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Cusick is a Mendocino-based freelance writer

The best part about living in Shangri-La is that we don’t have far to go to find a hideaway. The Mendocino coast, where I live, has more than 50 bed-and-breakfast inns; not as well known is the fact that the inland part of Mendocino County is dotted with seductively remote lodging opportunities.

I have four favorites. Two offer total solitude, for romance or as a single’s retreat: one is on an isolated mountain top, the other surrounded by an exquisite garden. Another choice, which I share with friends annually, involves a jaunt into the redwoods for hot tubbing, sauna and massage. The last is a mini-vacation at a dude-style ranch that can be taken with or without the children. Weekend room rates at the four run from $92 for two for hot tubbing in the redwoods to $350 per couple per night at the ranch.

The one I like best, for spontaneity at least, during the late fall and winter months, is Orr Hot Springs--on Orr Springs Road, one of the original stagecoach routes between the coast and the inland Yokayo Valley.

From the coast, the trip along Comptche-Ukiah Road takes me through the Pygmy Forest, with its 100-year-old stunted pine trees; passes country homes and cabins hidden by a thick canopy of fir and pine trees; and wends through the redwoods to Orr Hot Springs.

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My five friends and I have rented the group cabin, which has a kitchen and accommodates up to eight people. The other rustic redwood cabins use the communal kitchen in the lodge, a beautifully aged redwood building that dates to the 1930s. The cabins are tucked among trees, ferns and flowers in a lush, narrow canyon at the headwaters of Big River, which empties into the bay below the Mendocino headlands. They have porches in front and some, like ours, are reached by climbing up hillside paths or stairs. Single and double rooms are available, and so are a community sleeping room and camping sites. Day passes for the hot tub, sauna and pool lure many local residents.

After taking our provisions to the cottage, we undress, wrap ourselves in towels or robes and get ready to “take the waters.” Bathing suits are optional, but most of the guests shed it all, and we are such good friends we decide what-the-heck.

In the bathhouse, built in 1863, individual rooms each hold a porcelain Victorian tub into which 98-degree water is piped from the underground springs. These soaking tubs--or a shower--are the first step before plunging into the communal hot tubs: a redwood tub housed in a gazebo with an opening to the sky and an adjacent outdoor natural-bedrock pool. Lolling under the stars is my favorite way to enjoy both.

Later, we unfold thick, comfortable futons to sleep together on the living room floor. Besides our cacophonous conversations, the only sound is of a nearby waterfall.

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In the morning, one friend rises early to meditate and take a sauna. Several of us put on our walking shoes and trek along the narrow road to Montgomery Woods State Reserve. This majestic stand of redwood trees, originally a nine-acre parcel donated by Robert Orr in 1945, is now part of a 1,142-acre reserve, thanks to the Save the Redwoods League.

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The other three hideaways are off California 128, the Mendocino Coast’s link with the rest of the world. On this stretch through the Anderson Valley are sheep ranches, vineyards and apple orchards. I usually traverse it several times a month, savoring the seasonal changes on every trip.

By far, the best drives are when I’m going only as far as one of my hideaways. Two are located near Philo, post office to many of Anderson Valley’s esteemed wineries. On the southwest side of the road, high in the coastal hills, are Highland Ranch and Beija Flor.

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My husband, Barry, and I had heard about the reincarnation of Highland Ranch for several years before we made reservations. To get there, we turn about a mile north of Philo onto Philo Greenwood Road and drive to the Highland Ranch sign. Four more dusty miles and the road has taken us from the thick, dark forest and deposited us at the top of the world--where an expansive sky lights up the meadow around a two-acre lake stocked with bass. Owner George Gaines purchased the 540-acre ranch in 1987, remodeled and renovated it.

Highland Ranch is not your usual sweat-stained dude ranch. Gaines has cultivated an atmosphere of gentrified country living with his herd of horses, skeet-shooting lessons and down-home cooking. Many of his guests are friends from his days as an international businessman and attorney.

Inside the door of the redwood cottage, the two “abiding commandments” are posted: “Thou shalt not hurry. Thou shalt not frighten the horses.” With those in mind, we enforce our own relaxation, light the fire, which is already laid in the brick fireplace, and sink into easy chairs to read. Two double beds and several chairs furnish the room, which has knotty pine ceilings and a braided rug.

At 7 p.m. we assemble in the ranch house for drinks. Someone needs a lemon, and Gaines steps outside to pick one off the tree. Coincidentally, the weekend group is heavily ballet oriented. A San Francisco ballet star and her ballet-dancing fiance; a former New York ballerina and her spouse, who happens to be on the board of the American Ballet Theater, a local winemaker; a wine distributor, and a couple who have office jobs make up the group. The cook rings the dinner bell, and we go into the country dining room to ladle chicken and dumplings, green beans and tossed salad from the sideboard buffet. Bottles of Lazy Creek’s Anderson Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are already at the long dinner tables. There are baked apples for dessert and a nightcap of brandy or port before we stroll back to our cabin under the most stars I have ever seen in my life--and I live in the country.

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The weekend progresses with breakfasts made by Gaines in a kitchen big enough to accommodate the California Culinary Academy: crisp, oniony breakfast potatoes and, cooked on heavy commercial waffle irons, his signature waffles dotted with blueberries, peaches or whatever fruit is in season. Bacon and eggs, coffee and orange juice round out this meal, after which we decide to go horseback riding even though neither of us has been on a horse in 15 years.

Gaines has been a horse breeder most of his life, and his staff is so encouraging that the ride is the highlight of the weekend. We trot along forest trails, out onto a ridge with a 360-degree view of the valley below and coastal range beyond.

Highland Ranch looks like a ranch, but it also is a beautiful hilltop retreat at which to play tennis, swim, fish and hike, mountain bike, or ride horses on the 100 miles of groomed trails. I mostly like it because I don’t have to do anything except slow down, be gentle with the horses and join the group for meals.

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On a neighboring hilltop (less than 10 miles away), in another rarefied setting, Beija Flor is the creation and home of Virginia and Jeff Mitchell. The first indication that I am somewhere special, where form is as important as function, comes with noticing the hand-laid stone drainage ditch along the driveway. When the massive gate swings open, we pass a carved figurehead from a Brazilian fisherman’s riverboat. “It is Curranca, a dragon-like figure believed to bring good fortune and protect against pirates,” says Virginia, whose Brazilian heritage is felt throughout the property. Beija Flor, Portuguese for beautiful flower, sits in a natural clearing in the forest, a miniature valley unto itself. The foundation of the garden, whose sweeping contours encompass five acres, is an abundance of ornamental fruit and flowers, all carefully placed to create color throughout the seasons.

The new structures on the property (the old ranch cabins had deteriorated long before the Mitchells came), including the two cabins and the cabana around the pool, are expensively built and, like the gardens, exquisitely maintained. Inside, the cottages have redwood wainscoting, field-stone fireplaces, tiled baths, and an eclectic decor of antiques and tapestries from Brazil and Indonesia , where Jeff developed a resort and met Virginia.

We stash the car in a shady alcove next to the cottage and move in. The open kitchen is well stocked with cookware and dishes. Anderson Valley wines, beer and sparkling wine fill the refrigerator, and a fruit basket and bread is on the counter. We can have breakfast here or go over to the house, where Virginia prepares a full breakfast of yogurt, scones, a Brazilian seafood frittata, omelets and her famous seven-grain waffles with homemade peach syrup. Jeff, who is “the best omelet maker” fills them with fresh tomatoes and Virginia’s goat cheese.

A stay can be as private or as social as one wants. Decisions involve whether to stroll around the gardens, swim in the semi-Olympic-size pool or hang out in one of the hammocks Virginia imports from Brazil to sell. If we want, Virginia can arrange for an indulgent round of hedonistic pleasures including massages and steam-bath treatments.

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We also have the option of cooking dinner here from provisions we can purchase in nearby Philo. Instead, we take the 15-minute drive to the Boonville Hotel to dine on Johnny Schmitt’s excellent food.

In the morning, we make coffee and sip it first while propped in bed, then out on the front deck with its view of the gardens and the pool area. Another deck on the back of the cottage overlooks the forest and the vegetable garden.

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The fourth hideaway comes with its own set of appeals, all geared for momentarily checking out of civilization. First, although this may raise an eyebrow or two, is its name: Sheep Dung Estates, the carefully chosen moniker for one of the world’s most isolated retreats.

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I first heard about Sheep Dung when I worked at a winery tasting room in Anderson Valley. Owners Anne Bennett and Aaron Weintraub had sent brochures and photos of their studio cottage accommodations, each perched on a panoramic knoll and furnished in elegant simplicity.

There are no longer sheep on the 160-acre-property a couple of miles off California 128 outside of Yorkville. Perhaps that’s why dogs are as welcome to check in as their owners, who are asked only to bring sheets to cover the comforters on the beds and their own dog towels. About 60% of guests at Sheep Dung bring their dogs.

Each of the three cottages is built with privacy in mind, has 10 to 20 surrounding acres, and its own driveway. The Pond cottage is on a hillside overlooking the pond, which is the view pictured on L1. Sunset Hill and Terra Cottage are on the tops of knolls. All are built on an east-west axis to get the most out of passive solar exposure; each has a queen-size bed and wood-burning fireplace; two have wood floors and Terra Cottage has paver tiles.

The day I come up to see the property, I meet a couple who hasn’t checked out yet. The blissful and relaxed look on their faces are all the incentive I need to make my own reservation.

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GUIDEBOOK

Mendocino Hideaways

Getting there: From San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose, take U.S. 101 north to California 128, or all the way to Ukiah, depending on retreat location.

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Orr Hot Springs, 13201 Orr Springs Road, Ukiah, CA 95482; telephone (707) 462-6277. Rates: Rooms (double occupancy): $100, Thurs.-Sun.; $82, Mon.-Wed. Cottages (double occupancy): $135, Thurs.-Sun.; $116, Mon.-Wed. Community Room & Camping: $32, Thurs.-Sun.; $28, Mon.-Wed. Day Use: $17, Tues.-Sun.; $10, Mon. Children and group rates available.

Highland Ranch, P.O. Box 150, Philo, CA 95466; tel. (707) 895-3600, fax (707) 895-3702. Rates: $175 per person daily, $100 per child under 12, includes cottages, all meals, cocktails, wine, riding, and use of recreational facilities including tennis, swimming and horseback riding.

Beija Flor, 20500 Tumbling Mc D Road, Philo, CA 95466; tel. (707) 895-3455, fax (707) 895-3065 Rates: $250 per couple per night; another cabin is $200.

Sheep Dung Estates, P.O. Box 49, Yorkville, CA 95494; tel. (707) 894-5322. Rates: $90-$110 weekends and holidays; $75-$90 Sun.-Thurs.

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