One often overlooked element in designing a successful inn is subtlety, so your first thought as you look for your room along the car-lined row of New England-style cottages here might be, "Uh-oh." Don't worry.
Don't worry even if your room has a cramped entry and a serviceable but ordinary bathroom, like ours did. You won't be spending much time there. Cross the room, open the blinds, step out on your private deck, and take in one of the most outstanding blufftop views of the Mendocino Coast.
With late-afternoon sun streaming onto our deck, we opened a bottle of Pinot Noir picked up at a nearby Anderson Valley winery and watched fishing boats cruise into the bay. By the time the fog started to build, we were almost late for dinner.
The view from the dining room is a different perspective on the same meeting of land and sea, and undoubtedly the inspiration for chef Stephen Smith, who features fresh, perfectly prepared seafood on his nightly changing menu. After dinner, the short, chilly walk back to our room left only one option: cuddle up in front of the wood-burning fireplace, polish off the Pinot, and listen to the music of the foghorn.
ESSENTIALS: Twenty rooms with fireplaces, some with whirlpool tubs overlooking the ocean. From $180. Six miles south of Mendocino on State 1; (800) 479-7944 or www.albionriverinn.com. Dining room: dinner; (707) 937-1919. - Jeff Phillips
GROVELAND HOTEL, Groveland
For 150 years, guests at the Groveland Hotel have pulled up the chairs on the broad, shaded porch and watched people pass through this Gold Rush-era town. While the parade nowadays is mostly bound for nearby Yosemite, by early evening a seat on the hotel's breezy porch is still a prime spot.
Built in 1849 in the Monterey colonial style, the adobe-block main building was one of the state's first stylish hostelries. Now it houses a cozy bar and the hotel's popular restaurant. Most rooms are in the adjacent wood building added to the hotel in 1914.
Decorated with wallpapers and furnishings from the late 1800s, rooms have the eccentric yet comfortable Victorian charm of your grandmother's home. All have a welcoming teddy bear or two cuddled on your bed, but only room 15 has Lyle, the resident ghost, who gets all the blame for the old hotel's creaks and rattles.
Don't let the understated decor and Gold Country casualness of the restaurant (with patio dining in summer) fool you: Chef Nestor Ramirez impeccably blends continental, Pacific Rim, and California cuisines, and the wine list is one of the Sierra's best.
ESSENTIALS: Seventeen rooms. From $135. 18767 Main St.; (800) 273-3314 or www.grovelandhotel.com. Victorian Room: dinner. - Peter O. Whiteley
APPLEWOOD INN, Guerneville
The Mission revival buildings of this redwood-bordered villa have a pink, apple-cheeked blush. Belden House, the inn's original 1922 lodge with a double-sided fireplace splitting common areas, has nine rooms. Piccola Casa and the Gate House are newer, more luxurious additions, each a complex of suites with fireplaces, half with whirlpool tubs. The 6-acre property includes a pool, hot tub, and an apple orchard. Applewood's real star is its recently expanded restaurant, which features California cuisine and a stellar wine list. For dessert, don't miss the Fuji apple pastry with orange crème fraîche.
ESSENTIALS: Nineteen rooms with private bath. From $155. 13555 State 116; (707) 869-9093 or www.applewoodinn.com. Applewood Restaurant: dinner. - Lisa Taggart
CHATEAU DU SUREAU, Oakhurst
The next best thing to a Provence vacation is tucked in the Sierra foothills barely a half-hour's drive from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. With its turreted stone façade, 9 acres of manicured gardens, and pool, Château du Sureau looks and feels like a French country estate. If it's raining, read a trashy novel by the massive fireplace in the main room. The provençal elegance continues in the rooms and at Erna's Elderberry House, where sumptuous meals are presented in three softly lit, tapestry-clad rooms.
ESSENTIALS: Ten rooms, most with fireplaces. From $325. 48688 Victoria Lane; (559) 683-6860 or www.chateausureau.com. Erna's Elderberry House: dinner, Sunday brunch; 683-6800. - Peter O. Whiteley
HARBOR HOUSE INN, Elk
Perched on the edge of a spectacular coastal bluff, this 1916 Craftsman home has a small, sunny garden located behind it that's the perfect place to escape with a book or to keep a winter watch for passing whales. All of the rooms in the main building are elegantly understated, with antiques, feather beds with down comforters, and gas fireplaces to ward off any chill.
Cottages, which are currently being refurbished and are scheduled to reopen at the beginning of March, offer country privacy. The best views are from the dining room, where the flavors of Tuscany and Provence can be found on chef Paul Ciardiello's finely tuned breakfast and dinner menus.
ESSENTIALS: Six rooms and four private cottages. From $125. 5600 S. State 1; (800) 720-7474 or www.theharborhouseinn.com. Dining room: breakfast, dinner. - Jeff Phillips
CARTER HOUSE INNS, Eureka
The imposing, four-story Carter House Inn and its sister, the Hotel Carter, are faux Victorians - faithful to the era on the outside but bright and modern inside. Hedonistic amenities include marble fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, and four-poster beds. The worth-a-detour cuisine emphasizes local ingredients--much grown in the inn's garden.
ESSENTIALS: Twenty-three rooms, some with jetted tubs or fireplaces. From $125. 301 L St.; (800) 404-1390 or www.carterhouse.com. Restaurant 301: breakfast, dinner. - Lora J. Finnegan