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Fort Bragg, Calif.

Fort Bragg is Grand Central for migrating gray whales and the Skunk Train.

Ten Mile Haul Road north of Fort Bragg, California, image
Photo credit
Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia/J. Smith
Photo caption
Ten Mile Haul Road, north of Fort Bragg, goes through MacKerricher State Park.

There's no rush hour in Fort Bragg. There's no convention center. There is a movie house, the only one for miles; people come all the way from Willits for the matinee. If you're born in Fort Bragg, you get greetings from the whole town. When you die, a notice goes up on the bulletin board next to the post office and families stop what they're doing to make a casserole for the wake.

Every spring, one thing brings out the whole town as well as visitors from all over—whales. When California gray whales begin their northern migration to the Bering Sea, cetacean lovers gather in Fort Bragg to welcome them with the gala Whale Festival (this year, March 16 and 17).

Everyone pitches in. Restaurants cook up their best recipes for the annual chowder feed, and you can sample barbecued oysters at local beer tastings. The Skunk Train hauls tourists along rails that once transported redwood from inland forests to the town's lumber mills. Along the ocean in MacKerricher State Park, a Whale Run follows the seven-mile Haul Road, an ideal vantage point from which to see migrating pods.

Two other excellent whale-spying spots are Mac-Kerricher's Laguna Point seal-viewing station, overlooking rocks where harbor seals nurse their young in spring, and the Coastal Bluff Trail at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.

Whale-watching requires patience, so take a picnic to enjoy in the gardens' Cliff House shelter, then stretch your legs by exploring the 47 acres of spectacular plant-ings, many improbable on these cliffs. Daffodils, flowering plum, and Pacific Coast iris should be blooming in early spring. Or, for a closer look at the cetaceans, board a boat out of Noyo Harbor for a two-hour excursion.

Not that long before the Whale Festival was launched 20 years ago, whales were as scarce as reasons to visit this town. In 1857, Fort Bragg was established as an army post on the site of the Mendocino Indian Reservation; then lumber and fishing sustained it. In the 1970s, climatic changes brought warm currents to Noyo Harbor, driving cod and halibut to deep ocean and threatening the fishing industry. But the whales, whose numbers grew under environmental protection, enjoyed lolling in the benign waters. Fort Bragg began inviting the world to share the spectacle. Unlike neighboring Men-docino, which donned white lace and chintz for the tourists, Fort Bragg still wears its dungarees as a badge of honor.

For a sense of the town's past, visit the Guest House Museum, where you'll see tools of the lumberjack's trade, photographs taken in 1863 by Carelton Watkins, and sections of the redwood pipe that once supplied water to Fort Bragg. Those were days of big dreams and bigger appetites, judging by a memoir that includes the lumber mill's menu: "Fried steak, sow belly, beans and puddin', hash, cornmeal mush, sweet potatoes! Corned beef and cabbage! Mulligan stew and gravy."

That's the kind of food served at the Home Style Café, monument to chicken-fried steak and the two-pork chop breakfast, and Eggheads, a Wizard of Oz theme restaurant. Or fuel up at the North Coast Brewing Co., where beer and chowder are on the menu year-round. At Café Prima, chef Raymond Thoya-Ngumbao offers an international cuisine. Get a taste of Kenya with the sampler plate of jabini and matoke na wali. For a romantic, white-tablecloth dinner and excellent French cooking, try the Rendezvous Inn and Restaurant.

Walk off the meal by exploring the bookstores, art galleries, and antique shops downtown along Main, Laurel, and Franklin streets. Triangle Tattoo and Museum exhibits pictures of ink-enhanced women and archaic machinery (care to let a Jolt-a-Matic under your skin?). The Mendocino Vintage Emporium is where you're likely to find that Bauerware bowl you've been hankering after.

Around the abbreviated downtown, houses hunker like stalwart fishermen beneath a cold sea wind. The neighborhoods are filled with one-story bungalows built by Finnish boat workers in the 1920s and '30s and punctuated by the occasional regal Victorian spared the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fires. Many structures have been reincarnated as bed-and-breakfasts, including the Grey Whale Inn, once the town hospital, and the Weller House, a candidate for haunting before a young couple repaired the crumbling Victorian mansion and its stately water tower.

Listen and you'll hear the crow of a backyard rooster, a church carillon pealing at noon, the all-night moan of a foghorn. And the whistle of the California Western Skunk Train. It makes half- and full-day trips through the redwoods on a seasonal schedule.

Fort Bragg's sidewalks used to roll up at 9 p.m. "Now we have a coffeehouse," says Martha Weber, second-generation proprietor of the Colonial Inn. That would be Headlands Coffee-house, where a crowd of kids compare skateboard injuries or thump on drums outside, and a jazz trio or folksinger performs inside. For a boot-stompin' good time, head four miles south to the Caspar Inn for jump blues, alt rock, or Cuban sounds.

A mark of Fort Bragg's transformation over the years is Glass Beach, a former city dump where scouring waves turned bottle shards into treasure for beachcombers. On a recent afternoon, a family squatted in the sand, running their hands through seawashed gravel of green and amber. What was the object of their intense search?

"Nothing," said the dad. "We're wasting time." You should go to Fort Bragg and do the same.

This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.