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TALES FROM THE ROAD

Fall is a great time to discover the hidden gems of the Northern Mendocino Coast.

Forget those California images of sunny beaches and packed freeways. Truth is, most of the state's coast is rugged rather than sunny and sandy, and most of its highways are rural two-lane roads surrounded by scenery, not cities. And sure, the state is known for its summer, but fall offers travelers some flavor filled festivals that are perfect for exploring California's finer points.

The best way to explore is by car, and for the best driving experience, you can’t top Mendocino County, which begins 75 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you’ve crossed the iconic bridge and left San Francisco behind, you'll find yourself surrounded by coastal mountains, redwood forests and hidden wine valleys - all of which make Mendocino County the perfect destination for a fall road trip. 

Highway 128 is a beautifully maintained road that will bring a smile to the face of any driver who thinks cars were designed to sweep around curves, swoop over hills and soar along straight-aways. It leads from the east side of the California Coast Range to the west side bordering the Pacific Ocean. On its way, Highway 128 follows one of the state's rare transverse valleys - that is, one that cuts through the mountains from east to West rather than being carved between ranges running north to south.

This rare geology has made Anderson Valley one of those serenely beautiful and unspoiled places that rekindles your love of rural America. Temperate weather lets winemakers create terrific Pinot Noir and sparkling wine, and vineyards lie next to heirloom apple orchards and stands of old growth redwoods. Anderson Valley is also home to one of the country's best-known microbreweries, as well as sophisticated (if totally unpretentious) restaurants, cooking classes and bed-and-breakfasts.

Highway 128 takes you to the sea by gliding alongside the Navarro River through a magnificent redwood forest. The highway emerges suddenly into the sunlight and moments later you arrive where the cobalt-blue Pacific crashes against crumbling bluffs. From here, Highway 1 snakes north along the bluff to the village of Mendocino, which famously stood in as a New England village for CBS's hit series Murder, She Wrote.

The town is an official architectural heritage site crammed with sea-captains' houses, wooden water towers and quaint B&Bs. It's one of California's most popular tourist destinations year-round, but the smartest visitors wait for the summer crowds to thin, and then visit during the relative quiet of autumn.

Among other things, fall is mushroom season in California. The north coast is heavily wooded but generally sunny when it's not raining, and temperatures are kept moderate by the nearby ocean. These are the perfect conditions for large edible mushrooms to sprout - even in public woods that anyone can enter.

During Mendocino's annual Wine and Mushroom Festival, which takes place in November, you can join in a mushroom hunt in the morning, try over 20 different types of edible mushrooms in the afternoon and dine at a mushroom-themed feast in the evening. If that's not enough, you can add cooking classes and wine tasting. There's something about the crisp fall air that makes the earthy taste of mushrooms especially appealing, whether they're simmering in a sauté pan or roasting over an open fire.

The annual Dungeness crab season also begins in November and hits its high point during Mendocino's annual Crab and Wine Days Festival in January. And if you've ever wondered how seafood gets to your table, you can take a ride out on the Schooner Rumblefish one morning from Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. The biggest surprise may be how many crabs that come up in the "pots" - which are actually wire cages - are tossed back into the sea. That's because crab fishermen have a vested interest in keeping the crab population healthy. So they let all the females go and also toss back the younger males to ensure that the females have plenty of company for next year. Speaking of fishing, the north coast is also a prime spot for one of fly-fishing's greatest challenges: catching steelhead on light tackle as they swim upriver. Most north coast rivers are blocked by sandbars until late autumn, but when the bars are washed away by the first storms, the fish swim upstream into the rivers to spawn where they were born. It's not the easiest fishing you'll ever do, but it may well rank among the most memorable.

If you would rather watch than chase, there are plenty of spots along the coast where migrating whales cruise in close to take advantage of calmer waters to rest and feed their young. One such spot is the westernmost winery in California, perched right on the bluffs above the breakers. It's called Pacific Star, and it comes with a warm welcome from proprietor and winemaker Sally Ottoson. After learning her trade in the Napa Valley, she came back to her roots on the north coast and built a winery. I have known Sally for the last few years and first met her when filming the California Wine Country in nearby Sonoma County. After the promise of a fine bottle of Chardonnay, I drove up to Mendocino looking for a place to eat, stay and play after a day of dancing with the wine snobs The lure of Dungeness Crab, French Onion Soup, warm Cheese Bread and Chardonnay, one of my favorite wines, was more than I could resist.

"Everyone asks where the vineyards are," Sally laughed when greeting me. "I tell them that I buy wine grapes from all over Mendocino County, but how many wineries have whales coming in so close you can look them in the eye?"

For another perspective of the surrounding area, check out the Skunk Train, a narrow gauge 19th century steam powered train that traverses the spectacular redwood forest outside of Mendocino Village. One-way and round-trip options are available and unforgettable.

Finally, you can end your day with a stop at the Sweetwater Spa and Inn for a luxurious treatment complete with a cozy ocean view bar and excellent restaurant.