Winding three and a half hours north of San Francisco, the road to Mendocino may be as magical as the destination itself. Frequently no wider than a country lane, it corkscrews through mountain passes, parallels patches of farmland and vineyards, traverses a cathedral of redwoods, and chases the Navarro River to the sea.
And what an arrival it is: tabletop headlands carved below by massive sea caves and topped above with barns, lighthouses, and cliffside inns. Amid the dramatic landscape nestles the downtown, with Victorian homes in Easter-egg colors and Main Street lined with a bookstore, museum, toy shop, chocolatier, B&Bs, and eateries. The wildflowers and scrub of Mendocino Headlands State Park blanket the edges of town, where gentle trails lead to secluded beaches and benches for pausing to take in the show of spouting whales and surf-riding sea lions.
Once a logging and mill town, Mendocino has evolved into an arty enclave (with a median housing price of $700,000) that's home to 894 souls: bohemians and bakers, CEOs and sommeliers, four-generation families and farmers, innkeepers and iconoclasts. The residents will be the first to tell you it's the greatest place to live on Earth, steadfast in their belief that they have won the location lottery in life.
"Locals call Highway 128 their driveway through the redwoods," says John Dixon, owner of the Glendeven Inn. "It's not on the way to anything. That's what keeps Mendocino special and separates us from the world."
Mendocino is surrounded by wild tangles of nature—log-strewn secluded beaches, bird-rich estuaries, snaking rivers, and myriad trails to fern-covered canyons, waterfalls, giant redwoods, and pygmy forests of pine and cypress. For beach walking, Big River Beach is just south of town, and the hidden gem of Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is five miles north. For birders, nearby Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is an oceanfront haven that's home to more than 150 species, along with heather gardens, rhododendrons, and wild-flowers. For a serene eight-mile paddle, Catch-a-Canoe leads expeditions up Big River in outrigger canoes that are hand-carved from local redwoods.
Residents flock to lively Patterson's in the village for pints and pub grub such as fish-and-chips and British bangers. For a leisurely locavore lunch, Wild Fish delights with its cozy setting and thoughtfully crafted plates, including pan-seared swordfish dressed up with wild Mendocino black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms. The Little River Inn, an 1857 white-with-green-trim beauty set regally on a curve of the coastline, might just be the friendliest place in town. Here, chef Marc Dym's Dungeness crab cakes and slow-braised osso bucco are elevated by in-house sommelier John Sverko's knowledge of the 95-plus local wineries. After dinner, order up a nightcap at the Inn's 1930s watering hole, Ole's Whale Watch—while the beers may no longer cost 10 cents, Ole's makes a mean martini. For a one-of-a-kind sweet finish, head back into the village to Frankie's for a scoop of surprisingly delicious candy cap mushroom ice cream.
An influx of artists and the establishment of the Mendocino Art Center revitalized the town in the late 1950s; today, Mendocino is a vortex for creative spirits who come from all over the world to attend art classes, workshops, and more. "It's surprisingly cosmopolitan for such a tiny town," says Art Center Exhibition Director Danna Hall. A steady stream of culinary festivals (including crab in January and mushrooms in November) adds to the annual celebrations of film and music.
For a romantic seaside overnight, Heritage House Resort sits on 37 acres perched above the Pacific. The farmhouse built during the Gold Rush features modern luxuries including rainfall showers and hand-crafted Dux beds. But it's the decks with epic ocean views that truly cast a spell. Rates start at $149; 707-202-9010 or heritagehouseresort.com.
The elegant Brewery Gulch Inn (Brewery Gulch Inn's Cottage at Serenity Point is pictured here) overlooks Smuggler's Cove. Between its gourmet, cooked-to-order breakfasts and evening wine hours with impressive spreads, you may never leave. Rates start at $275; 800-578-4454 or brewerygulchinn.com.