12-mile drive past Fort Bragg.
“I watched Napa Valley change in the ’80s and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” said Sally Ottoson of closing her Napa winery in 1987 to open Pacific Star on 15 coast-hugging acres. Meanwhile, a whale breached 200 feet offshore — a common sight year-round. Most patrons taste a few of her rare and unusual wines, like the Charbono (grown on only 90 acres worldwide), and wander the low bluffs on the winery meadow above the churning sea. Others buy a bottle to pair with a picnic on the meadow’s ocean-facing Adirondack chairs.
Instead of a paired picnic, we dined alfresco that evening at Noyo Harbor Inn in Fort Bragg, Mendocino village’s widely overlooked northern neighbor. The restaurant’s tiered decks and lodge rooms peer down on the town’s fishing-fleet harbor, where a small but vocal colony of sea lions resides. They barked (perhaps with envy) as we enjoyed seared scallop risotto and grilled octopus, then barked some more to wake us the next morning in our room, which was equipped with a couples soaking tub. The 151-year-old Craftsman-style lodge building reopened two years ago after a six-year, $1.6-million renovation.
Fort Bragg’s Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens came next. Many visitors drive right past the gardens on their way to the Skunk Train, the town’s only other real attraction. But California’s only botanical gardens found right on the coast are glorious: 47 acres of flora, from the heritage roses and dahlias near the entrance to the untamed woods at the sea. We admired sculptures scattered around the gardens and paused to take in the vista from the glass-sided “cliff house” perched on a bluff. We could have spent more time hiking the crisscrossing trails — Fern Canyon, Canyon Rim, Shore Pine — but adventure awaited.
Hidden from view near Mendocino village on Big River is Catch-a-Canoe, known for its unique, lightweight, stable outrigger canoes, carved from reclaimed redwood, that accommodate two to eight people. We paddled up the lazy river deep into the forest, past a river otter, seabirds and fellow canoeing couples. (Kayaks, paddle boards and mountain bikes are also rented from the shop.) Big River, big treat.
Dinner that night at Harbor House Inn would have concluded a perfect day, but the 20 seats at the fine dining restaurant in Elk (16 miles south of Mendocino) were spoken for. It became the hottest reservation in the county after earning a Michelin star in June, one year after the inn-restaurant reopened following an eight-year renovation. But chef Matt Kammerer took a moment to chat with me before preparing the night’s first course: halibut with cured egg yolk, horseradish and espelette.
“Huge surprise,” said the former chef at San Francisco’s three-Michelin-star Saison. “Suddenly, we’re filling the restaurant every weekend.” He and his colleagues pickup ingredients each morning from nearby farmers, ranchers and fishermen before working their magic. The eight- to 12-course tasting menu changes nightly; the seascape from the restaurant seldom does.
We dined elsewhere before heading to the Philo Apple Farm, a few blocks off Highway 128 — not to pick any of the 80 heirloom-apple varieties on the farm’s 1,500 trees but to sleep. The “green door” cottage in the middle of the orchard was ours; the key dangling from a hook inside seemed unnecessary. Pears, raspberries, vegetables and flowers are also grown on the farm, which we explored before dusk.
Late-rising roosters crowed our wakeup call in plenty of time to savor house-made biscuits, granola and Apple Farm apple juice with the other guests and co-owner Karen Bates. She noted that the biodynamically grown trees blossom in spring and drop their fruit through Halloween.
Soon it was time for us to leave, having seen a side of Mendocino County less traveled and not soon forgotten. We resolved to return as soon as a Harbor House dinner reservation opens up.
A Mendo expert weighs in
Robert Mailer Anderson (writer, philanthropist, man-about-town, Anderson Valley native)
“A couple of obvious places that are dear to my heart are the [Philo] Apple Farm, run by Tim Bates and his family that started the original French Laundry and now also run Table 128 [at the Boonville Hotel]. From the heirloom honor-system-purchased apples and the cooking classes, to the free-range [chickens] roaming around their orchards, to a local’s luck to have Tim let you sip some applejack (also known as calvados) from his still beneath the storage barn, it is a can’t-miss of Mendo County. Also, people should check in at The Anderson Valley Advertiser and [visit] my uncle Bruce. It may be the last newspaper of its kind, and he still welcomes locals to drop in and shoot the shit, talk politics and sports, and whatever may pass as the news.”
Pacific Star Winery pacificstarwinery.com, Thu. to Sun., noon-5 p.m., 707-964-1155.
Noyo Harbor Inn noyoharborinn.com, restaurant open nightly 5-9 p.m., 707-961-8000.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens gardenbythesea.org, daily 9 a.m.- 4 p.m.,707-964-4352.
Catch-a-Canoe & Bicycles Too catchacanoe.com, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.,707-937-0273.
Harbor House Inn restaurant theharborhouseinn.com, Thu. to Mon., 6 p.m. seating, 800-720-7474.
Philo Apple Farm philoapplefarm.com, 707-621-0335.