Idyllic Northern California Inns
By Hideaway Report Editor
May 1, 2017
I last reported on California’s wine country in May 2013, but recent research uncovered some potential new properties in the north of the state, sufficient to convince me that a return visit would be worthwhile. I didn’t need to consider this at great length. With its coastal vistas, historic sites, charming towns, stands of redwoods and the unspoiled Anderson Valley wine area, I find the region hard to resist.
From San Francisco we headed north to Healdsburg, a place I have visited regularly for more than 30 years. In that time, I have seen it grow from a quiet agricultural town into a lively and cultivated place with restaurants, shops, wine-tasting rooms and galleries. (How many towns of 12,000 nowadays support two fine independent bookstores?)
Healdsburg Plaza has earned deserved accolades as one of the most beautiful town squares in the country, with a copper-roofed gazebo, fountains and more than 15 varieties of trees, including Canary Island date palms planted in 1897. Just a block away from the plaza’s northeast corner, on North Street, we found SingleThread Farms, a restaurant and five-room inn (with a nearby five-acre farm).
SingleThread is the fulfillment of a dream for Kyle and Katina Connaughton. Kyle spent years cooking on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, at Michel Bras TOYA Japon. (Bras is a three-star chef best known for his restaurant Le Suquet, near Laguiole, in southern France.) There Kyle met British chef Heston Blumenthal, who offered him a position at his three-star restaurant, The Fat Duck, near London. The Connaughtons made the move to England, where Kyle developed recipes and Katina worked on a farm. In 2011 they decided to open a place of their own and settled on Healdsburg. SingleThread Farms debuted in December 2016.
Occupying a former post office, the building is easy to miss. On arrival, you first see the kitchen, with its gleaming cookware and shelves stocked with donabe, the classic Japanese ceramic cooking pots (on which Kyle published a splendid book in 2015). We had opted to take the inn’s only suite. There we found a wall of windows running the entire length of the room. With high beamed ceilings, white brick walls and wooden floors, the 700-square-foot contemporary space comprised a lounge with a gas fireplace, a semi-separate sleeping area with a long balcony and a large bath with heated floors, double vanities, a soaking tub and a walk-in shower.
One of the driving concepts behind SingleThread Farms is the Japanese notion of omotenashi, or a complete dedication to hospitality. This was visible in the kitchen space adjacent to the lounge, where I found a selection of chocolate truffles, a fine bottle of MacMurray Pinot Noir, thin-stemmed Austrian Zalto glasses, a sleek Ratio coffeemaker and homemade ice cream in the freezer.
In the evening, we enjoyed a memorable meal in the 52-seat restaurant. With custom-woven screens reminiscent of shoji, subdued lighting, dark wood accents and strategically placed flower arrangements in handcrafted ceramic vessels, the room was a brilliant evocation of Japanese aesthetics. As was the procession of dishes in the 11-course tasting menu (which could be customized to suit omnivores, pescatarians and vegetarians). We began with an arrangement called “Late Winter in Sonoma County,” which included several small dishes, the most notable being slices of whelk in a whelk shell artfully set among some greens. Everything that followed was compelling, not just for the flavors and textures but also for the plates and vessels, most of them created in Iga, 65 miles southeast of Kyoto, by the Nagatani family, eighth-generation Japanese potters. Among my favorite courses were the yellowtail with barrel-aged ponzu, Cara Cara orange, komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) and Saikyo miso; cured foie gras and Chioggia beet accented with cocoa, rosemary and rhubarb; black cod cooked in a fukkura-san (a tagine-style donabe) with leeks, brassicas, sansho (a type of Japanese pepper) and chamomile dashi; Duclair duck with blood orange, black trumpet mushrooms and savoy cabbage; and, finally, wagyu beef over eucalyptus with salsify, snow peas and burnt onion.
Although the restaurant stocks an impressive range of wine, we opted to go with the sommelier’s pairings, and this proved to be a wise decision. I particularly enjoyed the Yuho Eternal Embers Junmai sake, which went well with several courses.
Our stay at SingleThread Farms was a remarkable experience. And it is extraordinary that this is the Connaughtons’ first solo venture.
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From check-in to checkout, a superb experience.
Good to Know
Tours of the farm that supply many of the restaurant’s ingredients can be arranged.
Rates: Room, $900; Suite, $1,200
Address: 131 North Street, Healdsburg
Telephone: (707) 723-4646
The Inn at Newport Ranch
From Healdsburg, we drove down lovely Westside Road, passing through some of the most scenic wine country I know of. Reaching River Road, we headed west to the picturesque town of Guerneville, where we paid a visit to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, and then continued on to Jenner, where the Russian River surges into the Pacific. From there, we made our way to the coast and headed up Highway 1 to our next destination, a drive of about three hours.
The Inn at Newport Ranch lies some 10 miles north of Fort Bragg. After passing Seaside Beach, we came to a tract of open land, in the middle of which we spotted a small compound of buildings marked by a tall tree, whose windblown top looked curiously like an inside-out umbrella. Four massive basalt pillars stood at the entrance gate.
Entering the main ranch house, we were welcomed by innkeeper Cindi Smith, who with her husband, Creighton, applies years of hospitality experience to make guests feel at home. Cindi took us to our accommodations in the nearby Redwood House, which contains the property’s three suites. Twenty-four redwood trunks hold up the structure, starting from the lower level and rising up through the suites to the roof.
On the top floor, the Birdhouse Suite takes its name from its prime vantage point. The inn sits on an uninterrupted mile of oceanfront bluffs.
A huge cross section of a redwood root separated the sleeping area from the rest of the space and also served as a headboard. In the living room, a couch, a leather armchair and a coffee table were grouped near a gas stove. The compact bath came with an ample walk-in shower and a single vanity set into a large counter. Out on the balcony we discovered a gas barbecue and a wooden soaking tub — from which it became our habit to sit and gaze at the night sky while listening to the sea. Each of the suites comes with a kitchen, as the inn serves dinner only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the off-season, and Fort Bragg isn’t exactly a culinary hot spot. (Mendocino has attractive options, but it is 20 miles away.)
Having unpacked, we wandered back over to the main inn, where we found a generous spread of cheeses, meats, olives, dips, crackers, breads and local wines set out on a small wet bar, adjacent to a table made from a single massive piece of redwood. In the open living room, a huge stone hearth contained a blazing fire. There we paused to admire the beautiful 30-inch-wide redwood planks used in the floor. Table and floor lamps suffused the room with a warm glow, enhancing the luster of the redwood paneling. The following morning, we returned to the inn for the hearty “ranch breakfast,” tucking into pillowy pancakes and delicious bacon-wrapped eggs cooked in muffin tins.
Activities at the inn include hiking, horseback riding and biking, but the one not to miss is the ATV safari. During the course of an almost-three-hour tour, we really came to appreciate the scope of the property. In 1985 Will Jackson, a self-described “Connecticut Yankee,” had seen an ad in the Wall Street Journal for a stretch of coastal land near Fort Bragg. After a visit, he bought it, built a vacation home and decided to construct an inn, which came to fruition in 2015. In the intervening years, he purchased adjacent land as it became available, resulting in a magnificent property with three miles of contiguous ridgetops and redwood forests.
The Inn at Newport Ranch is the result of a very personal vision, one that is now aided by a staff of attractive and enthusiastic young people. It is a distinctive, interesting and comfortable place in which to stay.
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Hospitality so sincere that you feel as if you own the place.
Dinner is not served during the week during the off-season.
Good to Know
In addition to the rooms at the inn, you can rent the adjacent owners’ home, Sea Drum House, which has four bedrooms and sleeps up to 10 people.
Rates: Main Inn Room, $250; Suite, $400; Sea Drum House, $1,500
Address: 31502 North Highway 1, Fort Bragg
Telephone: (707) 962-4818
The Heritage House Resort
A five-minute drive south from Mendocino is The Heritage House Resort in Little River. This storied property may be remembered by those who saw the 1978 film “Same Time, Next Year” with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, in which it was an important location. The Heritage House began life as an inn in 1949, when Lauren Dennen bought and converted an 1877 farmhouse. It soon became one of the most popular spots in California, with reservations extremely hard to come by. Other family members built additional accommodations, all with stunning ocean views, before finally selling the property in 1998. Initially all continued to go well, but in 2005 another set of owners took over, and the resort soon collapsed financially, eventually closing in 2008. In late 2013 it reopened thanks to a committed, deep-pocketed owner.
On arrival at reception in the 1877 house, we were given a map. This is absolutely critical, as the 48 accommodations, all of which have been completely refurbished, are spread over the 37-acre hillside that leads to cliffs overlooking the Pacific.
We loved our suite the instant we entered, chiefly because of the panoramic view of the ocean and the coastline, seen through massive windows and from the spacious deck. Throughout, the décor is crisply contemporary, with neutral colors that sensibly leave the ocean view as the primary source of visual appeal. The deck was irresistible, and we loved just sitting in the Adirondack chairs, enjoying a glass of wine, mesmerized by the sound of the sea crashing into the cliffs below. We even braved the fog knowing that the woodburning fireplace would alleviate any chill. The bath was equipped with a soaking tub and heated floors.
Having enjoyed our suite so much, we were looking forward to dinner. Alas, we were in for a disappointment. Although the service was excellent — as it was throughout our stay — the duck soup was spoiled by undercooked barley, and the petrale sole was underseasoned. Fortunately, an alternative restaurant option lies just a two-minute drive away at the Albion River Inn.
The Heritage House has a full spa and a small fitness facility, as well as hiking trails. And the ever-obliging reception staff are full of recommendations for off-property activities. I am delighted that the place has been given new life. The views are unmatched, and the rooms are eminently comfortable. But the restaurant needs to be elevated to the same level.
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The sense of profound seclusion; the spellbinding ocean views.
The twisting roads to the accommodations ought to be better illuminated.
Good to Know
Wonderful trails ribbon the 37 acres for great views of the Pacific.
Rates: Superior Room, $220; Suite, $420
Address: 5200 North Highway 1, Little River
Telephone: (707) 202-9000
On previous trips to Mendocino, I had passed through the Anderson Valley without stopping. As it is one of the most appealing wine regions in the United States, this time I tried to find a place to stay that I could recommend. Heading south, we set out for the small town of Philo. There The Madrones might have been lifted from Tuscany, with its two lovely buildings with sienna stucco walls facing each other across a little courtyard. Jim Roberts built this handsome mini-estate 20 years ago to serve as the center for his design business, but the Great Recession of 2008 hit him hard. In response, he converted the property into a small inn, with four rooms in the two Italianate buildings; he then added another five in a nearby cottage.
All nine rooms are individually designed. We opted for the cottage, where each of the accommodations is named for the function it once served. Our room, The Kitchen, overlooked a circular patio and a small pond. A large airy space with high ceilings, it testified to Roberts’ design background. A hexagonal window at the peak of the ceiling allowed in a wash of light, and a beautiful abstract blue-and-brown-patterned rug topped an area of the wood floor and defined the space for the two queen beds. In the bath, a large walk-in shower took up one whole wall but still left plenty of room for the single sink. A nook by the entryway contained a kitchenette with a small fridge, sink, microwave and Nespresso coffeemaker.
In the main estate buildings, we found the restaurant Stone and Embers, which is under different management, as well as three tasting rooms. Although not a full-service inn — it has borrowed the Italian “agriturismo” concept of staying on a working farm or winery — The Madrones offers a distinctive character and deep comfort. I recommend it highly to those who want to explore the pleasures of the idyllic Anderson Valley.
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The sense of being in a little private world.
The fact that it is not a full-service property (in fairness, it does not claim to be).
Good to Know
The owners are long-time residents of the Anderson Valley and are full of good information and recommendations.
Rates: Estate Quarters, $210; Cottage Room, $240
Address: 9000 Highway 128, Philo
Telephone: (707) 895-2955