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A drab, rundown piece of property sat seven years on the market. Since my visit in 2003 it gained an amenity a year, instituted by the Gaines family, owners since 1987. It's a progressive hide-away and I doubt they'll be running out of room to continue further additions. Highland Ranch is tucked away next to Hendy Woods State Park featuring a hundred miles of trails in an old growth redwood forest. It sits a mile and half as the crow flies above Philo, California at an elevation of 1000 feet obscured further by surrounding apple orchards, vineyards, and nearby olive orchards in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Californians call this the North Shore.

This ranch stands alone for being the oldest working guest ranch in the hills there. It's not an architectural masterpiece, but its countenance takes a person back to the 'good old days'. You see, I'm from Wyoming and I've seen plenty of ranches and even worked on some, so I was really taken back. The fully restored yellow, hundred-year-old ranch is welcoming and cozy. You might think about taking a peek. The down-home, friendly atmosphere and home cooked gourmet meals brings returning guests year after year.

According to George Gaines when he purchased the property the roof sagged and weeds grew through the porch, walls and windows. He commented that he wasn't too concerned over costs at the time, because, after all, the water was free when it rained. I found George quite amusing considering he is a Princeton alumnus and retired lawyer.

Walls in the main house are adorned with the life and times of the Gaines family antics and a collection of George's well-worn hats. Historical pictures dot the walls, including a photo of his days as the Captain of Princeton's rowing team taken in the 1950s.There were a lot of favored parts of my trip; the solitude and scenery alone, made my heart throb, much less the offering of a "welcome home" atmosphere. It was my first taste of that particular part of the California coastal mountains and I drank it all in on horseback. I retract that, I drank more in on wine, too.

I received a "grape" education. The climate is indeed cool in October. I learned the well-drained soil conditions and coolness offer growers an envrironment similar to Champagne, France. (By all means, take long-johns.). Here grapes mature slowly balancing acid and sugar.

It seemed everyone stayed somewhat to themselves to relax or just take care of business. According to reports a fifth generation Roederer searched since the late 70s for enviromental conditions similar to his French property and he found it in Mendocino County. His nearly 600 acre estate is hidden, too, just north of the ranch.

There are many vintners in the area if you want to go off on a wine tasting trip, but at dinner meals you can taste as much as you want at the ranch.How to get there.There are two entrances to the ranch, the north and the south. I drove in from the south, taking Highway 101 out of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, through Sausalito, Petaluma, and Rohnert Park.

At junction 128 West where a grand redwood lumber mill sits, turn left. Follow that road approximately one mile and turn right. This is the actual Highway 128 and Philo is twenty-five more miles.

Watch for the town of Booneville and you'll know you are headed in the right direction.It is a narrow and winding road, doted on by sentinels of eucalyptus, redwood, conifer and oak forming a canopy. You're engulfed as you maneuver the twists and turns. It's a leisurely, constitutional drive that will stroke you with shade and slap you awake if you get too lulled, with glimpses of sun.

Philo is a small grower's community and in the middle of town at 8500 Highway 128 you can turn left to the private entrance of the ranch. The landmark is the Union 76 gas station. You'll need the gate code to go this way, so call ahead for it. You'll reach a "Y", where the road turns to dirt. Stay to the left here.

If you get to the locked iron gate without a code, you might be glad you did. Driving over a skinny, one-lane bridge with rapids below racked my nerves. If this happens, turn around, and take the north entrance. If you continue on here, once you are through the gate you'll crest a hill where the road turns right and drops to view the main yellow ranch house, stables, and cabins.The north entrance has the "Highland Ranch" sign by it.

It is about twelve miles north of the gas station, and again you will have to hang a left. It is a winding,uphill climb through the woods on another dirt road. You might feel lost, as I did, but if you turned at the sign, you're on the right trail.Locals make regular trips to relax with a meal served home-style and casual in the expansive dining area, three times a day. The kitchen is equipped with a commercial stove and oven, an island cutting table, sinks and handy pots hanging overhead giving an "old World" feel. The dining room has three long tables with a mix of period chairs encircling each one.

An interesting collection of plates dots every wall and cornice. The view through the windows in the dining room showcase the flower garden, hummingbird feeders, and fruit weighing down grapevines and fig trees in October.George is particularly proud of his chef who carves the main entrée' at the dinner meal.

The rest is left up to the guests. It sits there ready to grab from a vast array of gourmet foods, breads and desserts, too, all homemade.Apple orchards abound in the vicinity.

George added a hundred and fifty young fruit trees to the property that year. There are pear, fig, quince, nectarine, and of course grapes, which end up incorporated into many of the desserts. Cocktails and appetizers are served nightly. You might get salmon, imported cheeses, pates, brochettes?and cocktails, as much as you want. Some wines served are local; Roederer, Navarro, Lazy Creek, and Handley, among others that aren't so local.

Two bottles of wine adds décor to each table every night and wine lessons begin, along with lively conversation. A number of languages I didn't know volleyed about. The host speaks five; French, German, Spanish,Italian, oh, yes, and English. George exclaimed one night, "It could be Flemish, you never know!".Breakfast is unlike your own home.

Coffee is hot and ready when you get there, along with tea, fresh squeezed orange juice, a variety of cereals and home-baked breads. Dive in from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Delicious papas frias with garlic are made along with a choice of meats, eggs any fashion, and waffles or pancakes any size. Flowers add an artistic touch to the plates from morning to night. You can even eat them.

Each of the eight cabins has a fireplace and phone, propane heaters, and electric blankets if the North Shore area chills your bones. Wireless Internet is available in the main house along with a satellite TV if a sports lover just can't live without it. A piano and several guitars await playing fingers and the conservatory walls are lined with books.Dutchman's Pond, Highland Lake, and Navarro River are nearby. Part of the décor of the east side of the front porch is fishing poles up for grabs.

Take advantage of the boat or canoe.Of the many things to do, there is (skeet) shooting along with firearm safety training. An in-ground pool is down by the tennis court, and hammocks hang by the main house. There's more, if you have a lot of energy. Active hikers or bikers (BYOB) will have a ball.

The horses have daily workout routines, too. Gosh, you can even get married there if you want.The health conscious food is joined by other healing venue offerings. After a hike or horse ride get a massage, or later do some yoga at the on-site Yurt.

These two are new features, so I missed out.If you go in October dress warm. I took my long-johns, so I wasn't cold.

I carry them with me wherever I go. I'm from Wyoming, remember!.Contact Jim Gaines for details.

Highland Ranch
Jim and George Gaines
P.O. Box 150
Philo, CA

707 895-3600
Fax 707 895-3702.Email


.Linda studied journalism at Metro State in Denver and has a writing certificate from Long Ridge Writers' Group. Her first story is in From Eulogy to Joy, Beischel, Xlibris Press, 2000 and more on travel http://www.

By: Linda Vissat

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