Samuel Johnson in Mendocino
It's a pity Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English gadfly essayist, philosopher and peptic traveler, didn't journey the highways of Mendocino County, up its jagged lovely coast and inner heartland that is so kind to grapes. He would have stayed at inns, of course, along his way. A guest of the celebrated and sunnily dispositioned Mendocino tradition of inn keeping. Arriving on horseback, with brimming saddle bags his only luggage, Johnson would have certainly embraced his inn hosts with bear hugs, cerebral wit and an awesome hunger for excellent food and wine.
After staying at the lodges, bed and breakfasts and inns of Mendocino County, no doubt his irascible opinion of inns would have changed from this nugget of traveler's lament he wrote: "He longs for the time of dinner that he may eat and rest. The inn is crowded, his orders are neglected, and nothing remains but that he devour in haste what the cook has spoiled, and drive on in quest of better entertainment. He finds at night a more commodious house, but the best is always worse than he expected."
And so this Johnsonian bit of pique would have quickly died out in the presence of the fabulous inns that mushroomed out of the mid-19th century Mendocino soil. Mendocino's inns are novels in progress: some came out of Civil War era barber shops, others from clipper ship captains' hunger for sweet land and others built literally from sunken, perfectly preserved redwood logs in the muck of the Big River. A mere 100 miles of pleasant driving from San Francisco, Mendocino offers today's travelers exquisitely crafted timber-and-brass inns that are charmingly petite to grand geometry of surprising design. Mendocino has that almost perfect confluence of Tuscany sun, bucolic hills and winding roads, fecund soil smelling of loam, and that lithe stretch of Pacific rocky coast. For romantic couples, families looking for intimate get-away time, and inn keepers this county is a dream of retreat and epicurean delight.
Alongside of the small, but telling, touches that inn keepers dovetail in to their hosting, a sea change of community purpose has carried many of Mendocino's inns into new territory. Catering to a clientele that regards organic produce and free-range meat and sustainable sea catch as de rigueur, many of the larger lodges, inns and smaller B&B's have made organic and free-range a featured part of their restaurant cuisine. Since many inn's owners also don the chef's hat this marriage of natural food and intimate guest experience leads to not only memorable lunches and dinners but great at—table conversation as the inn's chefs make the rounds of the guests. Organic recipes may be exchanged, tales of the kitchen recounted, philosophical musings dished out along with organic bean coffee and vanilla bean ice cream crafted from milk that is free range. Guests from the Bay Area and other national or world locales can now wander down trails cutting into the great cliffs hanging over the Pacific packing picnic baskets stuffed with gourmet fare that largely comes from CSA (community sponsored agriculture) or often from the inn's own gardens. Many inns are receiving their organic certification. Breakfasting after sleeping in luxurious, artisan beds is one of the great treats of inn life. Several inns now feature splendid organic breakfasts with free-range eggs and bacon/sausage, earthy toasts from fresh whole grain breads and sugary tart jams and jellies from organic farms.