Mendocino gets all the attention, with its whitewashed charm and boutiques, but this time, we’re going to cruise right on by and head straight for the no-nonsense segment of the North Coast. Fort Bragg, about 10 miles north of Mendocino, is a fishing and lumber town of about 6,500 residents who have seen both those industries all but shut down. Tourism is going strong, though, and Fort Bragg invites visitors to shop its spruced-up downtown, walk its refurbished log-haul trestle, dine in its restaurants, explore its beaches and harbor, and learn about its redwood forests with a ride on a local locomotive.
Winter on the North Coast can surprise visitors with brilliantly sunny days. But the region does see most of its rain between November and January, so bring the slickers and umbrellas and be ready to snuggle up inside a pretty inn if things get too frightful.
Ride Into the Redwoods
In the late 1800s, the Skunk line of the California Western Railroad carried massive redwood logs out of the forests to the coast. In 1904, passenger service was employed to tote people to and from cabins and camps that freckled the forest, and in 1911, service was extended to Willits. Today, the Redwood Route remains, but the Skunk Train primarily carries tourists instead of locals and the days of hauling logs are long gone. The typical run travels about 20 miles into the redwoods to Northspur—a shady outpost along the Noyo River—then turns around and comes back. Railroad buffs will appreciate the vintage 1925 M-100 and 1935 M-300 motorcars, and the 1924 Baldwin steam engine that handles Northspur Steam trips. History lovers will enjoy the shpiel by the conductor, who recites a colorful narrative about the redwood forests, historic settlements and natural landmarks the train passes—including an 1,100-year-old redwood behemoth and numerous “fairy rings,” where the trees have reproduced in a perfect circle. Tunnels and bridges add to the journey’s authenticity and scenic value; this is really a beautiful and informative four-hour ride. Watch for deer as you roll through the Pudding Creek estuary and the Noyo Canyon, and imagine what it must have been like, riding the train to the summer cabin in the woods. (Some people still do it; the train drops passengers—or sometimes just groceries—at some of the remote cabins along the route.) On weekends during December and the five weekdays leading up to Christmas, the Christmas Train departs the Fort Bragg Depot at 4 p.m. and takes passengers on a 90-minute ride with Santa, elves, storytellers and musicians, and cookies and cocoa add to the fun. Christmas Train tickets are $24 for children 2 to 12, $34 for adults.
Shop Downtown Fort Bragg
Highway 1 runs right into downtown, past motels and chain fast food spots, and eventually brings drivers to a quaint collection of shops and restaurants at the north end of town. Park the car and take to your legs. Start with a cone crammed with handmade ice cream from Cowlicks and finish it off while you window shop along Main, Redwood, Laurel, Pine and Franklin streets. Wander through galleries, including Partners and Edgewater. On Franklin Street, relax in Cheshire Bookshop, which sells new books and includes a section celebrating Mendocino County writers. Be sure to greet Pippin, the resident tabby cat. Across the street, hit Racines for art supplies, unique greeting cards, journals and one-of-a-kind papers (including “poo-poo paper,” made from elephant droppings). Around the corner, Pippi’s Longstocking is great fun for socks hounds, Andrea Luna worth browsing for one-of-a-kind, funky fashions and Toto Zaida for clothing for “women of average and large size.” If the Shoe Fits, a consignment shop, carries far more than just shoes—clothing, jewelry and artsy accessories, too. On Main Street, Depot Mall and the historic Union Lumber Company Store buildings house some gift shops, art galleries and several places to grab a bite, including Laurel Deli & Desserts (best clam chowder we’ve found on the North Coast) at the Depot, and Mendocino Cookie Company and Living Light International raw foods cafe and shop (try the Orange Jewels smoothie) at the Company Store. Across the street, Roundman’s Smokehouse will delight the smoked-food fan with fish, meats and cheeses.
Sit Down to a Great Meal
North Coast Brewing Co. Taproom & Grill is probably Fort Bragg’s most famous restaurant, thanks to North Coast’s designation as one of the top 10 brewing companies in the world by the Beverage Tasting Institute’s World Beer Championships. Order the Ruedrich’s Red Seal Ale, an Old No. 38 Stout or a Scrimshaw Pilsner, paired with a steak or the grill’s Carolina barbecue. At the Mendo Bistro, down the street and upstairs in the Company Store building, relax in the spacious, wood-heavy dining room and savor the local, sustainable, organic dishes. Everything that can be house made is. Order off the entree menu or go with the “Choice Menu,” which means you pick your main slab (chicken, fish, beef, tofu or portobello mushroom), determine how you’d like it cooked (roasted, grilled, sautéed, etc.) and what sauce you would like (eight options, including “charmoula”—an earthy, tangy Moroccan sauce that is great on grilled tri-tip). Across Main Street, Piaci Pub & Pizzeria draws crowds for its calzone, focaccia and, yes, pizza. If you go, pair your pizza with one of the nearly local microbrews, like Death and Taxes Black Lager from Moonlight Brewing in Windsor. For your pizza, go simple or branch out and try something fancier, like the Gustoso, with pesto, chevre, pears, prosciutto and herbs. One more favorite restaurant: Nit’s Cafe, which takes some heat for its high prices and cash-only payment policy, turns out some of the best Thai fusion—red curry with chicken, pad Thai with big prawns and organic veggies, pineapple fried rice, dayboat scallops, among other inventive dishes. Nit herself takes and cooks the orders. Allergies or aversions? She’ll make sure it’s done right. If you’re looking for seafood—fish ’n’ chips, chowder, cioppino, linguine and clams—head down to Noyo Harbor, most famous for the sailing scene with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell at the end of Overboard. Silver’s at the Wharf and Herons by the Sea are a couple of longtime favorites—both overlook the water.
Trek the Trails and the Trestle
Take a 3 ½-mile hike along the Ten Mile Beach Trail, which leads from the Pudding Creek Trestle—a former log-haul railroad bridge that has been renovated and opened a couple of years ago to foot and bicycle traffic—to Ten Mile River in MacKerricher State Park. The trail lines the ocean, crossing sand dunes and providing broad views of the Pacific Coast. About a mile and a half along, cross Virgin Creek, and after another mile or so, you’ll come upon Lake Cleone, a tidal lagoon often crowded with shorebirds.
At MacKerricher State Park, which lies about three miles north of Fort Bragg, day use is free. Go for the beaches and bluffs, and watch for seals, birds and whales. (The gray whales could be migrating as early as this month.) Eye the crabs and anemones in tide pools, and collect treasures at Glass Beach—a garbage dump until the ’60s, it now is piled with glass that’s been scoured by the surf. Check out the whale skeleton on display at the MacKerricher Visitor Center.
Spend the Night
Do not attempt to do Fort Bragg in a day trip. It’s too long a drive, plus there are plenty of sleepover options in town. The Weller House Inn, a B&B in a historic 1886 mansion, has 10 individually decorated rooms, including two in the renovated water tower. Dance in the inn’s 900-square-foot redwood-paneled ballroom and explore the pristine garden—a great place to relax on a bench with a novel. Another 1890s structure, The Country Inn, sits within walking distance of the Skunk Train depot and downtown’s shops, and has eight rooms, all different, all decorated in country style. For a different experience, stay at the Coast Inn & Spa, where the rooms range from basic to luxurious, but are disguised by a lackluster motorlodgelike exterior. Word to the wise: Request a room that has been renovated. Reserve one with heated clay floors or a jetted tub or a fireplace, and make an appointment at the adjacent Natural Healing center for a massage, far-infrared sauna or vibration therapy. If you’re really committed, stay awhile and do Dr. Bernard Jensen’s Whole Body Cleansing and Detoxification program or partake in one of the other longer-term healing regimens.