ROAD TRIP

The Pacific Coast Highway—Without the Traffic

Even the famed Pacific Coast Highway has a road less traveled: the wild miles north of San Francisco.

To call Point Arena a town is a bit of an overstatement. It's basically a single strip consisting of not much more than a co-op grocery, homemade-jam stand, and historic theater. We find the real entertainment just up the hill: a 110-acre park where zebras and antelope roam. Owned by a couple dedicated to giving displaced African animals a better life than the zoo, the B. Bryan Preserve also has a three-room inn. You can take a guided tour or stay the night, like we do, to wander on your own (130 Riverside Dr., bbryanpreserve.com, from $135, including a 1.5-hour walking tour of the park). That evening, we have our pick of tables on the deck at the Pier Chowder House & Tap Room, where we eat fish tacos made with cod caught off the very pier we're gazing at.

 

Day 3: Point Arena to Fort Bragg, 45 miles

In Mendocino, we stop for an early lunch of chicken focaccia sandwiches in the garden at Moosse Café, which is filled with elderly women with wide-brimmed hats and lap puppies (90 Kasten St., 707/937-4323, chicken focaccia $13) . It comes as a surprise, then, when we get to Fort Bragg's Piaci Pub & Pizzeria, 20 minutes north, and discover a different world entirely (120 W. Redwood Ave., Fort Bragg, 707/961-1133, pies from $9.25). Scruffy, friendly locals squeeze into overstuffed booths—not a designer dog in sight. A teacher sitting near us puts it best: "Mendocino is for celebrities and older second-home owners—the Murder, She Wrote crowd," he says, referring to the Angela Lansbury TV show partly filmed in Mendocino.

Home to monster trucks and mattress stores, Fort Bragg isn't exactly the land of flowery B&Bs. But on the street-lamp-lined side streets, there is a thriving small-town scene with live-music cafes, chic boutiques, an outstanding greasy spoon (Eggheads, inexplicably decked out in all things Wizard of Oz), and a trio of indie bookstores (326 N. Main St., 707/964-5005, Dungeness crab omelet $16).

But it's the easy access to the pristine, rugged coast that's the main draw for visitors, namely MacKerricher State Park, just outside of town. We arrive in the afternoon to a nearly empty stretch of sand, with waves raging every which way. The only other visitors are a family of sea lions sunning themselves and a few folks on horseback. Nearby, our room at the Beachcomber Motel is basic but squeaky clean, with front-row views of the Pacific (1111 N. Main St., thebeachcombermotel.com, from $99). Stuffed with pesto-spinach pizza from Piaci, we pick up the three-mile paved path right outside our room's sliding-glass door. We detour into the bluff through a carpet of long grasses, and the wind is fierce and salty. No wonder the cypress trees permanently lean in a horizontal slant. White caps crash against the rocks below. The sun slips into the horizon, and a man taking photographs turns into a silhouette. And we otherwise have the coast all to ourselves. Again.

 

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