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Road-Tripping Through the Crunchy, Swanky, Thoroughly Reborn North Coast

Lindsey J. Smith | August 1, 2018 | Story Travel California Destinations

FROM ANY DIRECTION, the drive to the northern reaches of Mendocino County is long and tortuous, and by the time I reached the Inn at Newport Ranch, just north of Fort Bragg, I would have been happy to sleep in a yurt if it got me out of the car. The Inn, however, is no yurt. “Most people find that once they arrive, they don’t want to leave,” innkeeper Patricia Hunter said as she poured me a glass of Mendocino County red. The Inn—a windswept, 2,000-acre working cattle ranch with just a handful of rooms and suites in exquisite Craftsman-style buildings—opened in 2015 and has quickly racked up accolades. The property feels like the country escape of a wealthy, eccentric uncle who’s put his bounty at your disposal for the weekend: 20 miles of private bluff-top and forest trails to be explored on foot, by horse, or on one of the property’s ATVs; hot tubs with sweeping ocean views; and a level of luxury and attentiveness I never dreamed existed this far north. This was the new North Coast I’d come to see: modern splendor in the midst of breathtaking nature.

The North Coast, it seems, is having a moment. Alongside its world-famous redwoods and coastal bluffs, the region has seen a proliferation of new restaurants, hotels, shops, and even cannabis-themed resorts sprouting up like so much forest underbrush. Then, of course, there’s what you constantly see on Instagram: I’ve watched on my phone as friend after friend has posted shots of beach days at Salt Point State Park, romantic getaways in Mendocino, or girls’ weekends at Anvil, the private ranch tucked down a winding road outside Santa Rosa. And I know all these places well, though in a profoundly different way—I was born and raised on 40 acres in northwest Sonoma County. To me they aren’t just Insta-worthy photo backdrops. They’re the places that made up my childhood: where I went camping with my Girl Scout troop or waitressed weddings for a little summer cash.

I wanted to see the region as my Bay Area friends all seem to—to understand its magnetism. So I planned a weeklong road trip from San Francisco to Humboldt County that would take me in search of the new North Coast. As luck would have it, I found it on my first stop, at the Inn, a place that, as Hunter had predicted, I was loath to leave so soon. I looked longingly from the crackling fire Hunter had just built in the living room’s enormous stone fireplace to the sun dipping toward the ocean, visible through the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. Hunter offered us dinner, which I ruefully declined—we had reservations elsewhere.

strictly speaking, of this new North Coast can be found in Point Arena, a tiny city on the southern edge of Mendocino County that in my childhood was known affectionately as Pointless Arena. That changed in 2014, when President Obama added a stunning 1,665-acre stretch of bluffs, beaches, and tide pools just north of the city to the California Coastal National Monument. Visitors began to arrive, a local merchants’ association fired up, and the flavor of the town chan­ged almost overnight. A craft wine and beer bar, 215 Main, changed ownership. A dispensary boasting “15 cannabis strains grown within 15 miles of Point Arena!” opened. And a former San Francisco chef transformed a small ground-floor space in the historic Point Arena Hotel into an exquisite New California restaurant, the Bird Cafe and Supper Club. That trickle of visitors turned into a steady flow. There are still hints of the old days—see: the annual Fourth of July parade full of art cars—but the city is on a different path now, with a collection of fledgling and soon-to-open businesses, from an artisanal bakery that mills its own bread flour and a boutique motel to a leather goods crafter and a tattoo studio boasting lead-free needles.

The first stop my boyfriend and I made in Point Arena was at Franny’s Cup and Saucer, a venerable bakery owned by mother and daughter Barbara Burkey and Frances Robbings. (Burkey started the legendary Tomales Bakery in 1992.) We opted for strong coffee and warm strawberry-rhubarb tarts to go: We were heading for the Point Arena–Stornetta Lands, part of the coastal national monument. I’d hiked the area several times before—heck, in high school I’d cut class to go out there and watch the surfers—but never with a guide; now I wanted to see it with fresh eyes. So we met Margaret Lindgren, owner of Unbeaten Path Tours, at the trailhead. Armed with binoculars and walking sticks, she led us south along the bluffs, talking a mile a minute about seabirds, pupping seals, migrating gray whales, and the way the San Andreas fault had created the rocky islands so close to shore. Her enthusiasm for everything we saw was infectious, and as we wrapped up the two-hour hike, I’d never felt prouder of my home turf or more ensnared by its charms.

These charms were on full, delicious display later that night at the Bird Cafe. There, chef Aaron Peters, who previously worked at San Francisco’s PlumpJack Cafe and Aram’s, has teamed up with local artist Nicole Ponsler (incidentally, my high school art teacher) to open a restaurant that is as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate. Surrounded by the small space’s magical realist bird murals, we reveled in the North Coast’s finest: bread from that artisanal bakery up the street; grilled asparagus with local chèvre, pumpkin seeds, and a blood orange vinaigrette; green-garlic-and-nettle bread pudding with juicy roast chicken. The bathing seagulls, diving cormorants, and cliff-nesting pigeon guillemots we’d seen that morning were beautiful, but they had nothing on this Bird.

newness, the coast hasn’t completely lost its boho charm: In the town of Mendocino we visited the Sweetwater Inn and Spa, a small hotel with redwood hot tubs and saunas that are open to the public. The old haunt was much as I remembered it from a visit two decades prior. Despite a recent renovation, the vibe was still pure 1990s Mendocino, down to the clothing-optional policy. We slid—swimmies on—into a tub for two surrounded by high walls decorated with a mosaic sun, like the backyard of a hippie Mendo mom. I thought about the space in which funky old and luxe new Mendocino County meet. The quirky independence I’d known as a kid wasn’t totally gone, but would it eventually be replaced entirely by swank cannabis retreats and oh-so-charming glamp sites? As a born-and-bred tent camper, I saw the latter as sacrilege…until we stayed a night at the Mendocino Grove, just outside town; today I’ll sing the praises of sleeping on a heated mattress pad under the stars. The question remained, though: Would it ever be possible to bridge the past and the present?

My answer came that very night on a visit to Café Beaujolais. The much-loved French-dining institution in Mendocino made its name in 1977 when a then-25-year-old Margaret Fox turned the place into a local favorite. In 2016, Julian Lopez, a 24-year-old chef from Los Angeles, and his father purchased it and set out to update the menu. The result is the best of both worlds: Lopez’s fare nods to the café’s Francophile roots—the steak tartare is delightful—but is otherwise an exercise in what Mendocino tastes like circa 2018. That’s bellinis with housemade peach syrup, summer tomato bisque, dry-aged duck with kumquat gastrique, and a deconstructed ice cream sandwich with calamansi lime ice cream at its heart. It’s a far cry from the veggie burgers and homemade popsicles of my childhood—but that’s a good thing.

a week eating at restaurants that are crumb for crumb as good as many of San Francisco’s, staying in hotels that offer every imaginable comfort (heated floors, soaking tubs, indoor-outdoor fireplaces, free cookies), and drinking craft cocktails at hip hideaways. But as the lifers will all tell you, people come to the North Coast for reasons that are larger than new restaurants, swank resorts, and stiff drinks. They come for the same reasons they always have: big, big trees. Within minutes of setting out on the Foothill Trail in Humboldt County’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, I craned my neck up, eyes wide, staring in silence. Having grown up where I did, I’ve seen my share of tall trees, but these gargantuan evergreens, hundreds of feet tall and some nearly 75 feet around, were massive—far bigger than the slender coastal redwoods I was used to. They flanked the trail like towering, silent animals, and although I hadn’t been sampling any of the Emerald Triangle’s finest, I swear I could feel them breathing.

My boyfriend and I wound our way on the clear, wide trail. Huckleberry, western sword fern, redwood sorrel, and moss blanketed the forest floor, and here and there pockets of western white trillium, the delicate, three-petaled flower, stood out brilliantly against the surrounding greenery. This was no Muir Woods, for as we hiked we barely saw another soul, and I began to fall into a reverie. I imagined the forest as it was before Europeans arrived: dominated by skyscraping, ancient trees with a canopy so dense that the light-starved understory was sparse enough for a person to pass between the conifers untouched. I was deliciously lost in a land out of time, but not immune to the incredible beauty around me. Instinctively, I reached for my phone—no service. Even so, I couldn’t help but snap a picture. I’d post it to Instagram later.

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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