As we drive through the redwoods, just a few miles from the sea, my car radio picks up a signal from KZYX&Z, Mendocino County's community radio station.
An earnest host is advising a caller on soy-based diets when she's interrupted with breaking news: A bag of Christmas presents has been found on the highway in nearby Navarro. "It's a big plastic bag, and there are a lot of presents in there," the announcer says. "If they're yours, please call 707/895 ... "
It's enough to boost the most flagging holiday spirits. Not just that someone's Christmas will likely be saved, but that there's a place where this loss merits attention. In the city, we'd see the bag and shrug.
Here, it gets an APB. We've come to Mendocino to unwind for a couple of days in advance of the holiday crush, and now I know we've come to the right place.
Mendocino is 155 miles north of San Francisco. Take U.S. 101 north to Cloverdale and turn west onto State 128. When you reach the coast, head north on State 1 for 10 miles.
Where to stay
Alegria Oceanfront Inn & Cottages: A rustic compound with terrific ocean views. From $139, including breakfast; closed Nov 27-30; 800/780-7905.
Brewery Gulch Inn: Set in the woods with ocean views and some of the best breakfasts around. From $170, including breakfast and evening wine tasting with hors d'oeuvres; 800/578-4454.
Packard House: A clapboard cottage in town with plenty of luxurious touches. From $225, including breakfast; closed Dec 22-27; 888/453-2677.
Where to eat
MacCallum House Inn & Restaurant: Homey and elegant, with a menu inspired by local ingredients. $$$$; 45020 Albion St.; 800/609-0492.
Mendo Bistro: Specializing in bistro favorites and pastas. $$$; 301 N. Main St., Fort Bragg; 707/964-4974.
The Moosse Café: Seasonal North Coast cuisine in a refurbished New England-style house. $$$; closed Dec 1-14; 390 Kasten St.; 707/937-4323.
Sharon's by the Sea: Dig into superlative tacos or fried-fish baskets. $$$; 32096 N. Harbor Dr., Fort Bragg; 707/962-0680.Where to shop
The Apple Farm: Maker of popular apple vinegars, jams, and ciders. 18501 Greenwood Rd., Philo; 707/895-2333.
Gallery Bookshop: The kind of rambling, small-town bookstore we love. Main and Kasten Streets; 707/937-2665.
Golden Goose: Luxury bed and bath products. 45094 Main; 707/937-4655.
Mendocino Yarn Shop: Fine yarns and accessories. Closed Jan 1-5; 45066 Ukiah St.; 707/937-0921.
Sallie Mac: French country linens and bath and body products. 10540 Lansing St.; 707/937-5357.
What to do
Mendocino Coast Candlelight Inn Tour: 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Dec 6-8; $20; 707/964-1228.
This "holiday before the holiday" has become a tradition for my husband and me, though it's a counterintuitive notion. There's always too much to do, too many people to see to possibly lose a weekend in December. But at T minus 5 days before we're due to fly across the country to see family, I know that this will be our only moment of peace before the onslaught. This year, Mendocino is the place to find the stillness and dramatic beauty we crave ― and it has enough good shopping to make quick work of a still-long Christmas list.
Framed by churning ocean and thick forests, Mendocino comes into view at dusk as a modest sprinkling of Christmas lights. Here and there, electric candles glow from the windows of the New England-style Victorian cottages, and atop one wooden water tower perches an illuminated tree. But that's it. Many of Mendocino's early settlers came from Maine in the late 19th century, and even at Christmastime, the town retains a certain Yankee austerity.
In early December, during the Mendocino Coast Candlelight Inn Tour, local inns, hotels, and B&Bs throw open their doors to show off their holiday decor and best recipes. But otherwise, December is a quiet time. Room rates are reduced, and there are no crowds to elbow aside. The whole town seems to be catching its breath.
Just a couple of blocks from the center of town, the Alegria Oceanfront Inn & Cottages stands high on a bluff overlooking Big River Beach. Checking in, we head to our modest second-floor room, where we can watch the crashing waves. We're tempted to hunker down, light a fire, and spend the weekend right there listening to the surf. But there's exploring to do and a dinner reservation we don't want to miss.
The MacCallum House, a pale yellow Victorian near the center of town, is a favorite year-round hangout. On our way through the bar we pass clusters of friends chatting under strings of white Christmas lights. In the dining room, we toast our arrival with a glass of Roederer Estate sparkling wine, courtesy of nearby Anderson Valley. Executive chef Alan Kantor is a stickler for all things local and seasonal, which tonight means tender field lettuces topped with Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk cheese, Liberty Family Farm duck confit, and thick pork chops brined in Apple Farm cider. It's enough to bring us to the point of nearly-stuffed sedation. The night is mild and the winds have died down; it's a quiet walk back to the inn, where I crack a window just enough to be lulled to sleep by the waves.
Downshift for a day
Mendocino inns take breakfast seriously, and Alegria is no exception. Would we like blueberry cream-cheese coffee cake or orange-cranberry-walnut scones? Spinach quiche or veggie frittata with porcini mushrooms? Afterward, we stumble out for a walk on the paths that run between town and the ocean bluffs. There are bright red berries on the bushes, the weather has turned cool and misty, and as the ocean heaves and sighs, I feel the last of my holiday tension ebb away.
There's still the matter of the shopping list, but no need to hurry. As one local tells me, "This time of year, shopping is a social occasion. I can't go into a store unless I have time to chat." At the Mendocino Yarn Shop, I even find a gift for myself: Yarn so pretty that I take up my first-ever project, a simple scarf. I spend the rest of the day knitting, strolling, stopping in for a lunch of carrot soup and grilled salmon on brioche at the Moosse Café, and reading by the fire in our room. Next morning, it's back to reality time. But we have one more errand on the way home, a stop at the Apple Farm in Philo. As usual, there's no one manning the stand, just a friendly dog and an honor system. We fill a paper bag with tiny green Lady apples, which I'll bake later that night with cider and cinnamon. We'll light a fire and wrap presents and a few days later, when our plane touches down in Connecticut for a week of town-to-town visiting, we'll land a little more softly.