Mendocino gets most of the ink when the virtues of quaint, oceanside Northern California villages are written up, but Fort Bragg, its more working-class neighbor to the north, is no slouch when it comes to charms. My sweetheart and I spent a few days here last winter and could have filled a few guidebook chapters with all the good goings-on. Tallied up, we spent about $650, which included $340 for two nights at the North Cliff Hotel, just listed on TripAdvisor as a 2013 Travelers' Choice for Romance.
The craggy California coast is a big draw in these parts, and the North Cliff Hotel [1005 S. Main St., Fort Bragg; (866) 962-2550, http://www.northcliffhotel.net] supplied us with a big picture window to gaze at its wave-breaking glory. Our second-floor digs were roomy, with a nice couch and chair looking out to the balcony, which itself looked out to that shifting Pacific and to the channel that feeds the Fort Bragg marina, so we could watch the boats parade in and out. The hotel's new owners are underway with remodeling all 39 units, though only a few at a time, so they can continue to welcome guests. A complimentary continental breakfast, a gas fireplace, wireless Internet and its more-than-decent Cliff House Restaurant rounded out a satisfying stay.
There's something winning about a restaurant that can take an ungainly setting (upstairs in an almost barn-like historic building, with a big staircase that slices the room) and make it comfy, interesting and artsy. That's the Mendo Bistro [301 N. Main St., Fort Bragg; (707) 964-4974, http://www.mendobistro.com. Entrees $18-$26], which showcases hearty salads and fine fish dishes. A savory crab cakes appetizer followed by expertly grilled salmon (paired with a couple of good glasses of local Pinot) made it grade "A." Sustainable and organic selections abound.
Looking for 47 acres of concentrated gorgeousness? The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens [18220 N. Highway 1, Fort Bragg; (707) 964-4352, http://www.gardenbythesea.org. Admission is $14, $10 for seniors] opens its broad blossoming arms to perennials, succulents and woodland and meadow areas alike. Bird song fills the air amid unique sculptures. Don't miss the Cliff House view, with its floor-to-ceiling windows on the Coastal Bluff trail.
The lesson learned
The Point Cabrillo Light Station (www.pointcabrillo.org) has much to recommend it, including the availability of the restored head lightkeeper's house for rental. But man, the winds rip through there. It's also a pretty good walk from the parking lot to the lighthouse, so bring your parka .