Part 1: The Mendocino Coast
On the unseasonably warm evening of Oct. 9, 2017, my friend Sara and I stepped into the backyard to enjoy a cocktail. “It smells smoky,” I said. “Seems odd people would be burning a fire tonight.” Sara agreed and we went about enjoying dry martinis while excitedly discussing our trip to Mendocino the following day — we had a weeklong writers’ retreat planned at the charming Little River Inn, where Sara would work on her short stories and I would revise my proposal for “Jazzy’s Tails” (to include “the traditional sad dog book ending,” as one literary agent put it).
The next morning I awoke to news of the devastating fires roaring through Wine Country. Sara and I postponed our trip until April, and for a month, the horrific photos of charred homes and vineyards played out across the media nationwide. I had been planning to write a story about winter specials at dog-friendly destinations, but in early November, I saw a Napa restaurant owner tell a local television news reporter that business was down 30 percent, and he wanted visitors to know he was open for business. A few days later, Steve and I packed the dogs and some chilly weather clothes and headed up north.
DETOUR TO DOG-FRIENDLY LULA CELLARS
On Highway 101 in northern Santa Rosa, we saw some of the hard-hit areas devastated by the fire along the freeway. But before long, we were winding through the thick canopies of trees in the Anderson Valley, and made a quick stop at my favorite boutique tasting room, Lula Cellars (2800 Guntly Road, Philo, 707-895-3737, lulacellars.com), to check out the work of new winemaker Matt Parish. Parish, a New Zealand native, has lived and worked in Northern California for 15 years spanning 25 vintages. (Most recently, he was chief winemaker for NakedWines.com, where he continues to sell his “Matt Parish” brand.)
“Pushy Salesman” (so it says on his business card) Dan Reed and “Head of Barketing” Honey, the rescued golden Lab mix (yes, she has a card, too) greeted us and we settled into the cozy tasting room to enjoy the fruits of Lula’s small production labor — 10 award-winning wines, 8 of them dry farmed (which uses only 9 percent of the water irrigated wines use).
I loved the Guntly, a very food-friendly baby (just 10 weeks old) and the first wine made by Parish (only 750 cases were produced). While Dan and I chatted, Steve and the dogs explored the 22-acre property, which features Skylar’s favorite place (the pond!), a 14-acre Pinot Noir vineyard, a small-production winemaking facility, and a new 10,000-square-foot events area available for weddings and private events. Lula makes 3,500 cases of wine annually and sells them only through the tasting room and their popular wine club, which has grown from 25 to 900 members in three years. Make that 901 — I joined the club and sent a case to my stepsister before we left that evening.
TWINKLING LIGHTS AT THE LITTLE RIVER INN
After a short drive up the Mendocino coast, we pulled into the long driveway of the majestic Little River Inn (7901 N. Highway 1, Little River, 707-937-5942, littleriverinn.com), the white Victorian façade twinkling with white holiday lights. Exhausted and hungry, we slipped into Ole’s Whale Watch Bar for a quick bite. I went for the abalone fritters — tender pieces of red abalone mixed with red onion, jalapeno, and red pepper and fried golden brown. Steve loved the flash-fried rice flour-dusted calamari from our last trip, and it was as good as we both remembered. We also split the classic baked Brie with oven-roasted garlic and fresh fruit and a wedge salad of cold, crisp iceberg lettuce topped with Roundman’s bacon and creamy blue cheese dressing.
Our room was luxurious but homey with a fireplace and huge windows overlooking the ocean. I headed straight for the deep-soaking tub with jets to soothe my tired driving muscles. Afterward, Steve and I sat in the Adirondack chairs on our private porch and listened to the crashing waves while Blue and Sky sniffed every inch of the deck.
The next morning we took the dogs for a ride on the Skunk Train (299 East Commercial, Willits, 707-964-6371, skunktrain.com) along the iconic Redwood Route. It’s a relaxing family-friendly adventure, and the dogs are always a big hit with other guests.
After my visit to the Little River Inn Spa for a pedicure while Steve and the dogs napped, we all headed for the dog-friendly dining parlor (there’s only one table, so reserve in advance). Executive Chef Marc Dym takes advantage of Mendocino’s bounty of seasonal produce and seafood like petrale sole, my favorite local fish. Flakey, white and delicate in both texture and flavor, Dym prepares it with a side of almonds in brown butter sauce, poached gulf shrimp, toasted orzo, and sugar snap peas. Probably my favorite thing on the menu, though, is the clam chowder. It’s less West Coast style (so thick your spoon stands up) and closer to what I ate during my Rhode Island summers: a briny broth full of fresh steamed clams (in the shell), smoky bacon, potatoes, onion, celery, and just a touch of cream.
STOP, DROP, AND DROOL AT CIRCA ’62
Based on a local’s tip, the next morning we drove a few miles along the coast to Circa ’62 at the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek (7051 North Highway 1, Mendocino, 707-937-5525, schoolhousecreek.com). The oldest resort on the Mendocino stretch of the North Coast, the property is covered in gardens and lush greenery and the unique cottages (like the Water Tower, replete with a fish pond, observation deck, and private hot tub) will definitely be on the list of accommodations for our next trip.
Restaurant Circa ’62 also features a dog-friendly dining room where Skylar and Blue were treated to plush beds perfect for big-boned gals and their own menu, titled “Stop, Drop & Drool.” Skylar opted for Rufus’ Special: Grilled flatiron steak with scrambled eggs and gluten-free peanut butter cookies for dessert. Blue selected Mr. Wilson’s Mixed Grill, with chicken sausage, grilled bacon, and eggs. While I would have happily eaten with the dogs, I tried Slow Death on a Raft (a gut-busting hash brown waffle with gravy and poached eggs). Steve went with the even more decadent Death on a Leaky Raft, which adds a crispy slab of local Covelo beef chicken-fried steak. The young staff was warm and gracious, and I loved the vibe, especially the witty sense of humor on the canine menu (“Aggressive behavior is not OK … that includes the dog”).
After brunch, we walked off some calories with the dogs in the crisp autumn air along the beach and headed for our next destination — the stunning Stanford Inn …
Next month in Part 2: Llamas and Ravens at the Stanford Inn; a night with Santa at dog exuberant Nick’s Cove; and lunch at an old favorite, the Rutherford Grill.