After a much-needed rainy winter in Northern California, Mendocino County, located three hours north of San Francisco, has exploded with color and life. Gentler breezes replace winter's stronger winds. Wild flowers dot the dramatic bluffs and roadsides. The sun is out, but the recent rains have given a boost to bubbling streams and powerful rivers and leant an emerald-hue to the verdant fields and rolling hillsides of grapevines. In short – Spring is the perfect time for visitors to enjoy this spectacular paradise of coastal splendor and towering redwoods, before summer ushers in higher rates and larger crowds.
Mendocino’s wines are increasingly being recognized as some of the finest in the world. The Anderson Valley, where many Mendocino appellations are located, has the coolest climate where wine grapes can be grown. At the breezy Western “Deep End” of the valley, you will find Lula Cellars. A small production, premium winery, Lula produces just 2,800 cases year entirely from Mendocino grapes. Their vintages include multiple Gold Medal-winning Pinot Noirs and a celebrated Rosato (a style of Italian rosé). This spring ushers in their latest offering — the 2014 Docker Hill Pinot Noir, made from grapes that ripen in the fog on the valley floor, producing a robust varietal with concentrated flavor. Enjoy a glass in their down-to-earth and welcoming tasting room, situated on 22 bucolic acres. The tasting room reflects the unpretentious esthetic of veteran wine maker Jeff Hansen who named the winery for his late grandmother. Lula sells exclusively and directly to consumers, allowing them to keep their extraordinary wines extremely affordable. Lula Cellars Tasting Room, 2800 Guntly Rd, Philo, CA 95466, (707) 895-3737, www.lulacellars.com.
Lula Cellars is the last tasting room before Hwy 128 meets the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1). As you head west on Hwy 128, visitors will pass through a stretch of forest with centuries-old redwoods before hitting Hwy 1, where waves crash against immaculate beaches and cliffs. Veer right to go north on the PCH and head towards the Northern Mendocino Coast.
The first indication that you have again reached civilization is the Little River Inn. A Gothic white Victorian that presides over the Pacific with stately grandeur, the inn’s gracious gables proclaim its historical significance while its gardens, teaming with daffodils, tulips, and spring flowers in every color imaginable, assure you won’t forget what season it is. There’s nothing stuffy or antique about this family-owned and run establishment, however. The only full service resort on this stretch of coast, Little River Inn has a chef-driven restaurant, a nine-hole Audubon-certified golf course, professional tennis courts, and a day spa and full service salon. This Spring, their “Perfect Gift for Mom” package is on offer, and as it includes champagne, spa treatments and breakfast in bed, it certainly lives up to its name. Accommodations at the inn comprise 66 guest rooms ranging from the modest to the luxurious – and each and every one of them has an ocean-view. Little River Inn, 7901 N. Highway One, Little River, CA 95456, (707) 937-5942, www.littleriverinn.com.
A bit farther north along Hwy 1 – just before you hit charmingly preserved Mendocino Village – you’ll find Brewery Gulch Inn. Situated high above atmospheric Smuggler’s Cove, Travel + Leisure named the 10-room Brewery Gulch Inn as the #53 best hotel in the world, and Condé Nast Traveler named them the best inn in Northern California. Constructed in 2001 from 150-year old redwood reclaimed from the nearby Big River, it's an architectural masterpiece that offers every modern convenience. Guests rave about the warmth and comfort of the inn and compare the ambiance to staying at a good friend’s well-appointed rustic-chic home. Executive Chef Scott Allen, who cooks only for guests of the inn, trained at various 5-star restaurants. Chef Allen’s new breakfast menu for spring includes a slice of grilled brioche served open-faced, topped with brown sugar Millionaire’s bacon and served with sliced fried green tomatoes, fanned avocado and peppery arugula dressed with a toasted shallot vinaigrette. The inn’s property borders the 50,000 acres of virgin redwoods and wildflower studded meadows that make up the Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Brewery Gulch Inn, 9401 N. Highway One, Mendocino, CA 95460, (707) 937-4752, www.brewerygulchinn.com.
To find some of the most unique activities in California, continue north to the former lumber town of Fort Bragg. Before you reach the town proper, stop at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, one of the few public gardens in the US with ocean frontage. While especially known for their Rhododendron collection – they have more than 1,000 of these gorgeous flowers and host California’s largest rhododendron show each April – it’s rewarding to meander through any of their 47-acres of beautiful blooms. The south path leads to the ocean, an ideal spot to watch breaching whales, particularly during the early spring migration. Join one of their docent-led walks and learn about natural history, the mushrooms which grow so plentifully on this part of the coast, or how to best observe birds in the wild, among other subjects. Then grab a snack in their seasonal Rhody’s Café before heading into town. Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens ranks among the best botanical gardens in North America and was just voted the 5th “Best Botanical Garden” in the Nation by USA Today “10Best" Reader’s Choice Travel Awards. Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 18220 N. Highway One, Fort Bragg, CA, 95437, (707) 964-4352, www.gardenbythesea.org.
Downtown Fort Bragg is home to the Skunk Train’s coastal depot. A heritage railroad that has been operating on the Mendocino Coast since 1885, the Skunk Train was originally designed to move logs. Today the trains allow riders to traverse virgin forests and chug along pristine streams, following routes that are sometimes inaccessible by any other means. Running from Fort Bragg to the frontier town of Willits, the scenic 40-mile railroad has been named one of the “10 Best Rail Tours in the Country” by USA Today and one of the “Top 10 family Activities in California” by National Geographic Traveler. The views from the rail cars provide an incomparable intimate encounter with nature as she wakes from winter. Watch families of deer sipping from the Noyo River, spot blue heron, osprey and even an occasional otter. The Skunk Train is available to host events, groups and parties, and intrepid brides can even host their dream Spring wedding aboard the Skunk! Skunk Train (California Western Railroad), 100 W. Laurel St, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, (707) 964-6371, www.skunktrain.com.
Mosey up the increasingly dramatic coastline until you reach the 2,000 private acres that encompass the spectacular Inn at Newport Ranch. The term “luxury lodge” could have been coined for the inn, purpose-built in one of the most striking spots in Northern California. Open since early 2016, the property boasts 50-mile views across the Pacific and over 20 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails. Designed by Vermont architects Dave Sellers and Jim Sanford, the inn has grand touches, such as a walk-in stone fireplace and recycled redwood trunks soaring to cathedral ceilings, but also echoes and honors the surrounding wilderness. Each room housed in the multiple structures that make up the inn is carefully appointed, incorporating handcrafted touches, such as headboards from single burls and antique building materials found onsite. Vegetables from the inn’s organic gardens (Sugar Ann Snap Peas, Golden Wax beans, Rainbow Chard and Watermelon Radishes in the Spring) grace the plates of guests, and their head gardener ensures everything – from produce to herbs to flowers – is grown sustainably. Also in the springtime, botanical arrangements are created to decorate the inn using sweet peas, forget-me-nots, snap dragons, white bishop’s lace, Bells of Ireland and lilies. At the end of a day spent exploring secluded redwoods and rocky beaches, guests can relax in the Great Room with nibbles and Mendocino wines and beers, then wind things down further in the 7-person hot tub atop, which sits atop a water tower and boasts stunning views of the sunset. The Inn at Newport Ranch, 31502 N. Highway One, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, (707) 962-4818, www.theinnatnewportranch.com.
Before you get back to San Francisco, stop once more in the Anderson Valley and experience Camp Navarro. Founded as a logging camp in the early 1900s, the camp was once a turnaround for the railroad that rebuilt post-earthquake San Francisco with precious Mendocino redwood. Since then the pastoral compound has been reborn as a nature retreat and unique event destination, welcoming groups to experience the great outdoors in an unspoiled setting that is not too far removed from civilization. Available for corporate retreats, weddings, festivals, concerts, and other creative events, Camp Navarro has capacity for over 400 people in a variety of cabins, Adirondacks and Teepee tents. The camp features miles of nature trails, an archery and shooting range, a 10,000-square-foot main lodge with a dining and meeting hall, swimming holes, a meditation platform, an amphitheater and much more. Wifi, artisanal coffee, and delicious cuisine – including pizzas from their new Mugnaini wood-fired oven and savories from their hand-built smokehouse – allow you to immerse yourself in nature without being deprived of creature comforts. Camp Navarro, 901 Masonite Industrial Rd, Navarro, CA 95466, www.campnavarro.com.
A scant three hours’ drive from San Francisco, the sweeping beauty and rustic charm of Mendocino awaits. The variety of lodging options to suit every budget and unforgettable attractions amidst the oldest living things on earth make Mendocino a can’t-miss destination. Spring is the perfect time to renew your connection with the earth in one of the most peaceful places on the planet.
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