Gualala, Calif.: Banana Belt

The North Coast’s banana belt beckons travelers with sun, art, and plenty of quiet.

Gualala River at the Pacific Ocean

South of town, the Gualala River joins the Pacific.

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Fronted by ocean and backed by redwoods, Gualala, Calif., a former logging town, draws visitors who view nature as an opportunity for art and meditation. Only slow, winding roads lead to Gualala, which is a three-hour, 120-mile drive north from San Francisco. Gualala, usually pronounced wa-LA-la, is said to come from a Pomo Indian word meaning "where the water flows down." The village, with its arresting mustard-colored 1903 hotel, sits where the Gualala River empties into the Pacific Ocean in a banana belt—a several-mile stretch where the leaden coastal fogs usually burn off to reveal blue sky.

While other North Coast hamlets are crowded to the edge of the continent by timbered heights, this one has Gualala Point Regional Park nearby to open up the land for easy solitary walking or beachcombing on a wide sandbar. After you’ve discovered the surround-sound ocean, tide pools, shorebirds, sea lions, and maybe whales (migrating north in February), treat yourself to a river excursion. You can get a canoe or a kayak in town from Adventure Rents and float lazily on the Gualala, whose mouth forms a "lake" rimmed by chapel-like groves of redwoods.

The remoteness may have once slowed progress in Gualala—electricity didn’t arrive here until 1952—but today it’s a blessing for travelers who don’t want a designer destination. Lodgings include the comfortable Gualala Country Inn, stylish Breakers Inn, and quiet St. Orres cottages, set on a hillside.

Dining, though not cheap, can be good and varied. St. Orres has a prix fixe menu that often includes wild fish and boar. Pangaea serves organic produce and house-made charcuterie; Bones Roadhouse boasts Texas "Q" (barbecue). For breakfast, try Café LaLa where you can get eggs Sinatra (your way).

To view the work of artists inspired by this marine setting, visit the Gualala Arts Center and its retail outlet, the Dolphin Gallery & Shop. The Cypress Village building holds a cluster of boutiques with imaginative creations; noteworthy are the sculptures at Stewart-Kummer Gallery, ceramics at Henley’s Art & Interiors, and apparel, shoes, and gifts at Red Stella.

A MATTER OF FACTS Stop by the visitor center in Gualala Point Regional Park to learn about the Pomo Indians, logging history, and local biology and geology. (707) 785-2377, www.sonoma-county.org/parks/pk_glala.htm.

Photography by Larry Ulrich

This article was first published in January 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Pick up AAA's Mendocino & Sonoma Coast map, California & Nevada CampBook, and Northern California & Nevada TourBook. For more information, contact the Redwood Coast Chamber of Commerce: (707) 884-1080, www.redwoodcoastchamber.com. Area code is 707.

EATS
Bones Roadhouse 38920 S. Hwy. 1, 884-1188. Pangaea 39165 S. Hwy. 1, 884-9669. Twofish Bakery 35590 Verdant View, the Sea Ranch, 785-2443.

SLEEPS
Gualala Country Inn 47955 Center St., 884-4343, www.gualala.com. St. Orres Fine Dining & Lodging 36601 Hwy. 1, 884-3303, www.saintorres.com.

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