Find adventure in driftwood dinosaurs, crab sandwiches, and mermaid caves.
I'm hunting for wave-polished beach pebbles with my 6-year-old, Stella, while my husband, Scott, and our 4-year-old, Theo, chase along the bottom of caramel-colored cliffs, battling with wooden swords.
Ah bliss. We're at Agate Beach, part of Patrick's Point State Park , along California's wildly beautiful northern coast, on a meandering journey along the western edge of Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties. So far, it's turning out exactly as I'd planned-which is to say, unplanned. I didn't want one of those family trips where the parents spend the entire vacation letting the kids get their kicks. I figure Scott and I need a vacation as much as Stella and Theo do-maybe more. So we're devoting a whole week to exploring this remote and untrammeled coastal region. The kids can get a break from their overscheduled lives to run around like banshees, and we grown-ups can enjoy wide-open spaces, spectacular vistas, no traffic jams and crowded parking lots, and
blissfully empty calendars.
Finding a coast where imagination runs wild
Turns out, you give people that kind of space, and unexpectedly wonderful things happen. We narrowly save 19th-century Fort Ross from attack by charging up the wooden towers to "fire" the cannons at phantom ships just offshore. As we hike along the clifftops at Stornetta Public Lands in Point Arena, Stella and I are sure we spot mermaid caves carved in the sea stacks just offshore. Along the cocoa-colored sand at Manchester State Beach , we discover bleached-out brontosaurus bones (some would say driftwood, but we know better). And we dance over the lost pirate treasure (sea glass) strewn across Glass Beach in Fort Bragg.
Pooh-pooh all that if you want, but I can tell you this: We are spending the entire week without relying on TV, DVDs, or beeping toys. Instead, our equipment is a couple of butterfly nets, sneakers (often soggy), binoculars, and those trusty wooden swords.
Our approach? Freewheeling. So far, we've spent two days lollygagging at Mar Vista Cottages , just north of Gualala, where the kids ran around an open meadow with resident goats, and gathered eggs for breakfast in our retro-adorable cottage. We left only once-when the tide was low enough to hit Bowling Ball Beach , just up Highway 1 at Schooner Gulch . Talk about a worthwhile detour.
As we hopped from one glistening namesake-shaped rock to the next, four hovering ospreys took turns diving in the waves.
Perfect pastries and mermaid notes in the sand
On the charcoal tongue of sand that is Greenwood Creek State Beach in Elk, we taught the kids to skip stones on the glassy, estuary side, then arrived at postcard-
perfect Mendocino to chase butterflies on the headlands and ooh and aah at the 19th-century buildings in town. (We're going through a heavy-duty Laura Ingalls Wilder phase right now.) Later, we wandered Fort Bragg's rebounding downtown, where at Fort Bragg Bakery the lesson of the day was "P is for palmiers." (Also, I'd say, for "perfectly crisp" and "pretty darn good.")
Now, having made the winding drive up the Redwood Highway to the even-more-remote Humboldt County coastline, we're fully adjusted to the "Yo, Dude" pace of coastal life. We dip into the itty-bitty town of Trinidad for a perfect crab sandwich on the pier (seriously, I'm still thinking about that sandwich) and a romp on the warm salt-and-pepper sand at Trinidad State Beach. Flopped on her belly, Stella has dug down to darker, wet sand and has used the hole as an inkwell, dipping in her finger to write secret, invisible mermaid notes in the sand.
I nudge Scott. "What do you think she's writing?"
"Oh, probably something like, 'When I grow up I want to run away to the ocean and never come back.'"
I second that.
Mar Vista Cottages (Anchor Bay). Bunnies, room to roam, goats, a rope swing, walks to the hen house to gather eggs, kitchens, serious retro charm.
Stanford Inn by the Sea (Mendocino). Fireplace in the room, indoor pool, llamas, A+ breakfast included, walk to play by the river.
Beachcomber Motel (Fort Bragg). Two steps to a 10-mile-long oceanfront path, walk down to the beach.
Trinks (Gualala). Great salads and sandwiches (breakfast, lunch daily; some dinners).
Fort Bragg Bakery (Fort Bragg). Fresh, delectable morning pastries and lunchtime pizzas.
Seascape Restaurant (Trinidad). Low-key, fishing-pier setting for super-fresh seafood. 707/677-3762
For more information on the North Coast, click here .
Photos by Tai Power Seeff, Scott Adler, and Lisa Trottier.