California's north coast - fishing villages, crags, redwoods

California's northern coastline bears little resemblance to its southern counterpart, that warm-water stretch of beach that's lined with sunbathers from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

North of San Francisco the fog-festooned sand dunes will be spotted with wild grasses, and the weather is often chill and blustery. The ocean threshes endlessly, flinging itself against the rocks with a mighty Wagnerian roar.

Then, just when you begin to think of this rugged countryside as cold and brooding, the sun burns through the fog, and the ocean turns a vivid shade of blue.

Traveling north from San Francisco, you leave Highway 101 at Santa Rosa and head for Sebastopol, a village of old-fashioned houses with porch swings on broad front verandas. (From this tiny town Charles Schulz used to mail his ''Peanuts'' strip to the editor.) If you happen to be there in autumn, you can buy apples right off the tree from any of the orchards that line the two-lane highway to Bodega Bay.

It's at Bodega Bay that you meet the Pacific.

At first you might dismiss Bodega as simply another bait-and-tackle operation. But a lot goes on here. Get a window seat at The Tides restaurant, order a bowl of thick clam chowder and some chunky sourdough bread, and watch the life of a community where fishing is everyone's pastime and some people's livelihood. Children and grandpas and lovers and families line the dock, feet dangling, to try their luck.

About 2 p.m. the commercial boats start docking to weigh in their catches. Most are mom-and-pop operations - and Mom often looks as though she could win a wrist-wrestling contest in any league. As each new boat comes in, men drift out to the pier (as fishermen do everywhere) to see how big someone else's catch is.

Don't linger in Bodega too long. You'll want to stop at Fort Ross to walk around the wooden fortress, the last remnant of a foothold once carved out by Russian otter hunters in a land then owned by Spain.

Were the Russians interested only in otters? Or did they hope to make a niche for Russians in this new land? The passing years have erased any urgency in that question. Sheep pass in and out of the fortress, caring little if they're munching Russian grass or Spanish or American.

Fort Ross is now part of the California State Park system. Some of its structures date back to Russian days, but a dozen years ago vandals burned the church, so it is now a reconstruction.

A few miles beyond Fort Ross is Salt Point State Park, an ecological wonder with its four-mile shoreline of tide pools, sea stacks, and caves to explore.

You can drive for miles along this primitive coastline and see few signs of habitation. Seascapes are achingly beautiful, and along the wind-swept shore you'll see people walking the beach, clambering across the bluffs that rise above the sea, or hunkered up on a rock gazing at the soaring gulls. Lodging places are few and far between. But at Little River, an old Victorian farmhouse dating to the 1850s has expanded into Heritage House, a leisurely retreat for discriminating San Franciscans who enjoy a commanding view of the craggy coast, the brilliant fuchsias, and the gourmet food and impeccable service of a fine dining room.

It wasn't always so respectable. Once it was a base for smuggling both liquor and Orientals; for a while it served as a hideout for ''Baby Face'' Nelson.

But perhaps beyond all else on the northern California coast, there's the excitement of discovering the town of Mendocino - a village for painters, poets, philosophers, photographers, and those who love the old-fashioned look of Maine architecture. (The movie ''Summer of '42'' was filmed here.)

Practically all the town is old. Some of the buildings are well painted, some rustic, and some obviously held together with chewing gum and string. Pointy picket fences, green with moss, sag to the earth; weathered water towers (still functional) proliferate on the side streets. Main Street is a one-sided affair, facing a pasture with grazing cows and the vivid sea beyond that.

Settled in the 1850s by New England lumbermen, Mendocino lived a lusty life as a mill town for almost a century, then faded into oblivion when the last mill shut down in 1938. But its demise was arrested by artists and Bohemians seeking freedom of style and life on the cheap. Even now, artists sit on the sidewalk around town or scrunched up in a doorway, sketching village scenes. It's not a contrived artiness; most of them live there.

A few miles north is Fort Bragg, starting point for the famed ''Skunk'' Rail-road. This old logging train was 26 years in the construction, mile by arduous mile, in the late 19th century. In the 40 miles it travels from Fort Bragg to Willits, it rattles through heavy forest, switchbacks, trestles, and tunnels twice a day, every day of the year (reservations: Western Railroad, Fort Bragg, Calif. 95437).

Beyond Fort Bragg, Highway 1 clings to the ocean, passing through tiny, half-deserted lumbering villages. The foamy green surf bangs against a thousand rocky coves and doghole ports where schooners came crashing to grief in heyday lumbering times.

Then the highway dips into heavy forests to merge with Highway 101 for the journey through redwood country.

The giant redwoods, tallest of living organisms, sometimes more than 30 stories high, grow only in these northern California coastal regions. They crave the fog and dampness.

You get back to the ocean in Eureka, a seaport lumbering town where Victorian architecture thrives. Lumber is what everyone had plenty of, and homes display lavish use of heartwood lumber. Most lavish of the lot is the mansion of early lumber king William Carson. It is said that whenever work got slack, he would have his men add yet another cupola or tower to his already overdone rococo home.

Seafood from Humboldt Bay is considered by gourmets (especially Eureka gourmets) to be the best in California. And Lazio's on the waterfront serves it fresh from the cold waters. There's nothing fancy about Lazio's, but the cold seafood platter would be hard to surpass.

Phyllis Zauner is the author of numerous travel books on California and the West.

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