Wind Your Way Through California's Back Roads

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Spectacular natural scenery, low-key wineries, intimate inns, first-rate restaurants, easy hiking trails: Northern California's Anderson Valley and Mendocino coast have all the makings of a relaxing getaway.

And the next several weeks are an especially good time to head to the area. The visitor crowds are thinning, the grape and apple harvests are well under way and the ramp-up to the rainy season isn't due until November.

Still, the drive up from San Francisco is no walk in the park. The 27-mile-long Anderson Valley runs southeast to northwest, largely paralleling the Pacific coast; it's skewered by Route 128, which you reach by taking U.S. 101 to Cloverdale, some 80 miles northwest of San Francisco, and then veering west.

Exploring Anderson Valley

The road into the narrow valley climbs, twists and dips, yo-yoing from 300 to 1,000 feet above sea level before uncurling down as it approaches the Pacific Ocean. The two lanes straighten out long enough for you to shift focus from your lurching stomach to the serene rural surroundings beyond the windshield, where tree-lined ridges and high golden hills provide a backdrop for apple orchards and vine-stitched knolls.

The valley's agrarian tradition will be on full display at the 80th Mendocino County Fair (Sept. 14-16), a homespun event with swine judging, sheepdog trials and apple tasting held in the old logging town of Boonville, about halfway to the coast. With 1,400 residents, Boonville is the valley hub and the largest of the villages strung along Highway 128. It's home to some delicious eateries, including Mosswood Market (lunch about $11), a cheery cafe that offers homemade soups, panini and baked goods and by-the-glass wines. This is also where you can buy excellent olive oils from highly regarded local producer Stella Cadente.

At the centrally located Boonville Hotel,the dining room is open for dinner Thursday through Monday (entrees $20-$25, three-course prix fixe $30-$40). Owner and chef Johnny Schmitt creates Mediterranean-influenced Cali cuisine for a daily menu that spotlights organic, locally sourced ingredients. Billing itself as a "modern roadhouse," the hotel has 10 country-chic rooms (doubles $125-$275) and a bar area. Overall, however, lodging options in the valley are limited; Mendocino and the coast offer a greater selection as well as water views.

Before continuing northwest on Highway 128, beer fans should detour to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company and sample the pale ales or a couple of the other craft brews. Twice-daily tours ($5) are offered on most days. But as good as these beers are, make no mistake -- Anderson Valley is wine country.

Although grapes are thought to have been grown here as early as the late 19th century, Anderson Valley's increasingly visible stance as a producer of high-quality wines didn't really take root until the 1970s.

Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, owners of Navarro Vineyards in Philo, were part of that wave of wine pioneers. Today the family-run winery, known for its gewurztraminer and pinot noirs and committed to sustainable viticulture, is an Anderson Valley must-see. Tours are arranged in advance, and the tasting room offers free pours. Buy what you like while you have the chance: Navarro sells its wines directly, which means that although you might see them on a restaurant list, you're not likely to find them on liquor store shelves.

Most Anderson Valley wineries are right off Highway 128, and many are in the valley's northwest end, referred to locally as "down valley." Other local producers to visit include Goldeneye Winery, Handley Cellars, Lazy Creek Vineyards and sparkling-wine maker Roederer Estate.

As you continue north, the road snakes along the Navarro River and zigzags through Navarro River Redwoods State Park, a densely forested corridor to the coast, before emerging within sight of the water -- if it's not too foggy to see, that is. From here it's about 10 miles on Highway 1 to Mendocino, a tidy village of wooden New England-style homes seemingly plunked down en masse atop a bluff licked by the wild Pacific.

Unwind in Mendocino

A logging port in the 19th century, Mendocino today is home to Victorian B&Bs and upscale inns, many of them popular with repeat visitors who book months in advance.

The 1879 Joshua Grindle Inn (rooms from $189-$359 a night), one of the best-known lodgings, offers 12 traditional-country rooms, half in the main building and the others in a water tower and a cottage on the grounds, many with a fireplace. Or try the clapboard Packard House ($225-$275), with its more contemporary yet still classic decor.

If you don't want to stay in the village, opt for the luxurious Heritage House ($299-$650), a cluster of buildings set on 37 waterfront acres down the coast in Little River. Now operated by General Hotel Management, which oversees such swank hotels as The Setai in Miami Beach's South Beach, the property is being completely overhauled and is taking on an Asian-inspired look. Half of the 47 rooms have already been made over with simple furnishings and soothing earth tones, and a new spa will open soon.

Closer to Mendocino is the Brewery Gulch Inn ($240-$396), a redwood-clad structure overlooking a cove from across Highway 1. Simple wood furniture and leather chairs outfit the refined-rustic rooms, most of which have fireplaces and private decks with ocean and forest views. A highlight of a stay here is the substantial hors d'oeuvres hour, held in the large common room with an impressive four-sided steel-and-glass fireplace.

Dining options in the area are as varied and sophisticated as the lodging choices. Cafe Beaujolais (entrees $24-$37), a romantic Victorian farmhouse, is a Mendocino fine-dining destination. The menu blends California cuisine with international flavors with dishes like pan-roasted sturgeon fillet with tagliatelle and a truffle-emulsion sauce and roasted Sonoma duck breast with a cassis jus. The restaurant at the lovely MacCallum House Inn (entrees $25-$37) serves a contemporary American seasonal menu, like grilled Niman Ranch steak with a Cabernet reduction and a roasted shallot and walnut salad.

More casual, and a good place for lunch, is the Moosse Cafe (lunch entrees $10 $14), where the menu includes a house-made pate with a pickled fruit relish and a creamy macaroni with three cheeses, as well as lunch standards like a crisp Caesar salad.

Working off calories isn't difficult to do in these parts.

There's a park, river or beach in nearly every direction you might go. From Mendocino's Main Street, you can stroll over to the trail-laced cliffs of Mendocino Headlands State Park, which cushions the village on three sides and basically protects it from more development.

From late September through December (and again in March and April), you might be able to spot migrating whales from the park headlands; the views of jagged natural rock formations, craggy coves and surging waves, however, are mesmerizing on their own.

For a walk among the redwoods, stop at Hendy Woods State Park in Philo, on the way back south. The park has two old-growth groves, the Big and Little Hendy Groves, and mostly easy trails. Pondering these majestic beauties, some hundreds of feet tall, might fill you with enough serenity to stomach the trip back home.

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