Mendocino, California: Life in the mellow lane

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Mendocino, California: Life in the mellow lane

The Sir Douglas Quintet out of Texas didn't have too many hits in the 60s but they cracked one successful and catchy single as the decade drew to a close. The band sprung the biggest hit of their career with a paean to the small town of Mendocino 250 kilometres north of San Francisco. San Antonio-born band leader Doug Sahm had relocated to San Francisco as the hippie vibe took off and, like so many others, made his way up the Pacific coast.

In truth their hit Mendocino ("where life's such a groove, it'll blow your mind in the morning") seems a little too upbeat for a town which defines the word "mellow". The song chugs along propelled by a cheap Farfisa organ and is made for dancing. Yet the town it acclaims is where stressed-out people from the big cities down the highway come to relax, have a massage and a spa, watch the surf roll onto rocks, and walk slowly around the beaches looking at sleepy seals.


Mendocino is for unwinding, and it helps that it is close to Anderson Valley wine country.

With a permanent population of around 1200, the pretty town with wide streets and old wooden houses has a village feel to it. Most of the homes have been lovingly restored by their occupants, some of whom made their fortunes in San Francisco and Los Angeles then fled for a quieter life and fresher air, the freshest in the United States apparently.

There are easy walks, gentle hikes and bike rides, but they aren't why people come here. It is for the good restaurants, antique galleries and the sheer sense of the city sloughing off your skin. Above the masthead on the Mendocino Beacon ("a coast paper for coast people since 1877") it reads, "alternative approaches to good health".

You just feel healthier here wandering past picturesque gardens which attract painters and photographers. Fridays between May and October there is a farmer's market on the corner of Howard and Main.

Dozens of movies and television shows have been filmed in Mendocino (you may, or may not, have seen it in Cujo and Karate Kid III), and Mel Gibson, Jane Wyman, Sean Penn, James Dean, Bette Davis and dozens of other Hollywood luminaries have walked these streets.


And because it looks like somewhere else, but has better weather for filming, it was the stand-in for New England in Murder She Wrote.

Most guidebooks tell you Mendocino looks like a Cape Cod fishing town but "the streets are too wide and straight, and the houses are set too far apart and don't have shutters," says Mark Williams in his book Off the Beaten Path.

That seems picky, and it also needs to be noted that the locals -- other than those in shops and the hospitality business -- are not that friendly. They didn't escape here to chat to tourists.

"What a beautiful dog," enthused my wife Megan to a gentleman out strolling his huge Alaskan Malamute.

"Huh, yeah," he said, and turned on his heel and walked away.

Welcome to Mendocino?

But the town is pretty and quaint, and being within striking distance of San Francisco it also recommends itself for a pleasant drive which can be done in half a day, but is best enjoyed at leisure.

The trip up the coast not only offers spectacular scenery but some curiously familiar views along the way: just out of San Francisco it looks uncannily like New Zealand in its rolling farmlands of cattle, then it slips into Australian gum forest, and finally opens out into pure California coastline with the Pacific crashing against black rocks below the road which hugs the precipitous cliff edge.

The coast road can be winding so a vehicle with power steering is recommended, but other than that, this being America -- wonderful roads, courteous drivers, good signage -- you can just enjoy the drive.

The Golden Gate disappears in our rear view mirror and we head off onto the famous Highway 1 which initially skirts the huge Tomales Bay with its small fishing villages and seafood restaurants where barbecued oysters are the speciality.

It is quicker but less interesting to take the 101 up through Santa Rosa, and you would miss massive and beautiful Tomales Bay created by the San Andreas Fault.

Further up is Bodega Bay and nearby Bodega town which were used in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds -- some of this you will recognise -- and then five minutes before Stengel Beach is a remarkable and confusing sight, like an enormous split tree trunk lying in a meadow near the highway. It rears up on the right and has us pulling the car to a rapid halt. We sit looking at it for a full minute.


"What do you think it is?"

"I don't know, but there is someone parked up there so let's go look."

The sign on the gate says this is the Sea Ranch Chapel -- a non-denominational sanctuary for prayer and meditation -- and we learn from a brochure inside it was designed by the San Diego architect James Hubbell and opened to all in December 85. The cedar roof, teak doors and native redwood are surmounted by an elaborate bronze spire, and there is a ceramic fountain outside with Italianate mosaics. It is a remarkable and restful building, its very unexpectedness being one of its chief pleasures.

This is an especially beautiful part of the coastal drive -- the expensive houses merge with the landscape, the sea views are spectacular, and there is easy access to nearby beaches. A few minutes further north is the ideal place to spend the night if you want to break the trip to magical Mendocino: the Timber Cove Inn which commands a rugged piece of headland on the wild Sonoma Coast.

We are drawn to it by the enormous totem pole outside, and the manageress invites us to look around.

"Take the keys, have a look at some of the rooms upstairs," she says with California casualness, then wanders off. "Just leave them at reception when you are done."


We have the run of one of the luxury rooms where the dramatic view from the bath takes in the coastline in one direction and an enormous satellite television in the other. At US$350 a night it is a little beyond us, but the rooms downstairs which look out over the Japanese pond are less than half that. With private hot tubs, a stone fireplace which runs 10 metres up to the A-frame wooden ceiling of the lounge and piano bar, and 26 acres of walking trails the Timber Cove Inn is where you encounter the quietly moneyed taking time out.

It is also halfway to Mendocino and the final drive along Highway 1 takes in more spectacular coastline to the left and the Redwood Empire to the right across Highway 101.

Day trips through the redwoods are possible from Mendocino, although once seduced by the mellow mood there seems little reason to leave. The town has dozens of small art galleries (seascapes are big), romantic restaurants (vegetarian and organic are popular, of course), and shops with names like Out Of This World (binoculars and telescopes), the Sandpiper (jewellery) and Rubaiyat Bead Shop (tarot cards, Pashmina shawls, Tibetan rugs).

At the Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites on Main we take a garden room (deep bath, open fire and the biggest bed I’ve ever seen) and then make for the Victorian dining room. It breathes sumptuousness and Old World sophistication.

In the morning we breakfast on the upstairs patio at the nearby cafe and scan the ocean for whales, amble around the village, and then drive into the even quieter suburbs on the other side of the highway which huddle beneath the canopy of the forest.

On the beach by Big River kids are playing in the sand, along the foreshore couples walk hand-in-hand. Nothing is happening, but it is doing it with orderly serenity.

The lead story in their paper is about locals cleaning up the beaches and celebrating alternative fuel options. Mattelyn Pressly is pictured holding a golf ball she found during the big cleanup. That's news around here.

As the song says, "Mendocino, where life's such a groove."



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