Mendocino, California: Artist colony or ineffective tourist trap?

Mendocino, California

About three hours north of San Francisco on U.S. Route 101 and West of the Sierra-Nevada mountain range, you come upon a quaint seaside California town reminiscent of “Ye Olde” New England fishing villages. It’s the unincorporated community of aging white hippies known as Mendocino.

Originally a bustling logging town, this tiny village is now home to artists, galleries, and dilapidated, rundown wooden shacks. For every exquisite, painfully restored New England-style cutesy bed-and-breakfast place, there are two condemned, termite-infested, lead paint-peeling eyesores.

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Streetwalker

Not surprisingly, Mendocino is a place where the economy depends on tourists like ourselves (only ones with money). According to an English immigrant who ran the only photographic store we could find that sold film, the cost of living here is dauntingly high. When pressed for details, the proprietor intimated that the large range of mountains you had to cross to get to Mendocino added to the price of gas, food, cable and damn near everything else you can toss in the back of a tractor-trailer. Having driven the treacherous and arduous hairpin-happy Route US1 at 30 mph ourselves, we did not doubt him.

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When the town’s tree-chopping business started drying up — around the time someone formed Greenpeace, I’m betting — the place went into a kind of dormancy. This condition still very much exists in Mendocino despite being heavily populated by the artistic community—shortly after which, the agent community moved in.

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There are galleries on literally every corner in Mendocino. Fortunately, the art in them is outstanding (for a change). One gallery in particular was nothing short of astounding. The William Zimmer Gallery (1-707-937-5121) on Kasten and Ukiah streets had consistently brilliant art in every room and on every floor. Being something of an artist myself, I am not impressed by anything I could do myself given enough time and a six-figure NEA grant.

So it was with much child-like glee and pants-wetting that I bore witness to piece after piece of true art that I couldn’t recreate even if I’d smoked enough drugs to conceive building a tricycle out of wood with its center pipe made to look like a pistol. Simply amazing stuff—feel free to buy me anything from the place. (I should probably tell you that most of the work starts at about $1500-2000. So you might want to check with me first.)

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My wife planned the trip spontaneously—and, at the last minute—so our choice of accommodations was somewhat limited. Despite little advance warning, she was able to book us into a place called the Blackberry Inn.

It was designed to look like the western town in the movie “Support your local Sheriff” starring James Garner, only a lot smaller. (Our one-bedroom place occupied the entire Sheriff’s office.)

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Still, the place was unbearably cute. The woman who worked the front desk wore period garb and the interior of the place mostly sported period furniture except for the two-person whirlpool bath and color TV. Every morning they put a basket of fruit and fresh-baked bread or cookies in our room and two chocolate kisses on the bed. There was even a real, wood-burning fireplace. It was like a Disney property only more realistic and rodent-free. It was considerably more genuine and inviting—I highly recommend the place.

As for food in Mendocino, there wasn’t a plethora of restaurants in the town, but we managed to find two must-eat places — “Cafe Bojoulaise” and “955 Ukiah.” Since they’re the best grub this side of the mountains, reservations had to be made a week in advance. Both were in renovated houses as opposed the more jarring architectural approach of say Kentucky Fried Chicken, so we drove past the places twice.

Once inside, we were gratified to find that both restaurants were every bit as good as anything in SF with the possible exception of the Potato-pesto pizza at “Za,” which is so good some rock band wrote a song about it. (I forget which one, so don’t ask).

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The only downside to Mendocino is also its upside. There is not much to do here. Once you see the beach and walk the town, you’re pretty much done sight-seeing.

As such, Mendocino is the perfect escape. You can sit around naked in the whirlpool bath sipping Zinfandel and watch the sun set without feeling like you ought to be out being active or experiencing something new—it’s, frankly, great.

On the way out of town we tried to catch the Osmosis baths. Basically you get into a bath of yeast and enzymes that go through fermentation around you and heat you up, supposedly expelling toxins from your body.

Sounded like fun, but we didn’t count on having to slog through the meandering twists and hairpin turns of US1. We figured we could travel 70 miles in an hour or so on a straight highway, but this drive took nearly three. So we missed the baths and had to settle for a massage instead. Tragically, the 2-hour drive back to SF that followed eradicated any relaxation the massage had induced. I guess I’m really saying, stay away from US1. Seriously, it sucks. 

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