MENDOCINO, Calif. — They came, in the 1800s, for the whaling and the timber: the Kelleys, the Kastens, the MacCallums, the Hills, the Fords. They brought with them a powerful love of the sea and the tenacity to create new lives on the harsh and beautiful Northern California coast.
The homes they built and the village that grew up around them were mirror images of those they left behind in New England.
Mendocino was home to as many as 12,000 people in its heyday. Today there are artists and writers, fishermen, shopkeepers and restaurateurs. Most have come looking for a better way of life than cities can offer; some are third- and fourth-generation members of the same families who settled the coast.
Whaling ended long ago; what remains as the soul of economic life in Mendocino is tourism.
Because so many have adamantly resisted the Carmel-ization of their village, Mendocino seems particularly unspoiled and untainted by visitors. There are only a few times of the year, summer weekends for the most part, when the town seems too full. And even when the three or four main streets bustle with outsiders, you can still find peace and unpopulated acres out on the headlands.
Discovering it is worth the effort. After you've driven across the Golden Gate Bridge, over the rolling hills of Sonoma and Mendocino counties' wine country, through miles of dark forests and, finally, wind along Pacific Coast Highway with the vistas growing more spectacular by the mile, the weathered village of Mendocino seems almost a mirage, perched on its promontory.
There are at least two dozen comfortable, charming, even elegant places to stay in and around Mendocino. One of the newest is the Hill House Inn just north of the business district off Lansing Street. Owners Barbara and Monte Reed opened the 44-room inn, built in 19th-Century fishing-village style, in 1978.
Four rooms have fireplaces; all have views of either the ocean or the lovely gardens. Continental breakfast is included in the price of the rooms, which range from $65 to $115 a night. All rooms have private baths, TVs and telephones, amenities that are unusual in this village of bed and breakfasts.
Observant fans of CBS-TV's "Murder, She Wrote" will recognize the Hill House Inn as soon as they drive up--it has been used in several episodes of the program; a sign still propped against one of the outbuildings reads "The Hill House Inn of Cabot Cove" and brings a touch of Hollywood to the blustery surroundings.
At a window table in the Hill House restaurant you have an unobstructed 180-degree view of the headlands and the Pacific. When the gray whales are making their annual treks south from Alaska in late winter and north again in the fall, their spouts are visible.
Hill House also has a Honduras mahogany-lined bar, complete with a dance floor. Local bands play Friday and Saturday nights, and you'll hear anything from country to jazz.
One of the village's true historic treasures, the Mendocino Hotel on Main Street, was founded in 1878 and is restored to its original splendor. The 50 rooms range from $46 with shared baths to $200 for fully appointed suites.
Stop for a drink in the gorgeous Victorian lobby or a meal in the restaurant.
For something smaller, try the Agate Cove on Lansing Street. This is the ideal retreat when you want to do nothing but sit in front of a fireplace and read. The rooms at Agate Cove all have private baths and views of the ocean; prices average about $90 a night, with the best breakfast in town. Owner Tom Johnson bakes bread every morning and prepares giant omelets.
Built in 1882
A true bed-and-breakfast experience can be had at the MacCallum House, a Victorian built in 1882 by one of the early Mendocino families.
On Albion Street and offering ocean views from its Gray Whale Bar and from many of the 21 rooms, MacCallum House is furnished with the Persian rugs and Tiffany lamps that William Kelley bought for his newlywed daughter, Daisy MacCallum.
Prices are $50 to $165 for a suite for four guests.
South of town on Coast Highway, Stanford Inn by the Sea offers both privacy and good service. Rates range from $98 to $180 a night in rooms furnished with four-poster beds, fireplaces and color TVs. There are no bad views in Mendocino, but the Stanford Inn may have the best of the best.
A lovely golf course welcomes players at Little River Inn and several others offer tennis.
You can rent canoes at Stanford Inn's Catch-a-Canoe for $10 an hour and paddle up Big River.
At Cleone, about a dozen miles from Mendocino, you'll find Lari Shea's Ricochet Ridge Ranch with one of the best stables in Northern California. Horses rent for about $15 an hour and riders take in the beach in MacKerricher State Park and wild dunes of the North Coast.
In Mendocino the best souvenirs are the locally produced arts and crafts, found at galleries such as the Ruth Carlson, the Zacha Bay Window, the Hilda Pertha, Gallery Fair, the Highlight and the Mendocino Art Center, among many others.