As you drive into Mendocino, the first thing you’ll notice are the Victorian buildings that look straight out of a New England fishing village. The second: Hovering over many of the beautifully restored Victorians are old redwood water towers 25 to 60 feet tall, some pristine, some weathered.
The buildings and water towers recall Mendocino’s heyday, from the 1850s to the 1930s, as a redwood logging and mill town.
The town lacked a municipal water system, so families and business owners or neighboring groups dug separate wells. Windmills pumped water from the wells to tanks on top of the towers, where it was gravity-fed through pipes to homes and businesses. Mendocino’s water still comes from individual wells, but electric pumps have replaced windmills and most water is stored in ground-level tanks.
About 30 of the original 90-plus water towers remain, and some have been repurposed as lodgings. The lure of history, the idea of reinvention and the sheer charm called to me, so I visited in May to check them out.
Thanks to the town’s quirkiness — think buttoned-up Victorian with a dash of clothing-optional hippie — there seems to be a water-tower room for nearly every taste.
The first water tower where my husband, Paul, and I stayed adjoined the five-room JD House, which was stylishly renovated last year to evoke the sea captain’s home it was in the 19th century. The top of the tower, which once housed the water tank, wasn’t large enough for a deck, but we were content with the rustic-chic ground-floor suite. The sitting area had a sofa, gas fireplace and leather armchair, plus a flat-screen TV and a stack of old books.
It was a comfortable spot to browse through the books and enjoy the breakfast-in-a-basket featuring eggs, fresh-baked pastries and fruit that was delivered to our doorstep in the morning.
That evening we strolled to Café Beaujolais. The restaurant was a game-changer for Mendocino in 1983 when then-restaurant critic Ruth Reichl wrote a rave review in California Magazine of chef-owner Margaret Fox’s farm-to-table cuisine. Foodies began to dine here, turning Mendocino into a culinary destination.The cafe’s current owners honor Fox’s locavore tradition. Paul and I savored foraged herb-lentil cake with roasted cauliflower and curry and local black cod with wild forest mushroom agnolotti.
Tune in and drop out
Guests walk around in bathrobes at the Sweetwater Inn & Spa. “That’s the way it’s been since we opened the town’s first clothing-optional communal redwood hot tubs here in 1985,” said Sarah Rowe, front-desk manager
We stayed in the inn’s Redwood Tower, built in 1985. The imposing structure has a kitchen, dining area and living room on the ground floor; a master bedroom and a bathroom with two sinks on the second floor; and a roof deck with spectacular ocean views.
We appreciated the Redwood Tower’s spaciousness and modern conveniences, but if you want a blast-from-the-past experience, I recommend the Sweetwater Tower.
This remodeled 1872 water tower, original to the property, has a cozy beam-ceilinged bedroom but it lacks a bathroom and running water. Guests must wash up using an old-fashioned basin and pitcher of water and walk downstairs to use the bathroom next door at the spa.
Once the spa closes at 10 p.m., the hot tub, sauna and bathroom are for guests’ private use until 11 the next morning.
From the Sweetwater Inn, we walked two blocks to the Kelley House Museum in the 1861 home of William Kelley, one of Mendocino’s first leading businessman. Head museum docent Jane Tillis showed us its collection of historic artifacts, explaining how this once-prosperous logging center became the tourist draw it is today.
“Mendocino thrived until after the 1929 stock market crash,” she said. “The lumber mill closed during the 1930s Depression and people left town. The population dwindled to only a few hundred by the 1950s, and many of the abandoned houses collapsed. But the lumber mill still owned a big chunk of land.”
In the late 1960s, when locals learned the mill owners were planning to build condominiums on the ocean bluff, they petitioned the government to make Mendocino a National Historic District, Tillis said.
In 1972 most of the town was added to the National Register of Historic Places. “From that point on, you couldn’t tear down a protected building or change its outside appearance,” she said. “People began restoring some of the historic buildings and turning them into hotels, inns and B&Bs.”
In search of more recycled water towers, Paul and I explored the boutiques and art galleries along Main Street. We discovered Water Tower Apothecary tucked away in a back garden. Owner Teresa Spade, a biologist, sells an esoteric array of local health, wellness and beauty products. I couldn’t resist buying a package of herb tea that contained dried foraged red-belted conk mushrooms.
We climbed to the second story of another old water tower on Main Street to have brunch at Flow restaurant. As we lingered on the deck, we took in the wildflower-splashed bluff, rugged cliffs and Mendocino Bay.
After Mendocino was declared a National Historic District, the headlands became Mendocino Headlands State Park. Later we walked along the park’s cliffside trail, grateful that this magnificent natural spot remains condo-free.
Water tower as lookout
The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek, a 10-minute drive south of Mendocino, dates to 1932 when the completion of California 1 brought easy access to this remote stretch of coastline. Seventeen charming cottages and rooms flank a field dubbed the “pet meadow,” where guests are encouraged to let their dogs run free. I walked through it to a redwood hot tub and yurt spa, then down a trail into a shadowy forest of cypress, fir and pine trees where a creek burbled.
During World War II, the resort was turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard to house the shore patrol.
Our cottage’s private hot tub occupied a room at the base of the tower that once held the armory. As I gazed at the ocean from the deck, I found it hard to imagine Coast Guardsmen standing here scanning the horizon for enemy submarines.
The Grande Dame
Our last morning, we headed back to Mendocino for a peek at the water-tower suite at MacCallum House. The 19-room inn is set in a grand white Victorian mansion that was a wedding gift in 1882 from city father William Kelley to his daughter Daisy.
Mollie Warren, the general manager, led us through a garden to the white-shingled 32-foot-tall water tower. The first floor held a sitting area, half-bath and a sumptuous king-sized bed. Through a small glass window in the floor we could glimpse the original well.
We climbed the stairs to the second level and discovered a luxury-hotel-worthy marble bathroom with a jetted spa tub and sauna. The third floor housed a room with a queen bed and ocean views.
“The historic houses and water towers were not the only buildings to be repurposed in Mendocino,” Warren said. She pointed to a small red church beyond a hedge. “William Kelley built that church for his wife, Eliza, in 1894 so that she could play the organ. It has been a worker-owned natural food co-op since 1975.”
The co-op, named Corners of the Mouth, was our last stop in Mendocino. I climbed into the former choir loft, which now holds hundreds of bottles of natural herbs and spices. For a moment I breathed in their exotic scent and summoned the laid-back vibe of the ’70s.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO MENDOCINO, CALIF.
From LAX, American and Alaska offer nonstop service to Santa Rosa, and American, Alaska and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $216, including taxes and fees.
From Santa Rosa it’s a 94-mile drive north on Highways 101, 128 and 1 to Mendocino. The route winds through bucolic Anderson Valley, two magnificent redwood-filled state parks and up the rugged coast.
WHERE TO STAY
JD House, 10481 Howard St., Mendocino; (707) 937-4892, bluedoorgroup.com. The Water Tower costs $199 weekdays and $289 on weekends, including a gourmet breakfast for two delivered to your doorstep.
Sweetwater Inn & Spa, 44840 Main St., Mendocino; (800) 300-4140, sweetwaterspa.com. The Redwood Tower costs $280 weekdays and $305 weekends. The Sweetwater Tower costs $155 weekdays and $165 weekends. Includes morning muffins and use of the communal hot tub.
MacCallum House, 45020 Albion St., Mendocino; (707) 937-0289, maccallumhouse.com. The Water Tower Suite costs $299 weekdays and $359 weekends, including a gourmet breakfast for two.
WHERE TO EAT
Café Beaujolais, 961 Ukiah St., Mendocino; (707) 937-5614, cafebeaujolais.com. Dinner for two about $85, excluding tax, tip and alcoholic beverages.
Flow Restaurant & Lounge, 45040 Main St., Mendocino; (707) 937-3569, mendocinoflow.com. Brunch for two $40, excluding tax, tip and alcoholic beverages.
WHAT TO SEE
Kelley House Museum, 45007 Albion St., Mendocino; (707) 937-5791, kelleyhousemuseum.org
Water Tower Apothecary, 611 Albion St., Mendocino; (707) 397-1802, watertowerapothecary.com
Corners of the Mouth Natural Food Store, 45015 Ukiah St., Mendocino; (707) 937-5345, cornersofthemouth.com
Mendocino Headlands State Park, Mendocino; (707) 937-5804, bit.ly/mendocinoheadlands