This note concludes my wanderings in Mendocino, covering succulents, lodging, dining, birdwatching, and the trip itinerary.
RELLA AND THE SUCCULENTS
Occasionally in travel one meets an original with a consuming passion.
On the Mendocino coast that would be a vibrant gardener named Rella. Her passion is succulents.
I met her at her place, called Simply Succulent, a mile north of Fort Bragg, and a half mile in on Airport Road.
First, there is the name, Rella.
“It’s my legal name, a single word, Rella,” she said.
No, she had not been listening to too many songs by the performer Prince, out of Minneapolis.
The name story is somewhat complex. Rella’s parents were Lithuanian and Polish, and the tangle of their names was truly torturous. Also, Rella grew up with a feminist streak in her and was not inclined to let the name of a husband define her identity. So she took a shortened version of her European name and called herself Rella. In fact, she made it legal as one word. Her total legal name is Rella.
This did not make life easier for her.
“When I travel, it does create problems,” she says. “When I went to China and to Mexico, it caused delays. I almost missed my flights. The authorities could not deal with a single name. It took some time, especially post 9-11. And when I need to fill in a form online, and there are the ‘necessary fields,’ such as first and last name, there are issues.”
Having dispatched with the name issue, we got going on the succulents.
Rella has always loved plants. She grew up in Detroit and had a childhood fruit stand. She actually paid her way through school, including her nursing college degree, with proceeds from her vegetable garden fruit stand.
Now she is focused on succulents alone.
“Succulents are gaining in popularity,” she said. “They have their own special aesthetic for landscaping, but many are also strongly drought tolerant. They are also often quite hardy.”
What are succulents? That the first question Rella gets. “Succulents are plants that have developed special ways to store and hold water, often in their leaves, stem, or root. People often confuse succulents with cacti. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.”
Once you get hooked on succulents, there are a lot to choose from. Succulents come from many temperate regions. South Africa happens to have the largest number of succulents. Rella has about 35,000 plants on hand from 30 different genera. Her main market is landscapers who like to use succulents.
For people who want to emphasize California native plants, she has a collection of all-California succulents, from the dudleyii family, such as dudleya farinosa.
LODGING ALONG THE MENDOCINO COAST
Two lodgings I enjoyed show the different styles possible in Mendocino.
Right in town I stayed at the Mendocino Hotel. Outside of town, two miles down the road, I then experienced the Little River Inn. Both places have their fans.
The Mendocino Hotel put me in a historic boardfront building in town on Main Street. The lobby and dining room are fine places to hang out. Rooms are in the Main Street building or in other buildings across the street in the back. One has a sense of the past, but updated with everything modern, including a good connection for my iPhone and a high-speed Internet connection. Lodging in town put me close to the main historic attraction (the Kelley House), walks out on the Mendocino Headlands, surveying the Mendocino art scene, and other restaurant options in town, beyond the excellent fine dining option right at the hotel.
Little River Inn is a lacy, white historic building from 1853, two miles down the road from Mendocino. From the outside it looks like a small B&B, but it is actually a modern coastal resort, with 65 modern rooms, a spa, and a golf course in back. My room was modern, ample, and spacious, with sea views and a deck, a nice touch in this area. A fireplace with real logs could be lit in the evening. Bathroom was large and had a Jacuzzi. One family, the McKinneys, have owned the place for five generations. James Dean slept here in 1955 while making the East of Eden film.
DINING ALONG THE MENDOCINO COAST
For lunch, try two Fort Bragg establishments, the North Coast Brewing Company or Cap’n Flint’s in Noyo harbor.
For a quiet fine dining experience at night, try the dining rooms at the Mendocino Hotel in Mendocino or at Little River Inn, just south of Mendocino.
The North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg makes good beer and has tasty bar-food dishes. I like lighter beers, so enjoyed their Acme Pale Ale and Scrimshaw Beer. If unsure of your preferred beer, try a beer tasting with a cluster of twelve 4 ounce glasses of everything on tap, which is an ample range of lights and darks. For food, consider the Carolina pulled pork sandwich, which comes with garlic waffle potatoes. Lighter fare might be a plate of fried, breaded calamari.
The other Fort Bragg lunch choice would be Cap’n Flint’s in the Noyo River Harbor. Turn off Highway 1 on the north side of the bridge as you approach Fort Bragg and descend into the inner workings of this fishing harbor. At the end of the road is Cap’n Flint’s. As you look out at the river, you might see a boat coming in, but fishing is not prosperous in this era of salmon closings. The food of choice here is Fish and Chips, washed down with chilled beer. The fish is local rock fish, possibly red snapper, right off the boats, and can only be slightly improved with a splash of malt vinegar. The potatoes are freshly fried. There is nothing fancy in the setting, just superb tastes served by solid local folks.
Dinner at the Mendocino Hotel should be a leisurely affair. Consider a pre-dinner drink in the inviting, warm, wooded lobby, next to the lit fire in the fireplace, as you think of the story of redwood lumbering at this historic building, right on Main Street in downtown Mendocino. Once seated in the dining room, tasty starters might be the oysters or foie gras, with entrees of lamb shank or halibut. The lamb shank meat was so tender it literally fell off the bone. For dessert, try the olallieberry crisp cobbler. Local wines, such as Meyer Family Yorkville Syrah 2004, are worth considering.
The Little River Inn dining room is run by Marc Dym, part of the fifth generation family ownership group that runs the Inn. Start with a pre-dinner drink at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, named after patriarch founder Ole Hervilla, who got the place started in 1939. Breakfast features Ole’s Swedish Pancakes. The dining room has large windows with floral plantings on the outside, creating a kind of aquarium effect, but with flowers rather than fish on the other side of the glass. Chef Dym considers his style “comfort continental” cuisine. Consider as starters the Dungeness crab cakes and the flash fried calamari, perhaps followed by flat-iron steak Diane and the pinenut encrusted salmon. For a tasty dessert, try the hazelnut flan.
BIRDING ALONG THE MENDOCINO COAST
If you can hook up with Audubon birding leader David Jensen along this Mendocino Coast, you will experience an enthusiast who will help you get wild about nature.
I went birding with David at Virgin Creek, as it flowed down to the beach at MacKerricher Park, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=436. Then we birded at a second site, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which has both lovely rhododendron displays and ample birding, especially along its coastline.
Hook up with David at the local Audubon website, www.mendocinocoastaudubon.org. He leads at least one free beginner outing at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens each month. We were joined by another enthusiast, Becky Bowen. Becky is one of the locals energetically involved in counts of birds and reporting on bird behavior in these stressed environment times. Her special expertise is in shorebirds.
Jensen had the gear as well as the enthusiasm, which is essential. He set up his spotting scope so I could view a plover a hundred yards away, but closeup. He had extra sets of binoculars. With binoculars around your neck, you will suddenly assume the persona of bird detective, thrilled to see small flying creatures perched or in flight. I used his Swift 8×40 binoculars to good advantage.
But, above all, David Jensen had the informed enthusiasm of an adventurer delighting in nature.
“The Mendocino area is great as a resting and feeding place for migrating birds,” he said. “It is especially good for near shore seabirds, such as murres, gillemots, and puffins.”
Jensen has some personal favorites.
“I love the black oyster catchers with their bright reddish beaks,” he noted. “You’ll see them feeding in the mussel beds. They are noisy.”
We parked at an unmarked but official public access point north of Virgin Creek and took the path to the coastline. The forest we walked through happened to be devastated by bark beetles killing the trees, a natural phenomenon enhanced by the stress of drought. We ended up along a road called the Haul Road, by the sea in MacKerricher Park. This road was used in the logging era and is now a recreational road for hiking and biking. Beyond the road, we walked along rocky and sandy beaches at MacKerricher, which has miles of oceanfront.
What happens on a trip like this is you begin to make a “life list” of birds seen. On that day, a few species we saw were
“With birds, it’s a matter of familiarity,” said David. “Start with one or two. Learn what they look like, and how they sound. Then build your experience. Observe their behavior and the habitat they are found in. It’s an activity that becomes richer and deeper with each new experience. You become aware of a lot of things when you begin to enjoy birds.”
I asked David about the overall state of birds now.
“Loss of habitat is the biggest challenge,” he said, “followed closely by climate change, which affects birds and their food supply.”
The landmark recent study is called State of the Birds, which can be Googled.
After our Virgin River/MacKerricher outing we continued birding at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which celebrates the rhododendrons and azaleas for which the coast is famous. Breeders take great delight in making hybrids of these colorful flowers. The garden was a joy to walk through while the birding continued, in the garden and along the coastline.
POINT CABRILLO LIGHTHOUSE
The Point Cabrillo Light Stations in the heart of this Mendocino Coast and the Point Arena Light Station on its south edge are two icons to experience.
Point Cabrillo requires a half mile walk in, unless you are staying at the B&B created from one of the light keeper’s cottages.
The Point Carbillo Lighthouse is a modest-sized building with its Fresnel lens light still on top and shining. By contrast, the Point Arena Lighthouse has had its Fresnel lens taken down and put on closeup display in the museum on site.
Inside the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse building is a model of the Frolic, the notable fast ship, called a “Baltimore Clipper” in the ship trade of the day because of its speed and the skill of the shipbuilders in that city. Frolic participated in the opium trade between India and China, among her various cargoes. She ran aground along this coast, bringing the first settlers, salvagers who quickly saw that the real treasure here was the redwood tree, which could be cut for the insatiable lumber appetite of booming San Francisco.
Contact the lighthouse if you want to participate in their periodic lens tours. Contact info is http://www.pointcabrillo.org/, 707-937-6124.
There is also a marine sealife exhibit in one building at the site, showing living shellfish and plant species that flourish in these coastal waters.
The first assistant lighthouse keeper’s house is a museum and pays homage to the self-reliant lifestyle of the families who lived here in the early era.
THE COMPLETE DRIVING ITINERARY
If you don’t like to backtrack, and I don’t, you can make a pleasing, progressive trip out of a Mendocino foray with a start and end in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Begin by driving north on Highway 101 to Cloverdale, then cross to the coast on Highway 128. After meandering around the Mendocino/Fort Bragg area, drive home via Highway 1 going south, cutting across to Highway 101 on the Russian River Road, Highway 116. This gives you a redwood forest road on both ends of your trip and a fairly long stretch of Mendocino and Sonoma Coast to enjoy.
Continuing immediately south from Mendocino, as this trip proceeds, each creek and river bridge offers a pleasing glimpse of the ocean, especially at the Albion River and at Salmon Creek. A steep vertical rock presents itself at Saddle Point south of the Navarro River.
Further on the drive south along Highway 1, a highlight is the rocky coast in the town of Elk at Greenwood State Beach. This entire area, from Greenwood north to Cuffeys Cove cemetery, is an inspiring rocky coastal view.
The Sonoma Coast presents a different perspective, often putting you on high grassy bluffs with a steep drop off to the sea, rather than adjacent to the sea on much of the Mendocino Coast. One phenomenon of the Sonoma Coast is the Sea Ranch, miles of upscale coastal development, thankfully cut by occasional Coastal Access points to make a visitor feel like something other than a trespasser. In the grasslands along the road the spring wildflowers, such as poppies, mustard, goldfields, and baby blue eyes, can be pleasing. The redwood forests along the route give way to pine forests and grasslands, a dramatic difference of perspective. Some steep dropoffs along the curvy Sonoma Coast road are not recommended for the acrophobic. In spring, at the turnoff to the Russian River road, before going inland, be sure to stop on the high bluffs and gaze down at the harbor seals giving birth on the beach below you at the mouth of the Russian River.
The two cultural icons worth a stop are the Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Fort Ross. Pigeon Point has its Fresnel lens at ground level in the museum shop, making it interesting to view up close. The rocky coast looking at the Pigeon Point Light Station from the south is an iconic landscape. Fort Ross State Historic Park is the locale of the Russian colonial adventure from the era when sea otter furs from California and Alaska were the fashion of the moment in Europe.
MENDOCINO COAST: IF YOU GO
The main tourism information source is the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, http://www.mendocinocoast.com.