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Sometimes the most impressive destinations require a trip to someplace more off the beaten path. Taking a side trip from Napa Valley is a great example.
Iconic in its own right for wineries, stellar culinary scene, and vibrant arts, after spending a week on tastings and soaking in Napa's ambiance, you just might be ready to head north up Route 128 for 2½ hours over hairpin mountain curves into Anderson Valley which eventually leads to the Mendocino Coast.
Surrounded by steep, forested slopes and rolling hills dotted with picturesque vineyards, farms and orchards, the narrow, 15-mile long Anderson Valley boasts warm, sunny days and cool, foggy nights nearly year round. Slow down for the growing list of wineries like Toulouse, Roederer, Navarro, and Philo California's Lula Cellars.
Owner/winemaker Jeff Hanson named Lula after his maternal grandmother, born in 1879, who lived to the age of 89, raising three children by herself after the death of her husband. Jeff left Napa Valley's winemaking scene in 2010 after more than 20 years as a salute to her tenacity and rugged spirit, buying and planting up a long fallow farm with Pinot Noir and Zinfandel vines. Two short years later, his limited production yielded Gold Medal winning Costa Pinot Noir and Mendocino Ridge Zinfandel. With yearly outputs now exceeding 3,000 cases, Jeff sources from other local vineyards as well but still avoids distributors selling directly to customers both online and in his tasting room.
Soon after visiting Lula, you'll pass though several Redwood groves before reaching the Mendocino Coast, marked by waves frothing far below on sandstone cliffs fringed with gnarled shore pines clinging to the wind-buffeted and often fog-enshrouded overlooks - reminding you that the wide open Pacific is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Any swimmable coast line here is extremely dangerous if you're not aware of the tide schedules and immense undercurrents.
Villages along this stretch of Pacific Coast Highway like Little River and Mendocino dot the coastline among rolling meadows and working farms resembling Scotland much more vividly than the classic beach scenes of Southern California.
When it's time to check in for an overnight, plenty of top rated lodging options await offering their own unique hospitality as well as connection to the riveting landscape and local history. Here are two can't-miss standouts:
Brewery Gulch Inn's very existence is tied to California's north-coast logging heritage. Lumber mills situated at the base of most major rivers, including the Big River just north of the inn, supplied timber used to rebuild San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906.
Giant redwoods in the surrounding forests were felled during summer when the river's current wasn't strong enough to float logs down to the mills. "Log decks" behind each dam were built by incrementally stacking logs on top of each other. As the decks became taller and heavier, their weight pushed the lowest logs called "sinkers" deeper into the river silt. When winter rains arrived, the dams were dynamited to release the logs. “Sinkers” left forgotten under the Big River for over 150 years were unearthed during an earthquake retrofitting project on the Big River Bridge in 1961. Perfectly preserved by cold, mineral-rich ocean waters, these logs with diameters reaching 16 feet, were perfectly preserved and used in the 2001 construction of present-day Brewery Gulch Inn.
Situated on the original ten-acre farmstead of Mendocino pioneer Homer Barton, the inn overlooks the craggy bluffs of Smuggler’s Cove, tucked along 48,000 acres of preserved meadows and redwoods of Jackson Demonstration State Forest. In 2007, current owners Guy and Sarah Pacurar purchased the ten-room Inn featuring a central great room and dining area built around a huge four-sided fireplace made of glass and welded steel by a local shipbuilder.
Whether gathering around a dinner buffet with entrees ranging from scallops on a bed of lentilles du Puy, Moroccan lamb, mussel bisque, and halibut escabeche complemented by their widely diverse selection of local beers and wines or pondering their cooked-to-order breakfast menu featuring Millionaire's Bacon, executive chef Peg Davis only uses organic locally-sourced ingredients from what either local Mendocino County farmers, fishing fleets, or the her own heritage garden provides.
The inn's Zen-like tranquility extends to the rooms where all but one have ocean views from a private balcony or patio. A complementary bottle of wine awaits upon check-in and the well appointed bathrooms invite luxuriating with their Asprey and Molton Brown bath salts and soaps.
Little River Inn
Roughly five minutes up Route 1 from Brewery Gulch Inn on 225 wooded acres high on a knoll also overlooking the wild Pacific, Little River Inn's ambiance successfully integrates historic polish with seaside luxury.
Although beginning as a homestead built in 1853, Ole Coombs, grandfather of present-day innkeeper Cally Dym, got the ball rolling converting house to inn by convincing his mother-in-law to turn the living room into a bar now affectionately known as Ole’s Whale Watch Bar. Coombs gradually expanded the gingerbread trimmed white clapboard Victorian beyond its original footprint, officially opening to the public in 1939. Little River Inn's first rooms were rarely locked and even in the off-chance that a guest insisted on it for safety or privacy, all locks throughout the property had the same key.
As the years unfolded, the Inn served as lodging headquarters for some major local film shoots, including East of Eden, starring a young James Dean - who reportedly made himself a bit too comfortable by kicking his feet up on the bar, prompting Ole to kick him out.
Today, the inn's 65 spacious ocean view rooms are complemented by an on-site restaurant, the only golf course in Mendocino County, and a day spa offering treatments like seaweed body scrubs and warm stone massages. At once exuding edge-of-the-world ruggedness and sophisticated panache, most rooms have either a private patio or balcony overlooking the Pacific, a spa tub or steam shower, and a gas- or wood-burning fireplace.
The sheer variety of rooms here truly offer something for everyone. Examples include traditional, luxury, and Jacuzzi deluxe rooms in the main property, overlooking the verdant front lawn and wide open ocean while "Garden Retreat" rooms are tucked away in extra tranquility. Off-site cottages include pet friendly Llama Barn, nestled on a tranquil wooded estate a mile north of the main property where you can visit the resident llamas and crack open that long neglected novel out in the patio gardens, while an ADA-accessible "Johanna Brock" luxury suite in the seaside Mallory House sits right on the bluffs with its own arbor and hot tub on the back deck a stone's throw above Mallory Cove.
For years, Little River Inn's signature dish was local abalone cooked on Ole Coombs' customized grill - which was eventually adapted into the griddle used to this day for cooking up his Swedish Hotcakes served every morning on the breakfast menu. Other can't miss breakfast dishes include fresh crab cake benedict and "Cynthia's Homemade Granola."
Chef Marc Dym, Little River Inn's latest executive chef, married into the position in 2006. Dym brings a Zagat-rated modern twist to classic American regional dishes, such as confit pork osso bucco, Asian calamari salad, pine-nut-crusted salmon, and when available, sole meunière made from petrale sole caught in nearby Noyo Harbor. Selections on the Inn’s wine list and local beers on tap often pair extremely well with whatever is on the menu. Dym's more spontaneous creations are best explored on the bar menu with small plates like green-lip mussels with tobiko wasabi mayo, baked Brie, and fried calamari dusted with rice flour and flash fried in house-made mustard sauce.
Although typically used out of expediency at many hotels, in-room dining at Little River Inn is de rigueur for at least some meals during your stay. Weather depending, the views, especially sunsets from your patio or deck trump the inn's main dining room. But the smaller dining room to the front with windows or a seat at Ole's Whalewatch Bar can't be beat for savoring the inn's historic ambiance and taking your turn with the binoculars spotting whales migrating offshore.
Photos: Appelationamerica.com, Lula Cellars, Brewery Gulch Inn, Little River Inn, Steve Mirsky. Coverage made possible by participating in a partially sponsored visit.