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.
Negri's Italian Dinner & Joe's Bar
Where: 3700 Bohemian Highway, Occidental
When: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
Contact: 707-874-0301, negrisrestaurant.com
Cuisine: Italian, American
Price: Inexpensive to expensive, entrees $12-$30
Stars: ** 1/2
Summary: The humble 75-year-old Italian joint keeps going strong thanks to delicious ingredients, a quaint setting and value pricing.