SEA RANCH, Calif. — Willie Nelson has this song, "Bloody Mary Morning," about cheating hearts and other sad stuff. But as I sipped my own concoction of vodka and tomato juice a little after daybreak one morning, I couldn't have been happier.
I was lounging on the wood deck outside a rented oceanfront home, gazing at the craggy cliffs and white-capped waters off the Sonoma-Mendocino coast during my second trip here in as many years. I'd brought a book, but I never cracked it open. I couldn't take my eyes off the scenery.
My wife, Leslie, and I, and our friends Barbara and Dave had found this spacious rental in a community called the Sea Ranch, south of the town of Gualala. The Sea Ranch is where the rolling hills of the Sonoma wine country give way to redwoods and Monterey cypresses along the Pacific Ocean in one of Mother Nature's more inspiring creations.
And although I felt a bit like a Rockefeller stirring my drink with a celery stick, the reality was that our excursion was relatively affordable. That's because Leslie is the queen of cyberspace bargains. For about $500 per couple, we flew from L.A. to Oakland and back, rented a car and had the house for three nights. Food and entertainment, of course, were extra.
The key find was the house. Because we arrived on a Sunday and were traveling in mid-June, in what is considered the tail end of the off-season, we got three nights for the price of two. (The off-season deal typically runs from October to June; we made reservations three months in advance.)
If this was the off-season, I can't imagine what in-season days are like. Our weather was sunny, with warm offshore breezes. At night, a refreshing chill filled the air.
Several property management companies handle rentals in the Sea Ranch area. We made our arrangements with Ocean View Properties through its Web site, http://www.oceanviewprop.com. Similar homes can be booked at http://www.searanchvillage.com, http://www.searanchrentals.com and http://www.donberard.com.
The two-bedroom, two-bath house we rented, called Beach View, was well furnished with most everything we needed. It had a fireplace, barbecue grill, satellite TV, stereo and a boombox to plug in outside on the deck, and it was stocked with books and games. Cleaning service for our stay was provided for $40 more. We could have brought our own linens and towels, but for $12 per person, they were provided for us.
Before we could enjoy the amenities of the house, we had to get there. From Oakland International Airport, it's a three-hour drive northwest to the Sea Ranch. Our route eventually took us along winding California 1, a tough ride for those prone to motion sickness but one that offers picturesque views of the ocean and redwoods.
The first order of business was picking up house keys at the property manager's office across the Mendocino border in Gualala, a quaint coastal town where we also stocked up on groceries. Because our rental had a fully equipped kitchen, we kept our dining costs down by cooking our own meals.
When we did venture out to eat, the meal was incorporated into our sightseeing. One day we had lunch at a diner in Point Arena, a fishing village about 15 miles up the coast from Gualala. The Galley serves typical diner fare but also features local fish as well as beers from nearby microbreweries. I enjoyed the fish and chips, and Leslie had a burger; both meals were good diner grub.
For the active vacationer, there is plenty to do at the Sea Ranch: kayaking and canoeing in the Gualala River, hiking on trails in the nearby redwoods and golfing on a Scottish links-style course near the ocean. There are also tide pools teeming with life.
It's the kind of place that's great for a family getaway or an adult escape. Leslie and I left our 4-year-old son, Riley, with his grandparents and experienced a more restful sort of vacation. We took walks along the coast, relaxed in the house's hot tub and checked out sleepy Gualala's small shopping district.
Last year we played golf and took a trip to the Point Arena Lighthouse, built in 1870. For $3 ($1 for children under 12), you can tour the lighthouse and, from December to April, often see migrating California gray whales.
This time, however, we found it difficult to leave the house. And if you could see the view from this place, you would understand why.
The Sea Ranch was planned in 1963 by architect Al Boeke as a housing development that preserved the coast's rugged landscape. The homes were designed to blend into the natural environment. Each residence seems to be an extension of the grass or trees that surround it.
Pomo Indians, the first known inhabitants here, made seasonal trips into the area. The developers, locals say, adopted the philosophy of the Pomo: Live lightly upon the land.
Locals have another saying: Don't do anything you don't want to do.