If it's charm and scenery you're looking for in your next getaway, a prime candidate would be Mendocino, the quiet, picturesque town built on a bluff overlooking an especially turbulent part of the northern California coastline.Located near coastal wine country about 150 miles north of San Francisco, Mendocino has long been a darling of Hollywood movie-makers who know a spectacularly scenic coastline when they see one. While the area has been featured in various movies, its biggest claim to fame is serving as the backdrop for all the exterior shots on the television series Murder She Wrote. Who can forget the scenery of Cabot Cove – supposedly in the state of Maine – which was woven throughout these popular murder-mystery episodes during the series hay day back in the 1980s? Today Mendocino is the destination of choice for travelers wanting a more intimate bed-and-breakfast kind of experience in one of dozens of inns along this stretch of California coastline. The typical Mendocino visit might include time spent in front of a warm fireplace along with walks down many trails that offer breathtaking views of the craggy Mendocino coastline. Most visitors combine that with a little time spent perusing the unique, generally upscale shops in the historic village of Mendocino and some fine dining. On our most recent visit we stayed at the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek, a collection of cozy cottages and rooms perched on a hillside overlooking the ocean in the town of Little River, a few miles south of Mendocino. It's all about the trees along this part of the Mendocino coast and the inn's nine acres include plenty of these living art forms that each show a long history of struggle against the powerful winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. Tree trunks around here come in sets and a typical tree might have a half-dozen trunks with branch formations that have been shaped by the winds for many decades or even longer. While the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek is a bed-and-breakfast inn, it's not one big gingerbread house as you might envision. The individual accommodations are spread out and each offers a particular charm. There are cute little Hansel-and-Gretel cottages as well as buildings with two or three units, each comfortably furnished to make your getaway feel like it's your own small cabin or cottage. This is an unpretentious place to stay – not the kind of luxury you might experience in a Ritz-Carlton, but still a cozy place with upscale charm that is anything but cookie-cutter. The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek, we think, would be an especially good spot for a romantic getaway. Our room, for example, had a double Jacuzzi tub that was just the right size for two people, with a fireplace not too far away. There was a small flat-screen television but, judging from the supplies available in the room, guests probably spend a lot more time playing one of the many board games that were available. Two reclining wooden chairs were just outside the front porch offering a view of the ocean. There was lots of grass between us and our neighbors and pathways leading to lush gardens located near small groves of those ubiquitous trees. The romantic theme is carried even further with the inn's spa facilities – actually a "yurt" that is used as a treatment room where guests can enjoy ocean views and the natural feeling created by a nearby canopy of trees. The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek also has become a destination for gourmet diners and is known among locals for serving some of the best cuisine in the area. The Inn has partnered with the owners of La Petite Rive to provide the scrumptious breakfast included with your stay, but the restaurant – located right on the inn's property -- actually gets about 75 percent of its business from people in the community and guests at other Mendocino-area inns. It's said that even Robert Redford fell in love with the place and once drove from San Francisco to Mendocino only to be turned away because the restaurant was fully booked. It's not hard to see why this restaurant is constantly booked to capacity. For one thing, it's quite small with room for maybe 25 people at a time. But the other reason, of course, is the food is exquisitely prepared. La Petite Rive is an experience, not just a dinner. Plan on spending at least two hours as the restaurant takes you through the various courses, allowing plenty of time in between for good conversation and soaking up the views of the Pacific coastline. For around $40, guests are treated to a complete dinner that includes an entrée with four additional courses: amouse-bouche, soup, salad and a palate refresher. Entrees are presented with the chef's choice of a side dish, a fresh vegetable and warm bread. For our entrées, we tried the Filet Mignon Pepper Steak and the Cilantro Scampi – both of which were prepared to perfection. Alex, our server, helped make the dinner memorable with her engaging personality and attention to detail. Of course a trip to Mendocino is not just curling up in a cozy bed-and-breakfast or enjoying a gourmet meal – the area is considered a paradise for visitors who love to hike and enjoy the seashore. For example, the Mendocino Headlands Park surrounds Mendocino on three sides and there are three miles of trails that offer amazing views of the ocean and, during winter, you can even spot whales offshore during their annual migration. Nearby Russian Gulch State Park offers 1,305 acres to explore, including a blowhole where the Pacific Ocean has burrowed a 200-foot tunnel inland. At high tide, visitors can look through a wide hole to see the ocean thrashing and churning below. There are about 10 miles of trails in the park, including one to a picturesque waterfall. We took a few minutes to walk a half-mile out to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and Preserve, just outside of Mendocino. The lighthouse was first illuminated in 1909 and it has since been completely restored and opened to the public. In addition to the lighthouse there are many historic buildings in the immediate area including the innkeeper's house which is available for vacation rental. While you're out at the lighthouse there are lots of coastal areas to explore as well. Altogether there are 270 acres in the preserve offering access to windswept bluffs, meadows and forested areas. About 10 miles up the coast from Mendocino is Fort Bragg, where we found the Guest House Museum, a fascinating look at life on the coast dating back to the 19th Century. The museum is a house that was built for the Fort Bragg Redwood Company and later used as a guest house for the company. Today it houses an elaborate photographic exhibit of early times along the coast. The collection of photographs shows old-time lumber workers and their families and the various buildings in the area as they appeared in the 19th Century. For history buffs, the Guest House Museum is a must-see. Whatever your reason for visiting Mendocino, the area will not disappoint you. The combination of unique lodging, fine dining, interesting shops and many diverse forms of outdoor recreation and scenery is a powerful attraction for people who make it a point to visit Mendocino on a regular basis.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Mendocino is about 150 miles north of San Francisco or about 100 miles north of Santa Rosa. There are a couple of routes to get there from Highway 101 – Highway 128, which takes you over 60-plus miles of curvy mountain roads, or Highway 20, about 33 miles of curvy roads, but a bit out of the way and 37 miles further.
WHAT: Mendocino is known as an artists'community and one of the most naturally beautiful places along the California coast. The area offers incredible scenery and diverse recreational opportunities, not to mention a number of fine bed-and-breakfast inns.
WHEN: Any time of year.
WHY: Mendocino is a get-back-to-Nature kind of place, but that doesn't mean you have to rough it. In fact, most people stay in comfortable bed-and-breakfast inns and enjoy fine dining at places like La Petite Rive and MacCallum House.
Photos, from top, Mendocino is perched on dramatic bluff; Point Cabrillo Lighthouse; La Petite Rive; Guest House Museum; cottage at Inn at Schoolhouse Creek
Photos by CARY ORDWAY