BRINGING THE KIDS? TRY RENTING A HOME AWAY FROM HOME : In California, using a child-friendly cottage as a base for exploring the romantic Mendocino coast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe it was the call of the Great Unknown, although it could have been that second glass of Cabernet at cocktail hour. When old friends suggested a two-family getaway to the romantic Mendocino coast, we leaped at the idea. We could picture it all--the bluffs, the vineyards, the quaint little country inns. So breathtaking was the notion that we all completely forgot . . . We can't go to a place like Mendocino! WE HAVE KIDS!!!

Don't misunderstand. Parenthood is its own, er, reward. But there are trade-offs, and one is summed up in that old oxymoron, family vacation. Generally speaking, anything that looks like a totally excellent adventure to your children will leave you counting the minutes until you can get back to your relaxing job. And any place where words like "romantic" and "getaway" come into play is going to be a land bereft of Nintendo.

Still, by the time this occurred to us, the commitment was made and our curiosity was piqued: Was there an uncharted middle ground between Camp Snoopy and Carmel?

And so we set off--me, my husband, Bob, our 2-year-old and 11-year-old daughters, our friends Andy Furillo and Deb Anderluh and 3-year-old Andy Jr.--two carloads of moms, dads and kids hellbent for the couples capital of California.

Up, up we went in our family-sized wagons into the gingerbread clap board belly of the beast. And now that our vacation's over, we offer this conclusion: You can take your kids to places like Mendocino and have great fun, but it's not the kind of fun these places are famous for.

Take accommodations. Full-color volumes have been written about the bed-and-breakfasts of Mendocino--inn after trellised Victorian inn, where fine-crafted antiques vie with contemporary art for the privilege of being trashed by your 2-year-old. We really couldn't blame the nice lady at the Glendeven Inn and Gallery who told us that at the moment, they lacked an "appropriate" room, but that with a little more notice they could have given us the (renovated) barn.

After six or seven such conversations--all involving heavy use of that word "appropriate"--our friend Deb had a brainstorm and phoned a place called Pacific Resorts in Little River. The firm is one of three in the Mendocino area that broker the use of vacation and retirement homes, by the night or by the week. Prices range from $75 to $400 per night, depending on the size and location of the house. Most have ocean views, fireplaces, linens, fully equipped kitchens and other amenities of the sort you'd expect at a hotel.

For $150 a night, we got three nights in a bright, squeaky clean, two-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin. It was five minutes south of downtown Mendocino, surrounded by redwoods and meadows, safely across a two-lane blacktop from the picturesque-but-deadly-to-toddlers ocean cliffs. Amenities included a hot tub, a glass-doored sauna that looked out into the woods, two TVs, a VCR, a stereo with a CD player, a microwave, shelves full of games and books (including children's books), a wood-burning stove and skylights in just about every room.

Our friends and their toddler took one bedroom; we shared the other with our 2-year-old, Gina. Our 11-year-old, Alex, set up camp in the living room on an exceptionally comfy fold-out couch. We noted with relief that the wood furniture was virtually unbreakable, with no sharp corners or light-colored upholstery.

The cost--including a 10% county bed tax and cleaning fee--came to about $92 per family per night. It was about half of what we would have had to spend for two rooms at a bed and breakfast in the area--even if no priceless heirlooms were destroyed.

Mendocino--with its Victori an clapboard houses, its tumbling wildflower gardens, its crashing surf, its bookstores and bakeries--was as picturesque as anyone could ask; Alex was particularly impressed by a quaint little sign pointing to the town video arcade.

We took a short walk along the bluffs by the ocean. That too would have been fetching, except that there are--gulp--no guardrails at the tops of those breathtaking 50- and 60-foot cliffs. Taking in the scenery can be a real challenge when your kids keep trying to lean over jagged precipices that, according to the guidebooks, are dotted with poison oak. The up-side, however, was in appreciating the landscape through a kid's eyes and ears--the ornate carving in the totem poles near the shore, the muscular flight of the gulls, the way the croaking of the frogs seemed to come from everywhere at once.

We also noted that bringing kids onto couples' vacation turf was forcing us to interact more with the townies than tourists otherwise might. Other visitors wanted strolling violin players and candle-lit tables for two. We wanted eight-packs of hot dogs and Blockbuster Video.

On the streets, couples glared with the well-founded suspicion that we were justthisclose to wrecking the choreography of their romance. But the one local family we spotted that first night--two women and a 5-year-old girl--was exceptionally friendly, not to mention colorful.

They were easy to pick out--they were the only other people on the street that night with a child, they sported a Little River bumper sticker on their car, they were clad in black leather jackets and steel-toed boots and one of the women had pink hair. The effect was daunting, but they seemed to know their way around. And when we stopped them to ask directions to a supermarket and video store they turned out to be friendly and welcoming.

On the morning of our second day, we rose early, brewed a pot of strong coffee and set out on a two-hour boat ride. We had been drawn to the idea because, at the time of our visit, it was spring and whale-watching season, but the boat owner--Anchor Charters in Fort Bragg, 10 miles north of Mendocino--also runs a popular summertime cruise along the coast, up the Noyo River and back.

Whale-watching rates were $20 per person, with children under 4 traveling free (depending on space availability). The summer excursion fares are cheaper at $10 per adult and, with most of the trip on a river, probably more fun for kids. Our outing, as it turned out, was a bust--the air was bone-chilling, the ocean was choppy and, as Andy Sr. later put it, "the only spouting we saw was over the side of the boat."

"We shoulda taken the Skunk Train," sighed one passenger, referring to a local attraction that we also missed--a scenic redwood tour that the California Western Railroad runs by steam train out of Fort Bragg. Fares for that excursion, which follows an old logging line, are $26 full day, $21 half day for adults and $12 full day, $10 half day for children age 5-11, with lap babies riding for free.

We got back to port at about 1 p.m., and drove back into Mendocino for some window shopping and lunch. Our friends got take-out pizza at a gourmet shop called Tote Fete on Lansing Street, where entrees ranged from apricot chicken salad to hearty calzones , and discovered a terrific children's store called Out of This World that featured telescopes, solar system paraphernalia and other science-oriented toys for kids.

We, meanwhile, went all-out and headed for the historic Mendocino Hotel, a plush, turn-of-the-century establishment that was built in 1878 and restored to its original grandeur in 1975.

The hotel restaurant had gotten good reviews. But, like so many places in Mendocino, the service was decidedly awkward when it came to kids. The maitre d' took one look at us and ushered us to the furthest corner of the garden room. There, despite generations of technological progress, they still hadn't managed to acquire booster seats. (We were later told that the hotel does have highchairs, but no one was offering them to us that day.)

Afterward, we browsed in an eclectic sportswear shop until little Gina could no longer contain herself and began tearing in and out of clothing racks. Then it was off to Van Damme State Park, three miles to the south, where a twentysomething park ranger informed us that the Fern Canyon Discovery Trail across the road from the ocean was "killer."

It was, in fact, a gorgeous and very kid-friendly hike, on a wide trail that followed a burbling brook up verdant Fern Canyon. Van Damme State Park clearly was the big draw for tourists with families--the park's 74 family campsites were packed with tents and recreational vehicles and kids on skateboards and bikes. (For those who like to rough it, there are also 10 hike-in campsites in a dewy patch of coastal forest about two miles up a scenic trail; rangers told us that reservations for any of the campgrounds are essential during the peak summer months.)

Had the little kids been older and hardier, we might have followed the trail for its full, seven-mile loop through the redwoods to the park's signature destination--the Pygmy Forest--and back. An ecological oddity, the Pygmy Forest is a sort of bonsai wilderness of small, gnarled, lichen-encrusted trees whose trunks are less than an inch in diameter; some species are said to be found nowhere else in the world.

Nonetheless, the three-mile section of the trail we took was a scenic mother lode. Redwoods towered overhead. Huge ferns spilled in every direction. The path was spongy with pine needles and edged with clover. Little Andy Jr. found a three-inch-long green slug and touched it with his chubby hand. Alex pronounced the hike "a 10." Gina darted in and out of foliage with her fingers spread like claws, pretending to be a dinosaur.

Then it was Happy Hour, and we returned to the cabin for grown-up glasses of Boont Amber Ale and Husch Cabernet, both local brews. The toddlers got their first dip in a hot tub, squealing "Bubbles!"; Alex held her nose and went under like a scuba diver.

We realized that we had no dinner reservations, and it was Saturday night in Mendocino, so we stayed home and barbecued. It was, we later felt, the most delicious repast of the trip: Italian sausages, turkey hot dogs, pasta with garlic and olive oil, grilled fresh vegetables and ice cream for dessert. As we talked into the night over bottles of wine, the little kids fell asleep in front of a dinosaur video and Alex stayed up late for "Saturday Night Live."

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Our last day featured some of the best and worst moments of the trip. There was a breathtaking hike through the Hendy Woods State Park, a half-hour's drive inland in the Anderson Valley, where stands of old-growth redwood and Douglas fir line the pebbly banks of the Navarro River. There, in the brisk sunshine, we waded and picnicked and skipped rocks and drowsed with only the birds and the tadpoles for company.

There was the lilt on our car radios of bossa nova music from the very good public radio station that broadcast, to our surprise, from the tiny Anderson Valley hamlet of Philo, and the taste of the pinot noir at the Husch vineyard, where we stopped to buy a case of wine.

But there was also the one sour note of our trip--a meal at the renowned Cafe Beaujolais, a place where we should have taken one look and said, "We'll just get our nouvelle cuisine to go. "

Why we tried to take two toddlers into a fancy restaurant with little trellises on the front porch still isn't entirely clear. Maybe we were blinded by the good luck we had had so far. Maybe it was that our kids had been pretty well-behaved in restaurants before. Maybe it was that the place looked like somebody's grandma's house.

But as we trooped past the formal china and the heavy cutlery with our extra Pampers and sticky hands, it soon became clear that we would be lucky if ol' grandma didn't give us the boot. Brandishing the menus, our hostess smiled sweetly at Andy Jr. and hissed: "You'd better be a good boy or you can't stay in the restaurant." Then we were ushered onto--what else?--the back porch, where a table for seven had been set up without a highchair or booster seat in sight.

Three couples looked at us, then meaningfully at each other. The place was as hushed as a confessional. Andy Jr. took one look at the wrought iron grown-up chair where he was supposed to sit with the self-control of a child four times his age and emitted a shriek that pierced the bucolic room like a smoke alarm. On cue, Baby Gina snatched a wine goblet from her place setting, shouted, "Gina drink wine!" and slithered under the table in her little princess dress.

Need I say more? It wasn't a pretty sight. We hustled the kids out as fast as we could and bolted our food in shifts.

We'd been having so much fun, we completely forgot. . . . We can't go to a place like Mendocino! WE HAVE KIDS!!!

GUIDEBOOK

Mendocino Mainstays

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Getting there: Lowest round-trip restricted fare from Ontario to Oakland is $88 on Southwest Airlines; $98 from Burbank and LAX to San Francisco or Oakland on Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, TWA, United and USAir. From the Bay Area, take California 101 north to Highway 128 to reach Little River (about 150 miles and 3 1/2 hours).

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Where to stay: At least three agencies rent vacation and retirement homes that are comfortable for families: Pacific Resorts, P.O. Box 348, Little River 95456; telephone (800) 358-9879 or (707) 937-2000. Mendocino Coast Reservations in Mendocino, P.O. Box 1143, Mendocino 95460; tel. (800) 262-7801 or (707) 937-5033. Shoreline Properties, 18200 Old Coast Highway, Fort Bragg 95437; tel. (800) 942-8288 or (707) 964-1444. Prices range from $75 to $400 a night, depending on size and location of the property.

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Where to eat: Tote Fete, P.O. Box 685, Mendocino 95460 (10450 Lansing St.); tel. (707) 937-3383. Mendocino Hotel, P.O. Box 587, Mendocino 95460 (45080 Main St.); tel. (707) 937-0511. Cafe Beaujolais, P.O. Box 1236, Mendocino 95460 (961 Ukiah St.); tel. (707) 937-5614.

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Where to go: Anchor Charters, P.O. Box 103, Fort Bragg 95437 (North Harbor Drive); tel. (707) 964-4550. California Western Railroad, P.O. Box 907, Fort Bragg 95437 (100 Laurel St. Depot); tel. (707) 964-6371. Hendy Woods State Park (18599 Philo Greenwood Road, Philo) and Van Damme State Park, (8125 N. Highway 1, Little River). For information on either park: P.O. Box 440, Mendocino 95460; tel. (707) 937-5804, reservations tel. (800) 444-7275. Out of This World, P.O. Box 1010, Mendocino 95460 (45100 Main St.); tel. (707) 937-3335.

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For more information: For advice on kid-friendly accommodations and information about the area, contact Fort Bragg/Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, 332 N. Main St., Fort Bragg, 95437; tel. (800) 726-2780 or (707) 961-6300.

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