by Louis Bignami

Ferndale combines kooky and country. Consider its history as a dairy town where Victorian "Buttermilk Palaces" testify to the tons of milk and cheese shipped south to San Francisco. Factor in the scenic delights of the nearby Avenue of Giants where redwoods left from logging days offer the chance for an aching neck as you crane upwards in wonder. Factor in a nice little beach without crowds, the Eel River with its steelhead and kayaking and a nearby college town. Shake everything up with an earthquake or three and perhaps the strangest "race" in America, and you have a destination worth the rather long drive up Highway 101 from the Bay Area.

Ferndale's main street, with its classic old Victorians, working artists and better food than anyone has the right to expect in an old, out-of-the-way small town deserves a half day on its own. Consider it a Mendocino or Carmel without tourists -- if you factor in time, rather than distance -- it is about as far from San Francisco today as Carmel was in bohemian days between the wars. You do not find tee shirts. You do find wonderful art and some of the most affordable wood carvings and pottery anywhere. Both an artist's co-op and individual altierers let you watch art as it's created.

In between the artisans and artists you can help support the local dairy industry with samples of home-made ice cream and candy. Leave room for dinner at the hotel -- it's a wonderful chance to try seafood dishes made from fresh-caught mussels or clams from nearby local waters. The hotel offers Victorian rooms at a moderate price. Just off Main Street the Gingerbread Mansion B&B has, among other foibles, a room with his and hers clawfoot tubs -- reservations are recommended. There is even an inexpensive motel and useful, if rather ugly, campsites at the fairgrounds.

Just out of town, Russ Park, a small park with redwoods provides a chance to walk off dinner, but the beach deserves more time. Just watch for sneaker waves if you make it down to the watch. You will doubtless see a collection of shore birds and may spot seals or sea lions.

Given the hideaway location just minutes off Highway 101 only the depraved or demented would visit on Memorial Day weekend, for the Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race. Three days of foolishness over bay, mudflats and beach with contraptions that live up to their names like Rickety Chickadee or Tyrannosaurus Rust, and, if they do not sink before they finish, you will spot survivors of previous races in their namesake museum on Ferndale's Main Street.

Other local attractions include State Route 211, the long, winding, slow road down through Capetown, Petrolia and Honeydew on the Matole River offers the most uncrowded view of the California Coast all the way down to Shelter Cove and serves as an excellent alternative to Highway 101. There's a demanding Tour of the Unknown Coast Bicycle Race on this road, but it's a better slow and scenic tour with rubbernecking stops. Nice area. Few Crowds. Cool Shore. Good meals. Decent Lodging.