Mendocino holiday

Find tranquility, spectacular scenery, and great rates during quiet season on the California coast

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What to do

Mendocino Coast Candlelight Inn Tour: 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Dec 6-8; $20; 707/964-1228.

Christmas, unplugged
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.


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