Last summer, as the restaurants and hotels began to reopen, I was invited to write about what it was like to venture outside of my own Covid-19 bubble, and visit the Mendocino coast. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to get away until mid-September, just after devastating wildfires had burst upon California, including Napa County. After we made the visit, yet another wildfire swept over Napa, destroying the homes of friends, wineries I’ve written about and sending thousands into evacuations, not knowing when they could return home or what they might return to find. I decided to hold the story for a week or two. It’s a conundrum: do you write about escaping when there is so much rebuilding at home to do?
What I’ve seen, nonetheless, over this year of unparalleled sacrifice and loss, is that there still remains this wish for adventure, a trip, a new view, a new experience. And as restaurants and hotels continue to do their best to welcome visitors and keep them safe, it can’t seem wrong to venture out to take a look at the rest of the world. And then return, restored, for the work ahead. — Sasha Paulsen
I had never thought of an open window as an incomparable luxury, but there it was, wide open to the world. And beyond it, clear blue sky. The rest of the view was not so bad either: gardens and forested hills sloping down to an inlet of the Pacific Ocean.
We were at the Brewery Gulch Inn in Mendocino. This was the first stop on a trip planned last summer, the goal being to see what it was like to travel, with multiple stops, in the era of Covid-19. As hotels and restaurants cautiously reopen, how has traveling changed? Does it feel safe? With all the precautions in place against a still rampaging pandemic, is it still fun? Worth it?
As smoke from wildfires filled the air over Napa, this added another impetus to travel, just to breathe outside for a few hours or days. My daughter offered to go with me.
The Brewery Gulch Inn, part of the original 10-acre farmstead of Mendocino pioneer, Homer Barton, sits high on a hillside just south of the town of Mendocino. To the west it looks out over Smuggler’s Cove, a name that suggests a lively history, and it borders the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, which comprises 48,000 acres of meadows and forests.
The gardens and towering trees around the inn create a serene haven for humans and wildlife. A member of Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary program, the inn is a birdwatcher’s delight. I spent breakfast communing with a redheaded acorn woodpecker working away on a tree near my table. Trails are marked through the property, including the way to the “Secret Garden.”
From the approach one might guess it is a stately old brown-shingled home, converted to a bed and breakfast. Inside its modern eco-sensitive design, by architect Caroline La Pere, however, it is revealed as an artfully designed inn, with 10 rooms well spaced around a redwood common room with floor to ceiling windows and four-sided glass and steel fireplace that a local shipbuilder helped create.
Since it opened, the Brewery Gulch Inn has garnered accolades for both its comfort and its green sensibility. A member of the Green Hotel Association, it was also named by USA Today as one of the top three destination resorts in the U.S., and Travel and Leisure named it one of the top 100 hotels in the world, one of the top 10 resort hotels in the U.S. and one of the top 5 in California.
Given its meticulous attention to detail for everything from its bed linens to its laundry soap, the inn has moved to pandemic safety precautions quite gracefully. Before we arrived, I received an email asking if we’d prefer a contactless check-in. I said no, I was fine talking to a human, and the masked young man at the front desk was personable and helpful, telling us the key was in the unlocked room, and to be sure to come to their happy hour.
Happy hour, indeed. We went downstairs to have a glass of wine, and found ourselves served (at far apart tables in the great room) a plate of ribs, loaded baked potatoes, salad, and bread with a glass of wine from the local Fathers and Daughters winery.
“Wait, you forgot dessert,” the server said when we got up to leave. It was warm berry cobbler. We called this dinner. They also offer a variety of choices on a breakfast menu, served plated; and a sidebar offers coffee and tea throughout the day.
Other homey touches included a substantial library of books and DVDs to take up to the spacious, entirely comfortable and subtly luxurious room.
One night with the sea wind blowing in from the cove, and I felt entirely rejuvenated.
Little River Inn
Our next stop was a Mendocino classic, the Little River Inn, the complex of white building that line Highway 1 just across from the ocean. “Welcome to the edge of the world,” one of their brochures reads.
The original white farmhouse house was built in 1853 by Silas Coombs and remains in the family who converted it to an inn in 1939. Over the course of more than 80 years , it has grown to comprise a golf course and tennis courts as well as a variety rooms that include stand-alone cottages and luxurious suites, many of which are dog friendly. They offer special packages for canine visitors and their humans.
Being a much larger establishment than Brewery Gulch, they necessarily managed check-in differently. When you arrive at the desk they have a guest bag waiting for you that contains your room key plus all the little amenities you might have formerly found in your room: coffee pods, tea bags, sugar, cream, stirrers and individual toiletries. It was encouraging to note that some of the toiletries are packaged in compostable containers. They let you know that no staff will be entering your room while you are there, but to call if you need anything.
Breakfast, for example, you can order online or call in for, and a staff member leaves all the items in a large shopping bag at your door.
When we were there, the restaurants in Mendocino were still not open for indoor dining,. This led to one of the inn’s best covid-inpspired innovations, to move to their highly regarded restaurant outside, to a sheltered, park-like area, above and behind the dining room and bar. Tables set on different levels among ferns, trees and flowers are naturally spaced at a good distance from each other, and heat lamps are abundant. It was lovely way to dine on fresh local fish.
“I like this better than dining inside,” one woman commented.
Our had a balcony that looked out to the sea; here, it wasn’t windows we left open but the door, and as the traffic from Highway 1 subsided, we were left with the welcome sound of sea lions barking from their rocks.
Noyo Harbor Inn
The third stop took us north into Fort Bragg to the Noyo Harbor Inn, which sits on the river that flows into the ocean at the southern point of this fisherman’s city.
But first we rode the “World-Famous Skunk Train,” something, I have to admit, I had never really thought of doing.
The train had its start in 1885 as a working train, carrying freight between Fort Bragg and Willits in the interior. Our conductor told us that sometime in the 1920s it began carrying passengers, who noted its odiferous aspect. He said a National Geographic writer was moved to call it the skunk train, and the name stuck.
Today it ferries passengers on the Pudding Creek Express, an hour-long excursion that runs twice a day through the redwoods. An option to do a bike rail tour on the same line is available.
We arrived for the 11:30 departure at the station, identified by the large skunk painted on the building. A shop inside sells skunk-related items, including masks with skunk emblems, as well as toys and trinkets for old train aficionados.
To ride on the Skunk Train is a hoot, and this is not just because of its cheerful, tooting whistle. Three cars long, one of which is an open flat-bed, it chugs and rattles on a winding path through a dense forest and past Pudding Creek. It might move even slower than the Napa Valley Wine Train, but this affords plenty of time to admire the redwoods while listening to Big Band music alternating with the conductor’s tales. Popcorn and beverages are offered for sale.
It was encouraging to note the little train’s safety practices. Every one wore masks, except when they were sipping sodas, even on the open car. On the inside car, alternating seats were taped off to provide social distancing, and the many passengers struck me as exceptionally polite to each other, offering to move for example, to give seniors plenty of space around them. Dogs are welcome on the Skunk Train.
The old-fashioned ride was the perfect segue to our new hotel after from the previous sheltered idylls by the sea. The Noyo Harbor Inn, another restored historic building, sits above a busy working port. Our room, large and comfortable, looked down on a harbor parking lot and a road lined with fish restaurants and shops. The balcony offered a big-screen view of the activity, as fishing ships moved through the channel. One restaurant had a loudspeaker whose pronouncements, “Number 9, your order is ready,” mingled with the hum of boats and cars.
Unfortunately, we arrived on a Wednesday, when the inn’s highly praised restaurant was closed; as was another recommended Princess deli down on the docks. The concierge, asked for restaurant suggestions, recommended we go back to Mendocino for dinner.
But food journalist Georgeanne Brennan, who had the good fortune to book a room on a day when the restaurant was open, did dine there and in the companion story gives her insights on the experience.
There it is: three fine hotels, three different experiences, and now a return to Napa. And clear skies.
— If you go:
Watch now: How one Napa Valley hotel protects guests from COVID-19