36 Hours in Mendocino County

Ninety miles north of San Francisco, Mendocino County is just faraway enough to have narrowly escaped the Bay Area’s radical transformation during the tech boom years. In contrast to other formerly quiet Northern California backwaters, Mendocino maintains its rural identity and eccentricities, including its longstanding status as one of the country’s major marijuana-producing regions. Where there is big news, it’s largely culinary. The 30-year-old chef at Elk’s Harbor House Inn was recently named a James Beard award semifinalist for Best Chef in the West. Besides the Harbor House’s eight- to 12-course, $150 per person prix fixe dinners, there are cheesemakers, upstart breweries, exceptional farm stands — notably Fort Bragg’s Nye Ranch and Caspar’s Fortunate Farm — and farm-inspired restaurants, like the long-awaited, soon-to-open Fog Eater Cafe, which began as a farm pop-up, and will serve “California cuisine with a Southern twang.” After years of population stagnation, young people are moving in, or coming home, and committing themselves to Mendocino’s fertile soil and sea. It’s a second wave back-to-the-land movement and a welcome reprieve from the Bay Area’s buzz.

Cut east over Route 253 — a spectacular 16-mile drive across hilltops of moss-draped California live oaks — to Ukiah, Mendocino’s 16,000-person county seat. Dedicated to an extraordinary, but largely forgotten painter, the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House displays Hudson’s striking and distinctly empathetic portraits of native peoples and immigrants, exhibits the work of local artists, and offers tours of Hudson’s Arts and Crafts home, which she called Sun House.

Head south to the City of 10,000 Buddhas, a former California State Mental Hospital that is now a Buddhist community and monastery. The campus’s distinctive arched entrance is undergoing renovation, but its roaming peacocks, evocative institutional architecture and Jyun Kang Vegetarian Restaurant, which serves tasty vegetarian dishes to a mostly local crowd, remain. Or hop down the 101 to Hopland, where Rock Seas serves an ever-changing menu that riffs on brunch classics — like coconut French Toast with star anise, coconut, brown sugar and mango ($12).

In the last two years, two long-awaited new hotels have opened on the Mendocino coast. The Harbor House Inn, in Elk, is a 1916 redwood home which was originally built by the local logging company and designed to showcase the beauty of the region’s lumber. After an eight-year renovation, the inn reopened in May of 2018 with 10 rooms (starting at $355, breakfast included) and a destination restaurant.

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