Mendocino Offers Mighty Cliffside Views

Visitors can smell the sea, see postcard-pretty buildings, lose themselves among the bishop pines and then eat, shop, and play in the picturesque coastal town.


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Photo by Nelson Minar CC

The first hint that you’re about to arrive in Mendocino — sitting picture-postcard-pretty on the headlands — is the fresh salty scent of the sea as you leave behind the curvy forest highway that follows the Navarro River to its source. One final climb, and the panoramic Pacific Ocean lies before you sparkling in the sun from the rugged rock cliffs all the way to the thin horizon line where water meets sky.

Trundle across Albion River Bridge, Highway 1’s last remaining wooden bridge, high above the town’s harbor. A dip in the road slows drivers for Little River: a store, a gas pump, an inn, and an old cemetery. Beyond the cemetery is Mendocino Land Trust’s Blowhole Trail, a half-mile hike through bishop pines to an impressive waves-churning blowhole. 

Just around the bend is Van Damme State Park — perfect for combing, swimming, and boating. Two miles up the highway, above the mouth of Big River, sprawls Mendocino village with its kiddie-building-block wooden buildings, water towers, and church spires.

At Alegria Oceanfront Inn & Cottages, on the edge of town, all rooms overlook Big River Beach; breakfast includes locally sourced organic house-made frittata, sausage, scones, and freshly squeezed orange juice — against a natural soundscape of waves breaking on the shores below and chickens clucking outside.

It’s not a car-free town, but tiny enough to cover on foot. Most shops are on Main Street, with its wooden walkway and exhilarating view of vast ocean and soaring sky, as well as Lansing Street. Across from the fire station are Moody’s Organic Coffee Bar and the Village Toy Store, whose picture windows reveal its emphasis on the natural, magical, and whimsical: A giant stuffed whale wearing a princess crown lolls amid soft redwood-tree puppets and wooden mushroom rattles. Helpfully, the staff members are very knowledgeable about kites.

Further up Lansing is the town’s bakery, Good Life Cafe, home of sweet and savory deliciousness such as hot Cuban panini, old-fashioned bread pudding with caramel-espresso sauce, and Swiss-chard-mushroom-pesto rolls. However, when locals in the know are fighting off a cold, they seek out the Mendocino Cafe at the other end of Lansing for Thai firepot curry broth.

Wandering off the main streets, you’ll find Corners of the Mouth, a health food collective housed since 1975 in an old red church, on whose roof perch squawky ravens. A few blocks down is the gentle blue Crown Hall, built over a century ago by Portuguese settlers and used today for craft fairs, performances, and parties.

A block over, among front yards dotted with naked lady lilies, is the reverentially restored 19th-century Taoist temple of Kwan Tai. Nine steep red stairs ascend to the bright green double front doors of this old shrine whose stated mission is to teach and celebrate community and diversity. Direct descendants of original temple-goers lead tours by appointment.

Just past the village library are the Mendocino Art Center and Mendocino Theatre Company, which together boast a century of inspiring local artistic talent while inviting visitors to explore and develop their creative skills and spirit.

For further artistic immersions, the annual Mendocino Film Festival — scheduled this year for May 31 through June 2 — is a long weekend of films, famous people, and parties. Now in its 33rd season, the mid-July Mendocino Music Festival makes beautiful noise in a tent on the headlands. Visitors are encouraged to sit in on orchestra rehearsals and find just the right note or chord to allow mind chatter to float away on a coastal breeze.

Speaking of coastline: Portuguese Beach boasts an Instagramworthy driftwood bench perched on the cliff above drifting kelp beds; Big River Beach offers the spirits-lifting choices of frolicking in the waves, paddling in the lagoon, or swimming in the deep waters of the river where it joins the sea.

July 4 draws visitors from afar and coaxes residents out of the woods to enjoy the noon Main Street parade: artists in flamboyant garb, musicians on flatbeds and wooden stages, marching children, jubilant dancers, fire engines, patriotic banners, political floats, and animals, too. Annual highlights are Larry’s bedazzled sculptured car and Tim in his root beer truck, singing into a microphone. He cannot carry a tune, and that’s part of the fun.

When You Go

Alegria Oceanfront Inn & Cottages

44781 Main St., 707-937-5150, OceanFrontMagic.com

Good Life Café

10483 Lansing St., 707-937-0836, GoodLifeCafeMendo.com

Mendocino Art Center

45200 Little Lake St., 707-937-5818, MendocinoArtCenter.org

The Temple of Kwan Tai

45160 Albion St., KwanTaiTemple.org

Mendocino Music Festival

MendocinoMusic.org

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