The Hidden Coast: The Rugged North

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About 150 miles beyond San Francisco, the town of Mendocino is the last civilized outpost above the Golden Gate before groomed hills dotted by dairy farms give way to a dense forest lorded over by shaggy Kush farmers. The coastal village, a farrago of Queen Anne, saltbox, and Gothic revival architecture, marks the beginning of the ragged sawtooth headlands that chop southward, forming the spine of the nation’s most famous literary shore. It’s along Highway 1 that the writers Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, Robinson Jeffers and Ken Kesey, lived off solitude or settled down to build homes and careers out of stone and LSD.

They were followed by wayfaring flower children, grasping at the road’s beatific promise. These days those ancient mariners can still be spotted taking five in the shade outside Mendocino’s Harvest Market, a bustling food bazaar in which one can make a picnic from local fruit, ice wine, organic meats, and every cheese on the coast: Point Reyes blue, Cypress Grove goat, Bellwether chèvre, and Cowgirl Creamery Mt Tam. At Frankie’s, a pizza and ice cream parlor around the corner, the forest’s bounty is folded into the cream and sugar—huckleberries gathered in summer, candy cap mushrooms picked in winter. My mushroom cone tasted as sweet as toffee, and I held it out like a drippy dowsing rod. Mendocino has no main street. It’s a pleasant grid of victory gardens and ornamental shops; every other cottage claims to be an inn or a doodad emporium. Hidden in an overgrown garden behind Mendocino’s best restaurant, Café Beaujolais, I happened upon the Brickery, a tiny bakery stuffed into a wood shack selling fresh loaves of olive bread.

Discoveries like that make the village wonderful to explore, but up here one wants to stay away from the crowds and close to the water. Caspar Beach, north of Mendocino, offers kayak rentals in a calm cove, and Russian Gulch State Park, farther up the road, has tide pools for adventuring and miles of trail to hike. With cheese and bread in my sticky hands, however, I left for Little River, a quiet crossroads on the water two miles south, made up of a general store, a haunted graveyard, and the recently opened Cottages at Little River Cove. Perched atop a craggy promontory, and a quick walk from the tributary that gave the area its name, my cabin’s only company were nine other hillside cottages, each with its own full kitchen, fireplace, and deck that stared out onto the Pacific.

South of Little River, on the longest, loneliest stretch of Highway 1 between Mendocino and Mexico, villages too small to catch a cartographer’s eye—Irish Beach, Manchester, Stewart’s Point—fly by amid ghostly mists. In Salt Point State Park are giant rhododendron forests to get lost in, and at Sea Ranch, miles of modernist wood dwellings to admire or to wonder, “What the hell were they thinking?”

At Bodega Bay, 100 miles below Little River, I drove along the marina, past men in slickers punching holes in the exposed seabed for clams, to the Spud Point Crab Company. Plastic cups of fresh-caught crab are served there with a lemon wedge. Rather than eating my crab by the docks, I made the short ascent up Bodega Head and sat alongside the ever-present herds of deer grazing in a stiff wind. Down below in Bodega’s Candy & Kites, you can get outfitted with everything you’d need to harness a breeze like this, from a $40 box kite to a $1,300 Kitewing that, I was assured, would lift me out to sea.

As promising as that sounded, I returned to my car and instead followed the wobbly highway seven miles to Rocker Oysterfeller’s at the Valley Ford Hotel, a roadhouse near Bodega packed with farmers and roughnecks gulping bourbon at the bar and eating the locally famous fried chicken with jalapeño biscuits. Valley Ford lies far enough inland to allow the sweet smell of cow pasture to mix in the night air with the salty scent of Tomales Bay marsh. The region is known for its organics, collectives, and organic collectives, its estuaries and oyster farms. What Bodega is to crab, Point Reyes is to bivalves. So after a peaceful night’s rest at the Olema Inn, a doily-free B&B near the sprawling Point Reyes National Seashore, I sipped the only coffee I’ve ever had served to me in a feed barn—Toby’s Feed Barn, Point Reyes Station, to be exact.

Soon I was off to Gospel Flat Farm, an honor stand in Bolinas where Don Murch and Sarah Hake have been leaving their zucchini, potatoes, and fennel on the street for a quarter century, then trusting everyone like Jesus. Heading north again, past the heel of Tomales Bay, I rolled into Inverness, the last stop before the Point Reyes National Seashore. The diminutive hamlet is home to the Blackthorne Inn, a woodsy B&B stashed away among the trees, and farther on is Spirit Matters, stocked with every prayer flag and incense stick you’ll ever need on the path to enlightenment. Across the bay on Highway 1, Marin Sun Farms offers grass-fed rib eye, veal chops, and goat tenderloin, which you can barbecue along with some oysters on the grills at the Tomales Bay Oyster Company.

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Between the unyielding traffic of San Francisco and the bike paths of Santa Cruz, rocky headlands are replaced by mile after blue mile of massive breakers, empty sand, and frisky nudists. Mavericks, the West Coast’s big wave machine, sits at the top of  Half Moon Bay; an hour south, in Pescadero, is where I came across the sign for Pie Ranch. On a farm shaped like a pie slice, an old barn has been converted into a dessert stand. You can carry your tin of apple-cranberry across the road to Año Nuevo State Park, shove sweet baked lard into your mouth, and marvel at how fat the elephant seals get up here.

It’s been some time since Santa Cruz was a destination one would recommend to friends. A decade ago, the scene—a mix of pale heshers, skate punks, and slack-jawed surfers—was mildly threatening and at night, downright scary. Maybe it was because 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake had leveled downtown’s historic district. Everyone was on edge. Whatever the cause, the area has come back. On Santa Cruz’s old boardwalk and busy pier, the place hasn’t felt this welcoming in years. Just about everyone looks under 30 and happy. If they’re not out on beach cruisers or skateboards, locals are flying 125 feet above the sand on the Double Shot or riding the grand old Giant Dipper Coaster. At the end of Santa Cruz’s pier is the Dolphin, a seafood shack where, over the barking of seals, I ordered a wax-paper-wrapped pile of fish and fries, the pier tar oozing toward my toes. Off to my right, I could almost make out my room at the renovated Dream Inn, its private balcony perfectly located cliffside for anyone who wants a weekend on the boardwalk.

Pleasure Point, a couple of miles south of the pier, is an old middle-class surfing neighborhood whose  commercial district is made up of half-a-dozen surf shops and one great sushi bar, Pink Godzilla. Driveways here have more boards than cars in them. In 1959, Jack O’Neill, the man who would wrap a million surfers in neoprene, moved to the Point, and every NorCal board jockey has apparently followed. Even on a bad day you can count 50 surfers in the water.

Below Santa Cruz the surfers and the beach views disappear from Highway 1 until Moss Landing, which lies across the highway from Elkhorn Slough, an immense wetland with hiking trails good for bird-watching. But the shore really doesn’t return until you hit Monterey’s Cannery Row. Unfortunately, so do the tourists. Thank God for Pacific Grove, a low-key village that begins just beyond Monterey Bay Aquarium’s kelp forests. Three blocks of storefronts and a handful of inns, Pacific Grove resides somewhere between the crass consumerism of Monterey’s shoreline and the twee commercialism of Carmel. Here the schools of tourists thin out, the Torrey pines and the Victorian cottages take over, and on a sublimely wild and rocky coast that would have impressed even Wagner, the Seven Gables Inn sits seaside on a spit called Lover’s Point.

Notable for its stunning display of chintz, its panoramic views of the bay, and the immaculate window-washing technique of its staff, the Seven Gables is a comfy respite. Yes, your grandparents could be sleeping down the hall, but any place where you can stretch out on your bed and watch sea otters frolic in the waves, then go rent a kayak across the street to join them, is all right. One of the area’s few sandy beaches also sits 100 yards from the inn; if you’ve run out of reading material, BookBuyers, nearby on Lighthouse Avenue, stocks an exhaustive collection of used books. Mornings, locals crowd into Holly’s Lighthouse Café, two blocks away, for pancakes. The real find in Pacific Grove, however, is Passionfish. Run by Ted and Cindy Walter, the restaurant bans all nonrecyclable items, serves only sustainable seafood, and whips up a wonderfully crabby avocado salad.

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The 17-Mile Drive leads out of Pacific Grove, past pine forest, a photogenic golf course, a world-renowned shoreline, and one very lonely, overexposed Monterey cypress. In the summer the road is a crawl. Drivers ride their brakes as if they’ve put down good money ($10) to enter Sea Lion Country Safari, and at the end everyone gets dumped out into Carmel, which, with its Tiffany and Thomas Kinkade boutiques, is not the homespun village of its past. Still, I couldn’t leave without seeing the poet Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House. The building’s ascetic Tudor lines and boulder tower touch on the promise that this coast and its raw materials have long held out to builders and artists.

Afterward I steered my car to Big Sur, the narrow roadway climbing up into the air near Garrapata State Park. That’s the oddity of driving through Big Sur—you are suspended nearly the entire time between mountain and sea, rarely seeing the battered shore unless bad luck leaves you plummeting toward it at the rate of 9.8 m/s2. The truth is, no matter how many times you stop to exercise the iPhone camera, you are still cramming in too much beauty too fast—like eating a ten-course meal in 12 minutes. One wants a breather, and the Treebones Resort, located just outside Lucia at the midpoint between Big Sur proper and William Randolph Hearst’s old getaway, is ideal.

Traditionally the province of Mongolian sheepherders, a yurt can in fact be very hospitable. At Treebones, 16 of them have been placed on a hillside, each with a sink, a table and chairs, a warm bed, a wall heater, vinyl windows, and a wood deck with Adirondack chairs. Though the dwellings fit snugly together, solitude comes easily enough on trails in the hills above or down at Willow Creek beach. At daybreak you can make your own waffles and eat on the deck of the cantilevered main lodge, where barbecued fish is served for dinner.

This being my last night, though, I returned to town. The Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, a small cabin tucked behind a Shell station, is run by an L.A. couple who once worked at Campanile. It’s a country cottage that serves citified food, like my butter-braised halibut that came with fire-roasted beets and carrots, each vegetable more elemental than the last. Leaving, I was handed a paper bag and directed to a free-for-all pile of the day’s leftover pastries.

 

 


 

A GUIDE TO THE RUGGED NORTH

WHERE TO STAY: 

MENDOCINO & LITTLE RIVER
Cottages at Little River Cove
7533 N. Hwy. 1
Little River
707-937-5339
Rates: $169-$259 

INVERNESS & OLEMA
Blackthorne Inn
266 Vallejo Ave.
Inverness
415-663-8621
Rates: $195-$325 

Olema Inn
10000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
Olema
415-663-9559
Rates: $174-$222 

SANTA CRUZ
Dream Inn
175 W. Cliff Dr.
831-426-4330
Rates: $169-$509 

PACIFIC GROVE
Seven Gables Inn
555 Ocean View Blvd.
831-372-4341
Rates: $200-$550 

BIG SUR
Treebones Resort
71895 Hwy. 1
877-424-4787
Rates: $155-$280 

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK:

MENDOCINO
Café Beaujolais/The Brickery
961 Ukiah St.
707-937-5614 

Frankie’s
44951 Ukiah St.
707-937-2436 

Harvest Market
10501 Lansing St.
707-937-5879 

BODEGA BAY & VALLEY FORD
Rocker Oysterfeller’s
Valley Ford Hotel
14415 Hwy. 1
Valley Ford
707-876-1983 

Spud Point Crab Company
1860 Westshore Rd.
Bodega Bay
707-875-9472 

POINT REYES & ENVIRONS
Toby’s Feed Barn
11250 Hwy. 1
Point Reyes Station
415-663-1223 

Tomales Bay Oyster Company
15479 Hwy. 1
Marshall
415-663-1242 

PESCADERO
Pie Ranch
2080 Cabrillo Hwy.
650-879-0995 

SANTA CRUZ
Pink Godzilla
830 41st Ave.
831-464-2586 

PACIFIC GROVE
Holly’s Lighthouse Café
602 Lighthouse Ave.
831-372-7006 

Passionfish
701 Lighthouse Ave.
831-655-3311 

BIG SUR
Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant
47540 Hwy. 1
831-667-0520

WHAT TO SEE: 

MENDOCINO, LITTLE RIVER & ENVIRONS
Caspar Beach
707-964-3306 

Russian Gulch State Park
707-937-5804 

Salt Point State Park
707-847-3221 

Sea Ranch
707-785-2444 

BODEGA BAY
Candy & Kites
1415 Hwy. 1
707-875-3777 

POINT REYES & INVERNESS
Marin Sun Farms
10905 Shoreline Hwy. 1
Point Reyes Station
415-663-8997 

Point Reyes National Seashore
415-464-5100 

Spirit Matters
12307 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
Inverness 415-663-8699 

BOLINAS
Gospel Flat Farm
140 Olema Bolinas Rd.
415-868-0921 

SANTA CRUZ & ENVIRONS
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
831-423-5590 

Elkhorn Slough
1700 Elkhorn Rd.
Watsonville
831-728-2822 

MONTEREY
BookBuyers
600 Lighthouse Ave.
831-375-4208 

CARMEL
Tor House
26304 Ocean View Ave.
831-624-1813

Photograph by Manuello Paganelli