Fort Bragg; Five Fun Places

Fort Bragg gets overlooked in comparison to its cousin Mendocino, a picturesque village about ten miles to the south. Mendocino benefits from a dramatic approach. Heading north , the visitor swings around a curve in Highway 1 and sees, across an expanse of glinting, rushing ocean, a sweeping headlands dotted with white and yellow Victorian buildings, tall-spired churches, punctuated with dark green firs and cypress. Mendocino is small, peppered with beautifully restored mansions. It is hard to resist the slightly sinister statue of Time and the Maiden atop one of the local banks.

Fort Bragg is more pedestrian. The mouth of the Noyo Harbor does not have the same drama, and a traveler who stays on the highway may be fooled by the line of shopping centers, casual dining restaurants and gas stations. The Guest House Museum, on North Main, and the Grey Whale Inn, are two exceptions, but generally, Fort Bragg’s charms are off the beaten path.

Here are five fun places to go in town:

1. Old Town
From Highway 1 (Main Street/North Main) turn on East Redwood and drive about three blocks. Park wherever (no meters!) The area around North Franklin and Redwood offers antique stores, buildings from the early 1900s, and Racine’s. Racine’s used to be a general store back when they had general stores. Now it’s an art supply and stationery store. The week I was there they had hand-drawn life sized characters from Alice Through the Looking Glass in the window, drawn by staff. The art on the walls inside, whether drawing, painting or fabric, is done by the people who work there. Racine’s has paints, pens, pencils, pastels; canvases, calendars, cards; sketch pads, writing pads and stationery. It also displays an indulgent inventory of handmade and decorative papers. Staff are knowledgeable, helpful, friendly and interesting.

Directly across the street, Cheshire Books shows off new release hardback and paperback books and a small selection of used books. Judging from the row of books on the shelves behind the register, they do a brisk business with special orders too. Cheshire sponsors and hosts musical, poetry and reading events and is justifiably proud of its Harry-Potter themed “Hogwarts Breakfasts.”

If you keep walking north you will pass a kitchen store and a couple of nice boutiques. Turn left at Laurel and walk down to Headlands Coffeehouse for a coffee drink and a few minutes of nostalgia while you pretend that you remember the sixties. There will probably be a couple of kids outside with guitars, strumming and singing (and they may hit you up for change). I had breakfast at Headlands twice while I was in town. Both meals were satisfying and quickly served. The place fills up with students, young moms, tourists, and guys in their late fifties with grizzed beards and faded denims who look like they are clinging to that Woodstock lifestyle and maybe even have an agricultural project at the back of their property. Headlands features local artwork (a display of fabric art when I was there) and local live music in the evenings.

Back on East Redwood Drive, you can check out Larry Spring’s strange and intriguing office. Mr. Spring seems to be involved in physics and electricity and is a fan of Nikola Tesla. The space has never been open when I’ve been there, but the windows alone are fascinating. Next to Mr. Spring’s storefront is a fine used bookstore.

2. Guest House Museum
Located on North Main Street, this refurbished Victorian, originally built of all locally cut and milled redwood, overlooks the Skunk Train Depot. The museum has lots of information and artifacts related to the lumber industry, the railroad, shipping, and the 1906 earthquake. Exquisite stained glass looks down over the stairwell. Unlike most museums, Guest House has a liberal policy toward picture-taking inside the museum. Fort Bragg websites say there is an admission fee ($2) but I wasn’t asked to pay one. I left a donation though. There were no guided tours but a helpful docent answered questions and pointed out the fascinating “panorama” photos in the drawing room. Because they were done with a rotating lens camera, they create an interesting optical illusion, a curve in the road and the waterfront that isn’t really there.

3. North Coast Brewery
The brewery wasn’t offering tours the day I was there, but the astringent, yeasty smell of mash enveloped me as I walked past. If there is a beer lover in your life, the brewery is worth a stop. I went across the street to the North Coast Taproom and Grill for lunch, and bought a four-pack of Old Rasputin Stout for my significant other.

4. Noyo Harbor
Due north of the Noyo Harbor bridge is North Harbor Drive. Turn onto it (it only runs east) and follow it all the way down the hill to the harbor. Noyo Harbor is a working waterfront, not particularly touristy, but the curving inlet with its deep emeralds and blackish greens work their own magic. You can drive or walk out under the bridge to the jetty, watch the cormorants sun themselves on a rock and listen to the jeering of the ravens.

Where to eat? Chapter and Moon, an odd name for a distinctive place. From the outside the restaurant is very plain. Inside it is simple and clean, with wooden tables and windows providing a wide view of the harbor and the trees. The name is not, as I surmised, the last names of the two owners, but the title of a painting one of the owners did. Her work hangs on the walls, bright colors and ovoid shapes and swirls, with designs inspired by chaos theory and fractals. I had a Waldorf salad with Gorgonzola cheese and ripe pear instead of the apple. It came in a shallow wooden bowl as wide as my head that looked as if it had been hand-turned, with a small loaf of warm fresh-baked bread. The balsamic dressing and the mixed greens were a perfect contrast to the creamy pear and the cheese. The menu is quite varied and not cheap. Let this be your big meal of the day.

5. South of Town
In the ten miles before you reach Mendocino, there are several things to do. As you head south, you will come to the Glass Fire Gallery first, on your right. This art-glass gallery has a range of beautiful objects with a range of prices. You can pick up a special gift for someone who loves glass for under forty dollars, but you’ll pay a lot more for one of the glorious, ephemeral lamps or vases. If you’re lucky, you’ll get there when Buster Dyer is working with the glass in his studio, and you can watch. Buster has been working with glass since the 1980s and he does a great job of talking through what he is doing. He explains why the glass looks orange when it comes out of the oven,why he is putting a bubble in the center of it, and how he adds the colors.

Next door to Glass Fire is the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, the Garden by the Sea. General admission is $10. You can meander through a succulent garden, a woodlands garden, and a patch of heritage roses, pause in the greenhouse to admire fuchsias and begonias, then walk along the fern canyon pathway to the tongue of land that stretches out into the ocean. This year I thought the begonia/fuchsia display had less color and less volume than previously, but all that was balanced by the floral fireworks of the dahlia garden. The garden has a gift shop, of course, and a nursery. They offer some classes, and it’s a great place to take kids.

Down the road about another three miles is Jughandle State Reserve. This is a great place to stop and walk out to the water, watch the waves beat again the dark brown rocks, observe egrets and herons, with the seals barking in the background.

After all this, the photogenic Victorian hamlet of Mendocino just seems a little bit, well, anti-climactic.

Guest House Museum
343 N Main Street
Fort Bragg, CA. 95437

344 North Franklin
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
866.374.6972 • 707.964.2416

Cheshire Books
345 North Franklin
Fort Bragg, CA 95437

Headlands Coffeehouse
120 Laurel Street
Fort Bragg, CA 95437

Larry Spring
225 E Redwood
Fort Bragg, CA 95437

North Coast Brewing Co.
455 North Main Street
Fort Bragg CA 95437
707 964-2739

Chapter and Moon
32150 North Harbor Drive

Glass Fire Gallery
18320 North Highway 1
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 962-9420

Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden
18220 North Highway 1
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 984 4352

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