Napa and Sonoma are well-trodden routes; Mendocino, not so much. Its isolation has served it well. Once you hit the gorgeous Anderson Valley you?ll be lucky to get a phone signal. This part of Northern California is sparsely inhabited, refreshingly underdeveloped, and about as gay-friendly a slice of rural America as you can find. The city of Mendocino feels more like New England than California with its timbered homes and Gothic-steepled church. Rainbow flags abound in shop fronts and local inns, and the headlands make for awesome walks, with spectacular sunsets and dramatic outcrops on which edible sea palms bend and twist against the weight of the waves.
Day One: San Francisco to Elk
Morning: Stock up on picnic provisions at the Ferry Building (One Embarcadero, San Francisco, 415-693-0996). Try the Cowgirl Creamery?s buttery triple-cream Mt. Tam cheese; get the wonderfully chewy rustic baguette from Acme Bread Company and some local pears from the farmers? market. Proceed to the Golden Gate Bridge, following the 101 to Cloverdale, where the landscape dramatically changes as you navigate the snaking Route 128 to beer town Boonville. Take in one of the local brews -- Boont Amber Ale is a good medium-bodied favorite -- or drive a little farther to Goldeneye winery (9200 Hwy. 128, Philo, 800-208-0438), where the owners will let you lunch at their picnic tables, alongside one of their fine pinot noirs. If you prefer more sparkle, try the Roederer Estate (4501 Hwy. 128, Philo, 707-895-2288) a few miles farther along the road.
Afternoon: Allow 40?60 minutes for a leisurely drive to Elk, taking the woodsy Greenwood Road. Stop at Philo Apple Farm (18501 Greenwood Rd., Philo, 707-895-2333) for fresh apple juice, and cross the river for hiking in Hendy Woods State Park (Philo-Greenwood Rd., 707-895-3141), with 850 acres of old- and second-growth redwood forest. Continue to Elk.
Sleep: Harbor House Inn (5600 S. Hwy. 1, Elk, 800-720-7474) One of the very few inns on this stretch of coast to stand so close to the cliff edge, this 1916 arts and crafts lodge is a perfect refuge from the city, with dramatic views of the Pacific and paths plunging to the coves below.
Day Two: Elk to Mendocino
Morning: Elk is a one-road town, but don?t skip the generous breakfasts at Queenie?s Roadhouse Caf? (6061 Hwy. 1, Elk, 707-877-3285), a gay-owned local institution with a rainbow bear paw in the window (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Afterward, walk it off with a stroll down to Greenwood Creek State Beach -- handily, the entrance is directly opposite. Drive to Mendocino for lunch, a 20-mile journey that passes the mouths of the beautiful Navarro and Albion rivers. A former logging town, Mendocino is now a haven for artists and potheads, and the town?s hippy-trippy vibe can be grating (a local admonished me for looking at my cell phone -- and that was before I told her I was checking the Dow). It is, however, ridiculously pretty, with great walks along the cliffs and a fabulous Victorian hotel for fireside drinks after dark. Score extra gay points for knowing that the Blair House Inn (45110 Little Lake St., Mendocino, 707-937-1800) was used in Murder, She Wrote as Jessica Fletcher?s home in the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine.
Afternoon: Round off the day at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (18220 N. Hwy. 1, Fort Bragg, 707-964-4352), seven miles north of Mendocino, and a popular spot for gay weddings until the passage of Proposition 8. The ocean bluffs are great for spying dolphins and humpback whales in summer.
Sleep: Stanford Inn (Hwy. 1 at Comptche Ukiah Road, Mendocino, 800-331-8884) Wood-burning fireplaces in the rooms, a heated swimming pool, an award-winning vegetarian restaurant -- which has turned the local sea palm into a star dish -- and friendly cats and dogs padding around the reception area make this inn utterly unpretentious and inviting.
Day Three: Mendocino to San Francisco
Morning: Take a kayak, available at Stanford Inn, up the mouth of the Big River or out into the crescent of Mendocino Bay, also a popular surfing spot. Alternatively, explore the sea caves from Van Damme State Park (three miles south of Mendocino on Highway 1, 707-937-5804) as part of a guided tour (Kayak Mendocino, in the west parking lot of Van Damme State Park, 707-964-7480). Satiate your appetite with Sunday brunch at the Little River Inn (7751 N. Hwy. 1, Little River, 888-466-5683), where third-generation manager Kelly will happily show you room 102, where James Dean slept while filming East of Eden. (He was not much liked, it seems; Ole Hervilla, the inn?s founder, famously booted him from the bar for putting his legs on the table. Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, who stayed there during filming of Johnny Belinda in 1947, were rather more welcome: Wyman even tended the bar to break up the monotony of acting.)
Afternoon: Drive back to San Francisco via the Pacific Highway if you have the stamina for the winding coastal road. It takes a good two hours longer than the outward journey but gives you the opportunity to drive through Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed The Birds.