So You Want to Live in ... Gualala, California

Wendy Platt
Stroked by eight miles of sea, this small California town invites those for whom the ocean--and a tight-knit community--is enough.

In the Surf Supermarket parking lot in the center of Gualala, a violet Mercedes convertible, waxed and shining like a jelly bean, sits next to a vintage Volkswagen van, its painted sidesta nod to Picasso. The two autos appear perfectly comfortable as neighbors. Inside the grocery store, and elsewhere in town, surfers mingle with millionaires.

"Gualala is what Mill Valley or Sausalito was in the 1970s," says Sean Gaynor-Rousseau, who moved with his wife from the San Francisco Bay Area six years ago. "It's a true community of mixed socioeconomic groups who all share an appreciation for the place they call home. Gualala welcomes everyone from agricultural laborers to retired professors and telecommuters. We're all so different we're like a large dysfunctional family that somehow gets along, perhaps out of necessity because we're so isolated."

Gualala, pronounced "wha-la-la," sits between the Gualala River, at the southern border of Mendocino County, and the tiny community of Point Arena. A curvaceous three-hour drive along the Pacific Coast from San Francisco, Gualala is not a commuter's town. The folks who live here have come to find serenity along this magnificent stretch of shore, where houses (and lots) with water views fetch prices akin to those in the Bay Area.

"What brings people to Gualala is the natural beauty of the place," says Irene Prior, who's lived here not quite a year. "I like the peace and quiet, hearing nothing but the roar of the ocean. And the people are very friendly, almost alarmingly so. It's sort of a culture shock to move here from the city and have everyone know your name and ask how you're doing. But I quite like it."

Town businesses post newspaper clippings of children's school honors and athletic accomplishments. The post office door bears notice of a potluck dinner. And at the saloon in the old Gualala Hotel, the local watering hole, offering a first name is the only prerequisite for entry into conversation.

Gualala's name--given by the Pomo Indians who lived in the area until the 1800s--means "water coming down place." With a rich logging history, the town's main industry became tourism after logging declined in the 1960s. Still, with building restrictions imposed by the California Coastal Commission, Gualala changed little. Several hotels and rentals pepper the main drag, but no serious threat to the view exists.

"Our excitement for the day used to be coming in from fishing, sitting at the saloon, and watching the cars go by," says Russ Root, a Gualala historian and longtime resident. "We recognized all the cars and knew who drove them. But times have changed a little, and we get more passersby. Some of those people decide to stay. We went from a population of 385 in 1979, when I moved here, to 585 some 20 years later. We nearly doubled in size, but we're still small enough to be a tight community."

The town's 15,000-square-foot art center reflects its harmonic spirit. Gualala Arts, housed in a light-filled structure next to the Gualala River, was built with community-raised private funds. It showcases local artists' work and offers adult and children's classes--from music and theater to photography.

"There's something to be said for a slower pace of life," says Barbara Helms, who moved from Newcastle, California, two and a half years ago. "It allows you the time to get to know people, and isn't it the people who end up making the place?"

(published 2003)

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