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Destination: Mendocino County : Cabin Fever

Soaking in hot tubs, basking in solitude at remote hideaways that require relaxation

June 30, 1996|HEIDI HAUGHY CUSICK | Cusick is a Mendocino-based freelance writer

MENDOCINO, Calif. — The best part about living in Shangri-La is that we don't have far to go to find a hideaway. The Mendocino coast, where I live, has more than 50 bed-and-breakfast inns; not as well known is the fact that the inland part of Mendocino County is dotted with seductively remote lodging opportunities.

I have four favorites. Two offer total solitude, for romance or as a single's retreat: one is on an isolated mountain top, the other surrounded by an exquisite garden. Another choice, which I share with friends annually, involves a jaunt into the redwoods for hot tubbing, sauna and massage. The last is a mini-vacation at a dude-style ranch that can be taken with or without the children. Weekend room rates at the four run from $92 for two for hot tubbing in the redwoods to $350 per couple per night at the ranch.

The one I like best, for spontaneity at least, during the late fall and winter months, is Orr Hot Springs--on Orr Springs Road, one of the original stagecoach routes between the coast and the inland Yokayo Valley.

From the coast, the trip along Comptche-Ukiah Road takes me through the Pygmy Forest, with its 100-year-old stunted pine trees; passes country homes and cabins hidden by a thick canopy of fir and pine trees; and wends through the redwoods to Orr Hot Springs.

My five friends and I have rented the group cabin, which has a kitchen and accommodates up to eight people. The other rustic redwood cabins use the communal kitchen in the lodge, a beautifully aged redwood building that dates to the 1930s. The cabins are tucked among trees, ferns and flowers in a lush, narrow canyon at the headwaters of Big River, which empties into the bay below the Mendocino headlands. They have porches in front and some, like ours, are reached by climbing up hillside paths or stairs. Single and double rooms are available, and so are a community sleeping room and camping sites. Day passes for the hot tub, sauna and pool lure many local residents.

After taking our provisions to the cottage, we undress, wrap ourselves in towels or robes and get ready to "take the waters." Bathing suits are optional, but most of the guests shed it all, and we are such good friends we decide what-the-heck.

In the bathhouse, built in 1863, individual rooms each hold a porcelain Victorian tub into which 98-degree water is piped from the underground springs. These soaking tubs--or a shower--are the first step before plunging into the communal hot tubs: a redwood tub housed in a gazebo with an opening to the sky and an adjacent outdoor natural-bedrock pool. Lolling under the stars is my favorite way to enjoy both.

Later, we unfold thick, comfortable futons to sleep together on the living room floor. Besides our cacophonous conversations, the only sound is of a nearby waterfall.

In the morning, one friend rises early to meditate and take a sauna. Several of us put on our walking shoes and trek along the narrow road to Montgomery Woods State Reserve. This majestic stand of redwood trees, originally a nine-acre parcel donated by Robert Orr in 1945, is now part of a 1,142-acre reserve, thanks to the Save the Redwoods League.

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The other three hideaways are off California 128, the Mendocino Coast's link with the rest of the world. On this stretch through the Anderson Valley are sheep ranches, vineyards and apple orchards. I usually traverse it several times a month, savoring the seasonal changes on every trip.

By far, the best drives are when I'm going only as far as one of my hideaways. Two are located near Philo, post office to many of Anderson Valley's esteemed wineries. On the southwest side of the road, high in the coastal hills, are Highland Ranch and Beija Flor.

My husband, Barry, and I had heard about the reincarnation of Highland Ranch for several years before we made reservations. To get there, we turn about a mile north of Philo onto Philo Greenwood Road and drive to the Highland Ranch sign. Four more dusty miles and the road has taken us from the thick, dark forest and deposited us at the top of the world--where an expansive sky lights up the meadow around a two-acre lake stocked with bass. Owner George Gaines purchased the 540-acre ranch in 1987, remodeled and renovated it.

Highland Ranch is not your usual sweat-stained dude ranch. Gaines has cultivated an atmosphere of gentrified country living with his herd of horses, skeet-shooting lessons and down-home cooking. Many of his guests are friends from his days as an international businessman and attorney.

Inside the door of the redwood cottage, the two "abiding commandments" are posted: "Thou shalt not hurry. Thou shalt not frighten the horses." With those in mind, we enforce our own relaxation, light the fire, which is already laid in the brick fireplace, and sink into easy chairs to read. Two double beds and several chairs furnish the room, which has knotty pine ceilings and a braided rug.

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