Autumn by the Sea: Mendocino, CAOctober 21, 2010 2 Comments
There’s something wonderful about taking your kids to a non-tropical beach in autumn. You don’t have to worry about too much sun exposure because they’re already wearing a sweatshirt; you don’t have to bring the beach umbrella, the sun hats, the water toys. Instead, you can simply enjoy everything a beach has to offer BESIDES a swim and sunbathing.
Cooler weather means unlimited time for shell, sea glass, and pebble collecting, which is probably why we have drawers full of this stuff; it means building more elaborate sand castles, or, on some beaches building castles of drift wood, big enough to scramble inside. It means long, pleasant walks, wading and chasing waves, exploring tide pools, and taking a long thermos of hot chocolate or hot apple cider instead of coolers of ice.
One perfect autumn sea spot is in Northern California, the area around Mendocino. The town beach is a perfect cool weather spot, with flat sand, a stream, plenty of building-ready driftwood, and a picturesque setting. On the bluffs you’ll see New England like clapboard buildings including a steepled church and a wooden light house. It’s a village that feels timeless, Brigadoon-like, and is easy to explore the winding lanes of cottages, gardens, the church and lighthouse. There are some interesting shops and galleries, but not a lot of them. What you will find are some tasty dining options.
Kid’s choice was, no surprise, pizza and ice cream at Frankie’s place. The pizza is crisp and tasty and the ice cream includes standard and not so standard flavors made from fresh berries and even fresh vegetables. Salt carmel, basil, and cardamon flavors may not be that unique if you live in an urban enclave, but we doubt you’ll find a mushroom flavor anywhere else. Yes, the kids still preferred the chocolate and almond butter. There’s also an organic market, the Harvest, offering up local cheeses, fruit, and veggies perfect for a picnic. Autumnal produce abounds in season, as befitting the market’s name – gourds, pumpkins, squash. The kids were treated to a taste or two of organic artisan cheese, fresh baked bread, and sample fruits.
Once you’ve stoked up on calories, just north of Mendocino proper is another splendid beach, Caspar Beach. There’s kayaking and camping here, and the beach is another good place to take a walk and a shelling expedition. The cove waters are very calm, and while even in summer they’re cool, the gentle surf makes this a good wading spot. There’s a store with sundries and boogie board and wet suit rentals too – and the wet suits are available for children.
Further north is Fort Bragg. This is a sprawling town with a suburban feeling – groceries, fast food, chain grocery stores, a bustling, working harbor with a choice of fish-centric eateries. It also has one of the coolest and most colorful sandy spots we’ve found anywhere, Glass Beach. Once a public trash heap, area resident dumped plenty of glass into the water in the late 1940′s through the mid 60′s, when this dumping was banned and a new waste disposal site built inland. Sounds terrible, you’re thinking, but man’s short sighted dumping was rendered into something amazing over time and many, many waves.
Decades of tidal waves smashed and polished the glass, and re-deposited it onto the sand. There are literally heaps of polished pieces of glass in colors from purple, green, brown and amber to clear ears of pounding wave action have deposited tons of polished glass onto the beach. It’s an astonishing sight. The sparkling glass looks like colorful hard candy – a caution for exploring with the littlest ones, for whom this should be a look-don’t-touch destination. The town has no- collection signs posted, anyway, but you can still take home a visual souvenir in the form of a glittering photo. There are great tide pools here too.
Fort Bragg has a family friendly – free breakfast, playground with swings – and easily beach accessible Best Western which offers affordable accommodations with dramatic ocean views from its bluff top perch. If you turn south you’ll reach a more elegant enclave, the Cottages at Little River Cove. This group of charming cottages are also situated above the water and have a commanding view of river, forest, or sea. Best of all, each cottage has its own kitchen and porch – relaxing, homey and with great space for the kids to spread out. Many of the cottages are pet friendly too. The resort is thoughtfully laid out and features beautiful gardens and plenty of open grassy space that’s a pleasure for kids of all ages to explore. They also offer grocery service – they’ll deliver requested food items to you, saving a haul from Fort Bragg. For us, our favorite part of this beautiful spot was having a fireplace. Nothing says autumn like snuggling up by a fire after doing a little star gazing from your porch. Another option with a kitchen is the Gualala Surf Inn in the small community of Gualala. Not much to do here but take another walk on the beach; it’s another scenic, easy to walk on spot and at high tide the river meets the ocean here. The motel is clean and tidy, and features kitchenettes. There is a small grocery store almost adjoining the motel, and many of these rooms, though compact, also have ocean views.
If you’re headed south from Fort Bragg, take a stop first at the beautiful Mendocino Botanical Gardens, which despite their name are just south of Fort Bragg. Easy to traverse paths meander through these ocean view gardens and there are plenty of gorgeous pines, flowering ocean-front gardens, lovely, peaceful areas for just sitting and relaxing. The kids may spot a whale from one of the look outs. Or you may enjoy having a meal overlooking the harbor at Cliff House just outside the gardens. The view is lovely and the staff is accommodating to children of all ages.
We also enjoyed The Point Cabrillo Preserve with beautiful open sea cliffs, bluffs and meadows, and an historic light house. With the wind whipping at your hair and the sea billowing against the sand, it felt like autumn here, a picture-perfect beach stop without the beach towels and floaties.