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Get to Mendocino before anyone else, then slow down

The sunset on Main Street in Mendocino, Calif.
The sunset on Main Street in Mendocino, Calif.

MENDOCINO — Too often along much of California’s rugged coastline, visitors must choose between solitude and beauty. You want both? Take a direct flight to Seattle. A quiet table for two in Monterey? That’s an oxymoron. Call home if you find an ocean view in Santa Barbara that comes without an offshore oil derrick.

There is so, so much to love about California, but sometimes so much to lament: Too many beaches overrun, too much coastline overdeveloped. Even traffic jams competing with memorable vistas in Yosemite Valley, for goodness sake.

Thank God, then, for time travel — to the Mendocino coast. That is where the craggy coastline and soaring cliffs keep the raging Pacific at bay, though just barely. And also where the approaches, through mountain valleys and thousands of acres of redwoods that stand as sentinels, keep the tourists to more of a trickle than a flood.

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This, then, is California Mellow. And not just because Mendocino County’s economy is heavily dependent on the illegal cultivation of marijuana, though its presence is so well concealed — I regret to report — that if there was any pungent aroma when I visited recently, it had surely been whisked away by the bracing salt air.

Mellow? Laid back? Throwback to the ’60s? Let me count the ways. You can drive for miles without seeing a traffic light, much less traffic to slow you down. Life seems lived at the pace of those layabout harbor seals sunning on the rocks at MacKerricher State Park, strategically perched within photo range as if Nikon had signed them on.

And the two-legged layabouts? If you thought all the 1960s hippies had dropped back in, gone to the Wharton School, and started hedge funds, you’d be wrong. Here, the male of the species is easily recognizable: baby boomers with white beards, and for those who still have what it takes, matching white ponytails.

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Tie-dyed shirts? Check. Mama Cass look-alikes? For sure. Mendocino is as much a state of mind as a spellbinding tourist destination. Just the sort of place you’d expect to find, as we did, a car with the bumper sticker “Abolish Corporate Personhood.’’

The laid-back locals here don’t walk so much as shamble. They have no place in particular to go, because there is no place they’d rather be. It’s their natural habitat.

And what an extraordinary habitat.

Like the town of Mendocino. Much of it was built in the 19th century by transplanted New Englanders, so it resembles any number of Maine fishing villages, though it’s frayed around the edges. But the town, which harbors a vibrant arts community, is a mere backdrop: It overlooks the ocean, but from a respectable distance, set back several hundred yards to ensure room for Mendocino Headlands State Park. The park is as breathtaking a front porch as any town could wish for.

Preservationists saved the headlands from development a generation ago. It has its beaches, to be sure. But it is best approached down a gentle slope from the town, through fields of wildflowers, to sit and watch as the Pacific plows into the bluffs, and claims just a little bit more of the inlets that have been carved from the shore over millennia, and chips incessantly away at the extraordinary rock formations that have long since been cut free from the bluff.

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Mendocino’s jagged coast, framed by soaring cliffs and perpendicular bluffs, is almost yours alone along lightly traveled coastal Route 1. It is uniquely accessible, dotted with state beaches and preserves, like MacKerricher with its harbor seals and nine miles of oceanside trails; the vast expanses of the historic Point Cabrillo Light Station; the Caspar Headlands State Beach; and the Stornetta Public Lands with its distinctive tabletop offshore islets.

We drove it, walked it, photographed it in sunny weather in early May, from Point Arena in the county’s south to Westport. It was an extraordinary visual feast, and with only one disappointment: Clouds and rain arrived briefly when we drove into the Pacific Star Winery 12 miles north of Fort Bragg. The winery has among the most stunning coastline views anywhere, which helps explain why it is a popular wedding venue.

Had we not been so drawn to the sea, we would have noticed that Mendocino is a hiking paradise. It is a sea kayaker’s dream destination. Half the county is national forest, with large stands of redwoods. The roadway in, Route 128, passes through the Anderson Valley and its numerous wineries.

It is wild. It is remote. It is a vacation refuge for which the automated e-mail reply, “I will be unreachable by e-mail or phone,’’ is literally true. For us, cell service was almost nonexistent. OK, our inn provided Wi-Fi and free landline service.

Oh yes, the inn!

To enjoy such beauty, one needs a suitable base. For that, we chose, with great good fortune, the Brewery Gulch Inn. The 10-room inn, built from recycled redwood, sits atop a hill a half-mile south of the town of Mendocino, with a view of the ocean as it smashes into Smuggler’s Cove below.

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But it’s what’s inside the inn that made the stay so worthwhile. All but one of its Craftsman-style rooms have ocean views. The inn’s three-story light-filled atrium is centered by a four-sided fireplace, wrapped around by a great room where chef Peg Davis cooks up breakfasts to die for: Think bacon rolled in red pepper flakes and brown sugar and baked in the oven. Or slow-braised brisket hash.

In the evening, Brewery Gulch Inn lays out a gourmet buffet.
In the evening, Brewery Gulch Inn lays out a gourmet buffet.(Jay Graham)

In the evening, the inn lays out a gourmet buffet, including such dishes as green and black-pepper-rubbed flank steak sliced over chile-lime slaw. And desserts like mango bread pudding. And local wines. All this included in the daily tariff.

There are other beautiful places to stay, including private homes for rent. Just up the road is the Stanford Inn. But its cuisine is for vegans only. With all respect to vegans, Mendocino seems an odd place to deprive oneself of anything sensory, such as the wild king salmon we had at the Mendo Bistro in Fort Bragg, accompanied by a salad of greens topped with fresh strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, crumbled blue cheese, and toasted hazelnuts, and dressed with a champagne vinaigrette.

Paradoxically, Mendocino’s attractions don’t attract that many visitors — barely 2 million a year, and the vast bulk of those are weekend visitors from the more northerly part of the state.

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The weather surely plays a role: July and August can be quite foggy. Some locals call August “Foggest.’’ Mendocino is best enjoyed in the fall and spring, when sunny days abound. Jim Hay, whose real estate company, Mendocino Preferred, rents vacation homes on the coast, jokes on his website that the weather is “usually sunny, except when it’s cloudy, raining, stormy, foggy, and, er . . . at night.’’

Oddly, most visitors to San Francisco would pick Monterey and the Big Sur, as overcrowded as they can be; where access to the shoreline is more difficult; where prices are higher; and where the views are not nearly as memorable.

Paradoxically, Mendocino’s attractions don’t attract that many visitors — barely 2 million a year.
Paradoxically, Mendocino’s attractions don’t attract that many visitors — barely 2 million a year.

Monterey is an easy two-hour drive from San Francisco. Mendocino is a three-hour commitment, though that could stretch to four with a stop at the Goldeneye Vineyard in the Anderson Valley to taste some unforgettable pinot noirs that sell for close to $100 a bottle.

The Mendocino coast could stand to see more tourism; its timber and fishing industries are greatly diminished. But for its largest cash crop, marijuana, the economy would be much worse.

Even so, much of its charm, for both residents and the trickle of visitors, is its undeveloped beauty and solitude. And not many residents want to see that change, including Hay, a former Chamber of Commerce president.

“If we had more people,’’ says the man whose business benefits from more home rentals, “we wouldn’t have the lifestyle we so enjoy.’’


Walter Robinson can be reached at walter.robinson@globe.com.