Your AAA Magazine

Mendocino, Calif.: Whale Time

Redwood groves, a lofty lighthouse, gray whales. It's time for some salty air.

Perched high on a bluff, the Northern California coastal village of Mendocino looks out to the Pacific.
Photo caption
Perched high on a bluff, the Northern California coastal village of Mendocino looks out to the Pacific.

"It's a mimosa day!" proclaims the waiter upon hearing my drink order, his cry carrying across the veranda at the MacCallum House and out toward the blue green Pacific. "The sun is shining. The sky is blue. It's a mimosa day!" Then, bowing slightly, he skips inside to share the news with the bartender.

You'd think I was the first visitor ever inspired to celebratory drinking, but who wouldn't raise a toast to a town this stunning? Some 150 miles north of San Francisco, Mendocino perches like a queen atop its golden bluff, a fairy-tale village of saltbox New England cottages that has provided scenery for movies such as East of Eden and stood in for the fictional Cabot Cove on TV's Murder, She Wrote.

Even shrouded in fog or rain, Mendocino glows with the knowledge that she's the fairest in the land—nearly 160 years old, yet still dewy in the mist.

Sated with my mimosa and a breakfast of rock cod cakes made fresh from the local catch, I'm primed for Mendocino's unofficial pastime: shopping. On Main Street, I peer through telescopes in Out of This World, nibble slabs of homemade fudge at Papa Bear's Chocolate House, marvel over hand-stitched coverings at Ocean Quilts, and poke my nose into the countless galleries and studios that reflect the town's early role as a bohemian artists' colony. Still, I find it difficult to concentrate for long, what with every storefront window magnetically oriented toward the windswept bluffs of Mendocino Headlands State Park and the ocean beyond.

Crossing Main, I discover footpaths that wind past lupines and California poppies before leading down to the sandy sliver of Portuguese Beach or out to rocky promontories that offer front-row seating for the annual passage of some 20,000 gray whales. The spring migration season runs from February to April, reaching its peak in March, when Mendocino and Fort Bragg—about 10 miles north—hold their annual whale festivals. Docents and park rangers lead walks along the Mendocino headlands, whale-watching boats chug out of Fort Bragg's Noyo Harbor, and winemakers, beer brewers, and chowder chefs converge to woo the binocular-toting masses.

Point Cabrillo Light Station, another prime spot for spying migrating pods, is also worth a visit for its original lightkeeper's home from the early 1900s and the lighthouse itself, sitting 83 feet above the Pacific. Inside, a small museum displays artifacts from the shipwrecked Frolic, which sank here in 1850 loaded with precious Chinese cargo. The belated salvage crew found only local Pomo women wrapped in silk shawls, but they spotted treasure of a different sort: groves of redwoods to supply Gold Rush San Francisco with much-needed timber.

Standing in Van Damme State Park, it's hard to imagine the relentless saw-mills that operated here during Mendocino's early years. Today, soaring alders and redwoods shade hikers along popular Fern Canyon Trail, which passes berry bushes and lush sword ferns before reaching the Pygmy Forest—a stand of stunted pine and cypress trees starving like runway models in the nutrient poor soil. At Van Damme's wide beach you can join a two-hour kayaking tour with Kayak Mendocino and paddle through kelp beds and eerie sea caves that groan and echo.

By day's end my stomach is groaning as well, but I'm hardly worried: Candlelit restaurants call out from every corner, their menus rich with local organic produce and fresh fish. Tonight I choose La Petite Rive, a relative newcomer serving five-course dinners. With just seven tables, it feels more like an intimate dinner party hosted by chef and owner Troy Barrett, checking in at each table to make sure the crispy duck in blackberry ginger sauce or sea scallops in limoncello crème are just so. As Barrett makes his way around the room, the diners at each table nod and smile, raising their glasses in appreciation. Once again I can't help but join in the toast—to a memorable meal in a town that's
simply intoxicating.

Photography by Gabriela Hasbun

This article was first published in March 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.