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Getaways: Gualala’s seaside charm

The Gualala River eases into the Pacific Ocean at the Sonoma-Mendocino county line. (Yvonne Michie Horn / For The Press Democrat)

YVONNE MICHIE HORN , FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The little town of Gualala, situated on the sea cliffs where Sonoma and Mendocino counties meet, is my headquarters of choice when heading for a salt-sprayed getaway.

I always plan my getaway to include either the first or third Saturday of the month. That’s when Pay n’ Take holds forth in Gualala, an event that fills the parking lot of the Community Center and adjacent grassy field with pickups and family vans.

What every Gualalan knows is that Pay n’ Take is where you can find everything you didn’t think you needed, from a set of pots and pans hardly dented at all to Christmas ornaments the year around. Jam-packed into what has grown into three rooms over the years, everything for sale is someone’s donated cast-off. Proceeds fund community projects from senior lunches to the tutoring of little kids.

Sit down at one of the long tables and have a bargain bowl of chili, a deviled egg, a cup of coffee, a slice of chocolate cake, all prepared and served by volunteers.

Gualala is an uncommonly friendly place, so be prepared to talk. A hint to separate yourself from uninitiated wayfarers: The town’s name is pronounced wah- LA-la. Sure-fire conversation openers are either “Do you think the fog’ll roll in?” or “Do you think the fog’ll lift?”

A sunnier spot, sometimes

Well, it might drift in a bit and drift out again several times during the day. But what makes Gualala such a sweet spot to visit along the North Coast is that it lies in the center of a “banana belt” microclimate. Quite often, when motorists have wound their way through gray en route to Gualala, they find the little town sunning itself and thumbing its nose at a dense bank of fog lurking offshore.

Time was when it took two days to travel the 40 miles from Jenner, the point where the Russian River meets the sea, to Gualala, on the Mendocino side of the Gualala River, which marks the dividing line between the two counties. By the mid 1800s, despite the arduous trip up and over several grades, the town boasted a municipal brass band, opera house, and a grand-for-the-era hotel. When that hostelry burned to the ground in 1903, another took its place, the still-standing landmark Gualala Hotel.

Today, those same 40 miles on the stunningly scenic rollercoaster known as Coast Highway 1 can be driven in about an hour.

Early-day travelers primarily made their way to Gualala for lumber wheeling and dealing. But others, especially from the 1860s on, came for much the same reasons visitors arrive today — to get away from the bustle of everyday cares in surroundings of spectacular coastal and redwood-forested beauty.

Twenty-five years ago when I was building a beach house at The Sea Ranch, I’d drive the half-dozen or so miles north on Highway 1 to Gualala with fingers crossed that I’d be able to find the needed item that was taking me there. “Oh, you’ll have to go to Santa Rosa for that,” was the usual refrain.

My how things have changed. The venerable Surf Market, once home to day-old bread and tired vegetables, now has a fabulous cheese counter, organic produce and a sophisticated wine selection. Two mini-malls have inserted themselves into the downtown landscape — the Seacliff Center, stretched out on the ocean side, and Cypress Center’s white-clapboard, kinda-New England fishing village complex tucked into the hills on the north end of town.

While Gualala has no movie theater — those in need of a flick fix either rent from the village video store or make their way 17 miles north to Point Arena’s lovingly restored movie house — the Cypress Center does house a great bookstore, Four-Eyed Frog Books, that has author-reading evenings and storytelling times for children. Add to that a bevy of art galleries scattered throughout the town and enough one-of-a-kind specialty boutiques to keep the most dedicated shopaholic happy.

Through the years

Talking with a long-time local resident over coffee at Trinks, a little cafe in Seacliff Center (great pastries and healthy sandwiches), I asked about changes she has seen in the 40-plus years of collecting her mail at the Gualala post office. “We don’t want Gualala to become another Mendocino,” she commented. A sip of her coffee, a laugh. “But then people up the road in Anchor Bay say, ‘We don’t want to become another Gualala!’”

On my last getaway, I signed up with Adventure Rents for an hour of kayaking on the river, deciding to save the option of stand-up board paddling until I was 10 years younger; walked a bluff-top trail, descending to a rocky cove to see what the tide pool creatures were up to; stopped by Placewares in Cypress Center to browse their carefully selected collection of handmade and artfully chosen “wares for your place.”

As usual, I included the Gualala Arts Center. While the town of Mendocino became a hotbed for artists and craftspeople in the 1960s, Gualala claimed its share. In 1961, nonprofit Gualala Arts was formed. Tucked away in a sculpture-dotted redwood grove a mile east of Highway One, the handsomely designed center always has something going on. In addition to ever-changing art exhibits, there are classes offering everything from Japanese cookery to digital photography; community dinners and morning aerobics; concerts both classical and contemporary — on this visit, the jazz of the Brubeck Brothers Quartet.

All that and Pay n’ Take, too.

As for where to stay, three motel-type inns claim enviable pieces of cliff-top real estate right in town. Of them, my hands-down favorite is Seacliff on the Bluff. Along with such amenities as comfy terrycloth robes and binoculars to view wildlife, each of its 16 rooms claims a private deck overlooking the ocean.

For downtown Gualala dining, in addition to Trinks Café for breakfast and lunch, I head for Bones Roadhouse’s “Brews, Blues (most nights), and Texas-style BBQ.” St. Orres, up the highway a piece and looking for all the world like Russian Fort Ross transplanted, is a good choice for a special night out. The Sea Ranch Lodge’s Black Point Grill is worth retracing the curves on Highway 1 for its spectacular ocean views and menu dedicated to what is locally grown and pulled out of the sea.

A final tip: D on’t forget that it’s pronounced wah-La-la.