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A Road Less Traveled

Since now is not yet the time to travel overseas, it’s time to get in the car and drive. Plus, gas prices are still pretty low, even in California.

A superb road trip starts in San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway, more commonly known as Highway 1, and heads northward. This scenic road traverses the entire coastal spine of the state, and at 656 miles is the longest state road in California.

Not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway 1 splits west and heads toward the coast winding its way north to Point Reyes National Seashore, then Bodega (home of the film, The Birds) and Bodega Bay, past the wild and open Sonoma Coast, and finally up to remote Mendocino County.

And although Highway 1 is scenic, iconic and popular, there are other equally enchanting ways to get to Mendocino. One such less travelled, yet very cool drive, is Highway 128.

If you’ve never been on a getaway to points a bit north of San Francisco, you must give Highway 128 a try. This gorgeous two lane highway traverses Northern California’s “back roads” from Yolo to Mendocino Counties, north of San Francisco. On the way it passes through tiny towns and little hamlets including: Winters, Rutherford, Geyserville, Cloverdale, Boonville and Philo, while bisecting larger wine regions of Napa Valley, Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley and Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. Both large and small wineries, stores, cafes, restaurants and stunning vistas are ready to be discovered along the way.

Further west, the road cuts through magnificent old growth Coastal Redwood’s that dwarf everything else in sight. Ultimately, Highway 128 ends in the small Village of Mendocino on the craggy Northern California coast. Like a slice of New England, Mendocino and other small coastal towns are foggy, rugged and hauntingly beautiful, with great mom and pop seafood restaurants, charming small hotels and B& B’s.

Fun anytime of the year, Highway 128 can be a cool getaway for travelers looking for a respite from lockdowns and work-from-home. But it should be noted that I made this road trip pre-COVID, so as of this writing, most of the eateries I got to sample are still take-out only, but getting geared up to open soon. Nonetheless, these days it’s always best to check ahead.

Hit the Road 

Ideally driven in a sleek sports car, fast luxury vehicle or by motorcycle, I was lucky enough to drive a shiny Lexus GS 350 FSPORT. The killer of a luxury sedan is in some ways like a powerful BMW, only more reliable, affordable, gets better gas mileage and a bit sexier.

I would begin my journey in the small Yolo County town of Winters (population around 7,000), a happening little town in the middle of agricultural territory growing walnuts, almonds, alfalfa and wine grapes. Today, this little slice of Americana has blossomed to include trendy restaurants, wine tasting rooms and cute shops.

The most popular restaurant in town is the superb Buckhorn BBQ & Steakhouse (awesome steaks), also Ficelle, the Putah Creek Café and Preserve Public House & Market. The Turkovich Winery tasting room is the best winery in town: try their excellent red blend called “The Boss.” Or check out Berryessa Brewing, an enjoyable brewpub.

Heading west on 128 takes you past the huge Lake Berryessa and then on to the backroads of Napa County. Unlike in the Napa Valley itself, here you’ll discover mostly rugged, sparsely populated country. However, the Lexus and I effortlessly powered our way through the shaded curves and the dips.

Highway 128 enters Napa Valley at the Silverado Trail near the town of Rutherford. If you’re hungry, the Rutherford Grill is an ideal stop, reasonably priced and known far and wide for their rare “No Corkage” policy.

Back on the Silverado Trail, if you can swing it, stay at the Calistoga Ranch (an Auberge du Soleil property) which offers a luxurious place to “rough it” for the night. The Calistoga Ranch’s accommodations are dramatic examples of indoor/outdoor living set in a bucolic pine forest, an amazing property with few, if any peers.

Next, Highway 128 runs through Calistoga and then winds northwest through Sonoma County’s beautiful Knights Valley and then Alexander Valley. This part of Sonoma conjures up a serpentine path passing stunning green meadows with sweet strong scents of honeysuckle and pine, acres of healthy vineyards and the occasional horse or cow. Alexander Valley is Sonoma’s Big Cabernet country; try one of the many wineries such as Soda Rock Winery or Hawkes.

Alexander Valley Vineyards presents a fascinating tour and samples of many good wines. (Their “Cyrus” named for Cyrus Alexander, a founder of the valley, is a standout) Sonoma’s trendy town of Healdsburg awaits just a few miles west and has a huge array of excellent restaurants and tasting rooms. Vallette is a favorite and The Chalkboard is another fine place to dine.

Geyserville, just up the road, is another fun little town, with Diavola a great lunch stop. And I you want to see a special winery, check out the over-the-top Francis Ford Coppola Winery, complete with film memorabilia and a swimming pool!

Bound for Boonville and Philo 

Highway 128 joins up with Highway 101 for a few miles and then juts off at Cloverdale where it finally heads northwest to the coast. Crossing the Mendocino border, you can notice how things seem mellower. Soon you’ll hit Boonville, in the heart of Anderson Valley wine country, home to many fine wineries, and also the resident home of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company.

Their cavernous tasting room is sort of like an airplane hangar – but the beers themselves are the draw. Boont Amber is a classic ale and I also enjoyed Hop Ottin’ IPA. Incidentally, this is also serious Frisbee golf country, with a course out back. They sell and rent specially labeled Frisbee golf disks at the brewery.

Boonville has its own underground language called Boontling, which goes back some hundred and thirty years. Various Boontling signs, names and words are occasionally heard. “Tons of people still speak it,” said Scott Fraser of nearby Handley Cellars. A few locals nodded their heads silently. You’ll probably hear some “bowgleys” (tall tales) spoken readily in Boonville. The quaint Boonville Hotel is a lovely place to settle in for the night, each room has a hammock on the balcony and its Highway 128 restaurant is outstanding.

Just a few miles up 128, you’ll hit the even tinier town of Philo. Now chock full of tasting rooms, I suggest visiting both Witching Stick (ask for Van) and Toulouse Winery for some outstanding pinot noirs. Others worthy wineries in the area include: Bink Wines, Goldeneye, Lula Cellars and Handley.

Back in the Lexus, it was time to head to the coast. I hit the gas, and soon one, then a few, then a torrent of coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) closed around me. I stopped occasionally to wander around and gape at these Tolkein-esque behemoths, cutting off the sunlight.

These massive trees are among the tallest and oldest living things on earth. This truly is a stunning drive and I attacked each curve without the tiniest moment of slide or drift. I hope the trees didn’t mind my music.

West to the Pacific 

Finally arriving at the Mendocino coast I could see how the topography had radically changed. A few coast redwoods remained, but now there were far more Monterey cypress, live oaks and coastal pines mixed with beach grasses. The road wound around the Navarro River and took a jog north – toward the Village of Mendocino. The majestic Pacific Ocean stretched infinitely west.

The Village of Mendocino is somewhat of a counter-culture haven, with little stores and shops, cafes, galleries and old Victorian houses clinging to the cliff. It is a place to unwind and really relax. Good local restaurants include: MacCallum House Restaurant, Café Beaujolais, with The Little River Inn and Wild Fish offering tasty meals up the road in Little River.

For a humbler good time, try Patterson’s Pub – the place to go in Mendocino for beer, conversation, decent pub grub and sports on TV. It’s very much like a good Irish pub serving up an assorted of local wines and microbrews. An exceptional place to stay in the area is The Brewery Gulch Inn set back on a bluff overlooking the ocean. What a view! And superlative breakfasts too.

Ft. Bragg is the main city – well, big town – in the Mendocino coast area. It’s a hardy place with a cool coastal vibe. The residents, used to coastal hardships and plenty of fog, wind and rain, are easy-going and very friendly.

Seafood reigns supreme in this part of the world and the crab season (November through March) is the time to enjoy fantastic hyper-local Dungeness crab. In fact they have a Crab festival every year held in January worth checking out.

Among Ft. Bragg’s independent restaurants are Point Noyo Restaurant, Django’s and Mayan Fusion, spots producing cuisine using extremely fresh local ingredients. And don’t miss the North Coast Brewing Company, of Red Seal Ale fame. It offers a hopping, family dining and good beer tasting atmosphere.

Back in the GS 350, I doubled back and headed down tried-and-true Highway 1 on my way home. Already I was missing Highway 128’s largesse and the hospitality of the fine locals I met along the way. What a ride, what a tour. I can’t wait to return.

Bob Ecker is a Napa, CA, based travel writer and photographer