The roaring surf of Anchor Bay stood as a backdrop visible from our cottage's bay window.
On the table sat steaming omelets I had cooked using the fresh hen eggs left on our doorstep the night before and tomatoes, spinach, broccoli and herbs I had collected that morning in the vegetable garden.
My husband and I dug into breakfast, enjoying the peace, quiet and gorgeous ocean view, when suddenly, a pair of goats strolled past our window.
We laughed long and hard. We hadn't banked on finding a slice of farm life, but that, and more, is what we uncovered at Mar Vista Cottages in Gualala.
In a way, that's the beauty of a trip to Mendocino County. You can find the traditional inns, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels with daily maid service, or you can find options that let you genuinely experience a stay in this rural corner of the North Coast.
Country coastal living
Mar Vista's location drew Renata and Tom Dorn in 2000, but the dozen fishing cabins-turned-vacation cottages were in serious disrepair. The Dorns undertook a major restoration, angling for a simplicity that wouldn't detract from the property's spacious rolling meadow amid tall trees and the ocean across the street. Country-inspired furnishings and "hankie"-style window coverings that hang from pegs are a few ways they have accomplished that. The cottages do show their age -- an old range in the kitchen, some cracks in the bathroom floor -- but they are a step above rustic and part of the property's overall charm.
At the heart of that charm is a large organic vegetable garden, where guests can help themselves to dozens of varietals, and a yard where more than 150 hens roam and lay eggs, which guests can help collect every afternoon. A picnic area, fire pit and soaking tub are available for guests.
"I love the way the cottages are like pioneer wagons surrounding the gardens," Renata said during our visit. "We are unique, and that's the way we like it."
That night, we sipped wine in a pair of outdoor Adirondack chairs as we listened to the crashing waves and stared at a magnificent blanket of stars.
"If this is farm life," my husband said, "sign me up."
Life in the wild
Up the road in Point Arena, Judy and Frank Mello have created a sanctuary of a different sort. They have turned their 110-acre property into B Bryan Preserve, where they care for and breed endangered African hoof stock, including zebras, antelope and giraffes.
Year-round public tours and lodging guests have helped fund the Mellos' conservation efforts.
Guests can stay in two cottages or a carriage house over the garage. The two cottages feature decks with hot tubs that overlook a pond and small, fully equipped kitchens.
The interiors really impress with antique parlor stoves, comfortable upscale furniture and reclaimed materials, from floors to stained glass windows. In the Bridge Cottage, old church pews were used to create a stunning staircase.
But what sets B Bryan apart are the animals. A Range Rover tour at feeding time gives visitors an up-close view of the preserve's more than 100 residents, who are among the world's most endangered species.
Judy knows all of the animals by name, as well as their personalities.
Why is Henry, a male antelope, living with Elvis the plains zebra? "He wants to mate with the girls, but it's not his turn," Judy explained.
Why does it look as if new-mom Jewel is shooting daggers at another Grevy's zebra? "That's Emily, and she loves being a mom. She's stolen two babies," Judy replied.
Then there's Jagger. "Our rock star," Judy said proudly. The Rothschild giraffes are the tour's encore act. These are the only animals whom guests can pet, feed -- and kiss. Leaning his long neck down to rub cheeks, Jagger puts a stamp on an enlightening tour.
Down on the farm
For wine lovers, about an hour's drive inland, the burgeoning wine region of Anderson Valley also offers a real farm experience in Philo.
Karen Bates' family has operated Philo Apple Farm for three decades. Along with her mother, Sally Schmitt -- who predated Thomas Keller as owner of Yountville's French Laundry -- Bates began inviting visitors for a hands-on cooking experience in the farm kitchen.
Then in 2000, the family built three cottages nestled among the apple orchard, and the Stay & Cook opportunities were born. Now, guests roll up their sleeves and cook alongside Bates in the kitchen, where she and her family make the juice, jams and chutneys they sell at an honor-system farm stand and a shop in Boonville.
"We don't advertise, because for some of the general public, this wouldn't be a good fit," Bates says. "People drive by and we let them explore the farm. We tell them what we do. Our clientele is all word-of-mouth or people who discovered us on their own."
Each cottage is spacious and exquisitely appointed. You won't find televisions, telephones or even cell service, but you will find huge windows that make it feel as if you're sleeping in nature.
In the morning, the warm Tuscan-style farmhouse kitchen welcomes guests with fresh apple juice, biscuits and homemade jam, yogurt and tea.
Cottages are designated by the color of their door. We stayed in the Green Door, featuring a comfortable four-poster queen-size bed and antique twin-bed, Hearthstone gas fireplace, cushy sitting chair, large open shower and porch perfect for sitting under the stars.
Just moments after parking by our cottage, we met Lefty -- a farm dog who truly loved playing fetch. He chased everything my husband threw for him. As we sat stargazing late into the night, there was Lefty, repeatedly dropping a stick on the porch.
Again, we found ourselves laughing. It seems farm life suits us, at least while on vacation.
For Philo restaurants, see the accompanying article on the Anderson Valley.