San Franciscans are lucky enough to be able to venture just a couple of hours north, south or east and find themselves on vacation in another world. Normally, a trip north for me ends in Napa, Sonoma or at Lake Berryessa, but for my friend's 33rd birthday, we rented a rustic cabin-like AirBnB on the coast.
Gualala (pronounced wha-la-la) is a magical artist retreat tucked away on the Northern California Coast near Mendocino. It's pretty isolated, and nearly three hours from SF. People describe it as what Sausalito or Mill Valley were in the 1970's. It's a mix of hippies, millionaires, farm workers and average people who all love the rugged coastline and proximity to nature. With it's mix of Redwood groves, beaches, creeks and rivers, Gualala is an idyllic retreat from city life.
The drive up isn't for the faint of heart. While Big Sur may be the most famous California coastline with vertigo-inducing drops and breathtaking ocean views, Route 1 north of Bodega Bay comes in at a close second. Up north there's way less traffic, and far fewer guard rails than in Big Sur. The roads are narrower, the wind stronger and the amenities fewer. There's not only no cell reception, there's also no radio--not even static in places.
Since El Nino was so strong this year, the hills were all a bright neon shade of green, and the wildflowers were in full bloom. California Poppies, Irises, Buttercups, Rhododendrons, and a few I couldn't identify inject sharp bursts of color onto the green landscape. Streams and rivers were running full, and we even got to see a few waterfalls. Deer and Turkey Vultures were everywhere.
Our AirBnB was really cute, and perfectly situated. There were redwoods all over the property. You could hear the ocean and the sea lions from the deck, and the hot tub was amazing! I love The City, but sometimes taking a break somewhere quiet and peaceful is a welcome change. Our rental was one of three little apartments situated on a beautiful stretch of Highway 1. It was a few minutes from town and the local grocery store, but was still convenient. It slept six people comfortably and it was super peaceful.
We ventured north to the Point Arena Lighthouse, which is 115 feet tall, and sits 155 feet above sea level. There are guided tours which take you through the history of the lighthouse, how the original lens worked, and history of the site before taking small groups up into the lighthouse itself. With the tour, which I highly suggest, you get to venture up to the very top, up the same 100 metal stairs that keepers hauled whale blubber and kerosene, to the glass enclosure which originally housed the specialized glass lens. While the lens was in service (the lighthouse now uses a bright led light, the bright flashes could be seen over 20 miles out at see, and were only hindered by the curvature of the earth. We were lucky enough to get clear, breezy skies that allowed for maximum visibility, and we even got to go outside on the catwalk below the top.
Also in the area are Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve, and plenty of hiking and beaches for exploring. Located adjacent to Salt Point State Park, the Kruse Rhododendron SNR is a pristine reserve full of redwood trees, Douglas Fir and plenty of bright pink rhodies! The beaches are supposed to be nice in the summer, but it was too windy for us to venture out to any.
On our way back to The City, we stopped for a quick light lunch at Hog Island Oyster Company, right up the road from Tomales Bay. (When you can get farm-fresh oysters...always say yes! They're the best!) There's a restaurant onsite, but it's not cheap, and the picnic area is reservation only. The raw local Sweetwater Oysters were super tasty, but the house BBQ Chipotle were unforgettable! Grab a glass of wine or beer and enjoy a Sunday of indulgence. If you head down to Tomales Bay Oyster Company, remember that you can't picnic there anymore--but oysters, mussels, or clams to go are still sold at the stand.
Coming back traffic was pretty light, and we made good time. If you're in the Bay Area, exploring Sonoma and the Mendocino Coast is a must! Rugged, beautiful and full of great food and good wine--what's not to love? For the full experience, plan on spending the night and make plenty of stops. If you see a farm stand, oyster stop, winery or scenic turnoff--take it! We're planning to head back up pretty soon, and want to plan a trip for the fall to visit some of the apple farms and cider makers.