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A town like no other: Mendocino combines Dr. Suess whimsy with serious art

Photo Eren Gknar/Special To The Town Crier Mendocino's misty coast attracts artists, who flock to the area for its scenery and to take classes at the Mendocino Art Center.

With its Cape Cod and Victorian houses and steepled churches on bluffs overlooking the ocean, Mendocino resembles a New England town. But that’s just on the surface – if you take a walk in the village, it’s a place like no other.

Surrounded by dense redwood forest just off the Pacific Coast Highway approximately 200 miles north of Los Altos, Mendocino attracts throngs of summer tourists searching for a respite from the inland heat.

In the cooler fall and winter months, the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce says it draws tourists who like watching storms or spotting the occasional gray whale. Several coastal spots, such as Brewery Gulch Inn (www.BreweryGulchInn.com) provide romantic and luxurious settings for couples who want to be alone amid the spectacular scenery. You won’t find any motels or fast food here.

The 19th-century Masonic Hall and the Presbyterian Church, both on Main Street, contribute to the town’s status as a California historical preservation district. Filled with art galleries and unusual shops, Mendocino also hosts a summer music festival and a November wine and mushroom event, with tasting dinners featuring Husch Vineyards and Meyer Family Vineyards, among others.

The fall heralds Winesong (www.winesong.org), an international food and wine-tasting event scheduled Friday and Saturday at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, a fundraiser for the Mendocino Coast Hospital Foundation.

None of the boutique hotels or inns features fitness rooms, though plenty boast Jacuzzi tubs, probably because of the myriad outdoor activities available. After all that hiking, biking, kayaking and canoeing, you’ll be up for a massage, not more exercise.

Catch-A-Canoe & Bicycles, Too (www.catchacanoe.com) offers outrigger, kayak, canoe and bike rentals, as well as guided tours.

If you hike in Van Damme State Park and campground ($8 day use) in adjacent Little River, you’ll wend your way along a creek on the Fern Canyon Trail. It’s 7 miles to Pygmy Forest, with its stunted cypress and pine trees ranging from 6 inches to 8 feet tall (www.parks.ca.gov).

Several films have used Mendocino as a backdrop, including “Same Time Next Year,” the 1978 movie starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, shot at the now-closed Heritage House, south of the Stanford Inn, Comptche Ukiah Road (www.stanfordinn.com). The Stanford Inn bills itself as an eco-resort, and its vegetarian restaurant, Ravens’, features only organic ingredients. Rooms range from $239 for the Garret Suite to $555 for the two-room Forest Suite, depending on season.

For nearly 10 years, Mendocino passed for Cabot Cove, Maine, on the television series “Murder, She Wrote,” with Angela Lansbury. Jessica Fletcher, Lansbury’s character, lived in Blair House, 45110 Little Lake St., a bed and breakfast built in 1888 whose carriage house now serves as a detached cottage. Rooms start at $140 for a weeknight and rise to $210 for Lansbury’s suite.

Mendocino’s eastern appearance can be deceiving, though.

 

Teeming with history and artists

The old red church at 45015 Ukiah St. houses a co-op organic grocery store, Corners of the Mouth, a high-end place to buy local, sustainable crops. The name comes from a passage in the I-Ching. There are no preservatives in sight, and the second floor, formerly the choir room, houses hundreds of dried herbs and spices. Once a Baptist church, Mendocino Lumber Company co-owner William Kelly built it for his wife, Eliza, in 1894, to counterbalance his Presbyterian church around the corner. Discover more about the founding family at the Kelley House Museum, 450007 Albion St., open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily through October, and weekdays from October to May.

The Kwan Tai Temple, a Taoist house of worship, surprises pedestrians on Albion Street with its red paint and green trim. Dedicated to the god of war, the temple has served Chinese immigrants since the 1850s and still functions as a temple. Visit www.kwantaitemple.org to schedule an appointment to tour the site.

Artists flock to Mendocino, many of them settling there for the foggy scenery that inspires creative displays. The Mendocino Art Center (www.MendocinoArtCenter.org) offers weeklong classes. The last time I visited, I accompanied my high school friend Audrey Brown, an art teacher at San Leandro High School, who signed up for a watercolor workshop at the center.

We stayed at the Little River Inn, 7901 Highway 1 (www.littleriverinn.com), in the older building with spartan but spacious rooms and porches gazing out at the ocean. At $175 a night for two queens, the modest digs seemed like a bargain. There are also newer, more luxurious rooms elsewhere on the property, which includes a restaurant and bar.

Although I have precious little drawing talent, the misty moodiness around me inspired me to try watercolor painting in some instruction books sold at the Harvest Market at Mendosa’s on Lansing Street. Just to cover all the bases, the store also sells hardware, camping and fishing gear.

This visit, I stayed with my significant other at the historical MacCallum House Inn and Restaurant, 45020 Albion St. (www.maccallumhouse.com). Our sumptuous room included a gas fireplace and a two-person jetted spa tub in the MacCallum Suites on Little Lake Road, which has a comfortable meeting room and kitchen ideal for corporate retreats. They offer L’Occitane French bath products, and you can sign up through the hotel for discounted Anderson Valley winery visits at Mendo Wine Tours and Limousine Service (www.mendowinetours.com).

The Main House, built as a wedding present in 1882 by William Kelly for daughter Daisy MacCallum, sports six rooms with antiques and claw-foot tubs. That’s also where we enjoyed an extensive breakfast included in the rates, featuring Mimosas and several egg dishes or pancakes and an array of juices.

The adjoining Mendocino Grey Whale Bar & Café serves wine and dinner in the fireplace room. The MacCallum House Inn Restaurant features local, organic plates overseen by executive chef Alan Kantor. We ordered the rich toasted hazelnut soufflé and an artisanal plate of cheeses and fruit, both superb.

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