From the Bay area, the typical drive to Mendocino involves a long stretch of fast highway (Hwy 101 North) followed by a long stretch of twisty smaller roads. The last part of the drive can be nerve-wracking, with sharp switchbacks, redwood stands full of flickering shadows, and opposite-way traffic zooming past in narrow lanes. Total time (starting from Berkeley): about 3 hours.
The drive back was a breeze by comparison, even though there were just as many twists, turns, and tailgating vacationers in a hurry to get home. It must be more comfortable to do the twisty/turny parts first, then the boring and possibly congested highway part, rather than the other way around.
Two solutions suggest themselves:
- Drive up Highway 1 along the coast the whole way to Mendocino, cutting out as much Highway 101 as possible. It's just as twisty and turny, but the coastal drive is arguably the most scenic in the whole US.
- Schedule a break not too far from the turnoff from Highway 101, ideally at one of the wineries with a tasting room. (Bring a designated driver.)
Going up, to avoid heavy traffic on 101 North in Sonoma county, try to pass through the highway section around 1-2 PM. Coming back, if you can arrange to be going south on 101 around 2-3 PM, you'll find heavy traffic going the other way but smooth sailing heading back to the Bay area. (Your mileage may vary; that's our experience travelling back and forth on weekdays to avoid the weekend crowds.)
Accomodations are generally very nice in the area, with a premium on high-quality included breakfasts. We've had good luck both at Griffin House several miles south of Mendocino in Elk, and at the Stanford Inn right outside of Mendocino. We had some not-so-good experience at a place that wasn't adept at dealing with health-related special requests. Distinguishing factors you might consider when evaluating lodging:
- How close is it to the beach, park, or town where you want to do the bulk of your activities? For example, from Elk to Mendocino was a long drive back and forth each day when we stayed there. Yet the town of Mendocino is small enough to explore pretty well in an afternoon, leaving other days for the surrounding area -- Boonville on the way, Ukiah a little ways inland, Fort Bragg a little north.
- How well-ventilated is it? This might seem like an unusual factor, but many places have wood fireplaces in each cabin or room, and you can find yourself getting fumigated depending on the wind and the layout of the grounds.
- How good is the breakfast? We choose the Stanford Inn this last time because of the associated vegan restaurant The Raven's, which provided a top-notch breakfast for those who aren't big meat eaters. The breakfast dishes didn't suffer for lacking eggs, bacon, etc. -- this was the first time I've ever encountered vegan hollandaise sauce! And how pleasant to get a daily delivery of cookies or a truffle at happy hour and not encounter any eggs or dairy.
When to Go
Anytime starting in June is plenty warm, and the coastal breeze can keep you from overheating while strolling near the sea. Go mid-week to avoid the crowds, or schedule your stay around one of the festivals, farmer's markets, or other special events in the area.
Remember that the Northern California weather actually heats up in September and October. The vacation season extends longer than out-of-staters might expect.
Mendocino dining has trended towards high-end French style over the years. There seemed to be less vegetarian-friendly choices at old haunts like Cafe Beaujolais this time around. Similar high-end joints include the Moose Cafe and (ideally for us) The Raven's featuring a vegan menu. Less upscale options include Mendo Burger and Mendocino Cafe. Even those places are still more pricey than you'd find in the big city.
Still, Mendocino is so small that you can wander the whole thing in an afternoon, compare and contrast the menus as you go, and make a game-time decision for the best dinner option. Other nearby communities are the same way. Boonville has its main drag that you can stroll. Many of Fort Bragg's good restaurants, for example Eggheads, Nit's Cafe, and Living Light Raw Foods, are all situated along the same short block.
There is a cornucopia of local produce, with not a whole lot of spice or strong flavor. You can probably handle the Thai or Mexican dishes even if you find such things too hot elsewhere.