When I struck out on my own and moved 500 miles to a rented mobile home north of Point Arena in 1976, I found a piece of seaside heaven so remote that I strained to explain where it was or how I got there.

Look what's happened now to that shockingly gorgeous stretch of coastline between Gualala and Fort Bragg:

The New York Times' travel department has picked the top 52 world destinations to visit in 2014 -#8212; and it placed this place at No. 3.

That's right behind South Africa's Cape Town and Christchurch in New Zealand. And just ahead of the Albanian coast, the gastronomical mecca that downtown L.A. has become and Namibia in southwest Africa.

The Times was won over by the "moody bluffs of the Mendocino Coast," the visionary creation of the vast Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands and the prospects for those lands to be extended the protections that come with inclusion in the California Coastal National Monument.

To be named in an internationally read newspaper as the top place in America to visit this year is both exciting and worrisome to people living in and around the city of Point Arena, population 449.

Resident Merita Whatley is far more thrilled than fretful, though she would never want for the coastline she overlooks from her enviable job as a manager at the Point Arena Lighthouse and Museum to be overrun by tourists.

"I don't know that we love the isolation," she said, "but we love the fact that it's not so crowded on the beaches and the streets."

A key local proponent of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands, Whatley is eager for more people to discover, hike and learn about the preservation of the formerly private seaside property now open to the public.

But, she's said, "Nobody's trying to overdo it."

She cherishes that for 27 years, home has been this speck on the Pacific that the NYT is encouraging all the world to come see.

Usually, "it gets wild in the wintertime," Whatley said. "Every day we see these pods of whales moving south.

"To me this is just a very special place."

JESSE AGES WELL: Life is good for Jesse Katz, but lately the 29-year-old Alexander Valley winemaker feels like he's won back-to-back lotteries.

His work at the valley's Lancaster Estate and Roth Estate wineries brought Katz a spot on Forbes magazine's new "30 under 30" list of the brightest young American stars of food and wine.

The same day he learned of the honor, he read Robert Parker's gaga review of the first Malbec he's made under his own label, Devil Proof Vineyards.

Parker's review in Wine Advocate awarded Katz's 2012 Devil Proof Alexander Valley Hillside Malbec 94 points and gushed, "This may be the finest Malbec I have ever tasted from California ... (the fruit) "could easily rival the best from high elevation vineyards in Argentina."

Just imagine what this winemaker -#8212; and son of acclaimed Healdsburg photographer Andy Katz -#8212; may do once he ripens and matures beyond age 30.

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)