Monday, March 03, 2008

A Whale-Watching Weekend in Mendocino

Whale-watching and wine-tasting—could there be two more fabulous, and Californian, ways to spend a weekend? For weeks Andrew and I had planned a trip to Mendocino for the annual Mendocino Whale Festival, so early Saturday morning we loaded up the car and headed north.

Sacramento’s location remains, hands-down, my favorite thing about the city. The drive to Mendocino was beautiful—we wound through vineyards and redwoods and rocky hillsides, through sun and rain. We stopped at Dean & Deluca as we went through Napa—who knew there was one out here?—and sipped coffee while debating what could lead a D&D cupcake to cost a shocking $6. Fortified, we continued on, passing several signs warning FLOODED and SLIDE AHEAD (but we saw neither floods nor slides). And soon enough we were surrounded by wine-glass-carrying crowds and more than a few former hippies.

The Whale Festival name may suggest a focus on whales, but the real focus of this weekend—Saturday in particular—was on wine. Eighteen Mendocino County wineries set up tasting stations from 11-4 in Mendocino’s many boutiques and galleries; and three or four tastings from eighteen wineries adds up to a whole lot of wine for one day, despite the platters of cheese and crackers. As the afternoon went on, the tastings became more boisterous, the tasters more sociable; someone dropped a wine glass in a bookstore. Novice tasters, we probably stood out among some of the clearly zealous wine aficionados, some of whom wore beaded and leather necklaces designed so a wine glass nestles inside. (After eighteen tastings, avoiding carrying anything breakable seemed like a good idea.)

We had dinner that night at the charming Mendocino Hotel, and finished our wine in wing-back chairs in front of the lobby fireplace—remote little Mendocino does not lack for coziness. Afterwards, we stopped for a beer at a loud local bar that was filled with good-natured end-of-the-road types in tattoos and ratty clothes—surprising after the well-heeled crowds of the afternoon. (Though as Andrew pointed out, they seemed more like elective end-of-the-roaders, able to head back to their parents’ houses in Marin County whenever they wanted—unlike the scary end-of-the-roaders in Barcelona, who really did seem like they’d come to a kind of irreversible and downward-spiraling conclusion.)

Sunday we dedicated to whale-watching. With over 18,000 whales making their way north past Mendocino—and with an entire festival named in their honor, no less—I felt confident that seeing a whale was in my future. We watched the water from the Mendocino headlands for a while, but saw nothing.

We’d been told the whale-watching was excellent near the Point Cabrillo lighthouse, so we headed there in the late morning. But the water was rough, making it difficult to see the telltale spouts from among the white caps. Nonetheless, we hung around the lighthouse docents for a while, who were answering questions and providing information. Genuinely interested in seeing a whale, I asked where whales normally appeared—close to shore, towards the horizon, somewhere in between? “They don’t call ahead,” the docent answered sarcastically. Seriously? Andrew and I spent the rest of our whale-watching coming up with deadpan questions we could ask to shock the most-unhelpful docent, like where we could buy a harpoon. In any case, we did not see any whales at the lighthouse.

One last try: at the Pacific Star winery, dramatically set right against the coastline a few miles north of Fort Bragg. We ate sandwiches at a picnic table on the winery’s grounds, watching the water intermittently through our binoculars; but the ocean was simply too choppy for any sightings. (The water was not, however, too choppy for a few more tastings.)

Whale-less, we headed home. If we’d desired a PIG HUNT or BAT HOUSES, both of which were advertised on hand-painted signs on Route 20, we would have been in luck; next time, perhaps. Instead we rolled the windows down, letting the car fill with the sweet scent of apple blossoms from the thousands of snowy white trees covering the farmland on either side of us. There’s nothing quite like a weekend away.

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