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

By Paige Porter
June 18, 2003
Wendy Platt

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

"Gualala is what Mill Valley or Sausalito was in the 1970s,"says Sean Gaynor-Rousseau, who moved with his wife from the SanFrancisco Bay Area six years ago. "It's a true community of mixedsocioeconomic groups who all share an appreciation for the placethey call home. Gualala welcomes everyone from agriculturallaborers to retired professors and telecommuters. We're all sodifferent we're like a large dysfunctional family that somehow getsalong, 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 communityof Point Arena. A curvaceous three-hour drive along the PacificCoast from San Francisco, Gualala is not a commuter's town. Thefolks who live here have come to find serenity along thismagnificent stretch of shore, where houses (and lots) with waterviews fetch prices akin to those in the Bay Area.

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

Town businesses post newspaper clippings of children's schoolhonors and athletic accomplishments. The post office door bearsnotice of a potluck dinner. And at the saloon in the old GualalaHotel, the local watering hole, offering a first name is the onlyprerequisite for entry into conversation.

Gualala's name--given by the Pomo Indians who lived in the areauntil the 1800s--means "water coming down place." With a richlogging history, the town's main industry became tourism afterlogging declined in the 1960s. Still, with building restrictionsimposed by the California Coastal Commission, Gualala changedlittle. Several hotels and rentals pepper the main drag, but noserious 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 RussRoot, a Gualala historian and longtime resident. "We recognized allthe cars and knew who drove them. But times have changed a little,and we get more passersby. Some of those people decide to stay. Wewent from a population of 385 in 1979, when I moved here, to 585some 20 years later. We nearly doubled in size, but we're stillsmall enough to be a tight community."

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

"There's something to be said for a slower pace of life," saysBarbara Helms, who moved from Newcastle, California, two and a halfyears ago. "It allows you the time to get to know people, and isn'tit the people who end up making the place?"

(published 2003)