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Three spots to relax, unwind and love Northern California's natural splendor.
You work too hard. Put it aside for a weekend—a long one—and curl up inside one of these lovely places, high-luxury, eco-conscious and spirit-soothing. September (after Labor Day) starts the fall shoulder season, when crowds thin, rates drop and our part of California experiences some of its most wonderful weather. Drink some wine. Dine extravagantly. Breathe deep. Sleep. Sleep some more, to the sound of the ocean or the wind whistling in the treetops. Wake with the sun—or the fog. Soak. Stretch. Take it easy.
Brewery Gulch Inn
It’s a misconception that properties on the east side of Highway 1 along the North Coast have lesser ocean views than the properties hugging the shore. A walk through Brewery Gulch Inn’s lobby and dining area proves that the vistas can be richer, stacked with color as they glide downslope: green trees, gray shrubs, straw-hued meadow grass, on down to the brown cliffs and the blue-and-white sea.
Made of salvaged redwood, Brewery Gulch Inn sits on a bluff just south of Mendocino. Take a room in the main house, and you’ll have ready access to the great room with its 500- plus DVD collection, library of books, four-sided glass-and-steel fireplace (created by a local shipbuilder) and soaring French doors showcasing Smuggler’s Cove. High-luxury guest rooms include ocean views, gas fireplaces and soaking or whirlpool tubs—not all have all. The room rates come with full breakfast (including the inn’s signature scones and Millionaire’s Bacon) and a farm-to-table dinner created from local ingredients and the on-site garden.
Managed by Brewery Gulch Inn, the Cottage at Serenity Point (pictured) sits at the end of a country lane across the road, facing the ocean. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out at Chapman Point, lush gardens and a big, pretty meadow. A one-room cottage with a full kitchen, fireplace and sun-splashed deck, it’s a retreat perfect for a romantic escape.
Rates start at $325 for the Main House, $500 for the cottage. 9401 Highway 1, Mendocino; (707) 937-4752; brewerygulchinn.com
WHILE YOU'RE IN MENDOCINO:
Browse Mendocino Village Wander the art galleries, gift shops and the bookstore along the bluff-front Kasten Street, stop for a bracing coffee at Moody’s, scarf a juicy one at Mendo Burger, and drink the night away at Patterson’s Pub, with 28 beers on tap.
Squeeze In at Wild Fish This teeny-tiny restaurant behind the gas station in Little River plates some of the finest local seafood accompanied by organics fresh from area purveyors. The salads! But it’s a tight fit, so bring your small bag and keep your elbows in.
Light Up the Night On Sept. 10 and 11, Catch-a-Canoe runs its renowned bioluminescence tours of the Big River, sunset till dark, when oar strokes create a firefly effect of green sparkles just beneath the water.
Walk in the Forest Just north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park’s trails snake through the forest, past a waterfall or along the wind-blown headlands. Pack your boots and pick your route, and watch out for poison oak. Leaves of three, let it be.
The Inn at Newport Ranch, on 2,000 acres of coastal land about 20 miles north of Mendocino, opened its three-room Main Inn in August, with three more suites in its Redwood House due to open in the next few months. At the Main Inn, all guest rooms are upstairs: Captain’s Quarters faces the ocean with 180-degree views, while The Chute, also with an ocean view, sits closest to the water tower where the hot tub bubbles beneath the stars. The Ranch Room faces the hills and forest—Newport is a working cattle ranch. Downstairs, you’ll find an inviting wraparound porch, a walk-in fireplace and a long redwood table in a beautiful room that opens to the ocean and begs to host a winemaker dinner. Room rates start around $300 and include full breakfast, afternoon wine and appetizers and use of a full kitchen; dinner also is served on-site, ranch-to-table fare. (707) 962-4818; theinnatnewportranch.com
Tucked into the forested hillsides in an upper Napa Valley canyon, Calistoga Ranch brings together the wine country, the woods and a luxurious lifestyle that make it an ideal spot for an escape. Mountains backdrop this pretty compound, where the structures almost disappear into the environment and the silence can surround guests like a warm blanket. Calistoga Ranch, an Auberge resort, knows upscale and does it right, from the service and amenities to the gentle rules that protect everyone’s peaceful experience.
Cars are abandoned when guests check in, and the only travelers along the ranch’s roads pedal bicycles, ride in soft-whirring golf carts or use their own two feet. Guesthouses, freestanding, rustic and richly decorated, include indoor and outdoor fireplaces, indoor and outdoor showers, and all of home’s comforts, including televisions and music systems. Oak Creek Lodges, set among 100-year-old oaks, include a private hot tub on the deck.
Country roads lead to the bathhouse, with a Watsu pool and a spa (a Honey Dream Bee Well massage leaves you softer than a baby’s booty), and also to the private Lakehouse Restaurant (pictured), only accessible to Auberge guests. Glass walls bring the outdoors in, or—highly recommended—you can take a decktop table by Lake Lommel after dark and watch the moon rise over the mountains as you linger, savoring a four-course meal (for mains, think lamb, duck, venison, scallops, wild salmon) and a bottle of Napa Valley’s finest from the carefully curated wine cellar.
Spend a warm afternoon on the sun deck beside the lap pool, play some bocce or explore any of the three hiking trails on the property, all of which lead to stunning views of the valley, which burns red and gold this time of year.
Rates start at $995 per night. 580 Lommel Road, Calistoga; (707) 254-2800; calistogaranch.aubergeresorts.com
WHILE YOU'RE IN THE UPPER NAPA VALLEY:
Cycle Country Roads For about $90 per person, Calistoga Bike Shop’s self-guided wine tour includes bike rental, wine tasting, picnic lunch and an afternoon pedaling eight to 20 miles of quiet roads around Calistoga between wineries. Customized map included.
Got To Have Gott’s The famous Gott’s Roadside drive-in outside St. Helena on busy Highway 29 serves up Niman Ranch beef and Diestel turkey burgers, fries, onion rings and more, including ahi poke crispy tacos—the avocado slice tops these to perfection. Get a glass of local wine or craft beer, too, because there’s nothing like a Point Reyes blue cheese burger chased with a Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA.
Discover Napa Valley Olive Oil In a white wood house off the main drag in St. Helena, Italian goods pack the shelves at Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company. Get the biggest bottle of olive oil. Bring cash or a checkbook; your plastic’s no good.
Dine at the CIA Let the students at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone serve you a farm-to-table dinner at its Conservatory. It reopens for the fall semester Sept. 10.
Sail Over the Geyser Calistoga Balloons runs flights starting just after sunrise, floating over the hot springs, geysers, vineyards and mountain edges of the upper Napa Valley. You might catch an eruption of Old Faithful, one of three “faithful” geysers worldwide (faithful because it erupts regularly), and drift over its rainbow as the sun comes up.
Post Ranch Inn
It’s edge-of-the-world gorgeous up here, jutting off a cliff along the Big Sur coast. The ocean spreads out till it meets the sky, the rolling land tumbles down to meet the water, and your window grants the best view anyone will get anywhere in this vicinity short of skydiving. It’s no surprise that the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Post Ranch Inn has been known to draw the celebrity set, and rumor has it that Taylor Swift, Daniel Craig and Jake Gyllenhaal have hidden out here in the past. So can you.
All of the oceanfront houses grant astonishing views of the Pacific, but the aptly named Cliff House is 960 square feet of pure luxury. It suspends its deck over the edge, and on that deck sits a stainless steel hot tub and a couple of chaises just waiting for you, your sweetie and a bottle of Monterey County chardonnay. The glass-walled bedroom, outfitted with custom-made furnishings and organic linens, looks out to the ocean. In fact, you can see the sea from just about anywhere: the shower, the indoor tub, the bed, the outdoor tub, the deck. Burn a log in the fireplace, warm your toes on the radiant-heated floors or prop yourself up on the plump pillows on the bed and read something from Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac.
Reserve a Tree House (pictured) and you’ll feel like a kid again, sleeping among the branches nine feet above the floor of the forest, only this time it’s cozy, warm and insect-free, and a fireplace burns within. Each Tree House is triangular, and the window seats and decks put you in the leaves—lush, green, with filtered views of the mountains. Over the bed, a sky window brings in the stars on clear, black nights unsullied by light pollution.
Guests can borrow Post Ranch Inn’s Lexus vehicles for journeys around Big Sur, but the compound itself leaves little reason to wander away. Sierra Mar, the multi-award-winning on-site restaurant, dishes up perhaps the finest cuisine in Big Sur, and the nine-course “Taste of Big Sur” menu might include Monterey spot prawns or red abalone, depending on the season. The wine cellar holds bottles spanning the region and beyond. Pack to dress for dinner—“casual elegant” is the request, and even though it’s the coast, ditch the T-shirts and shorts for the evening. Next morning, try some yoga, tai chi or Pilates, maybe a guided nature walk or tour of chef John Cox’s gardens, and indulge in a massage at the spa or take a dip in the infinity-edge Jade or Meditation pools. Where the pool ends and the ocean begins tricks the eye, infinity to infinity, and beyond.
Rates start at $825 per night and include full buffet breakfast. 47900 Highway 1, Big Sur; (831) 667-2200; postranchinn.com
WHILE YOU'RE IN BIG SUR:
Hike The McWay Falls stroll at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park takes you two-thirds of a mile to the view of the falls that tumble 80 feet over a cliff into the ocean, which roils turquoise, rimmed in salty white.
Get Good Baked Goods Big Sur Bakery gathers locals and visitors for pastries, breads, deep-dark coffee, and extends its magic into lunch and dinner menus rife with local ingredients and simple, gorgeous food.
Shop the Phoenix Nepenthe, an institution along the Big Sur coast, is perhaps best known as the restaurant with the outdoor bar seating overlooking the waterline, but stop at its Phoenix shop, where you’ll find books, paper, music, artwork, jewelry, home and garden decor . . . all of it uniquely Big Sur-esque.
Go to the Library The Henry Miller Memorial Library, tiny and welcoming, is so literary you can smell the paper and ink and all the texture of the Beat Generation. Make yourself a cup of coffee, hang out by the fire or relax in the redwood grove, and you’ll leave motivated to write a novel, or at least read one of Miller’s greatests.