Margaret Lindgren had a successful career and a comfortable life in Southern California when she and her husband started vacationing on the Sonoma Coast.
"We had a passion for this place and would come up here all the time. When we would visit, we would drive randomly, stopping at little enclaves and overlooks, just taking it all in." she says. "And when it was time to leave, I'd get really bummed out."
Eventually they "just sold everything and moved up here." Since 2007, the couple has lived in The Sea Ranch on the Sonoma Coast. "Relocating here was the right thing to do. I think that when you're on this coast, you are connecting to yourself by connecting to place. You really become who you know yourself to be."
For the past decade, Lindgren has been running Unbeaten Path Tours and Yoga, which offers guided walks and yoga classes along the coast. Her most popular walking tour explores the architecture, landscape, and nature of The Sea Ranch.
"The development of The Sea Ranch played an important role in the creation of the California Coastal Commission," Lindgren says. "The Commission is the reason we have all these free, public-access points along the coast. When it's done well, architecture presents itself as an extension of the environment. The Sea Ranch is a great example of that."
First-time visitors to this stretch of California coast are amazed by its beauty and broad swaths of open space, she says. "This is sort of like the Scottish coast of California, or the northern New England coast. We have a two-lane highway, and we have rural, small-town enclaves like Mendocino and Bodega."
Artwork seems to appear around every curve in Highway 1, Lindgren says. "Creative expression is a big part of life up here. There are a lot of people who are skilled craftsmen and artisans, whether they create in wood or metal or wine or food."
The region's most famous art piece is a Benny Bufano sculpture perched on an oceanside cliff at Timber Cove Resort. At 93 feet high, "Peace Obelisk" was the Italian-American artist's largest work. The missile-shaped sculpture expresses Bufano's wish for peace.
Timber Cove also houses one of Lindgren's favorite dining spots. "Timber Cove has a wonderful setting for a formal dinner or even just a nice breakfast. Their restaurant Coast Kitchen serves everything from casual fare to fine dining. Everything is delicious and much of it is locally grown. The property is incredible—it's 25 acres of coastal views."
Twenty-five miles north of Timber Cove is Gualala, a coastal town that Lindgren says visitors should get to know. "It's a small village, but it has a lot of little shops, galleries, and restaurants. For new, off-the-shelf clothing and gifts, I like Red Stella. They have beautiful necklaces, clothing, and shoes, and a lot of it is handmade. For bargains, there's a great little clothing store called Anabel's. She has really good stuff at prices that anybody can delve into. And The Gualala Arts Center has incredible local artwork, shows, and exhibits. You can always find wonderful artwork there."
But ultimately, Lindgren says, a visit to the Sonoma-Mendocino coast is a chance to reconnect with nature. "No matter where you are, you'll see wildlife—coastal shorebirds, deer, bobcat, maybe a fox. This coast is a place where you feel like you're not separate from anything. You're connected to this giant organism that we belong to. That's what the northern coast is all about—it's about nature and being outdoors."
FIVE MORE FAVORITES
Despite its remote setting, Lindgren is quick to point out that this part of California offers plenty of wonderful places to eat and explore.
Bakery: The Stewarts Point Store houses Two Fish Baking Company. The store itself is super historic—it's been around since 1868. They have all kinds of little gifts, and they even have penny candy. You feel like a kid again when you go inside and look around. Two Fish is inside the store and they bake wonderful breads and make hot coffee and espresso drinks. For lunch, they make Italian grinders that you can pick up to go. They even have a tap there, so you can have a beer and lunch.
Beaches: In Sea Ranch, we have free, public coastal access trails that lead to beaches. Walk-on Beach, Shell Beach, and Black Point Beach are just a few of them. They're all beautiful, but Black Point is unique. It has very fine black basalt sand that's actually magnetic. The basalt is the byproduct of super volcanoes from millions of years ago. It's a really dramatic stretch of shoreline, like someplace in Brittany, France.
Breakfast: In Gualala, Trinks Cafe makes homemade pastries, pancakes, egg dishes, pies, and all kinds of beautiful homemade sandwiches and prepared foods to go. They serve breakfast and lunch all day, and you can get all kinds of espresso drinks. The cafe is in a beautiful spot at the mouth of the Gualala River. You can dine at Trinks and then walk the little coastal trail behind the cafe that runs alongside the river.
Family-friendly: Fort Ross State Historic Park was a thriving Russian settlement in the early 1800s. The original structures are gone, but some have been reconstructed. There's a chapel, stockade, barracks, and blockhouses. The park is great for kids because they can watch re-enactments of what it was like to live at the fort when it was a Russian colony. The museum is a wonderful learning center. Kids get to see what a sea lion skeleton looks like. They learn about plant lore. They see big carved totems and artifacts from Native Americans. Fort Ross is fascinating for all ages.
Special dinner: My husband and I love going to St. Orres. It's a great place to have a wonderful dinner, a fine yet casual meal. You're getting really good, locally harvested foods. They offer a fixed-course meal with four or five courses, and they also have an à la carte bar menu that's super popular. You might get wild mushroom ravioli in mushroom season or crab cakes in crab season. The dining room has that dramatic architecture that is intrinsically part of this coast—a tall, vaulted ceiling that represents the heavy-timber construction of the Russian settlement of the 1800s.