Mendocino sits on a bluff high above the Pacific Ocean, so unchanged since the 1800s that the entire place is a National Historic District. Green and lush as the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit, this town practically invented farm-to-table cuisine. The same families have been fishing, crabbing, growing grapes and foraging for mushrooms in Mendocino’s fertile soil for over 150 years. It was once a booming center of the logging industry — its redwoods rebuilt San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake — but the area quickly became sleepy after logging ended. As a result, it is largely untouched by the modern world.
Northern California offers many other tourist destinations, from the nearby Napa and Sonoma wine countries to Big Sur and Carmel south of San Francisco. But those places are crowded, expensive, and frankly, done-to-death. Mendocino is off the beaten path — a rare combination of rural and urbane. My husband Christopher and I, recently married, drove there last December for our “mini-moon.” Since Christopher has cerebral palsy, uses a forearm crutch to walk and is no longer able to climb stairs, we were more than a little curious about how accessible Mendocino would be.
On the winding drive from the Bay Area to Mendocino, we snaked along the Pacific Coast, waves crashing against pristine beaches far below. My favorite parts of the drive were the long quiet miles through ancient redwood forests. State Route 128 takes you from highway 101 to the coast through Anderson Valley, a landscape dotted with wineries. Mendocino’s improving wines are drawing more tourism to the area. Many of the wineries are accessible and incidentally, dog-friendly, but currently there is no comprehensive list.
Along the way we stopped at the rustic chic Mosswood Market, a café and bakery. The tangy homemade chicken soup was the Mendocino cuisine I had been craving, as were the crispy grilled sandwiches on locally baked bread. With soups from $4 and sandwiches from $9, the prices were low key and unpretentious. Cups of artisanal Flying Goat coffee are $1.75, and it’s some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. The hours are 7 to 4 Monday through Thursday with some slight variation on the weekend, but they start serving coffee and pastries at 5 a.m. for the workers at nearby Anderson Valley Brewing Company. The Victorian glass front doors are opened to allow wheelchair-using patrons to enter, and bathrooms are accessible through the shop next door.
Even though wine was not our focus on this trip, we popped in at accessible Lula Cellars winery, the last winery on Route 128 before the junction with Highway 1 to the coast. Wide wheelchair-friendly doors admitted us to an unassuming and homey tasting room. We tasted a couple of wines, including an amazing rosé, and then chatted with the winemaker, Jeff Hansen. As down-to-earth as his tasting room, Hansen decided to craft his premium wines and sell them directly to the public after a long career in Napa; his prices range from $20 for whites to $45 for pinots. While we didn’t splurge much on wine, we appreciated that Lula’s accessible bathroom was large enough to turn a power chair around in.
The Historic Town of Mendocino
For a quick history of the town, we visited the Kelley House, the home of one of the town’s founding families and now a museum and archive for the area. We weren’t there at the right time for one of the $10 per person, two-hour docent-led tours of downtown, but curator Anne Cooper put in a moveable threshold ramp and showed us around the house. The rooms were furnished much as they would have been when the Kelleys lived there. The doorways narrowly cleared 30 inches and some of the turns were tight, but the memorabilia from Mendocino’s history was fascinating. My favorite origin story of the town is about the treasure ship Frolic that wrecked on this part of the coast and led to the discovery of the redwood forests — the source of Mendocino’s wealth. The house has a second story that can’t be accessed but the exhibits are all downstairs. In order to use the bathroom, it was necessary to go around the block.
We then browsed around the compact downtown. Because Mendocino was an artists’ colony in the 1960s, founded by disciples of Diego Rivera, among others, the small shops sell art, pottery, and handicrafts over the key chains and T-shirts you usually find in tourist towns. Main Street has numerous interesting shops, many with either ramps or direct street access. Even in winter, wildflowers sprout along the roads, which are mostly more than smooth enough for wheels with the rough patches avoidable by crossing the street. Christopher couldn’t get over the awe-inspiring views of the ocean, visible from almost any place you stood.
One local wheelchair user reported that Mendocino was truly a small town in the best sense. Merchants and restaurant owners go out of their way to accommodate you — several have installed ramps in spite of the age of their buildings. A ramp has recently been built at the commercially important intersection of Kasten and Main Street. For a place that depends on looking as antique as possible to keep tourist dollars flowing, the village has a good attitude toward becoming more accessible.
It was December and brisk, so we took refuge in the centrally located Mendocino Hotel, entering through ramped accessible doors. The hotel lobby and lounge are richly paneled in dark wood and filled with period-appropriate furniture. We warmed ourselves in front of the pewter fireplace in a cozy corner. The restaurant here isn’t known for the local, inventive cuisine you can find elsewhere in town, but my French onion soup, which cost $9.95, tasted good on a chilly afternoon. The bistro menu in the bar offers entrées from $13-$17; its restaurant entrées run $28-$37. There is one accessible room in its gardens that starts at $139/night, midweek in the off-season, although management assured me that price would be lower with AAA or AARP membership. The entire ground floor of the hotel is accessible, including the bathroom adjacent to the bar.
That night we slept at the Little River Inn, about five minutes south of the village. This magnificent white Gothic Victorian has been run as an inn and restaurant by five generations of the same family. Our deluxe ocean view fireplace room was big enough to be a suite. We were so excited about the room that Christopher was afraid to look in the bathroom, since accessible hotel bathrooms remind him of hospitals. Instead, this bathroom was large and light, with a built-in gray and white tiled bench that stretched from the roll-in shower to a Jacuzzi tub. Using the bench and two of the tub’s grab bars, Christopher was able to lower himself in. He observed that people with limited upper body strength could also use the tub with some assistance.
Little River Inn’s restaurant is justly famous for its thin buttery Swedish pancakes from an old family recipe. We’re still dreaming about Grandpa Ole’s hotcakes and the thick bacon they served, produced by the local Roundman’s Smokehouse. My breakfast cost around $20 because I had Eggs Benedict and hotcakes, but it was worth it. Entrées in the restaurant are around $20-$32, but seasonal seafood may vary, and it couldn’t be fresher, caught just miles from the inn. A burger in the Whale Watch Bar is spendy — $14.50.
The highlight of our trip came the next day. We visited the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 47 acres filled with native plants and rambling paths. We followed the accessible south trail, which was wide enough for two wheelchairs and had very few rocky patches. The path took us past a heather garden, a fairy circle of eucalyptus trees, and through a bent-branch gate. The accessible bathroom along the way was hidden in a charming simulated rustic cabin. At the end, we reached a coastal prairie with panoramic views of the open sea. We could see why the lady in the gift shop had told us it was an ideal spot for watching whales.
Our final evening was spent at the Brewery Gulch Inn, named the best hotel in Northern California by Condé Nast Traveler. This boutique luxury lodge built from reclaimed redwood from the nearby Big River is one of the few modern properties in the area. The pebbly parking lot didn’t prepare us for the graciousness inside. The ground floor of the hotel is dominated by the Great Room, anchored by a four-sided glass and steel fireplace and filled with arts and crafts furniture. At the far end of the room there are floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto a wide accessible deck overlooking the ocean.
The staff was eager to cater to our every need. That, combined with the freshly baked pastries and spa water by the front desk, enhanced the feeling of staying at a good friend’s country house. While more expensive than many of the hotels in the area, the price of the room includes a dinner prepared by their Wolfgang Puck-trained executive chef, who cooks exclusively for the hotel’s guests, and an enormous gourmet breakfast.
We stayed in the Redwood Room, home of a 5-star accessible bathroom, with a private deck overlooking the white caps of Smuggler’s Cove. The room was snug and meticulously appointed. We lolled in front of our own fireplace and wrapped ourselves in the soft throws provided. The doors to our smooth-surfaced deck opened wide. We mentioned to them that there was a stair preventing us getting from the deck to the lawn below and they said they are building a ramp to correct this oversight.
After the sumptuous breakfast the next day, we grabbed some of the inn’s homemade muffins for the road. On the way home we stopped in Navarro River Redwoods State Park so I could take a picture of my new husband surrounded by moss, mist and 1,000-year-old trees.
• Mosswood Market, 707/895-3635. The bathrooms are only accessible through the back of the kitchen before 10 a.m.
• Lula Cellars, 707/895-3737; www.lulacellars.com
• Anderson Valley Winegrower’s Association, 707/895-9463; www.avwines.com
• Kelley House Museum, 707/937-5791; www.kelleyhousemuseum.org
They use a threshold ramp to allow access up the few steps but museum rooms are somewhat crowded with tight turns on fragile wooden floors. The second story is not accessible. Accessible restrooms across the street on the headland can be reached by going around the block. Audio tours are available, including self-guided multimedia tours on a rented tablet.
• The Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites, 707/937-0511; www.mendocinohotel.com
The main floor is accessible and includes an accessible bathroom in the restaurant.
Price for the accessible room:
Low season: $139/night midweek, $229/night weekend
High season: $179/night midweek, $269/night weekend
Discounts available with AAA or AARP membership.
• Little River Inn, 707/937-5942; www.littleriverinn.com
The restaurant is accessible but the bathroom, located in the bar, is not. The bathroom in our accessible room was phenomenal.
Price for an accessible room:
Low season: $165/night for a Traditional Ocean View room
High season: $295/night for a Garden Retreat room
• Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 707/964-4352; www.gardenbythesea.org
Paths are clearly marked for accessibility and electric carts are available to borrow on a first-come-first-served basis.
$14 general admission, $10 for seniors 65 or older
• Brewery Gulch Inn, 707/937-4752; www.brewerygulchinn.com
Price for the accessible Redwood Room:
Low season: $360/night midweek, $400/night weekend
High season: $445/night
Also Recommended By Locals
• MacKerricher State Park, 707/964-9112; access.parks.ca.gov/parkinfo.asp?park=42&type=0
Once part of an Indian reservation, this park, which encompasses beaches, dunes, forest and bluffs, has a remarkable number of accessible areas, including a 300-foot boardwalk, campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails with sweeping vistas.
• Mendocino Film Festival, 707/937-0171; mendocinofilmfestival.org
Founded by Sydney Pollack, the 2017 festival will be held June 1-4. Many genres of film are represented, with special emphasis on stories of triumph over adversity and social justice. All of the venues are accessible, including the 400-seat tent.
Most tickets are $11 in advance or $12 at the door; $20 for special events such as screenings followed by live music.
• Point Cabrillo Light Station Museum, 707/937-6123; pointcabrillo.org/visit/museums
Located on a point, like any good lighthouse, the grounds are a great place to watch migrating whales, harbor seals, sea lions and birds. Disabled parking is located next to the 1st Assistant Lightkeeper’s House (which has been restored to its original 1930s incarnation) and there is a 300-foot sidewalk from there to the lighthouse.
Admission is free but donations are appreciated.