When you get the urge to escape to the ocean for vacation, there's another alternative to Pismo Beach and Monterey: Fort Bragg, on the Mendocino Coast.
Yes, it's a longer car ride (about 51/2 hours), but it's a different kind of experience — cooler, more peaceful, with an artsy vibe that has become more cutting-edge in the past several years.
When I was growing up, my family used to drive to Fort Bragg and Mendocino right on State Route 1 to get away from the Sacramento Valley heat and just chill. Back in the '70s, Mendocino village was an arts colony with quaint bed and breakfast inns and an air of superiority, and Fort Bragg was the blue-collar logging town that had great access to the beach.
We'd stay at a plain-bread motel on a cliff, don our windbreakers and cross the highway to the beach. It was an inexpensive place to just let loose.
A couple of decades later, my husband, daughter and I found more sophisticated places to stay and play along the Mendocino coast. The unspoiled beaches were as picturesque as ever, the historic Skunk Train still was running between Fort Bragg and Willets, but there were more fancy, secluded hotels and bed and breakfast inns right on the water, some with pricey restaurants and golf courses to match.
Fast forward 15 years. On a recent trip to the area, my husband and I discovered that Fort Bragg, a town of about 7,000, has shed its working-class image and become downright cute.
Everything is "Mendo" this or "Mendo" that — short for the Mendocino Coast — and an eclectic array of unique shops, coffeehouses and restaurants are there for travelers to enjoy. Fort Bragg is constantly reinventing itself, blending the historic with the new.
Where to shop
Many longtime shops on Main, Franklin, Laurel and other downtown Fort Bragg streets closed in the wake of the recession in 2008, eventually creating opportunities. What's interesting is that many of the cutting-edge stores have been opened or recreated by local 20- or 30-somethings who've flown the nest for college and work and come back to roost near family.
They gathered knowledge in places like Santa Cruz and Colorado, and are putting it into action.
These savvy shop owners have studied what works in other tourist-based areas and put a local spin on it. One of those is Sheila Struckmeyer, who grew up on an organic farm in Fort Bragg and always has been crafty and taken with natural ingredients.
She owns Bella Mia Bath and Body (www.facebook.com/bellamiabtshandbody, 140 Laurel St.), a wonderful-smelling shop offering homemade body creams, scrubs and shimmery sprays. She came up with the idea five years ago while collaborating with a friend to make a body cream for her sister's birthday. She rises early six days a week to create products in her lab, then opens her shop five blocks away.
"People used to have a different idea about Fort Bragg — that it was a small town where people worked, but Mendocino was really touristy," Struckmeyer says. "There used to be a big mill here and the fishing industry. Now it's more tourist based — the whole thing has shifted."
Bella Mia's products, such as Glass Beach Glow and the Mendo Rain Collection, are named for local places.
Another business owner is 30-something Hilary White, now on her second business, Understuff (www.facebook.com/pages/Understuff, 310 N. Franklin St.). She bought the business about a year ago from a longtime owner who was retiring. The 2,000-square-foot store is the only place in town for women to buy intimate apparel and sleepwear from preteen to queen size.
"There's a whole new generation of people who were born and raised here starting this new business community; it's fun to be a part of," says White, who went to college in Colorado.
"There's definitely a new wave. People have actually spent some time out of Fort Bragg and have a different vision of where we want the town to go."
There are more gift shops in the Depot Mall and Union Lumber Company Store on Main Street across from the Skunk Train.
Where to eat
If shopping isn't your thing, how about eating? We found the Headlands Coffeehouse (it has live music every night, Belgian waffles and delicious spicy quesadillas), the hip Mendo Bistro (they're known for their crab cakes) and the Cliff House Restaurant with its stunning ocean view and early bird specials.
Other well-established restaurants include Eggheads for lunch or dinner, the North Coast Brewing Co., which offers craft beer and food and cheese pairings and The Q, a hole-in-the wall barbecue joint that cooks up shrimp, ribs and pulled chicken and pork sandwiches.
Where to stay?
There's a wide range of motels, hotels and bed and breakfasts available. Check out MendocinoCoast.com or fortbragg.com.
Where to play?
If you just want to relax and walk on the beach in and around Fort Bragg, there are a slew of parks and beaches to explore, including MacKerricher State Park about three miles north, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve and Caspar Headlands State Natural Reserve and State Beach, both about four miles south.
For a more active experience, there's the picturesque Ten Mile Beach Trail, running from the Pudding Creek Trestle to Ten Mile River and open to both hikers and cyclists.
Of particular interest is Glass Beach State Park, at the east end of Fort Bragg. This beach used to be the site of a dump. In the early 1900s, people threw household waste over the cliffs, including glass bottles. It's been cleaned up since then but bits of glass worn down by the tides still glisten there.
Whale watching, sport fishing and kayaking also are available for outdoors lovers. Check out www.allaboardadventures.com for details.
As mentioned earlier, the Skunk Train is a well-established Mendocino Coast attraction (www.skunktrain.com). Ride a train that dates back to 1925 through the coastal redwoods, past Pudding Creek, from the downtown Fort Bragg station into Willits and back. There's even a singing, guitar-playing conductor who serenades you with train songs during the four-hour trip.
Other things to do
If you're into history, check out the Guest House Museum, a Queen Anne-style mansion built in 1892 in downtown Fort Bragg. The museum boasts pictures and artifacts telling the history of the timber industry on the Mendocino Coast and in Fort Bragg. You can see pictures of railroads, mills and wood scenes, as well as the aftermath of the earthquake of 1906.
There also are historical walking tours sponsored by the Mendocino Coast Historical Society in downtown and at the Rose Memorial Park cemetery (www.fortbragghistory.org/).
Art galleries abound on Main Street and adjoining streets. One of note is the Northcoast Artists Gallery, which features paintings, textiles and photography showcasing local artists.
The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens offer a calming experience in nature, with formal gardens, and native floral (email@example.com).
There are plenty of local events to plan a trip around, including some coming up, such as the Wine and Mushroom Festival in November, the Mendocino Coast Candlelight Inn Tour in December and Mendocino Crab & Wine Days in January.