Posted by: acooksca | 12/01/2009

Memorable Over-nights on the North Coast

Ferndale VictorianTwo hundred miles north of San Francisco along Highway 101 lies a spectacular feature of the North Coast, Humbolt Redwoods State Park. Spending a few hours along the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants will restore both your sense of awe and your spirit. In this, the third largest state park, you can take a meandering drive, hike or bike in various groves including the Rockefeller Forest, the largest remaining old growth redwood forest in the world. But make a full day of it because at either end of the park are memorable places spend the night.

On the northern end is one of California’s most complete Victorian villages, Ferndale (pop. 1500.) Ferndale has thrived for the last 150 years on one industry: dairy. In 1852 brothers Stephen and Seth Shaw canoed into the broad fern covered flatlands at the mouth of the Eel River. The openness of this valley was unique along the mountainous North Coast. They built a cabin, cleared land for agriculture and founded a settlement they called Fern Dale.

The population of San Francisco was exploding in the mid-1800’s. Demand for timber from redwood and Douglas fir trees was the driving economic force along the North Coast. From Ferndale’s safe inland river harbor timber ships loaded up for the sail to San Francisco. They returned with immigrants who helped established the town’s agricultural community. So prolific were the creameries operated by Scandinavian new-comers that Ferndale became known as “Cream City”.

By the late 19th century the prosperous dairy community had built a show piece town of Victorian-Gothic architecture. During the 20th century the town lost its importance as a transportation center and the creameries struggled to compete with the rising mega-dairies of the central valley. But in the last 30 years Ferndale’s rural lifestyle and unique architectural heritage has attracted artists and trades people searching for the deep connectedness of a small-town.

Ferndale has a genuine and original Main Street. Local businesses inhabit intricately detailed gems of commercial Victoriana. The entire village was granted historic status (California Historical Landmark no. 883). Many of the impressive ‘butterfat palaces” in the residential area are now inns you can over-night at. The Shaw Brother’s original home, on The National Register of Historic Places, is the town’s most historic B and B. Built in the Carpenter-Gothic style in1854, the design was inspired by Nathanial Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables.

Our stay in the Shaw House could hardly be more welcoming. Paula, the owner, led us to our charming room Shaw House Parlor(complete with claw-footed tub) then gave us the run of the place. We poked about the extensive gardens and investigated the interior décor, much of it original to the mid-1800’s. The next morning we chatted with visitors from four other states over a sumptuous breakfast. Everyone was impressed by different details in the house that drew their attention. Paula told us that every penny she makes on the B and B goes back into the upkeep of The Shaw House.

Sixty miles south of Ferndale, at the southern gateway to the Humbolt Redwoods State Park, lies the unassuming town of Garberville (pop. 2403). Plan to stay over night just outside of Garberville at the Benbow Inn, a gracious English style country hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. When we stayed there recently my husband Bruce remarked “I not only feel like we are in a different place but to a different time.”

The Inn opened in 1926 as the Benbow Hotel, a distinctive destination half-a-days drive up Highway 101 from The Golden Gate. Secluded and elegant, the hotel attracted Hollywood stars and political dignitaries on their way to see the newly-completed Redwood Highway. The Benbow offered horse stables, golf course, swimming, fishing on the Eel river and boating on the small lake next to the hotel. It also featured the finest cuisine in the area.

Benbow Inn classic posterWe settled into our tastefully up-dated room, had a sip of sherry from a decanter on the antique dresser then descended the carved staircase to the Great Room. Freshly baked scones with butter and jams and a silver urn of black tea had just been set out. Some guests were already enjoying afternoon tea and a book before the open fireplace. We choose a table on the wide deck overlooking the river. A mild sun filtered through the Autumn-colored trees and time relaxed with each sip of tea. 

One of the best reasons to choose an overnight at the Benbow Hotel is for the kitchen.
Well executed regional cuisine is complimented by a wine list the Wine Spectator acknowledges with an award of excellence. The evening special was a grass-fed 12-ounce Waygu rib eye steak accented by a braise of Porcini, Lobster, Chantrelle and Beach mushrooms. The dish might sound familiar but the quality of ingredients and the care taken by Chef Brett Laukaitis’ kitchen was evident. The wine list features many small local producers and we found a 2005 Petit Syrah from nearby Lolonis Vineyards that was a real treat.

The Benbow Inn is particularly festive during the holidays when it is decorated with classic trappings that fill the hotel with lights and tradition. The Village of Ferndale begins Christmas celebrations on weekend of Dec. 4th with the lighting of “America’s Tallest Living Christmas Tree.”  Later in the month the town dresses up its farming equipment for the big holiday event, the Lighted Tractor Parade. The parade is on Sunday, December 20th this year and will happen come rain or fog.
Humbolt Redwoods State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=425

Ferndale visitors information: http://www.victorianferndale.com/

Ferndale’s Shaw House B. and B.: http://www.shawhouse.com/

The Benbow Hotel and Resort: http://www.benbowinn.com/

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