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As gray whales migrate past California’s coast this month, find yourself a prime vantage point.
Every winter and spring, gray whales journey from their summer home—the Bering Sea, where they feed on krill—to their winter breeding ground in the warm lagoons of Mexico, and back again. This month, they’re heading north, hugging the Pacific Coast as they go. The whales are easy to spot from land and sea, and it’s always a thrill to see a flume of water or a sleek gray back. Head for any of the following whale-watching sites; just be sure to bring your binocs.
Boat Out of Monterey
A multitude of whale-watching tour boats operate out of Monterey, with full boats running during the busy gray whale season. Monterey is an ideal whale-watching area, because the submarine canyon lures the whales closer to shore than other spots along the coast. Bring your Dramamine or seasickness wristbands (although some boats may carry electronic wristbands) for when the boats head from the gentle bay out into the choppier ocean waters. On your journey, you’ll likely see dolphins, sea otters, sea lions and harbor seals. Boats typically leave shore in the morning and early afternoon, and trips last two to three hours.
While You’re There: Stay overnight at the “environmentally conscious” Portola Hotel & Spa, LEED-certified and located walking distance from the wharf. Grab dinner at Jack’s, the hotel’s primary restaurant, where the words local and sustainable dominate the menu of meat and seafood.
Watch From Your Room in Gualala
The Whale Watch Inn, perched above the surf near Anchor Bay, has 18 rooms in five separate buildings, all affording stunning views of the Mendocino coastline and the whales that cruise by in winter and spring. Every room is different, with all the essential amenities for romance: private bath, down comforter, fireplace and deck, and many have whirlpool tubs. Take the stairs to the private beach beneath the inn to see if you can glimpse whales from the shore. On cool mornings, hunker down in the Whale Watch lounge, outfitted with a roaring fireplace, telescopes and windows overlooking the sea.
While You’re There: For dinner, head five miles south to the St. Orres Hotel—you can’t miss the copper-topped onion domes on this Russian-inspired structure. Try some wild boar or venison, or perhaps a pheasant breast.
Look Out From the Point Arena Lighthouse
From the Point Arena Lighthouse tower, point your eyes westward to catch whales spy-hopping (lifting their heads out of the ocean and spinning) and breaching (leaping from the water). It’s a long climb up a very narrow staircase, but the view from above is gasp-inducing—one of the best on the whole North Coast. Admission to the lighthouse is $7.50 for adults and also grants access to the renovated Fog Signal Building, home to the First Order Fresnel lens.
While You’re There: Stop in at Lisa’s Luscious Kitchen on Main Street in Point Arena and pick up a few jars of her housemade jams. Huckleberry is a specialty.
Party With the Whales in Mendocino and Fort Bragg
In March, whale festivals take place in the North Coast towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. On March 5 and 6, wander wine-tasting stations in Mendocino Village and taste chowder at Crown Hall. Take a whale-watching walk along the headlands and admire the gray whale exhibit at the Ford House Visitor Center. Two weekends later, March 19 and 20, Fort Bragg hosts its whale festival, with microbrew tasting at Eagles Hall, a craft fair at the Masonic Center and whale cruises running out of Noyo Harbor. Start the weekend with the Whale Run—a 5K and 10K run or walk.
While You’re There: Wander along the shores of Glass Beach, off West Elm Street in Fort Bragg, to explore the mounds of polished glass washed ashore, leftover from the area’s days as a dumping ground during the 1960s. Tide pools beckon with mollusks, crabs and a variety of marine plant life.
Clock the Sun in Redding—The sun is out but it’s not 112 degrees yet—a great time to visit the Sundial Bridge in Redding. Within the 300-acre Turtle Bay Exploration Park, the steel, glass and granite bridge, with its gleaming white gnomon, crosses the Sacramento River. Walk across the bridge and see if you can figure out what time it is. While you’re there, tour the Turtle Bay Museum and the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens.
Pit Stop: Santa Nella—Traveling to Southern California or Monterey? Stop for snacks, gas and potties in wind-whipped Santa Nella, 115 miles south of Sacramento on Interstate 5. If you have the time, order a bowl of soup and a pastry at Andersen’s Pea Soup.
Napa: A Fish Story
The newly developed waterfront in the city of Napa lures food and wine lovers to enjoy the fruits of the valley. The latest addition to the landscape: Fish Story, a restaurant with prime real estate fronting the Napa River. In cahoots with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, the restaurant focuses on sustainable, seasonal seafood—and dishes it up with style. You never know what’s on the menu from one day to the next, but you can always count on it being fresh and environmentally correct. Try the plain grilled fish served with a choice of sauce and two sides—kale with bacon, for example, or roasted cauliflower with spicy harissa—or go for one of the chef’s specials, such as the chili-roasted Dungeness crab.
Day Trip: Almonds in Bloom in the Capay Valley—It’s the most beautiful time of the year in the Capay Valley, as the almond orchards burst into blossom, backdropped by rolling green-grassy hills. Cruise out Highway 16 into the valley towns of Esparto, Capay, Brooks, Guinda and Rumsey to check out the trees’ pinky-white blossoms. If you go on Sunday, March 13, don’t miss the Capay Valley Almond Festival, with food, crafts and entertainment.