Big Times at Little River

"Where There's Smoke," there's just bound to be a good story.

And as good stories go, one of the best is at the legendary Little River Inn on California's Mendocino Coast, about 150 miles north of San Francisco.

The quaint village of Mendocino — home to some 100,000 residents — is just up the road from the inn, and has been used by Hollywood as a favorite Cape Cod look-alike.

It was at the inn that I first found out about the confluence of international intrigue, JFK and Havana cigars from the grand master of stories himself — innkeeper Mel McKinney.

To get the story, you have to read McKinney's book, Where There's Smoke, a fictionalized rendering of the U.S. embargo on Castro's Cuba.

The facts of the story are simple: President John F. Kennedy orders his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to fetch a bunch of his favorite Cuban stogies on the night before the Cuban blockade goes into effect.

Salinger dutifully visits virtually every cigar store in the Baltimore-D.C. area, and winds up with 1,100 Cuban cigars for his boss. Of course, McKinney's fictionalized version of this story combines cigars with a heady mix of political play.

Stars Galore
When McKinney isn't writing, fly-fishing or playing "Happy Birthday" on his trumpet for guests in Little River Inn's restaurant, he'll be happy to discuss cigars with you.

And the "cigar deck" overlooking the ocean in front of the main house is a perfect spot for enjoying a good cigar.

My wife and I discovered the Little River Inn many years ago, and we've been hooked on it ever since by the warmth of the fifth-generation, family-run setting, the great accommodations and the memorable dining room, where the emphasis is on fresh, local produce and nonmeat fare such as fish.

Hollywood discovered the place long before we did, soon after it was opened in 1939 by Ole and Cora Hervilla — McKinney's late father- and mother-in-law.

Ole tended bar to the stars, including Jane Wyman, star of the 1947 film "Johnny Belinda," which was partly filmed in Mendocino.

During Wyman's visit, her then-husband, Ronald Reagan, got down on the floor and apparently showed everyone his old football moves.

Many other stars visited over the years, including comedian Jonathan Winters, who came during the filming of "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming!" in Mendocino, and reportedly did a very funny three-hour impromptu comedy routine in the bar.

Some of our best times at the inn have been spent in the dining room, where a recent memorable meal included salmon encrusted with pine nuts, coupled with a spinach purée, along with Parmesan polenta and a basil coulis.

There is always time, of course, for leisurely walks through the nearby village of Mendocino itself, with its numerous little gift shops, cafes and excellent views of the ocean.

For music fans, check out the big two-week festival beginning on July 10, in which genres from folk to opera are offered with a built-from-scratch tent constructed every year for the event.

The visual arts have a big allure in Mendocino, too, as is evident in Larry Wagner's The Artists of the Mendocino Coast.

Whether it's cuisine, cigars or the Pacific at sunset, one thing ties them all together at the Little River Inn. In McKinney's own words: "Hospitality is what this family is all about."

And there's much of that, too, at the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community, which cutely identifies itself as "a contemporary rural American shtetl" serving the rather miniscule Jewish population here.

Hospitality is also a key word in understanding the history native Americans play in this town: The county is home to nine native American reservations, one of the largest such groupings in the entire country.


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