- Distance from San Francisco: 155 miles
- Best time: April to December
- Best for: RomanticArts and CultureFood and Wine
Considering its status as one of California's most beloved art epicenters, it's hard to believe that in the not-too-distant past, Mendocino's fate was anyone's guess. This former lumber town had fallen on hard times, and residents were moving away in droves. Then a well-known San Francisco artist injected new life—and a new destiny—to the town when he opened a gallery and an arts center in the late 1950s. Today, Mendo, as it's affectionately known by locals, is flourishing, with eclectic galleries dotting the historic downtown, nightlife driven by gallery openings and performances, and art lovers from all over the world flocking to enjoy it all. Here are our picks for an art-centric getaway, as well as ideas for exploring the source of so much inspiration: the Mendocino Coast's spectacular scenery, with windswept cliffs and waves crashing against the rugged shoreline. –By Blane Bachelor
Mendocino Cheat Sheet
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1.After navigating the windy 27-mile stretch along CA-128 upon exiting Highway 101, stop to stretch your legs in Boonville, a small town with big charm in Anderson Valley's wine country. Boonville's easily walkable main drag is dotted with antique stores and small shops full of local art. Pop into the pocket-sized Paysanne for gourmet ice cream, handmade caramels and scrumptious cookies in flavors like sea salt chocolate.
2.From Boonville, continue about four miles past downtown Mendocino on California 128 to Highway 1, which hugs the rugged coastline, until you reach the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. This historic light station, built in 1909, sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific; though the lighthouse and innkeeper's building close at 4 p.m., the surrounding nature preserve makes for a spectacular sunset walk and is open until half-hour after sunset.
3.In Mendocino Village, as the downtown area is often called, take a pre-dinner stroll through the marvelous gardens at Café Beaujolais, housed in a cheery yellow Victorian cottage, which was built in 1893. Now that your appetite has been stoked, you'll find plenty of mouth-watering options on the French-inspired seasonal menu, but standby favorites include escargot, filet mignon, and sturgeon. The breads, which are made on-site, are a culinary masterpiece in themselves.
Insider Tip: Another excellent pit stop between Mendocino and San Francisco is The Philo Apple Farm. The working farm and cooking school has an honor-system stand where you can pick up delectable jams, ciders, and chutneys.
1.Mingle with locals at the Good Life Café (formerly the Mendocino Bakery & Café). The menu features hearty, fulfilling breakfast staples, including a hefty breakfast burrito and a daily bread pudding, which have earned this café a cadre of new fans. (It's also a great spot for lunch, with a patio and views of the ocean.)
2.Burn off breakfast while savoring some of the most spectacular views on the West Coast at Mendocino Headlands State Park, a gem of a spot just a few blocks from the village with several hiking trails. By midmorning, the coastal fog has usually burned off, giving way to breathtaking vistas of the craggy coastline. The best part? There are rarely crowds, so you can contemplate the overwhelming beauty of nature in blissful solitude.
3.Settle in for lunch at the affordable, welcoming Moosse Café, which whips up simple, delicious seasonal fare based on local ingredients. A can't-miss dish that's perfect if there's a chill in the air: the velvety cioppino, brimming with mussels, shrimp, and other fruits of the sea. The iced tea, a blend of black tea and mandarin orange spice, is an unexpected winner.
4.Take a self-guided art walk through town, starting with the Mendocino Art Center, the pioneering hub of the community's art culture. Watch artists at work with all types of mediums in their studios (the center also houses a theater company that performs in the evenings). From there, move on to the Artists' Co-op of Mendocino, which offers free refreshments at gallery openings every second Saturday. Finally, since acting is an art in itself, take a stroll past the Blair House Inn, which served as the home of TV sleuth Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury in the long-running "Murder, She Wrote." Fans will recognize the iconic white picket fence, with the gate Lansbury opened after dismounting her bicycle.
5.Libations are another art form at the Grey Whale Bar & Café, which is part of the historic MacCallum House, and feels more like a cozy living room of an old friend, with cushy sofas and windows. Kick off the evening with a creative cocktail— blood orange and huckleberry margaritas are year-round favorites, and others rotate through seasonally. In addition, the jaw-dropping wine list should impress even the most seasoned oenophile. The restaurant's locally inspired cuisine—think grilled clam flatbread, pan-seared scallops, and braised lamb shank—has pleased palates of locals and visitors alike for years.
1.It's easy to linger over the weekly Champagne brunch at the historic Mendocino Hotel Garden Café, whose menu is sourced with local ingredients such as crab, mushrooms, and salmon. Choose from authentic huevos rancheros with housemade salsa, a fluffy omelette with Dungeness crab, and spicy house-made sausage or crab eggs benedict—all of which pair perfectly with a flute of bubbly.
2.For thoughtful souvenirs, head to the historic downtown, which is dotted with quaint shops. Two must-dos: hit the artisanal Mendocino Chocolate Company for inspired truffles and chocolate bark in flavors like fresh raspberry-white chocolate; for a longer-lasting memento, the whimsical, wonderfully nostalgic Village Toy Store features classic, well-crafted playthings such as kites, wooden trains, and finger puppets are sure to thrill kids of all ages.
3.Your final stop before hopping back on the 101: The Madrones in the tiny town of Philo, just off Highway 128. This sophisticated, European-style shopping area nestled amidst the vines houses four tasting rooms and a cheese shop, as well as a new eatery.
Where to Stay
In Mendocino Village is the Blue Door Inn (rooms from $175/night) is a charming B & B, formerly the Whitegate Inn, whose extensive renovation unveiled airy, spacious rooms with clean white décor and luxurious touches (Neiman Marcus linens and Kiehls bath products). Rooms include full breakfast. Just a short drive from town, the intimate Brewery Gulch Inn (rooms from $330/night) offers a setting just as splendid as the area's natural surroundings. It is decked out in rich leather and redwood, with plush beds (two of its 10 rooms have whirlpool tubs) and lush gardens on its 10 acres.
When to Go
Summer is by far the warmest, but busiest, season in Mendocino and throughout the North Coast, so you'll need to book as far in advance as possible for lodging and restaurants. (Most hotels and B & Bs require a two-night minimum during the high season.) The winter offers colder, rainier weather, but as early as April, sparse crowds and a chance to spot gray whales as they migrate north are good reasons to go.
A highlight during the fall is Mendocino County's Wine & Mushroom Festival in November. On the docket are 'shroom-centric dinners and guided mushroom walks, as well as live music. Crab lovers should consider the Crab & Wine Festival, held every January. This crab-tastic extravaganza includes all-you-can-eat crab feeds, winemaker's dinners, cook-offs and wine competitions, plus crustacean-focused cruises and cooking classes.
How to Get There
By car: Downtown Mendocino is a scenic, four-hour drive from San Francisco. Exit Highway 101 at Cloverdale and follow Highway 128 northwest about 56 miles, getting onto Highway 1 north for about 10 miles. Another option is to continue on 101 and exit at the town of Willits, and head west on Highway 20 about 33 miles to Highway 1. From there, head south 8 miles to Mendocino. In town, the South Mendocino Coast Bus Route 75 (www.4mta.org) provides public transit.
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