By Marguerite Harrah
I kept hearing about this place, the Stanford Inn. And not just from the gay community. They weren’t casual mentions either — that doesn’t seem possible when someone reports an experience of the Stanford Inn. Inevitably the friend leans forward, stares deep into my eyes as if trying to communicate a secret from the great beyond, and commands in a voice that sounds like they are possessed by Charlton Heston, “YOU must go there.” My friends know how I feel about travel. As a married lesbian with kids, I want to go with my family to locations where we feel safe but not ghettoized. And I don’t feel like being a representative for gay marriage everywhere I go. I want to be a family. If my kids have a tantrum, it’s because they are tired, not because they have two moms, as I was once informed by a fellow parent who had been observing our family dynamics at a resort pool. He actually shook his head and wagged his finger. I feel the need to protect my family not so much from bigotry as from the chance that I might bite a finger whilst educating.
So of course for years I resisted checking out the place everyone said was perfect for me. Folks were a tad too enthusiastic about it for my taste. Were they getting a kickback? I knew they weren’t, but they all acted as if it was not just a family place to be, but a vision that would change me radically — so I had to resist, simply on principle! Plus, what if I did go and what happened for them did not happen for me? Every person I know who had gone to the Stanford Inn came back with the same glow. You know that look after a headstand or a massage? Blood Flowing Alive look.
Being the skeptic I am, I would watch them to see how long it lasted. But they seemed to be able to take whatever was so special about this place and carry it with them. Many made changes to their diet and way of life, which increased their aura of well being. And that, I hate to admit, pissed me off.
So I showed them: I never went!
I’d go to places that seemed to offer the snuggly-looking B&B I wanted. We’d cram ourselves into someone’s old bedroom with gingham curtains, hearing every creak the honeymooning neighbors made, and in the morning we’d stuff ourselves with butter-laden scones for breakfast. We’d have to spend too much time keeping the kids reeled in, because rarely was it safe to let them wander. I wouldn’t dream of it in a large hotel or resort, and most B&Bs are too small for them to explore. So we’d come back fat and feeling tired and ultimately disappointed. On paper (or online) it had looked so good.
Then all my friends said, “When you are ready … GO TO THE STANFORD INN!”
So finally, with spite in mind, I talked to my wife and we decided to go.
For some reason I was expecting a combo of Zen monastery and too chic eco-cool vibe. I am not into any of that stuff. I like comfort and yumminess, so I did not start out with the best attitude. Yes, the drive had been breathtaking, with the canopy of redwoods draping us like magical secret tunnels. But after three hours in the car with kids and very winding roads, my wife and I were both ready for a drink when we pulled into the place. We did not want any “Kumbaya” attitude.
But something happened on my way out of the car — we all felt it. The air lifted me with scents I had long forgotten — redwoods, pine, fireplaces. And I was filled with a feeling that I had also not been host to in quite some time. The most honest way I can describe it is JOY. I stood there, as my wife took the kids in, and just accepted what I was feeling. But I was still ready to be disappointed.
Inside, I saw that the folks who work there seem to want to be there. They are not the obsequious yet patronizing staff you find at most upscale hotels. Right away, I felt I was dealing with human beings. And they were not so scared by RULES that they had to make us follow their procedures. The woman at the front desk took one look at my relieved but still harried expression and graciously welcomed me, adding that we had arrived in time for their snack. Some kids who work there took our kids to show them books and toys, and my wife and I were directed into this gorgeous hall that was part lodge and part living room, complete with fireplace crackling and a view of the coastal ocean — a view at which you can only gasp and say, “Epic!” And we got to sample really fantastic local wines and munch on homemade goodies. No hemp.
After we regrouped the staff checked us in, and when I inquired about the locale they talked about their love for the area and what they did. They were all locals and they wanted us to share their pride in this atmosphere. They talked to my kids about adventures to be had, like the intriguing-sounding Glass Beach: a former garbage dump now transformed into a treasure trove of ocean-worn glass pieces. Listening to the staff talk about places to eat and where to go, it became clear that this is a community where there is enough for everyone. They know that the more you enjoy what’s offered, the more you will want to come back. And that’s the thing. I never felt I was being hustled into anything, they don’t just push the house brand everything. I felt like they wanted us to have a good time, the way you would want with folks you really do care about.
I had finally let my guard down, but it was not until we were in our rooms that I hit BLISS central — they were so generous, spotlessly perfect, and luxuriously comfortable. They also made a perfect match with the woodsy surroundings. Sitting on the porch, looking out at the ocean with gardens rolling out beneath me, fog cinching in along the redwoods, lamas grazing — oh I felt the presence of a connected sense that I have longed for. I later found out that the Inn is built on ley lines: sacred places in the earth where energy is released up and out.
The pool turned out to be something from a tropical dream, part of a greenhouse where banana trees are growing. They had floaty toys for the kids, and I could do the redwood sauna and then the hot tub. But just to doze in the lounge chairs as the kids played, then do a few laps, shower off… I was in heaven.
Yet even as I experienced this very profound sense of well being, I had the fear that it would be transitory — just my chemicals getting happy for a while because I was someplace beautiful. I had also gotten very hungry by then, and I’m one of those people who really needs the satisfaction of a delicious meal — I am always looking to eat better. My wife, although always very happy with a burger and fries, is now at the age where she is starting to get that this diet might not bring her a long life. Still, she does not want to be a granola gal. So I was concerned. Not wanting to drive, we decided to try dinner at the Inn’s own Ravens’ Restaurant. I showed her that this restaurant is TOP RATED BY ZAGATS! Even though there is no meat. And she is one of those Midwestern types who can feel like a child without their blanket if you take away her right to meat. I watched her face, all pissed grumpy as she picked her dish, a complex mushroom something or other. And she is not a huge mushroom fan, but the waiter had assured us that it was delicious. I held my breath as the main dishes came, but my steak-&-potatoes lady looked at the beauty on her plate and dove right in. “I could see eating like this!” she exclaimed.
We also had local wines from their award-winning collection, while the kids had pizza and explored salads and smoothies. They were really happy and saw for themselves how much more energy they had from not eating “gross.” Then we did dessert, and I watched my wife eat a massive chocolate concoction as I consumed a creamy something — and none of it would clog our arteries. Our kids ate ice cream that is non-dairy, and my daughter later told me that she didn’t have a tummy-ache like she always gets from ice cream. I had not known this still happened to her — I thought she’d outgrown it. She confessed she didn’t want to tell me because she did not want to give up ice cream, but now she can still have it, just this kind. WOW! And instead of the lethargic yuck that usually kicks in after a heavy meal, we actually felt energized after having eaten and wound up going for another swim later on.
That night I slept better than I had in ages. The beds were heaven. The kids were in their own room next door. I didn’t have to take Ambian, which I always bring with me when I travel because I do not take to unknown beds. My wife and I were so snuggled under down blankets with a crackling fire, that when we did go to sleep, we’d had as romantic an evening as our honeymoon — well, better, because I wasn’t drunk.
The breakfast the next day, which comes with the room, was The Best Brunch I have ever had. I had heard about their legendary scones — Whatever you do, get scones! — but all the food was organic gourmet, including the finest pancakes imaginable! My wife, now taken with gourmand toadstools, did a Portobello Benedict. And when she found out that what she was eating was vegan? She just nodded, closed her eyes, and murmured, “I don’t miss it.”
The Inn is a joyous place, and that joy permeates everything, even the housekeeping — they laugh and smile, anticipating our need for extra towels, seeing us go to the pool. It became clear to me what I was reveling in. The Inn is run as act of love, not as just as a tool to make money for some corporation. It’s run by a family and they put their all into it. The guests are an interesting mix; it’s nice that socio-economic strata are not flaunted. Everyone is casual and relaxed and friendly. We spotted a few celebs, and they seemed to relish a place where they could just be. No one bothered them, though it was hard not to stare while dinning in the same room as a film legend.
We explored the land by outrigger, rented from Catch A Canoe & Bicycle Too, and paddled along the privately owned land on the eight-mile Big River estuary, part of a 7,000-acre tract in Big River State Park. We delighted in seeing all forms of wildlife — and as my kids marveled, “NOT IN A ZOO!” When we rented bikes the next day, they fitted us and then we rode on the flat protected path alongside the river we had paddled. When we stopped for water at one point, we were all quiet — just the sounds of primordial forest wavering around us. My youngest watched an otter flip past and mused, “We could be at the start of time.”
And there was real contentedness in her tone. It did not contain longing for video games or texting — not because we had banned those crucial parts of their lives, either. They just stopped reaching for them. In fact, when we drove into town, the kids didn’t even remember to bring their phones with them. As they sat looking out the windows, I realized how accustomed I had grown to seeing just the crowns of their heads bowing over their gadgets.
Strolling through the organic gardens at the Inn, we picked apples from a very old tree — maybe over one hundred years old, they thought. But that’s whippersnapper age here: There are redwoods reaching over 300 feet, which started their journey two thousand years ago.
Your life and concerns feel rather insignificant when you lean against a tree that lived at the time of Christ.
Going back to the Inn, I saw the true spirit of the place, how every being is sacred no matter their supposed usefulness. We had a chance to meet the owner Jeff Stanford, and he took us on a tour of his horses. These are not show animals; they are horses that otherwise would have been killed because they are lame or old. Jeff and his family feed and care for them, for no other reason than that these creatures have no place left to be. We all fed an aged horse a carrot, and my wife swore it winked at her.
And that’s how this place, the Stanford Inn, which I had resisted for so long, worked its simple magic on me.
There’s no cult, no insistence to be a certain way. If there is a raison d’être to the place, it would have to be a love for all things. Just that simple. Creating a space where love can proliferate and you can nurture the body and the spirit — making ample space for what I’ve heard called our Buddha Nature to flourish. Weddings take place here all the time, as Jeff Stanford is ordained to perform ceremonies.
We decided that for the five-year anniversary of our legal marriage, we would have a ceremony here.
Heading home and hitting city traffic, I got cut off by a cellphone-talking driver. But my first instinct was not to hit my horn and righteously rage at this dumb-ass. Instead, I thought to myself that maybe the trick of holding onto the serenity of a stay at the Stanford Inn is not so much letting go of self-importance as it was just the concept of each of us having equal importance.
The lame horse and the idiot driver — if I can find space for compassion, it opens up a world of opportunity for me, within which I can keep moving. I sighed and pictured the giant sequoias that had watched us come and go, constantly reaching up and out for the revelation of the open sky.
STANFORD INN: Coast Highway and Comptche Ukiah Road • Post Office Box 487 • Mendocino, CA 95460
800-331-8884 • 707-937-5615 • email: firstname.lastname@example.org