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Weekend Escape: Mendocino Coast

Whistle-Stops and Whales : From Jenner to Fort Bragg, these foggy towns are relics of yesteryear

October 20, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | Day is a former editor of The Times' Editorial Pages

FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Ft. Ross had always tugged at my imagination. An unsustainable 19th century outpost of the Russian empire at its most expansive, home of sea otter and seal fur trappers, eventually sold to John Sutter (yes, the very same), it was part of the romance of California, the weathered redwood boards of its several buildings now a state historic park.

So there we were, crawling along Highway 1 toward Ft. Ross north from Jenner, negotiating tight curves and switchbacks far above the Pacific. Only we couldn't see the ocean. We couldn't see the precipices to our left; we could barely see the steep hills to our right; we could make out only a few feet of the road. The fog was in.

After much too long a time, we spotted the crosses atop a Russian Orthodox Church rising up in the fog. Relieved, we pulled in to Ft. Ross State Historic Park. We had done the hardest part of the road, the pleasant ranger said. It was only 11 a.m., but, not knowing what lay ahead, we decided to leave Ft. Ross unexplored.

We had learned something essential about the North Coast of California. The tourist brochures feature a bright blue ocean crashing in pure white spray against those jagged fractured rocks and headlands. In our four days on the coast in September, we saw a day and a half of that. The rest of the time we saw a gray ocean in a gray fog, the sun filtered through it sometimes brighter, sometimes dimmer. In its own way, it was beautiful.

It certainly was when--despite our anxieties--in midafternoon we reached our destination, Harbor House, on a cliff above a rock-dotted cove in the tiny town of Elk. At Harbor House, dinner and breakfast are included in the price of the room; when you make your reservation, you are asked if there are any foods you find objectionable.

I had blithely said that we eat everything, but now I was nervous. Lynn had never eaten rabbit and had sworn she never would. It came to me that this was Northern California, where any restaurant angling for the food cognoscenti is bound to serve rabbit from time to time. Good news! The entree that evening was roast chicken with a balsamic reduction sauce.

In the afternoon, like Mrs. Robinson, we strolled about the grounds. And such grounds they are! In the mists, flowers grow as profusely as the redwoods. Harbor House has an elaborate garden of labeled trees and shrubs and flowers and vegetables, and there are benches to sit among them and admire the view of foaming surf and craggy rocks.


Harbor House was handsomely built of redwood in 1916 as an executive residence and guest house for the Goodyear Redwood Lumber Co., one of the many lumber companies all along the North Coast. When we were there, there was always a welcoming fire in the Craftsman-like living room. Our room was just to the left of it; as the outdoors grew cooler, we moved inside and lighted the fire in our own fireplace.

(By the way, you don't have to drive to the Mendocino Coast by way of Ft. Ross, which can take about six hours. Instead, make it a 3 1/2- or four-hour trip by way of U.S. 101 to Cloverdale, then California 128.)

One of our tasks was to find good spots for watching whales from land, as the California grays, starting in November, move south to give birth in Scammon's Lagoon in Baja California, then migrate back to the Arctic in the spring. The best place in and around the Fort Bragg-Mendocino-Elk area, state park rangers told us, is Mendocino Headlands State Park, next to the little town of Mendocino. You can drive out, park, walk around and look.

The day we did was full of sunshine. The air was calm and bright; the sea, almost flat. The town, the scene of movies and TV shows from "East of Eden" to "Murder, She Wrote," is usually called "picturesque." It is inescapably that, like Portofino, and, like that Italian coastal village, it remains a pleasing treat to gaze upon and walk about in.

Mendocino was once a little art center with real artists. Now it is replete with "galleries," most of them full of second-, third- and fourth-rate stuff mostly made far from California. A couple of exceptions: Highlight Gallery, which has some splendid handmade wood furniture, much of it local, and the Showcase Gallery of the Mendocino Art Center, in which we saw some elegant hand-woven scarves and handmade pottery.

The Mendocino Art Center itself, four blocks away, is worth a visit, if only for the reassuring sights of weavers weaving, painters painting, sculptors sculpting, jewelers making jewelry.

For the rest, Mendocino, like much of the coast to the north and south of it, is a shrine to the bed and breakfast. But we decided instead to stay in a B&B in Mendocino's working-class neighbor 20 minutes to the north, Fort Bragg. Just as California's Gold Country, so placid to the eye now, was once full of frenetic industrial activity, so too the North Coast. Lumber mills roared, schooners and steamers pulled into piers up and down the coast to carry logs to San Francisco.

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