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The Weekender: An Unreal Cliffside Inn on a Cattle Ranch in Mendocino
Jon Steinberg | Photo: Dave Mathews | May 24, 2016
Cliffs, cows, and a luxury ranch that doesn’t play it safe.
Coastal Californians of a certain tax bracket have come to expect their luxury hotels (Ventana Inn, Post Ranch Inn, Calistoga Ranch, etc.) to subtly burrow into the landscape, plopping visitors into fantasy wilderness scenes that simulate rusticity while pouring on the refinement. And the Inn at Newport Ranch performs this dance beautifully, with eight guest quarters divided among three lodging houses all bathed in lumberjack chic (appropriate for a landscape whose second human inhabitants, after the native Yuki, were mid-19th-century loggers). But once you venture outside of your woodsily appointed guestroom with its Nest thermostats and double-barrel rainhead showers, you’re very much at nature’s mercy. The coastline is ragged and steep; the picnic tables cling to the cliffsides like free-soloing rock climbers; the forests teem with mountain lions, bobcats, deer, foxes, wild turkeys, and black bears; and if the bears don’t get you, the 150 head of cattle aimlessly wandering about might. Adventure is always close at hand at the eight-month-old inn stationed three hours and change (without traffic) from the Golden Gate Bridge, but so is astonishing natural beauty, adorably enthusiastic ranch hands, and a crow’s nest hot tub with views for 50 miles. It's a magical place, to be sure—just watch where you're stepping.
What to Do on the Ranch
When you’re not leaning caaaarefully over the cliffside to scan for orca pods or spy on one of the harbor seal colonies sunning on the rocks below, you’re rumbling over 20 miles of old logging trails that traverse from rough sea to grassy ridgeline to deep green forest to rolling cattle pasture. You can do this via a highly recommended $40-a-head ATV tour (hopefully one piloted by the animated ranchhand Cory), or by mountain bike (rented through Mendocino’s Catch a Canoe), horseback (booked through Ricochet Ridge Ranch in Cleone), or on your own two feet.
Trails climb up, down, and around an unpeopled 2,000-acre spread that once provided a home base for a community of loggers and their families (some of whose names are inscribed on gravestones on a heartbreakingly pretty hilltop cemetery). With a ruggedness that’s hard to fathom when you’re soaking in your six-person hot tub perched atop a water tower, or sipping wine in your bathrobe while watching seabirds play in the gusts, Newport’s former dwellers would chop down redwoods and Douglas firs in the surrounding hills, drag them with horse and oxen to the ridge, and then send them careening down iron chutes toward the cliffs and coves below, where they’d be lowered onto schooners and sailed down to lumber-hungry San Francisco. You can see photographs of the trade in Newport Ranch’s guestrooms and lounges as well as remnants still hidden on the land. (With the help of Cory, we uncovered a three-foot-long springboard wedged into a notch of an immense redwood stump. Pairs of loggers would hoist themselves atop the board, and then start chopping. One hundred fifty years later, you could almost smell their sweat.)
What to Do Off-Ranch
The inn provides complimentary breakfast daily, dinner upon request, and bagged lunch to take on excursions. The genre is “comfort ranch food,” which translates to solid if not spectacular fare. More memorable are the meals you can find in towns to the south, like Fort Bragg and Mendocino. The Little River Inn, in particular, is a dandy, with locally famous Dungeness crabcakes that are the meaty repeat winners of the Mendocino Crabcake Cookoff, and a flat iron steak Diane that’s tender, juicy, and un-put-downable. From the porch of the attached Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, you can sip a gorgeous house saison (specially crafted for the Inn by Fal Allen, brewmaster of Anderson Valley Brewing Company) while you scan for grey whale spouts, or just ogle the brave souls learning to abalone dive in the cove below.
At low tide, drive a couple of minutes north of the Newport Inn, just past the Pacific Star winery, to one of Highway 1’s ubiquitous vista points. Trails from the parking lot lead to some sandstone bluffs and a tucked away tidal pool and seal hideout. If you’re feeling more turf than surf, carve out a few daytime hours to amble around the Mendocino Botanical Gardens, which are to your typical manicured gardens what the swells at Mavericks are to a Las Vegas wave pool. This is an English gentleman’s garden gone full Mendocino feral, with 47 acres of native riparian species, dusky conifer groves, and a riot of nearly 300 rhododendron types, all tracing the contours of a freshwater creek that empties out into the violent, uncivilized sea. You can and will get lost here, but you’ll be happy while you’re doing so.
Rooms at the Inn at Newport Ranch are woodsy, warm, and cushily modern, with prices to match. In-season rates (from May through December) start at $300 a night and work their way up to $1,400 per night for the ten-person Sea Drum house (which doubles as the abode of ranch owner Will Jackson, a 88-year-old Vermonter, former Wall Street macher, and passionate preservationist). Spa treatments can be booked on-site. To get to the inn semi-quickly, take the 101 (not the 1, which adds several splendid but serpentine hours to the trip) to Cloverdale, then the 128 through Anderson Valley on up to Fort Bragg. The inn is about 10 miles north of the town.