The scenery along Highway 1 south of Fort Bragg and running all the way down the coast is magical, especially if you're blessed with sunny weather. The California coast can get quite foggy, especially in the summer, and sometimes you can't see the ocean unless you drive off a cliff into it. I'm pretty certain that would not be nearly as much fun as we had simply driving along it's magnificence.
We've found both spring and fall to be the best bets for finding sunshine at the coast. We weren't disappointed this time at all. The weather was nearly perfect, the countryside impossibly effervescent and verdantly green. The lush and and inviting coastal and mountain meadows were also dotted with an abundance of blooming wildflowers of every imaginable color, dancing and swaying in the ocean breeze. They were dazzling underneath the warm, spring sky, sparkling with an effervescence usually found only with some sort of chemical imbalance.
"Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies..."
In addition to the kaleidoscope panorama of happy, dancing wildflowers, many meadows were festooned with a broad array of cattle. Big ones, little ones, brown ones, plaid ones. Some of them possibly even had antlers. A few might have been speaking French with each other.
"Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly...."
Naturally there were grand and exquisite vistas of the Pacific Ocean at every other turn and in-between. Yes, you can travel fast if you want to, but with the unbelievable scenery, why? We were definitely going slow and taking our time. We were routinely pulling over and letting hastier drivers go by. Why not? I
don't know why more drivers don't do this. There are many times I am
laden with hastiness and the driver in front of me, enjoying a
lackadaisical day, also seems to enjoy my frustration by not being
polite or considerate. Passive aggressive child's play I surmise. I'd much rather pull over then have someone riding my ass for any
length of time. Unless, of course, that person was my lovely wife.
We cruised through the little towns of Caspar, Little River, Albion, Elk and of course, Mendocino. All of these "blink and you'll miss it" towns ooze little teeny tiny more than small town charming ambiance. There's not a lot to any of those population 24 towns, except for Mendocino. If you need to buy some post cards, a coffee mug or anything else completely useless but sentimental Mendocino is your best bet.
A little further south we put in at the Point Arena Lighthouse. Their website sez that the lighthouse is situated on the closest point of land to the Hawaiian Islands in the Continental United States. That seems like a stretch, but what do I know? Nevertheless, it was time for a stop and a short half mile hike down to the lighthouse, museum, lighthouse keeper's cottage and other assorted buildings. As well, of course, as getting the closest as possibly to Hawaii without actually getting in the water.
You can actually rent one of the old cottages there for the night, but why? You can get the feel of the deal in an hour or two. Then what are you going to do? There's absolutely nothing within miles, not even Starbucks. I guess you could visit with the tourists who trickle by. But if you're trying to get away from people, what kind of a solution is that? Do yourself a favor, definitely VISIT but spend the night somewhere else.
Speaking of staying somewhere else, south of Fort Bragg and running all along the coast are a plethora of pricey bed and breakfast inns. It looks like a lot of folks who escaped the big city for a country dream might have turned their old Victorian's into Inns. Which is fine, I suppose, if you like having strangers staying in your house all the time.
We're not big bed and breakfast people. We stayed at one in Napa one time, and we found the breakfast part of the deal just a little bit creepy. I mean, B&B's salaciously ooze romance. So it was like, you know, at breakfast we got the sense that everyone, no matter what color their hair or temperature their persuasion, had just spent the previous night in a Jacqueline Suzanne novel. And the host was running around in a fire red long sleeve dress shirt, schmoozing and acting as if he had orchestrated a subliminally surreal Masters and Johnson party clinic the night before.
"A girl with kaleidoscope eyes..."
About sixty miles down the road from Fort Bragg is the lovely little hamlet of Gualala. So how do you pronounce Gualala? Some folks pronounce it Gwa-LA-la, like me, but that would only serve to prove they are ignorant, or tourists, or both. Like me.
The natives pronounce it Wa-LA-la.
The name comes from a Kashaya Pomo Indian phrase, "Ah kha wa la
lee" which means, "Where the water flows down". That would work, a river flows out to the ocean directly across from the
center of town, right by a big sand bar where whales stop for lunch
every year. Have a few shrimp cocktails. A Martini or two. Listen to a little Bobby Darin. Then head on their way.
As far as I know there's no maritime law on the books regarding whales swimming while impaired. Yet.
Gualala should also always be pronounced to the tune of "Volare". But probably only if you're Italian. And drunk on cheap Chianti.
I was in Gualala some decades ago, back in my impetuous youth. My cousin, who was into the redwood burls, was also into making driftwood mobiles. That caught my attention and artsy eye and I began a decade long affair with that type of creation. Massive, 20 to 40 piece driftwood mobiles. Some were sold, some were gifts. The top arm could be anywhere from three to five feet wide. There were mobiles within mobiles within mobiles. Sometimes I'd need a crane to take the weight off the rafters.
Naturally I became a driftwood snob. And I could never find any decent driftwood along the the Santa Cruz beaches and north to San Francisco. Yeah, there was driftwood from time to time, but I might have been able to use one piece out of fifty. It all looked like cheap creek construction scraps.
So I went on a weekend driftwood recon road trip with an old friend one time and we landed at Gualala, where the Gualala River meets the sea. It must have been right after a storm, because you could hardly see the sand on the beach through all the driftwood. A mother lode of beautiful, ocean massaged wood. My old pal just sat down on the beach and strummed his guitar for a couple hours as I gleefully dashed hither and yon, accumulating a boat load of the stuff. So to speak.
My lovely wife and I moseyed into Gualala this time around two in the afternoon. I had done a little research on potential places to stay, but I didn't make any reservations since we didn't want to tie ourselves down. The only definite reserved space was Thursday and Friday nights in San Francisco, with dinner at the Tonga Room Thursday night. Maybe a Giants ballgame Friday. Other than that, we were keepin it loose.
Gualala, I might mention, has the most accommodation options available other than Fort Bragg along that entire stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. And keep in mind a lot of the places you'll find online aren't necessarily directly in a particular town. They may be nearby, or on Mars, but many are not within a particular town's city limit. So to speak.
After driving by and perusing a couple of potential places we decided we'd walk in and check out Seacliff on the Bluff, which has a 4.5 star rating on Trip Advisor. The first thing we noticed when we strolled into the lobby was the multitude of LIVE blooming orchids everywhere. And of course the full on ocean view out the large, west facing picture windows. When Kathy, the receptionist, was finished with the customer in front of us, we began our friendly assault.
We discovered Cathy, with a "C" was the orchid care taker. Kathy, with a "K", our receptionist, besides being quite friendly, was familiar and fond of our nape of the neck of the woods in the Sierra Nevada foothills. One thing led to another and we ended up getting a free upgrade to the room we had originally been considering. Besides being overtly and sincerely friendly, it didn't hurt we were there on a Monday and the place was nearly vacant.
Our new room was an upstairs unit. Besides having a much better ocean view than a downstairs unit, there was also a gas fireplace and a jacuzzi tub for two. Standard amenities also included two reclining chairs in front of the two large picture windows facing the sea. Binoculars hung near by. The spectacular ocean view went on forever.
After road testing the hot tub and what that can eventually lead to, we found ourselves facing a new town dinner dilemma. What to do, what to do? In room marketing paraphernalia is OK, but we decided to ask our new friend Kathy, who recommended a couple places. A strong option was a delicatessen, where we could get our eats and then picnic in our room. Watch the sun set through the large picture windows, out of the wind, snug and warm. But "Bones Roadhouse", with their authentic Texas style pit BBQ and pirate ambiance won out.
They only have a beer and wine license, but somehow my lovely wife managed to order an $18 Bloody Mary. Bloody hell? She loved it, but she'd have to drink forty of 'em just to catch a buzz. The pulled pork platter I ordered was great, and my lovely wife loved her dinner too. Whatever it was. BBQ something.
It looks like Bones bounces between 4 and 5 stars on Trip Advisor, I'll go along with that. Plus, if you're an animal person, the owner's very friendly and just a little bit husky Labrador may come visit your table to see if you're enjoying your meal. He probably wouldn't impress a health inspector much, but he managed to get some love, attention and maintain some of his abundant weight through us. Small town stuff. Gotta love it.
By the way, it is very refreshing to mention that south of Fort Bragg there are no chain restaurants or chain fast food places anywhere along the coast. So, you know, if you're a big McNugget fan you're gonna be jonzing.
We could have stayed another night in Gualala, it was all so delicious. I mean, the view was so spectacular and the ambient sound of the ocean's roar was so relaxing we could have spent the entire day in front of the picture window, easy. But we decided to press on. Besides, who knew what treasure may lie beyond the next bend?
More scenic vistas, more panoramic meadows. Wildflowers. Plaid cows with antlers. We also went on a nice, mellow hike at Stockhoff Creek Loop. The trail wound through tall and majestic redwood trees, hearkening back days of yore when a herd of us high school youngsters would traipse through the enchanting Santa Cruz mountains.
"Cellophane flowers of yellow and green, towering over your head..."
The trail also took us to the old, one room school house from the old Fort Ross settlement, circa old. The Fort Ross State Historic Park is always worth a stop and look see, but they were closed on Tuesday. Due to financial cutbacks, they are now only open Fri-Mon. Fort Ross was an outpost and colony for the Russian-American Company when they were diddling around the California coast back in the 1830's, working on extincting otters. In case you were wondering.
If we didn't stop at Fort Ross and get information there, how the heck would we know about that particular hike? Why, the "Moon Outdoors California Hiking" guide, of course. They have divided the state into sections and rate the scenic beauty, difficulty and duration of 1,000 of the best hikes in the Golden State. It's amazing, no matter where you are in the state you are possibly within a few minutes of a fabulous hike.
We did notice all along the way there were a lot of real estate for sale signs, both vacant land and houses. I mean, a lot. I don't know if this means owners are trying to cash out at the top of a real estate market or just trying to get out before California falls into the sea. Actually, there were a couple houses along the way that was actually happening to. A couple had already taken the dive, several more were in immediate jeopardy.
They weren't our houses, so we thoroughly enjoyed another lackadaisical day along the coast. Our plan was to potentially stay at Jenner by the Sea or Bodega Bay. Even though some online sources state there are a few places to stay at Jenner, we found it to be not quite so. The only coolish place we found was "Rivers End", which was established in 1929. It was nice enough looking, but one of their big "draws" is no television or internet, which is fine for all those tech addicted folks from the bay area. But hell, I just got a tablet, I never have the time to play with the darn thing. Rivers End was out, and so was Jenner. There was nothing else there. It was time to cruise another twenty miles down the road to Birdsville.
We found Bodega Bay did have several accommodation options available, but nothing like Gualala. I might mention that we were traveling on a budget, so that limited our choices a bit. Otherwise maybe one of those pricey yet creepy B&B's might have appealed to us. Just for kicks and weird memories.
We ended up at the Inn at The Tides, which got a 3.5 star rating on Trip Advisor. I'd actually give 'em a 4. Once again, possibly because of our friendly nature, but more than likely the fact it was a Tuesday night, we received a free upgrade to a room en suite. It wasn't right on the ocean like our previous night had been, but the spaciousness of the room and free wine for my lovely wife made up for it. The room was big enough to play football in, but we just played tag instead.
Amazingly there are no real grocery stores in Bodega Bay. There's not really anything in Bodega Bay, actually. A couple motels. A couple restaurants. A couple little markets. You'd think there would have been more to the town since there are quite a few vacation homes and it seems to be a big coastal destination for folks form the bay area. But there's nothing there. Except a harbor and some fishing boats. And memories of Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren fighting off extreme, aggressive, and psychotic sea gull weirdness.
Hell, even Gualala's two little markets were very well stocked and one of them even included a deli and butcher shop. Plus you are right on the ocean there and you can be lulled to sleep by the sweet sea's symphony. Bodega Bay is a bay, and unless you can hear stuff a couple miles away you're not going to be lulled to sleep by anything. Except off key harmony if I happen to be singing anywhere near you. For whatever reason.
We dined that night at The Tides, right on the bay and owned by the same person as the resort we were staying at. I mean, they gave us a 15% discount coupon for dinner, why not? The Tides got a little over 3 stars on Trip Advisor, I'd go along with that. The food was good, but not great. The view was fantastic though, I mean, we were sitting almost in the bay. We watched sea lions play and when the wind whipped into a frenzy the bay became dotted with a half dozen or more wind surfers.
The next morning the bay was as tranquil as can be. Sheer glass. Instead of wind surfing you could have water skied.
After a free breakfast, we hopped on down the road about thirty miles to spend the day at the Point Reyes National Sea Shore. We have driven by the road that takes you into the park numerous times, we just never made the left. Or right. The park is simply amazing. You could easily spend a couple days there, especially if you went on any lengthy hikes.
We primarily drove around the massive park, more verdant meadows with dancing wildflowers and plaid cows. We did go on one hike that was both easy and incredibly scenic. The trail took us out to a bluff that overlooked the Pacific Ocean on the right and Drakes Bay on the left. The views were stellar. Again we were blessed with sunshine on the coast. Our visit would not have been nearly as spectacular if it had been foggy. I mean, it would have been a waste. Unless we were actually on psychedelics. Only then is fog fun.
Spring. Autumn. Plan your trip to the California coast accordingly.
I had tentatively thought about maybe planning on staying in Stinson Beach that night, but who the heck was I kidding? There are NO accommodations in Stinson Beach. Nada. Zip. I wouldn't even consider letting your crazy Aunt Martha stay in either one of the two flea infested barnacles somebody has the audacity to call a motel. Sorry folks, you can't brightly paint that much cheap and disgusting away.
There were a few quaint places to stay in Tomales Bay, Olema and Point Reyes Station, but nothing really appealed to us and there was that budget thing again. We thought about heading back up the road to Bodega Bay, but then we had a date at the De Young Museum in San Francisco the next morning. We didn't really want to back track and make our route longer the next morning. Dang. It was getting late in the afternoon, zombies would be letting out soon. We needed a plan directly. Where to? What were we going to do?