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Cape Cod West : Romancing the Medocino Coast: A Drive into California’s New England

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Revisiting Mendocino is like recalling an old flame, when the embers still smolder. It is a destination for romantics who seek togetherness--a state of affairs possible not only in Mendocino but at a number of coastal inns that line Highway 1 north of San Francisco.

I recall an early visit to Mendocino in the 1970s when the town’s saltbox houses were weather-beaten and the fences sagged and the yards were overgrown with weeds. A storm had blown in off the Pacific and shutters banged against the old buildings while thunder rolled overhead and the rain poured relentlessly.

It spattered against the windshield as I turned off Highway 1, the scene blurred like an out-of-focus picture. New England-style saltboxes appeared in the greenness of the late afternoon, reminiscent of a slice of rock-bound Maine.

Puddles had gathered along Main Street and the town had taken on the appearance of one of those Maine villages that gets the full blow of an Atlantic storm. Only this was Mendocino, the once-thriving West Coast lumber community perched on a wind-whipped promontory with cliffs that dive straight to the Pacific.

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Here, winter storms sweep in from Alaska, heaving driftwood onto beaches while whistling buoys sing out beyond the breaker line. In summer, fog rolls in, filling gulches and gullies and draping itself across moors as in Scotland, haunting and ghostly.

My recent sentimental return to Mendocino was inspired by rumors that the village had lost its old appeal, and so I decided to find out. I followed the original route, Highway 1 beyond San Francisco and north of San Rafael. There it crosses salmon rivers and climbs coastal hills that are wet and green; it meanders through villages that would be missed in a wink--Gualala, Anchor Bay, Point Arena, Elk, Albion, Little River--and, finally, penetrates the invisible curtain beyond which the simple 19th-Century scene that is Mendocino unfolds.

The truth is, Mendocino has lost none of its charm. Indeed, if anything, those charms have been enhanced by artists and others who insist on perpetuating an image that’s like the pictures in an old snapshot album.

In the years since that first stormy visit, the saltboxes have been spruced up, the fences mended and artists have turned abandoned water towers into comfortable apartments.

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Imagine living in a water tower.

Now, on this sunny summer day, out-of-towners secretly wish they could put the cities behind them and take up residence in this village with its century-old appeal. This isn’t to say that Mendocino remains unchanged. Its streets are crowded during summer and the inns are full, but unlike other communities evincing a distant past, Mendocino has succeeded in perpetuating a down-home flavor that evokes a less stressful world. Even Blair House, the old New England-style cottage where actress Angela Lansbury resides in TV’s “Murder, She Wrote,” remains outwardly unchanged from the 1890s. Yes, even though it now serves as an inn whose guest rooms feature queen-size beds, European antiques and Oriental rugs. Guests who occupy Angela’s Suite snooze in a canopied bed beneath 10-foot ceilings, and there is a picture window that frames the village.

Blair House and other cottages were built by New England woodsmen, which accounts for Mendocino’s Down East flavor. During the era when the town’s saw mills provided redwood for booming San Francisco, Mendocino’s population grew and its wealth with it, until 45 years ago when the mills began to close and the town was all but abandoned.

By the time Bill Zacha arrived in the 1950s, barely 500 souls remained. Zacha, a San Francisco artist, came seeking peace in this primitive coastal community and discovered not only peace but success.

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He plunked $50 down on a home and after that opened his Bay Window Art Gallery, which still does a lively business on Main Street. At the same time he poured his energy into an art center that continues to lure painters, sculptors and other artists.

Margaret Fox arrived later. The moment she drove into town she knew she was home. She’d left the Bay Area to seek her fortune, and found it by establishing her immensely successful Cafe Beaujolais in a spruced-up Victorian with a picket fence. No question, The Beauj is the finest restaurant on the entire Mendocino coast.

The house is old and funky with bare floors and wooden chairs and a fireplace for chilly mornings. On sunny days, lunch is served outside on a couple of decks overlooking an herb and flower garden and three ancient water towers. Just next door, at Fox’s Brickery, bakers prepare wonderful fresh-baked breads and pizzas.

Breakfast at Cafe Beaujolais is a ritual. Guests line up at the door barely after dawn. They order cornmeal and oatmeal waffles; omelets stuffed with mushrooms and sour cream, black bean chili, raspberry jam, spinach, olives, feta cheese, ad infinitum .

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The room is fragrant with oven-fresh coffee cake and pumpkin muffins and potato pancakes topped with apple sauce. Fox turns out fried polenta with maple syrup, corn fritters, cashew granola, Irish oatmeal and an assortment of other specialties.

Guests drive all the way from the Bay Area just to dine here. I have a grumpy friend--a fussy eater--who insists that the best hamburger he ever ate was at the Beauj. The dinner menu lists such delights as duck confit salad with fresh raspberries; a ravioli stuffed with crayfish, sea scallops and truffles, and filet of beef served with Roquefort sauce, toasted almonds, walnuts and pine nuts.

Fox’s pastas are held in the highest esteem.

After breakfast became an established custom at the Beauj, the 37-year-old Fox hired a dinner chef, Christopher Kump, whom she married in a ceremony attended by a couple of black Labradors sporting white bow ties.

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This tells you something about life in Mendocino.

A grocery does business in a former church, its shelves and bins stocked with raw buckwheat and a slew of organic grains, vegetables and fruits, along with whole wheat spaghetti, dried apples and strawberry guava nectar.

Visitors shop for antiques at the Sea Cottage and the Golden Goose where an 1880s Louis XV bed was on sale the other day for $4,200; an 1840 French armoire was tagged at $4,400. They line up at the Gourmet Sweet Shoppe to buy stick candy, lollipops, almond brittle, chocolate fudge, divinity and old-fashioned candy corn.

A few doors away, an ex-laundromat serves as a leather shop, only steps from a dress shop called The Great Put On.

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Carnations bloom in window boxes and there’s the salty taste of the sea. On a chilly afternoon, guests sink into sofas at the Old Mendocino Hotel on Main Street, reading in the glow of Victorian lamps while a fireplace provides warmth and straight shots of bourbon are poured in an 1878 bar that harks back to an era when schooner captains braved the rocky coast with their cargoes of redwood.

Others seek shelter at the Joshua Grindle Inn with its wood-burning fireplaces and country wallpaper. All five rooms at the 111-year-old Victorian have private baths, as do others in a water tower and a garden cottage.

From the parlor there’s a view of the village, and in the evening innkeepers Jim and Arlene Moorehead light a fire and pour sherry and the room comes alive with classical melodies.

At Glendeven Inn, which is a favorite of legions of vacationers, proprietors Janet and Jan deVries provide five rooms in a Victorian (circa 1867) and others in a renovated barn and new cottage that brings to mind a 19th-Century farmhouse.

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Jan is a furniture craftsman and Janet a designer. As a result, their personalities are indelibly stamped on this fine old inn. Scattered throughout Glendeven are antiques and high-back beds, and a marvelous new art gallery has been installed in the barn. Glendeven rates five stars for warmth as well as romance.

Redwoods cast shadows on paths leading to the ocean, which even in summer is too cold for swimmers. Indeed, the chamber of commerce issues this warning: “Never turn your back on the ocean. It is dangerous, bitterly cold and has awesome powers. The rocky shores below our cliffs can become a dangerous, deadly trap.”

Instead, the beach is a place to collect shells and driftwood, or to set up an easel and paint headlands that are buffeted by the Pacific.

The southern end of the Mendocino Coast begins at Gualala, where I spent the night at the Old Milano Hotel. Perched on a bluff, it faces the ocean and Castle Rock, a spur that’s dashed by waves that spend themselves on a lonely beach.

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Hurricane lamps glow in the dining room of this two-story hotel with its fireplace and sofas and soft classical music. The Old Milano features antiques and fresh flowers and candlelight dinners. Romantic? You bet--except for one unredeeming feature: the sharing of two baths by the occupants of six guest rooms.

There’s something disconcerting about padding down the hall to the potty after an evening of hearts ‘n flowers. Still, with an ocean view and the melody of waves breaking on Castle Rock, the Old Milano has been responsible for firing the flames of more than one romance.

Besides, there is one suite with a private bath, and a cottage with an enameled wood-burning stove and a queen-size bed that’s hidden in an alcove. And there’s The Caboose, a genuine rail car set in a grove of trees where, on occasion, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana chooses to duck out on the world.

The Old Milano is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places as a bed and breakfast inn. Only let’s keep the record straight: It’s not one of those drafty old fixer-uppers that innkeepers keep pawning off as B&Bs.;

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Manager Julie Van Bezooyen, 27, ran off as a teen-ager to seek her fortune in the big cities. She’s back, she says, for good, which should tell you something about the serenity of Gualala.

The town is also home to the Old Gualala Hotel, with a bar that served Jack London. And up the road, the St. Orres Inn with its onion-shaped domes brings to mind a lavish dacha in the Soviet Union. Only it, too, has shared baths. Unless, of course, one chooses a cottage in the woods with private facilities.

“Uncle” Ted Black, with his tam and handlebar mustache, plays host at St. Orres, which was designed and built by his nephew, master craftsman Eric Black. St. Orres is more a museum than an inn, with tongue-and-groove paneling, stained-glass windows, oak doors, a huge fireplace and a spirited chef, Rosemary Campiformio, who creates heavenly pastas, sea urchin mousse, quail marinated in tequila and garlic, venison with wild huckleberries and Zinfandel, and a selection of other items ranging from wild boar to a fudge cake in raspberry puree that Campiformio refers to as “chocolate decadence.”

And there’s Whale Watch, a Gualala inn with spotless rooms--one called Love Song is next door to another labeled Heart Song--which rises on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Altogether, Whale Watch numbers 18 rooms.

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Guests gather in an oval-shaped parlor to sip wine and study the ocean and listen to classical music beside a wood-burning fire. Fishing boats bob below the bluff, gulls circle the inn and couples are wed on the cliff that falls straight down.

Up the coast near the village of Elk, Harbor House perches on a bluff overlooking a cove of spectacular beauty. Built entirely of redwood, this old mansion with its impeccable guest rooms and old-fashioned parlor is impossible to fault.

Rooms (both in the mansion and cottages) feature private baths, fireplaces and antique Franklin stoves. Deer gambol through the pasture and the ocean washes against a rocky shore.

On the highway to Mendocino, Harbor House is the likely setting for a romance novel. Indeed, it’s a hideaway to keep in mind should you decide to run off with that special someone.

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