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"California Cruisin'"
National Geographic Traveler

by Mary Heebner
photos by Macduff Everton

Grab a toothbrush, gas up the car, and head off for a carefree weekend on California's easygoing Elk Coast.


"Where the heck is Elk?" said my friend, mystified. Glad I wasn't the only native Califor-nian who'd been clueless about the existence of this scenic village on the state's north coast. When she asked why go, I made it simple: "It's Big Sur without the Winnebagos." It's also, my husband and I agreed after our weekend there, the California of 30 years ago: Rugged landscapes; friendly, hard-working people; and eateries and inns that locals enjoy as much as visitors.

Fresh Dungeness! exclaimed a painted sign along California Highway One just south of the seaside fishing village of Bodega Bay. We were motoring north of San Francisco toward the village of Elk--where we had reservations at the Harbor House Inn--under a clear sun, and fresh Dungeness crab sounded like just the picnic ingredient to jumpstart our coastal weekend. Pulling off the highway at Bodega Bay--a setting for scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Birds--we made a beeline to Lucas Wharf Restaurant's takeout stand, in Bodega's sheltered harbor, for the succulent, locally caught crab, cleaned and cracked for us by owner Don Keen. We added lemons, horseradish, Tabasco, beers, and French bread at a grocery to make a picnic, and headed off to find the right turnout for our repast.We drove past beach after beach--Miwok, Coleman, Arched Rock.

By the time we reached a bluff overlooking Portuguese Beach we couldn't take it any longer. We spread our picnic out within spray distance of waves arching their massive backs
before heaving themselves against the rocks. Gulls cocked their heads at us but didn't beg--a sure sign that humans were still a novelty here.
Back on the road, we stopped for gas. As I scanned postcards for sale, I pointed to one of "Bowling Ball Beach," where round boulders littered the sand. "Is this for real and how do we get there?" I asked the attendant. "Can't see the balls 'cept at real low tide," he said, and checked a tide chart. "You're lucky, it's low now. Drive just past Iverson Point, park across from Schooner Gulch Road, and take the trail down to the beach." The beach's satiny wet sand was strewn with dozens of large globular stones, backed by cliffs layered like phyllo pastry. I could see the round protrusions in the cliff faces; the balls would eventually separate and tumble down to the sand in this land of earthquake and upthrust.

Back on the road, we spotted the Point Arena lighthouse after a mile. The little town of Point Arena has become a low-key alternative for creative types moving out of crowded Mendocino. On Main Street we ordered cappuccini to go at Holy Grounds, ambled past a little general store, and paused in front of the Pangaea Cafe, locally famous for its self-described "lusty, zaftig, soulful food." The posted menu of dishes--Liberty-duck breast on goat-cheese polenta, Moroccan-braised lamb shanks with baby artichokes and a salad of Oz Farm organic
greens--flooded me with a nostalgia for my hippie days when I worked at the geodesic-domed Sun and Earth Natural Food Garden Restaurant in Isla Vista.

 

 

It was hard to imagine that this uncrowded stretch of coastline, quiet except
for waves and the cries of gulls, once supported a lumber town with over 3,000 workers, capitalizing on the area's virgin redwood forests. Though traces of the town remain, it took fewer than 50 years for the thin skin of human industry to peel off and a wild state to return.

We reached the wee burg of Elk, scattered along a blufftop by the ocean, at
sundown. Within seconds we found the Harbor House Inn, constructed entirely of rich local redwood. I beat a path to our comfy room to bathe in the clawfoot tub, then we dressed for dinner (included in the room rate), and met the inn's other 14 guests for cocktails in the parlor. The fire in the fireplace brought out the redwood paneling's rich tones of rose, sienna, and copper. One guest, "retired from construction," pointed out the 15-foot-long redwood beams ribbing the cathedral ceiling. "No way such a house will ever be built again," he sighed. Soon we trooped in for one of the best-kept secrets on Elk Coast: the dinner prepared by chef Kristy Wilson. Seated at a linen-covered table with a view of the ocean and the inn's four guest cottages, we started with ginger-carrot soup and a local Zinfandel. As we sipped the wine, we gazed down at the cove's sandy beach, where sea caves boomed like kettledrums with each incoming wave.

To the south the Point Arena light winked its way around, and soon the night
turned blustery, bringing out the Guinness in us. So after our dinner, we walked a couple of hundred yards--half the town--to Bridget Dolan's Pub, where the British bartender serves them perfect, with a creamy head, from the tap. The pub acts as the town forum: We were brought into conversations with the grocer, a handyman, and a fisherman. "In the past we took care not to overfish--we'd skip over schools of small ones because we knew they were our future. Now farmed salmon is kept in pens like chickens, and they even tint them pink."

As we checked out the next day, innkeeper Sam Haynes told us not to miss lunch in Queenie's Roadside Café, for the best tuna melts in the world. We found the bartender from Dolan's pub at the counter, devouring some huevos rancheros. "Mornin'," he nodded, as if we were not strangers. He was assuming he'd see us again. He wasn't wrong.

 


TRAVELWISE
Best For: Couples; a romantic getaway.
Basics: For general information, log on to www.elkcoast.com.

Lucas Wharf Fish and Deli, 599
Hwy. 1, Bodega Bay; 707-524-0230.
Pangaea, 290 Main St., Point Arena;
707-882-3001; www.pangaeacafe.com.
Holy Grounds, 245 Main St., Point Arena;
882-3502.
Harbor House Inn, 5600 S. Hwy. 1, Elk; 707-877-3203; www.the
harborhouseinn.com; doubles $225-415, includes dinner (excl. wine) and
breakfast.
Bridget Dolan's Pub, 5910 S. Hwy. 1, Elk; 707-877-3422;
www.griffinn.com/dolans.htm.
Queenie's Roadside Café, 6061 S. Hwy. 1, Elk;
707-877-3285.