Nobody told me to stop shaving before visiting Humboldt County, but I figured it couldn't hurt. More than a few friends had described this stretch of coast and mountains 250 miles north of San Francisco as "granola central." As if on cue, the morning after my arrival in late May, the front page of the Eureka Times-Standard ran a photo of 550 area kids lying on a beach to form a yin-yang symbol.
The reality of the place, however, is more than just whole-grain goodness. Above all, literally and rhetorically, are redwood majesties up to 360 feet tall and 2,000 years old, in national, state and city parks. If these trees don't move you, you need to have your soul examined.
The trees and the granola, and lots else, are now more easily accessible to those of us on the southern end of the state. Horizon Air has just started twice-daily nonstop service from LAX to Arcata-Eureka Airport.
Eureka and Arcata, the county's twin cities on either side of Arcata Bay, offer an easygoing mix of arts, food and history. Eureka, the county seat, has been called America's most picturesque small town for its water views and Victorian-lined streets. Smaller Arcata, about five miles away, has been called America's most enlightened town. It's known for Humboldt State University, a go-with-the-flow vibe and an affinity for a certain variety of hemp.
Eureka has the spiffier lodgings, and I stayed in one of the spiffiest, the Hotel Carter, one of four structures that make up the Carter House Inns. My room mixed the historic (color-washed walls, crown moldings, pine furniture) with the up-to-date (modern plumbing and, thoughtfully, allergy-sinus pills). Rates, though no bargain, included wine and antipasto at cocktail time and a generous two-course breakfast — though, annoyingly, at breakfast tip and a service fee ($1.20 per course) were extra. And yes, they serve granola.
In Eureka, Blue Ox Millworks is a must-see for anyone with (a) an interest in architecture or historical machinery or (b) kids. Blue Ox's main business is crafting replacement parts for Victorian homes using 19th century equipment. I caught a demonstration of fence-picket makers, lathes and pedal-powered saws.
Eureka's biggest concentration of Victorian buildings is in two districts, downtown and old town, where you'll find the Carson Mansion (1886). Humboldt County grew wealthy off logging in less environmentally sensitive times, and the mansion is said to contain every kind of wood then commercially available. It's now a private club, so visitors can admire the exterior only. Across downtown are browse-worthy shops such as All Under Heaven for Asiatica, stately Eureka Books and the Bead Shoppe, which claims Northern California's largest selection.
Nearby, the Morris Graves Museum of Art, named for the local 20th century Expressionist painter, hosts changing exhibitions. But in Humboldt County, art is not confined to museums. The convention and visitors bureau counts 8,000 artists in a county of 130,000, and Eureka and Arcata host monthly art walks. Many cafes and nightspots keep art on the walls all the time. Los Bagels, for example, sells local paintings alongside concoctions such as guacamole on a bagel.
A white-linen dinner in the Hotel Carter's Restaurant 301 was a worthy splurge. It's won James Beard and Wine Spectator awards, and the hotel provides an elegant setting. The tall windows framed one nearby couple who clasped fingertips across their table at dusk. Entrees are seasonal: Think Northwestern sturgeon over house-made mushroom pasta. If that's too elaborate, Ijal's down the block offers Jamaican fare — including fresh ginger beer and wickedly spicy pickled peppers.
Lost Coast Brewery (motto: "Brewed fresh in the Humboldt Nation"), also in Eureka, dispenses pub food and such house beers as Great White, with overtones of coriander and citrus. It's also one of dozens of venues that hosts live music on weekends — jazz, blues or folk — appealing equally to sophisticated ladies in gauzy white ensembles and guys whose beards have grown dreadlocks.
Saturday started with a gentle getaway: bird-watching with the Audubon Society in the Arcata Marsh. These mudflats and groves were logging docks but now are prime spots for viewing cormorants, sandpipers and Canada geese. Weekly excursions are free; BYOB (binoculars). Even as a first-timer, I learned to discern a yellow warbler from a black phoebe. Moments of utter calm on the marsh were worth the whole trip.
Next stop: the weekly farmers market on historic Arcata Plaza, one of California's great public squares. A jazz band entertained the locals, who were browsing fruits and flora or picnicking on the lawn. The gargantuan North Coast Co-op market also sells organic picnic needs: sandwiches and main dishes, bulk honey dispensed into squeeze-bears and locally produced gourmet Humboldt Fog goat cheese.
Nearby, at 11th and H streets, is Arcata's answer to Melrose Avenue. Vintage Avenger sells the old, the new and the wacky: gloves that recall Audrey Hepburn, boas that bring to mind Dame Edna, a hula dancer for your dashboard, a mini disco ball for well, the possibilities are endless. Hempsown makes earth-toned clothing from this earthy material.
Probably the most Arcata thing to do, though, is to soak at the Finnish Country Sauna & Hot Tubs. Private bathing cabins around a thicket of shade trees rent by the half-hour. Café Mokka here does coffees and small plates including open-faced Danish-style smørrebrød sandwiches.
As the sun descended, a gathering of scruffy (and not in a student way) and ripe (and not in a farmers-market way) people made Arcata Plaza less appealing, so I drove back to Eureka for dinner at the friendly, quietly tony Sea Grill. Diners feasted on hefty chops, an elaborate salad bar and lots of seafood. Appetizer portions of steamers and Humboldt Bay oysters were enough for me.
Samoa Cookhouse, across the bay from Eureka, is a busy, old-timey place to breakfast (or lunch or sup) like a logger. This former mess hall offers all-you-can-eat meals at bargain prices — $10 to $15, with a sliding price scale for kids. Before or after, you can peruse a little logging-camp museum.
Otherwise, many establishments in the towns close on Sundays, making it prime tree time. Driving through the 17,000 acres of redwoods along the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants south of Eureka, all I could think was that California is a beautiful state, even if this same U.S. Highway 101 eventually becomes the traffic-clogged Hollywood Freeway 600 miles south. Which reminded me to head back to the airport for my flight to Los Angeles. And just in time too. The beard was beginning to itch.
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Expenses for one on this trip:
Carter House Inns $230
Cornelius Daly Inn $165
Horizon Air round-trip from LAX;
rental car and gas $247
Ijal's Jamaican Kitchen $11
Restaurant 301 $78
The Sea Grill $40
Other meals $32
Admission and entertainment
Blue Ox Millworks, Morris Graves Museum,
Lost Coast Brewery music show,
Finnish Country Sauna $24
Distance from L.A. 684 miles
Horizon Air, sister airline of Alaska Airlines, began twice-daily nonstop service from LAX to Arcata-Eureka Airport in April. Get a window seat; the views are inspiring. I got an introductory fare of $137, but most start now at $253 round-trip. (800) 252-7522, http://www.alaskaair.com .