Perched on tawny bluffs and surrounded on three sides by crashing surf, the impossibly quaint Northern California town of Mendocino is among the state’s top coastal destinations. Settled in the 19th century by Maine fishermen, Mendocino looks so much like a New England village, with white clapboard houses, a lofty church, and public gardens. that it was used as the location for the Maine village in the 1980s TV series Murder, She Wrote.

Since the 1950s, Mendocino has been a magnet for artists, who came for the inspiring views and affordable rents. Those cheap studios have vanished, but the town, lined with one-of-a-kind galleries, remains a haven for artists and food lovers. At the MacCallum House, a restored 19th-century inn, Chef Alan Kantor prepares delicious coriander-crusted ono in the homey gourmet restaurant, while a few blocks away, Cafe Beaujolais serves up seared scallops and local Niman Ranch steaks. You might check into the historic Joshua Grindle Inn, which features fireplaces and ocean views, or continue down the coast to Albion, where the Albion River Inn lures guests with breathtaking views, luxurious rooms overlooking a coastal inlet, and a fine restaurant.

It’s just a short walk to the coastal headlands and beaches. Tide-pooling here is a delight: You’ll find sea anemones, starfish, and hermit crabs. December to March is prime time for whale-watching, as great gray whales swim from their summer homes near Alaska to winter feeding grounds off the coast of Mexico.

Within a few miles of Mendocino are wondrous slate parks, including Van Damme, Russian Gulch, and Jughandle State Reserve, where you can hike inland into the “pygmy forest” full of stunted, century-old cypress trees. Railroad fanciers head north to Fort Bragg lo ride the narrow-gauge Skunk Train 20 miles to Willits and back—you’ll smell the sooty engines before you see them; that’s why they call ’em Skunks.