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I was still thinking wine when we sat down to dinner on the enclosed wraparound porch of the MacCallum House Inn and Restaurant, an 1882 Victorian cottage fronting Mendocino Bay. But the nightly drink special -- organic cherry margaritas -- proved irresistible. I followed with king salmon over fettuccini, encored with another cherry marg and eavesdropped on a Willie Nelson look-alike, his biker-hot wife (of indeterminate age) and a twentysomething son who was howling with laughter disproportionate to the humor of the conversation.

The next morning, we lay in bed watching from our picture window as fog floated in off the gray Pacific. At breakfast, Russell and Sandra, a couple from Indianapolis, raved about a nearby gallery that sold woodcrafts made by local artists. Checking out its wares later -- $3,500 mahogany lamp stand, $10,000 dining room table, a pair of $2,000 (each!) rocking chairs -- I carefully backed out of the store with one thought: "Must learn Russell and Sandra's investment strategy."

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The next morning, we headed just south of town to the Big River, which snakes out of the hills and into the ocean at a sandy beach on Mendocino Bay. We rented an outrigger canoe and headed upriver, past brackish marsh and through tens of thousands of acres of protected territory. An incoming tide aided us up the river's long, wide curves. Great blue heron fished the banks and an osprey screeched high overhead. After a few miles, the river narrowed and a pack of otters surfaced, one after the other, eyeing us shyly before ducking away.

Back in town, we ate Thai tofu burritos and drank Red Tail Ale, a local brew, at the Mendocino Cafe, melting into the town's narcotic rhythms. Given what has happened to so many other formerly idyllic American towns, I could almost sympathize with the clerk at Wild Thing, a small clothing store in the center of town. The friendly, fortyish woman in jeans and a paisley shirt took issue with the abalone divers who frequent Mendocino. "They're all fat, they park their trucks on the beach, leave their trash everywhere and go out diving alone when they don't even know the currents. One of those guys dies, like, every month. Completely obnoxious."

She was otherwise very pleasant, and the store was a hit: Cathleen bought a pair of bold red jeans and an Indian print sequined top, and I scored a stack of oxymoronic postcards (an African bushman reading Playboy, a kangaroo slugging a tourist).

We took our last Mendocino hike through a pygmy forest, where, due to the hardpan soil, most full-grown trees top out below shoulder height. A plaque told us that this terrace would eventually regain full fertility through erosion and new soil deposits. Lacking the time to wait for that geologic event, we hiked down into Van Damme State Park, where redwoods large enough to house hobbit families shadowed bright ferns.

After a few miles, the trail bottomed at a creek crossing before rising again into the hills beyond. As I would do later in Downieville, I wondered how far to the top of the trail. But for now, I was in no hurry to get there.

John Briley last wrote for Travel about the Outer Banks.

Details: Active Northern California

GETTING THERE: We flew from D.C. to San Francisco (the closest major airport to Mendocino) and flew home from Sacramento (near Downieville). Northwest flies from Reagan National to San Francisco (via Memphis) and from Sacramento to Reagan National (via Memphis) for $243 round trip.

Other options: Fly into San Francisco and out of Reno, Nev. (about 100 miles from Downieville); round-trip fares start at $235. JetBlue also flies from Dulles to Sacramento and Oakland, starting at less than $200 round trip.

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