By CARY ORDWAY
Getting there is half the fun, they say, and one great example of that is the trip to or from Humboldt County and its largest city, Eureka. The home of some of California's most scenic wilderness, Humboldt County can be reached by going north on Highway 101 through a redwood forests, lush rolling hills and historic towns that each beckon the traveler to spend just a little more time along the way exploring.
We found that the coastal village of Mendocino, on Highway 1, is a great starting point, and well worth a night or two in one of the charming inns that take advantage of the area's natural beauty. Perched on a bluff overlooking the churning Pacific Ocean, Mendocino is so picturesque it was used as a stand-in for Cabot's Cove, the fictional New England fishing village in the television show Murder She Wrote. Fine restaurants and eclectic shops are found in some of the town's historic buildings. Artisans can't resist the town and many have wound up living there and opening local art galleries because of its unsurpassed natural beauty.
Fort Bragg is a little more typical California beach town which you'll find along Highway 1, just a few miles north from Mendocino. From there take Highway 20 east and you're in for a slow but scenic drive on a curvy road through the coastal mountains. In an hour or so you arrive at Willits, a frontier town with a colorful history and a picture-perfect setting among the rolling hills just east of the coastal mountains.
If you just want to pop over to Willits and leave the driving to a railroad engineer, you can take the famous "Skunk Train" from Fort Bragg to Willits. It's the same redwood forests you would see driving Highway 20, but there's just something a little more adventurous about riding the rails in a historic steam train.
While in Willits, be sure to stop by the Mendocino County Museum, which puts everything in historical perspective. It has one of the finest collections of Pomo and Yuki baskets in the world. And it has an antique steam logging equipment display that actually works.
The scenery north from Willits on Highway 101 alternates between rolling hills and sections that almost look like mountain passes — along the way visitors are taken through a number of fascinating small towns such as Benbow and Garbersville. Next comes the Avenue of the Giants, a 32-mile scenic diversion off 101 that we decided was well worth the extra time.
The Avenue of the Giants is a chance to get close to the Giant Redwoods and we enjoyed stopping at several marked groves along the way where you can get out of the car and take mini-hikes along well-marked trails through the trees. The Avenue of the Giants was originally built as a stagecoach and wagon road in the 1880s and it now parallels Highway 101. It's not far out of the way at all — just a little slower because it's a two-lane highway instead of the four-lane 101. These magnificent trees were preserved as part of the 52,000-acre Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Just a few miles up the road from the Avenue of the Giants, we saw the signs for the Victorian Village of Ferndale, a town we had heard about. While it's a couple of miles off Highway 101, Ferndale is well worth the extra time. The countryside surrounding Ferndale is dairy country and a pleasant excursion on its own. But when we arrived at Ferndale, it was immediately apparent why it is a popular stop with tourists.
Most of the buildings in Ferndale were built in the Victorian era of the late 1800's. All throughout town we came across ornate homes known as "Butterfat Palaces" because they had been the homes of successful dairymen. Adding to the town's uniqueness, Scandinavian, Swiss-Italian and Portuguese immigrants moved to the area, making it a "melting pot" of cultures. Today that heritage is celebrated with special events like the Portuguese Holy Ghost Celebration and the Scandinavian Mid-Summer Festival.
Ferndale visitors will find not only Victorian architecture but also a wide variety of specialty shops, arts and antique stores as well as several hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns.
Back on Highway 101 we drove north just a few miles farther and noticed the sign for Loleta, which brought to mind another side trip we had heard about. Only a couple of minutes off Highway 101 is the tiny town of Loleta which is home to the Loleta Cheese Factory. You don't come here for Victorian architecture, shopping or anything other than a unique experience in a store that is not quite like any other.
We dropped in on a quiet weekday morning but even then there were several other visitors making their way through the 34 varieties of cheese offered by the Loleta Cheese Factory. The store cuts small pieces of almost every type of cheese so that you can sample the many ways in which this company varies the taste of its cheeses.
But it's not just about the tasting — it's about learning how cheese is made. You might even get owner Bob Laffranchi to take you on a personal tour. Whether it's Bob or his staff, someone will drop everything they are doing to explain how cheese is made while you watch the process through a window that looks into the actual cheese factory.
According to the experts at the Loleta Cheese Factory, the bountiful pastures of Humboldt County play an important role in the quality, flavor and natural goodness of the cheese. It's just like similar locations in Europe where the cheese is world-famous. At the Loleta Cheese Factory each vat of cheese is worked by hand and carefully monitored for quality. Among the variations of cheese available are smoked salmon cheddar, jalapeno cheddar, garlic jalapeno jack, havarti with herbs and spice, garden jack and hickory smoked jack. Also available at the Cheese Factory are gourmet spreads and sauces and flavor-infused oils and vinegars.
Just up ahead on Highway 101 is your destination, Eureka, the largest city in Humboldt County and yet another city in this part of the state known for an abundance of Victorian architure. From here there is plenty to explore in all directions, including many more of the Giant Redwoods that add so much to this region's natural beauty. Just remember: if getting there is half the fun, the other half is waiting for you in Humboldt County.