The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

At Boonville ranch, nothin' much is lots of fun

Times Staff Writer

Funny how one can get lost, even before leaving home.

While planning a trip to Mendocino County, I got sidetracked by details on the website for the Other Place guest ranch. It said the property's first cottage had a great room with a wood-burning stove. A second cottage came with an oversized tub in the bathroom. The last cottage boasted a dining room with pastoral views. Decisions, decisions.

In the end the choice didn't matter. When I drove past all three rentals, I realized the key to this vacation wasn't the bedroom, great room or dining room. It was the breathing room.

That's the appeal of the Other Place, a 550-acre ranch in the Anderson Valley wine country. We were two city guys and one city dog seeking a respite in the country. A place called Boonville, population 751, seemed appropriate. Though the town and the surrounding valley are best known for wine, we came for its other charms: family-owned markets, offbeat galleries, little-known parks. We wanted leisure bordering on languor. We sought accommodations that imparted solitude and scenery in equal measure.

Visitors can get here by flying to San Francisco or Oakland, then driving three hours north on U.S. 101 and California 128. My partner, Todd, and I were in the middle of a road trip when we arrived by car one Saturday last month with Bailey and his dog bed in tow.

From the highway, an unmarked dirt-and-gravel driveway wound two miles past creeks and up to our 960-square-foot hilltop studio, the Oaks, a shabby-chic wood-and-glass box with a roof made of salvaged sheet metal. We took a quick look inside and noted the complimentary extras in the kitchen, including granola and milk for breakfast, Chenin Blanc from the local Husch Vineyards, even two quarts of tomato juice in case the dog played chase with a skunk.

While Bailey scouted our four-acre fenced yard, we drove back down the hill for dinner at the Boonville Hotel. Todd had a Caesar salad and the daily special, a thin-crust pizza with yellow and black chanterelles picked that morning. I had the potato and leek soup with nutmeg cream, followed by a tender half-chicken with mild gorgonzola-mint sauce. We were surprised by the big-city food, service and ambience.

Back at the Oaks, Todd and I got the fire roaring and played a few board games. We went to sleep serenaded by silence and the occasional dog snore.

Counting crows Come morning, I finally understood the reason for the open layout, sparse furnishings and absence of curtains: breathing room.

Picture windows lining three walls provided a panorama of lichen-laden oaks, dewy grass and morning mist lingering in the valley.

I padded to a window alcove and did little more than sip apple cider and watch a dozen crows flit from tree to tree. An hour passed. I wasn't sure how and, more important, I didn't care.

It was the kind of scene Anne Bennett and husband Aaron Weintraub envisioned when they bought the land six years ago. She was a buyer for Macy's in New York and later division president for a San Francisco apparel company; he was a real estate junkie. Their first venture in the Anderson Valley, a collection of cottages in nearby Yorkville called Sheep Dung Estates, had gained a cult-like following.

The Other Place's cottages are more expensive ($250 a night for ours on weekends) but come with more amenities, such as the high-end in-wall sound system, satellite TV and central air and heat. With only three cottages spread across 550 acres, there's also more privacy.

While Todd slept, Bailey and I rambled down the gravel road toward grassy knolls and trickling creeks. I knew what would happen next but didn't have the heart to stop it. The dog bolted to a creek, spread-eagle in the icy water, and shoved his snout in the mud. When he realized a creek wouldn't get him sufficiently filthy, he sprinted to a pasture and ran a crazy-eight pattern in ankle-deep muck.

His thick golden retriever-chow coat looked like harbor seal-meets-oil spill. Every time I approached with a leash, he sprinted away, so I resorted to my own dirty trick: I pantomimed eating cookies, and soon he was circling for crumbs, and I clicked the leash onto his collar.

The Other Place's housekeeper is meticulous, and house rules instruct guests with pets to bring extra sheets and drape them over the bed and other furniture so everything remains soil-free.

Back at the cottage I scrubbed Bailey using diluted "champagne sparkle" body wash from a wine country spa. Extra towels from my car got him Farrah Fawcett fluffy. The poor dog slunk inside, miserable to be so clean.

Boonville does have other diversions. We perused gourmet goods at the Boonville General Store, organic produce at Boont Berry Farm and blown glass and pottery at the Rookie-To gallery. After lunch, Todd needed to finish some work, so I set out for Ukiah, 19 miles northwest, home of the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House.

Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) gained prominence as a painter in an era when few women achieved much notoriety in the field. Her husband, Dr. John Hudson, a physician-turned-anthropologist, had suggested that she focus on the local Pomo Indians as the sole subject of her work. Together they came to be known to the Pomo as "Doc and the Painter Lady."

In 1891 Grace Hudson finished the first of 685 numbered portraits that would define her career. "National Thorn," an unapologetically sentimental rendering of a sleeping Pomo baby, launched her rise in Bay Area society, and the Hudsons began entertaining such notables as Jack London, botanist Luther Burbank and others in their Ukiah home.

That Craftsman house, built in 1911 and dubbed the Sun House, has been lovingly preserved. A volunteer walked me through, carefully pointing out the arrowhead-shaped light fixtures designed by John Hudson, the original period furniture and the wallpaper that Grace Hudson stenciled by hand. Everything was built to the couple's specifications, including skylights and movable metal reflector panels that allowed the painter to control natural light inside.

Next door I spent more time in the Grace Hudson Museum, where "National Thorn" and many of the artists' other works are hung in a rear gallery. The museum was preparing an exhibit of its extensive Pomo basket collection, of which I saw only a fraction: wonderful works made of willow, sedge, bulrush, glass beads and feathers.

I moved on, walking around the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a Buddhist training center that takes its name from the main meditation hall, a converted school gymnasium whose walls are lined with thousands of Buddha figurines. I peeked at Vichy Springs, a historic hot springs resort. And I started driving toward the Pomo cultural center near Lake Mendocino.

Scrabble and a fire Then it dawned on me: I really just wanted to be back at the Oaks — doing nothing.

So over crackers, smoked mozzarella and Chenin Blanc, I listened to Todd recount the day's adventures with Bailey (more romping, less mud). We barbecued steaks. We played Scrabble. But mostly we just sat by the fire and rediscovered how good it felt to do nothing.

Sunday we packed up and drove farther up the valley, stopping in the afternoon to walk among the redwoods in Hendy Woods State Park, eight miles north of Boonville. But what I remember most of that day was morning, when we sat on the porch in Adirondack chairs and read amusing comments in the Other Place's guest book. Wrote one pleased visitor: "My husband concluded … that if I wasn't already pregnant, I would be by the time we left."

The majority of people ended their entries with the same sentiment: "We'll be back." Todd asked me whether we should add our own comments. I told him no. In a fit of narcissism, I wanted some reader to take my story and slip it into the book for future guests to see. Perhaps that's wishful thinking, but I guess we'll find out sooner or later. After all, we'll be back.

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