Springtime on Northern California's Navarro Coast is not for the restless―it's for those content to nurture the senses and renew the spirit.
Empty and wild (and lacking cell-phone reception), this undeveloped stretch goes unnoticed by tourists heading nonstop to the popular seaside town of Mendocino, a few miles north. Those who seek out this isolated coast do so to slow down and, just maybe, come to a complete standstill.
Getting here provides half the pleasure. The Navarro River and State Highway 128 (85 miles north of San Francisco) braid their way toward the Pacific through towering redwood forests, blossoming orchards, and sun-dappled vineyards. The cheerful dance ends as the river spills into a raw coastline and the road yields to U.S. 1. Travelers emerge between two of California's most scenic destinations: Albion (a short drive north) and Elk (a turn to the south).
Free-spirited Albion has evolved from a marijuana growers' haven to an enclave of romantic inns. Albion River Inn provides 22 New England-style cottages with plush beds, vaulted ceilings, private decks, and fireplaces. Spacious, spalike baths with ocean-view tubs outfit renovated rooms 1, 5, and 17 through 20. Kathy and Dave Van Buskirk, here from Colorado, say no matter how chilly it may be, "we sleep with the windows open so we can hear the waves all night."
Inn guests may be tempted to cocoon next to a crackling fire the entire weekend, but chef Stephen Smith's innovative coastal cuisine lures even the most burned-out executives to the dining room. Albion River Inn Restaurant defies the saying "the better the view, the worse the food." Here, the shellfish starter steamed in a creamy, bacon-touched broth and the lime-and-ginger grilled prawns easily match dramatic vistas of the Albion River Bridge connecting high Pacific cliffs. It's the type of restaurant where guests and locals feel equally at home. "See those fishing boats coming into the cove?" asks Stephen. "Those guys will be here to eat in half an hour." Sommelier Mark Bowery maintains an award-winning wine list, including Anderson Valley favorites. A lack of pretension and an overall happy vibe keep patrons returning many times over.
At the southern end of this 9-mile shoreline, sleepy churches, a handful of B&Bs, and one-of-a-kind shops constitute the seaside hamlet of Elk, population 366. Unfortunately, there are no elk, but the real draw lies offshore. Jagged sea stacks brace themselves against a fleet of waves exploding on steep cliff walls. Casket Rock's name refers to the dangerous working conditions of turn-of-the-century immigrants who loaded massive redwood logs onto schooners.
The Harbor House Inn stands as a remnant of this town's logging history. Once an elegant home and lodge for Goodyear Lumber Company executives, the building overlooked milling operations in the cove below. Rickety tracks and trestles are gone, and what remains is the most exquisite vista on this coastline. The inn's Adirondack chairs high above the Pacific provide the best seats in the house.
This Craftsman-style lodge's six guest rooms feature handsome furnishings, gas fireplaces, and private (though cramped) baths. Ocean-facing Cypress, Harbor, and Lookout rooms tend to be the brightest, but all impress. Four simple 1930s motor-court cabins share the lodge's oceanfront bluff. For guests, here's the kicker: Rates include a full breakfast and four-course dinner for two at the inn's romantic restaurant, where the views alone are worth the visit.
During a stay along U.S. 1 between Albion and Elk, travelers can comb Navarro Beach, ocean kayak, or hike at Navarro River Redwoods State Park. Springtime on the Navarro Coast calls for rest and renewal. It's inspiration to take a break, drive with the top down, and withdraw to this secluded coast. As for the cell phone―it won't work here, anyway.
For more on the Albion-to-Elk stretch of the Mendocino County coast, call the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce at 800/726-2780 or visit mendocinocoast.com. Rates at Albion River Inn range from $195 to $325 per night; 800/479-7944 or albionriverinn.com. Rates at The Harbor House Inn range from $295 to $470, including breakfast and four-course dinner for two; 800/720-7474 or theharborhouseinn.com. Navarro River Redwoods State Park and Navarro Beach; 707/937-5804.