Foamy surf detonating against rocky sea stacks. White, crescent-shaped beaches edging emerald coves. On a winter drive along the coast north of San Francisco, the vistas offer timeless appeal.
Add a few stops in vibrant art towns to wander galleries and chat with colorful artists, and you have the makings of an entertaining weekend getaway, a kind of Art 101 field trip. Bodega Bay, Gualala, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg all have thriving art communities and galleries to showcase local talent. Even cafes and lodges are filled with paintings, carvings, and blown-glass pieces.
These small towns are great places to learn about media and trends, perhaps meet new and emerging ceramists or sculptors, and shop at cooperatives (where prices are usually moderated by the fact that many of the owner-artists are just starting their careers).
The North Coast art scene may not be as prominent yet as, say, a Carmel-by-the-Sea, but word of its high quality is spreading. Despite the remote location, the number of people visiting open studios on September's annual North Coast Artists' Guild Studio Discovery Tour www.studio-tours.com has doubled in the last two years.
And now there are more special events at galleries year-round, including Fort Bragg's First Friday (707/964-8266) and Mendocino's Second Saturday (707/937-5818).
"This is not an easy area to reach or to make a living in," says Mendocino Art Center executive director Peggy Templer. One result, Templer contends, is that the area fosters artistic individualism. "You won't find any Thomas Kinkades here," she says. "You will find freshness and creativity." When you visit, you will also encounter an art scene that's laid-back, friendly, and anything but pretentious.
Artists are drawn to the North Coast's radiant quality of light and the rough-hewn shoreline. For visitors, the winding route of State 1 is simply one of the best drives in California. But who knows? In the muted light of winter, the coast might even bring out the artist in you.
Bodega Bay and Gualala
If you're a novice art buyer, it's hard to beat the help you can get from a gallery owner with time to talk. That's just what you'll get in Bodega Bay, a small cluster of shops, cafes, and galleries huddled along the highway. Galleries here pay a lower rent than in San Francisco, two hours south, so art prices can be more reasonable.
About an hour's drive north of Bodega Bay, the old lumber town of Gualala sits on a wild coastline. On some winter days, gray whales pause in their migration to hang out in the coves. Art lovers will want to hang out in the Gualala Art Center, where you'll see a wide range of media and styles in a light-filled gallery. Built by the local community, with donated funds and labor, the center is tangible proof of the power of the growing art community here.
Gualala Art Center. Everything from edgy to traditional art. 9–4 Mon–Fri, 12–4 Sat–Sun. 46501 Gualala Rd., Gualala; www.gualalaarts.org or 707/884-1138.
Local Color Gallery. Works by established and emerging Sonoma County artists ― paintings, prints, glassware, and pottery. 10–5 daily. 1580 Eastshore Rd., Bodega Bay; www.localcolorgallery.com or 707/875-2744.
Pangaea. The restaurant was designed by artists, and local artwork is on display throughout. $$$; dinner Wed–Sun (reservations suggested for $36 prix fixe Sun dinner). 39165 S. State 1, Gualala; 707/884-9669.
The Ren Brown Collection. Contemporary Japanese prints and antique Japanese furnishings in a serene setting. 10–5 Wed–Sun. 1781 State 1, Bodega Bay; www.renbrown.com or 707/875-2922.
Sandpiper Seafood Restaurant. Seafood, art, and atmosphere by the dock in Bodega Bay (try the terrific chowder, with a hint of tarragon). $$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 1410 Bay Flat Rd., Bodega Bay; 707/875-2278.
Sonoma Coast Villa Inn & Spa. Owner Cyrus Griffin is also a sculptor; his works line the inn's entry walkway. 16 rooms from $195. 16702 State 1 (Coast Hwy. 1), Bodega; www.scvilla.com or 888/404-2255.
Spindrift Gallery. Tucked into the Cypress Village shopping complex (look for the clock tower), fine watercolors, pastels, and oils by owner-artist Craig Gilliland and other local artists. 11–5 Thu–Sun. 39126–D Ocean Dr. (off State 1), Gualala; 707/884-4484.
Mendocino and Fort Bragg
Mendocino is a serious art center, with more than a dozen galleries and the student-focused Mendocino Art Center. Opened in 1959, the center is still a vibrant hub, drawing more than 1,500 art students each year. Mendocino itself seems built to inspire artists, with its historic water towers and dainty Victorians.
There is so much art here and in Fort Bragg that paintings and sculptures aren't confined to galleries. Be sure to look in antiques shops, restaurants, and even coffee shops. You'll see wood and glass art pieces that are among the finest anywhere. Find out which artists open their studios by appointment by looking through the Mendocino Beacon's "What's Happening" section. The newspaper is available at local newsstands, bookstores, and grocery stores, and online www.mendocinobeacon.com.
Artists' Co-op of Mendocino. Small but packed with variety; look carefully or you'll miss the second-story location. 10:30–4:30 daily. 45270 Main St., Mendocino; www.artgallerymendocino.com or 707/937-2217.
Ledford House Restaurant. The menu is a taste of southern France (try the cassoulet). Fabric art and murals by chef-owner Lisa Greer adorn the walls. $$$. 3000 N. State 1, Albion; www.ledfordhouse.com or 707/937-0282.
Mendocino Art Center. An arts landmark, learning center, and hothouse for new talent. 10–4 Mon–Sat, 11–4 Sun. 45200 Little Lake St., Mendocino; www.mendocinoartcenter.org or 707/937-5818.
Northcoast Artists Gallery. Lots of variety and friendly help in an artist-owned co-op. 10–5 daily. 362 N. Main St., Fort Bragg; www.northcoastartists.org or 707/964-8266.
Partners Gallery at Glendeven. Stay at art-filled Glendeven Inn (10 rooms and 1 vacation house from $145; 8205 N. State 1, Little River; www.glendeven.com, 800/822-4536, or 707/937-0083), or visit adjacent Partners Gallery (closed until Feb 3, then open 10–5 Thu–Mon; 8205 N. State 1; www.partnersgallery.com or 707/937-3525. Run by a group of very experienced local artists, the gallery exhibits contemporary paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and photography.
Take State 1 north from San Francisco, two hours to Bodega Bay and an hour more to Gualala. For more details, contact the Redwood Coast Chamber of Commerce (www.redwoodcoastchamber.com or 800/778-5252).
From Gualala, it's about another hour north to Mendocino and an hour and a half to Fort Bragg. For more area information, contact the Mendocino County Alliance www.gomendo.com or 866/466-3636. Visit during Fort Bragg's First Friday (707/964-8266) or Mendocino's Second Saturday (707/937-5818) for exhibit openings, receptions, and extended gallery hours.