I would’ve paid more attention to the damn seagull had I known what this place was. I was too busy looking at the seals and otters, but it turns out Bodega Bay, an hour out of SFO, was the setting and filming location for Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Armed with that knowledge, I would have spent less time on my seafood bisque (excellent), less time on the flame-painted hot-rods parked outside, and more time screaming and waving my arms over my head. But then, I hadn’t expected to be pecked to death so close to the Golden Gate Bridge. It had been a sweet, low-traffic drive once we got off the Interstate, and, apart from a late breakfast and plans to see the famous ‘glass beaches’, I had nothing on my mind, certainly not maddened avians.
I’d driven out of San Francisco on a foggy morning, and a foggy morning when San Francisco is digging up all its roads and your rental car’s navigation system pretends like nothing is wrong, is the sort of morning where you leave your hair in bloody clumps by the roadside. To get over that, I’d been plotting, with said chocolate-snorker Hashim, how best to photograph what we imagined would be acres of glittering, multicoloured glass. What happens when you’re thinking far ahead, of course, is that you miss what’s right in front of you.
Like the glorious cliffs on this drive, thickly crusted in red-gold ice plants, tall stacks of rock being bashed by vast waves every few seconds. Or that bisque and the prawn sandwich. We almost missed Russian River too, a spectacular stretch where the fog curls up from the water like flame, and clouds cascade down the hill to meet it, and where we had to slam the brakes and reverse half a kilometre to see this, because we’d been arguing over whether or not we had the time to visit a couple of Mendocino county’s highly rated vineyards.
Pro tip 1: slow down. Visit the vineyards. And spend some time at Russian River. That’s all the more important because the glass beaches of Fort Bragg are, well, not all they’re made out to be. You go there imagining that the glass pebbles – remnants of bottles and 1950s car tail-lights, dumped in landfill and worn smooth by the sea – are lying around in vast piles, like Smaug’s hoard.
Instead, they are tiny things scattered across the beach, needing you to pick them out of the sand, and honestly a little disappointing. The good thing is, it’s only one thing to do on a lovely drive, and the beach is terrific.
This is the Pacific, though, remember, and you feel just a tiny bit of its muscle here – the pretty rock formations, the fact that the pebbles have washed up here at all – it’s all because of the pounding, raging, swirling water. This is not a beach to go for a swim off. Particularly because, along with the glass pebbles, there’s a fair bit of, er, organic flotsam on the beach, and you soon realise you’re picking glass beads out from under rotting seaweed and crustaceans.
Yes, it’s a bit of a hand-sanitiser moment. Still, there’s Curtis the Pig, who visits once in a while and makes you feel just a little bit guilty about that bacon-and-egg breakfast, and one hell of a sunset past those rocks, and there’s plenty of wine around Mendocino to help you forget. Mendocino itself is California distilled: pretty, casual, rich and with a film festival – give yourself time to drive around and explore the beautiful coast, stay in an old, pretty hotel, and take a deep breath, because tomorrow, you’re going to see the giants. If possible, rest your neck as well.