Lost and found in Mendocino

Mendocino's famous St Orres Inn.
Mendocino's famous St Orres Inn. Supplied

THE lost coast. That's what they call the bays and cliffs and breakers just a little way north of the sand between my toes. It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster: probably starring Humphrey Bogart, directed by Howard Hawks in the 40s; recreated by Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg 30 years later; re-imagined for today's multiplexes by Johnny Depp and someone else.

Close, but no mynah. This is film-noir territory: Bodega Bay, just an hour's drive north of San Francisco, is nest of The Birds, made by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. On a late-autumn early morning, there is not another soul for miles, miles of white curving sand and waves and wetlands. Just me and the birds.

Across the Golden Gate, clear of the chichi charm of Sausalito and the surburban sprawl of the Sans Rafael and Anselmo, California's mythic Highway 1 hugs the cliffs and gullies and dips and rises of the coast.

On the sea side are dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches, coves and surf breaks. Few swim: it's too darn cold.

On the road side, the occasional farmhouse, even more occasional store or gas station, the first shoots of what will - a few miles north - grow into the giant redwood forests.

These days, the rich play in Bodega Bay, its spas and inns and restaurants. Protected from the Pacific swells, its little harbour is home to a few yachts; outside town, the kombis and caravans hint that less well-heeled surfers and windsurfers get a break here, too.

The locals don't mind that many of their visitors come because they've been horror-fied by Hitchcock, frisson-ated by that classic scene of Tippi Hedren driving her Aston Martin down a winding road into an idyllic seaside village where feathered, squawking terror will perch on every playground and pier.

"It's not the way it is," insists Chris Wedel, manager of the Inn at the Tides restaurant.

"That road is about five miles north of here and it doesn't lead into the village at all. And the schoolhouse is a little way up the road and back from the beach, not where it seems to be in the movie."

And the restaurant, where Hitch shot the scenes with those birds? "In the film it's right on to the shore, when it was 'bout half a mile back ... you wouldn't recognise the town in the film as this town at all."

Never mind, this is almost Hollywood. Years later, when it became a tourist attraction, the owners moved the restaurant to the foreshore.

As for the birds ... much of the area surrounding the harbour is a nature reserve, welcoming species that lived here decades ago, disappeared and are now being coaxed home.

Why did they go?

"Oh," a dogwalker tells me as we cross the boardwalk across the wetland, "they reckon that once he'd finished filming, Hitchcock let go all the thousands of crows and ravens he brought up here to put in the movie. They wiped out the birds that used to live here."

The past few decades also all but wiped out most of the towns. Such as Gualala, once a logging port, now a backwater, which is pretty much how its arts-oriented residents like it. They have a slew of planning rules to keep it that way, some that ban street lamps (light pollution, you can't see the stars), others that preclude a dry-cleaning store (all those chemicals. All that power).

Even pronouncing the name is a giveaway: old-timers say "Gu-LAH-la", newer and more culturally aware locals say "WAH-la-la", and visitors just give up.

But you can certainly head into the redwoods to their community arts centre, a marvellous multi-purpose camp-studio-playhouse-kiln-nature walk.

Director David - "Suss" to everyone in town - Susalla walks us through the outdoor sculpture gallery and explains that every nail, pipe and beam has been bought and paid for by the locals, cash on the barrelhead.

There are summer art camps for kids, pop, folk and classical music festivals and dance cabarets, exhibitions by local and visiting artists, classes in spinning, weaving and whatever craft you can think of, and several you haven't, year-round.

We're talking about a pub, petrol-pump, superette beach town here, smaller than Waipu.

Don't get the wrong idea: Gualala is not averse to change. Twenty-some years back, folks got permission to build baches and a motel and a few shops between Main St and the sea. Ruined the view. So they'll be dynamited, or however an environmentally friendly community deals with such matters, and the locals will be able to sit and look at the sea from the veranda of the Gualala Inn.

The movie sets roll on. The highway becomes the main street of Point Arena, population 474 and one of the smallest "cities" in California, where the San Andreas Fault runs out to sea, which may mean it'll be famous one day, even more famous than the day Jim Carrey used its picture-perfect 30s cinema to film one of his turkeys, The Majestic.

None of the towns is better known than tonight's stop, which is better known by its stage name. "Cabot Cove", the chocolate-box New England village of colonial cottages, tidy olde-world flower gardens, lace curtains, white-painted church, is barely 5000km from Maine. For several series, the chintzy charm of Mendocino became the home of Angela Landsbury's incarnation of Agatha Christie's gossipy detective, Miss Marple.

Not that she got here first: there's been East of Eden, Summer of'42, Cujo, Racing With the Moon, Forever Young, Dying Young and dozens more flicks and shows you've either forgotten or never heard of.

And before the moviemakers, Pomo Indians settled on the beach where the Big River meets the Pacific, below the rounded headland at the north of a sweeping bay. In 1850 the loggers came, which explains the wooden cottages, and the look. Business boomed until 1940, when the town slipped back into near-oblivion.

Its saving grace was art. Specifically, that of painter Bill Zacha.

He encouraged fellow artists to move north from the Bay Area: they could live in the ghost town for a song. Another good idea: the sounds-like-classical music festival, held in the main street, tuned up in 1987. Now it's an artists' and musicians' hangout, a holiday place, a beach place. Think Raglan.

Len Brown, take note: most of the town is designated as a historic place and it's near-impossible to paint a windowsill or mend a picket fence without 17 layers of permission. Not that the locals seem to mind: kicking back in a main street bar around midnight, jukebox rocking, beers flowing, there was a plain feeling that they like their town the way it was, and is.

In Fort Bragg, across one of the local craft ales - possibly Barney Flat's Oatmeal Stout, couldn't swear to it - Scott Schneider, the Aotearoa-adoring CEO of Visit Mendocino County, mentioned that the next stage of Highway 1 is known as the Lost Coast. Officially, from when coastal ships gave way to railways and roads for carrying redwood logs to San Francisco and the rugged region was unsuitable for the newfangled methods of transportation.

"Now," he chuckled, "there's another explanation. You might as well chuck away your mobile phone when you get to Mendo'. There's no coverage in much of the county."

Two hours' drive from Silicon Valley, and you can't use a cellphone. A favourite song drifts in ...

"Rise up over the Rockies and down on into California
Out to where but the rocks remain
And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I'll rise with it till I rise no more
Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes, I hear the sea ..."

A lost coast. Or a great find.

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  california travel travelling usa

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