Mendo beach

Coastline at sunset in Mendocino, California. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Mendocino

The seaside town of Mendocino is part art colony and part nature escape, with liberal dashes of history and romance mixed in. It sits in pastel Victorian splendor atop windswept bluffs leading down to the sea, where languid sea lions and seals lump themselves on sunny rocks, and pelicans, seagulls, and crook-beaked hawks ride the breeze. It's tempting to call this town "quaint," but that doesn't capture the vibrancy of Mendocino, far earthier and more diverse than quaintness implies. Although its coastline rivals any in California, Mendocino hasn't succumbed to the elitism of a celebrity hideout. You'll find lodging, tours, stores, and eateries for all tastes and budgets: from campgrounds and funky coffee shops to elegant inns, extraordinary private retreats, and white-tablecloth restaurants.

Some visitors come to peruse eclectic gallery works, others to explore Mendocino's high-end jewelry offerings. No matter your budget, you'll likely spend a good chunk of your visit out on the water and surrounding trails—paddling Big River, perhaps, or walking the bluffs of Russian Gulch State Park. You might dive for delectable abalone off Van Damme State Park Beach or watch for the parade of migrating whales that passes the Mendocino Headlands each winter and spring. Caspar Beach draws beginner kayakers and surfers, while an easy-access boardwalk makes the Pygmy Forest—a peculiar accident of geology and poor soil—optimal for families and physically challenged visitors.

All of this is just a few hours from San Francisco, at least partly by way of California's famously scenic coastal highway. Approaching Mendocino via Highway 1 is almost as rewarding as seeing the town itself—but not quite. A stay in Mendocino is as much an immersion in natural beauty as it is a retreat from the frazzling pace of modern life.

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