Here's the dilemma: You're in San Francisco and thinking about taking off for a weekend adventure, and you've heard plenty of great things about the town of Mendocino, which is about 150 miles up the coast. However, getting there involves a long, winding drive, and there's already so much you want to see that's closer to San Francisco. Is it really worth skipping the Russian River and the wine-soaked Napa and Sonoma valleys in favor of Mendocino County? If you're seeking a tranquil, remote, and romantic getaway and love the feel of zooming along spectacular roads through eye-popping scenery, then yes, Mendocino unequivocally deserves a visit.
This cliff-top community manages to look charming without ever feeling cloying or over-commercialized. The far-flung setting (cell phones don't work in parts of town and much of the surrounding county) and the many eco-minded, free-spirited, and creative locals help to keep the place from growing too rapidly. It's often credited as being one of the nation's earliest major hubs of organic farming. It's also a place where loggers, tourists, winegrowers, writers, farmers, hippies, techies, and fishermen all treasure and more-or-less get along in. And while it's by no means a major gay tourism hub, it does have a strong following among same-sex couples who appreciate the low-keyed vibe, alluring seclusion, and utterly stunning setting.
The most intriguing activities in coastal Mendocino County usually involve one kind of touring or another. You can rent mountain bikes, kayaks, or canoes and explore the region's rivers and country lanes. And you can scamper (carefully) along oceanfront bluffs that loom high over the frothy Pacific surf and watch whales during the spring and fall migrations. A great place for this is Mendocino Headlands State Park, which is an easy walk from downtown. The park offers whale-watching, wildflower, history, and other walking tours throughout the year.
Fort Bragg also has a pair of notable attractions. On the south edge of town, you can wander among a dense profusion of cypress trees, rhododendrons, dahlias, and camellias at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which is a 47-acre property that draws more than 150 types of birds and extends clear out to the rocky beach. Downtown, book a 21-mile sightseeing excursion through otherwise inaccessible redwood forests on the Skunk Train, which was built back in the 1880s to serve the logging industry. It's a very fun way to see the region's stunning scenery.
Exploring Anderson Valley Wine Country
You can go wine-touring in the adjacent Anderson Valley Wine Country, whose cool climate is particularly suitable for turning out stellar Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. The Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance has information on tastings at the more than 35 vineyards open to the public—most are open daily from late morning to late afternoon.
One of the most beautiful properties for touring is Goldeneye Winery in the small town of Philo. The winery is set against a backdrop of lovely gardens and beyond that, acres of vineyards that produce the grapes used for Goldeneye's superb Pinot Noir. Enjoy some wine in its airy tasting room, or on a sunny day, it's hard to think of a nicer way to sample the winery's vino than relaxing on the patio out back. You can upgrade your experience by pairing your tasting with food—try either the Alfresco Picnic Lunch or the Vineyard Picnic Basket, which come with an assortment of tasty meats, cheeses, and other treats.
Another outstanding winemaker with beautiful grounds and fascinating wine tours available by appointment is Roederer Estate, which produces rich, complex sparkling wines in the méthode champenoise tradition. This is the California outpost of the acclaimed two-century-old Louis Roederer Champagne producer in France, and these highly informative and entertaining tours provide a detailed sense of the tremendous effort that goes into producing these fine sparkling wines.
Some other excellent wineries in the area well worth a visit include Scharffenberger Cellars, another first-rate sparkling-wine producer; Navarro Vineyards, which gives excellent twice-daily tours and produces a nice range of well-priced, high-quality varieties, from dry Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir and Zinfandel; and Edmeades, which has established a well-deserved reputation for outstanding Zinfandels as well as producing a quite lovely Petit Sirah.
If you're looking for provisions and food during your outing, be sure to stop in the small, charming town of Boonville, which is home to a few excellent restaurants, among them Lauren's, Aquarelle Wine Bar, and the high-end farm-to-table eatery Table 128 Bistro. At the south end of town, craft-beer lovers should also check out esteemed Anderson Valley Brewing Company, which pours some of its most interesting beers in its spacious taproom and beer garden. There's no food served here, but you're welcome to bring your own.
The Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association provides details on all of the area's wineries, as does the Visit Mendocino. You can find details on wine-touring opportunities in two other parts of the county, the Mendocino Coast, and the increasingly prolific and acclaimed inland Redwood Corridor, which is home to a number of fine wineries set along US 101 from Hopland north through Ukiah and Redwood Valley. Another excellent resource is the Wine Institute of California, which offers information about different wine regions around the state, including a guide to Mendocino wineries.
A great time of year for visiting is the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, held annually in mid- to late May and features a number of events related to the region's most famous grape variety. Earlier in the year, the International Alsace Varietals Festival (late February) and then in summer the Anderson Valley Barrel Tasting Weekend (July) are enjoyable as well. Fans of wine-touring should also make a particular effort to visit the area during California Wine Month in September and Down To Earth Month in April, which is focused around sustainability and eco-friendly winemaking, practices that are near and dear to many Mendocino winemakers.
Gay-Friendly Cafes and Bars
In addition to wine, the area is quite famous for its mushroom harvesting (chanterelles are a specialty). For 12 days in mid-November, you can even attend the Mendocino Mushroom, Wine, and Beer Festival, which celebrates these delectable fungi with mushroom exhibits, guided mushroom-hunting tours, mushroom-growing classes, winery and brewery tours, winemaker dinners, and cooking classes. Another great time to visit is in January when the region hosts the Mendocino Crab, Wine, and Beer Festival, which is a week-long party with still more contests, tastings, and yummy exhibits.
Of course, if you can't attend one of the festivals and you don't have time for wine-touring, you can still enjoy the bounty of great wines, organic produce, and heavenly mushrooms by grabbing a meal at one of the area's many superb restaurants. One of the most outstanding dining options in town, the Trillium Cafe, is warmed by a fireplace and has just about a dozen tables as well as an outdoor deck that's a wonderful spot for a meal on warm days. Amiable owners Sandra and Saul McElroy and their talented culinary team turn out superb contemporary fare focused on local produce, seafood, and seasonal ingredients, including bountiful salads, Thai curry vegetable potpies, grilled wild King salmon with pistachio-basil-pesto cream, local peppered albacore, and some incredible desserts—the Meyer lemon cream tart is a classic. Note that Trillium is also a small, reasonably priced inn with three charming rooms upstairs.
Foodies should also check out the Mendocino County Farmers Market, held on Friday afternoons on Howard Street during May through October. Here you can find the juiciest tomatoes imaginable, plus strawberry jam, lavender honey, and other delicious organic produce.
Great dining is one reason to consider popping up to Fort Bragg, the largest town in the region. A former logging hub that suffered as that industry went into decline, the community has enjoyed a bit of a comeback lately and now bustles with funky shops, art galleries, tattoo parlors, and a few cool restaurants. Drop inside Union Lumber Company Store, a massive old warehouse that now contains several boutiques as well as the Mendocino Cookie Company and the snazzy Mendo Bistro, which earns kudos for creative seafood and pasta, including spinach-and-goat-cheese gnocchi with sundried tomatoes, pine nuts, and lemon.
Another A-one option is The Restaurant, a rambling downtown tavern serving up tasty razor clams, pan-fried oysters, and hefty burgers. For espresso, a light lunch, or breakfast, consider the sun-filled Headlands Coffeehouse in downtown Fort Bragg. You can find more great snacking a few blocks away at Cowlicks Ice Cream Cafe, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with some distinctive flavors, from lotus cream to green tea.
Gay-Friendly B&Bs and Inns
Mendocino and nearby villages offer a wealth of gay-friendly inns and B&Bs, including some of the most luxurious getaways in northern California. Right downtown, the sumptuous Joshua Grindle Inn contains perhaps the cushiest guest rooms around, many with deep whirlpool tubs. Three of them are set inside one of the several imposing wooden water towers that punctuate Mendocino's skyline. A short drive south of town near verdant Van Damme State Park, the Glendeven Inn looks like a Maine farmhouse and is surrounded by lush gardens and dewy meadows. Most of the rooms here have private decks overlooking the ocean and are warmed by fireplaces.
Young, ambitious owners have transformed MacCallum House into a top-notch luxury inn and restaurant with a cozy bar that's lovely for wine-tasting. Many of the rooms are in the 1882 gingerbread Victorian, and several outbuildings afford brilliant water views. In the restaurant, dive into a plate of caramelized scallops with a fondue of Belgian endive, applewood-smoked bacon, and port wine.
Just a few miles south of downtown Mendocino on Highway 1, the historic Little River Inn is another excellent option with stunning views overlooking spectacular Van Damme Beach and the Pacific Ocean. Set on a 225-acre parcel of sweeping lawns and forested hillsides, the inn property comprises a golf course, spa, two lighted tennis courts, an outstanding restaurant serving local seafood and steaks, and a variety of accommodations set among several buildings, most with sweeping ocean views and private or shared balconies, and many with hot tubs, fireplaces, and refrigerators. Run by the same hospitable family for five generations, the inn is also a favorite destination for weddings and has hosted several same-sex ceremonies.
Driving Scenic Highway 1
About 20 miles down Highway 1 in the dramatically situated village of Elk, consider the Elk Cove Inn and Spa, a fancy small hotel set on breathtaking grounds that tumble toward the ocean. It's just a short walk along Highway 1 from Queenie's Roadhouse Cafe, a quirky little cafe set inside a vintage auto garage. Stopping for a meal here followed by an afternoon massage at the Elk Cove Inn is a terrific way to end a weekend in Mendocino.
Getting to Mendocino
The drive to Mendocino affords one memorable photo op after another. Start by following U.S. Route 101 north out of San Francisco, up through the heart of Sonoma's Wine Country—you can always detour to Healdsburg or even the town of Sonoma if you want to take in a bit of that area. At Cloverdale, you cut west along Highway 128 through the Anderson Valley, which is fast becoming California's hotspot for wine-growing. Eventually, you pass through a forest of massive redwoods before hitting Highway 1 a little below Mendocino. Without stops, it's about a three-hour drive.
On the way back, allow an extra two to three hours and follow Highway 1 directly down the coast to San Francisco. Mileage-wise, this drive is only slightly longer than the U.S. Route 101 version, and it's a stunning—although, at times, hair-raising—journey along oceanside cliffs and through a series of adorable villages: Elk, Point Arena (famous for its huge lighthouse), Gualala, Jenner (where you can easily detour into the Russian River), Bodega Bay, and Point Reyes Station.
If you're coming to Mendocino the far-less-common way, from the north, you're in for still plenty of amazing scenery, including some breathtaking stands of redwood forests.
As you might guess about an area cherished for its isolation and quiet, the area doesn't exactly throb with music clubs and nightspots. However, right in downtown Mendocino, Patterson's Pub can get pretty lively—it's a nice place to mingle with locals. Up in Fort Bragg, fans of craft beer shouldn't miss North Coast Brewing, one of the iconic breweries of Northern California.