Dennen’s Victorian Farmhouse featured in Delta Sky magazine
Excerpts from June 2003 Article
AND THE BEST WAY TO GET THERE
By Owen Edwards
Photographs by Chris Rogers
SAN FRANCISCO, FOR all its charms, can be a “been here, done all that” experience for people making their third and fourth visits – and being so appealing, the City by the Bay usually inspires at least a handful of return trips. Cable car? Check. Fisherman’s Wharf? Check. Etc., etc? Check and check. Eventually, even the most ardent San Franatics, given some extra time, look beyond the soaring brick red piers of the Golden Gate Bridge and plan a side trip.
Most, I’ll hazard a guess, visit the famous vineyard country of the Sonoma and Napa valleys. As someone who lives in that area, I can’t blame them. But just an hour farther up U.S. Highway 101 is another, less heralded wine-producing region, the Anderson Valley, and through that pastoral portal you can enter California’s splendid Mendocino coast. If you can find a more beautiful meeting of ocean and dry land (please, do not even think of the Hamptons), then I congratulate you. Sit on a rocky bluff on the western edge of the town of Mendocino and you may just change your mind.
ONCE IN A GREAT while, the adage that getting there is half the fun is completely true. The drive northwest up California Route 128, which peels off the 101 Freeway at Cloverdale, is one of those memorable times. The road, winding up and over the Yorkville Highlands and then through the Anderson Valley, is both a main route to the coast and a wonderful destination in itself. As you follow the course of the Navarro River you pass more than a dozen of the state’s lesser-known but excellent vineyards, and go through tiny, charming towns such as Boonville, Philo and Navarro. It’s not possible to describe all the pleasures along the way (or this article will never reach the coast), but I will name at least a few. A fuller listing can be found in the excellent book Mendocino: The Ultimate Wine and Food Lover’s Guide, by Heidi Haughy Cusick (Chronicle Books).
The Boonville General Store serves a delectable lunch, or, if you’re more hurried than hungry, wonderful pastry. Co-owner Julie Liebenbaum, a refuge from Los Angeles who has cooked for Zuni, one of San Francisco’s pioneer California cuisine restaurants, creates desserts that are one of Boonville’s most unexpected boons. With any luck, you’ll arrive on a day when she has prepared a feather-light galette using fresh fruit from orchards in the surrounding hills. And how does this sophisticated, urban gourmet cook feel about living in such a small (population 715), out-of-the-way place? ’’To tell you the truth, says Liebenbaum, dusting the flour off her hands, “I have more of a social life here than I ever did in L.A. or San Francisco. After all, I know just about everyone in town.” Presumably, such events as the Philo Yacht Club boat races which take place when winter rains have swollen the Navarro, and admit vessels 2 feet and under only – keep local society abuzz.
Should travelers stop to taste all the valley’s wines, they and their cars might easily become one with the redwoods. Contact the Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance for a complete list and make your own choices. Two of my favorites are Husch and Roederer. Husch dates from 1968, when Tony and Gretchen Husch planted their first vines, and is generally considered the first of the modern vineyards in the valley (owned for the past 24 years by the H.A. Oswald family). The rose-covered tasting room, a former granary, evokes life in the Anderson Valley a century or so ago. More to the point for today’s visitor, the pinot noir is fine.
Just across the road is an elegant slice of Europe, the Roederer tasting room, where some of America’s best champagne-style wines can be sampled. In an airy room decorated with framed menus from White House dinners, you can sample several crisp, dry sparkling whites, including-if you’re lucky-a rare reserve, such as a 1990 L’Ermitage, or some other so called library wine, one that will stay effervescent in the memory though it’s long gone from wine merchants’ shelves.
For several miles before reaching the Pacific just south of the town of Albion, the highway passes through coastal forests of towering redwoods. Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien may be reminded of the dark, nearly impenetrable forest known as Mirkwood. Second-growth trees tower hundreds of feet up from the great stumps of old growth cut a century ago, making a walk through these groves like an evocative stroll among the bro
ken columns of Ephesus.
Then, abruptly, the road breaks into the sun as the redwoods give way to open bluffs where the Navarro River empties into the Pacific; as the Anderson Valley is left behind, the rugged Mendocino coastline begins. Compared to Napa and Sonoma, the area seems distinctly underpopulated, and yet the abundance of food, wine and lodging is on a par with these seductive sister valleys to the south.
To get a sense of what life was like in the early days of Mendocino’s settlement-though with far better plumbing-there’s no better place to stay than Dennen’s Victorian Farmhouse, a charming and tastefully restored bed-and-breakfast in a house built by John and Dora Emma Dennen in 1877. Besides being one of the oldest homes in the area, the farmhouse has a claim to fame as the subject of one of art marketeer Thomas Kinkade’s most popular works, Home Is Where the Heart Is II. (The painting hangs in the small parlor.) Each of the 11 guest rooms has its own name-Seabreeze, Creekside, Tree View-and personality. More important, on cool nights, most have their own fireplaces, with plenty of dry wood.
The Victorian Farmhouse, though thoroughly modern in its comforts, retains the feeling of a farmhouse in what we tend to think of as a truer time. Easy to imagine that your Model T Ford has broken down and you’ve been taken in by a kind family. The carefully chosen antique furniture, four-poster beds and graceful gardens all seem lifted intact from some ancestral past. Best of all, co-owner Jo Bradley will fix the breakfast of your dreams and have it delivered to your door precisely when you’re ready for it. So who cares if the old Ford ever gets fixed?
Once you’ve selected your lodgings, the next order of business – not a difficult one – is to see the area. There is plenty to do on the Mendocino coast. The full beauty of this part of California can best be experienced at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 47 acres of both cultivated and wild landscape (seven miles north of the town of Mendocino). In the course of an easy half-mile walk, you pass from classically planted gardens of heathers, dahlias and a dazzling variety of rhododendrons through a gate that keeps the deer on the wild (and presumably less delicious) side. After a ravine filled with ferns and a grove of gnarled Monterey cypresses, you step out into the light on high, bare bluffs over the ocean, at the end of the gardens and the edge of America.
Another choice? Marvel at the California Western “Skunk Train” once pulled by a 1924 Baldwin Mikado vintage locomotive. (“Skunk” because some of the fuel used to run gas-powered rail motorcars caused locals to complain, “You can smell ‘em before you see’ em.”) A later-model engine will pull you through a redwood forest from Fort Bragg to Northspur. Or you can head out to sea on one of the sport fishing boats based in Noyo Harbor-or just tuck into the dreamy crab Louie in season, or failing that, shrimp Louie, at Sharon’s by the Sea. Or you can play a round or two at the nine-hole Little River Inn Golf Course. Or drop in at the Sweetwater Spa & Inn for a hot-tub soak and a massage. For nature lovers, there are state parks and beaches thousands of acres of hikable and bikable terrain.
But for all the pleasures to be found north and south of Mendocino, the town itself is a destination with a time suspended charm worthy of Brigadoon. There’s nothing better, at the end of a busy day of coastal indulgences, than simply walking around the town taking in the sights. The narrow streets, with their buildings of weathered redwood and cypress and white-steepled churches, sloping gently down toward the restless Pacific, may be reminiscent, for an Easterner, of the lovely old towns in Maine (without the toll taken by long, hard winters). Perhaps because of the ease of walking downhill, perhaps because when walking through a place with such a historic feeling one is drawn to stand on what feels like the end of the American frontier, there is a calming, almost meditative quality to a stroll from the uphill, eastern part of town to the bluffs overlooking the ocean. Whatever else you do on any given day, include a meander through Mendocino. It is almost impossible to spend a day in Mendocino without wondering, a little wistfully, what it would be like to quit the old day job and start looking for a house there.
In this age of growth and sprawl, Mendocino has shifted into reverse. It’s a town at least one-third smaller than it was in the boom years of the 19th century, and local no-growth activists intend to keep it that way. The great fear is what is known as “Carmelization,” a foreboding reference to the famed tourist destination on California’s Monterey Peninsula. On one evening, I dine at the Albion River Inn with a well-known writer who has lived in Mendocino for years; I happen to ask her about a couple of ramshackle abandoned cottages falling apart on a piece of land right in the middle of town. Reddening slightly, the writer says that she and her ex-husband own the houses. “We’d applied for a permit to build a new commercial building where the post office would relocate,” she says, “but as soon as the project was announced, people were demonstrating and putting up protest signs on the property. So we abandoned the idea and now have a useless piece of land with a couple of uninhabitable cottages.”
Any day spent wandering around Mendocino will end as classic travelogues must, with the sun setting in the west, and the satisfied if footsore traveler-you, for instance-sitting on a bluff, watching waves explode in foam on the rocks below, watching the cormorants settle in for the night and thinking happily of a fine supper to come. You can be busy in Mendocino, or you can be lazy; either way, you won’t be disappointed.