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A touch of tranquility

Right outside my cottage door was a little meditation garden. It seemed a trifle redundant, because all of Elk is one big meditation garden.

A string of shingled inns and clapboard galleries clinging to the top of the sea cliffs between Mendocino and Sea Ranch, the invitingly drowsy hamlet offers one of the most dramatic settings imaginable to do pretty much nothing.

It's a place to lose yourself in a novel next to a snapping fire while raindrops pelt the window, stirring only to refill your glass with pinot noir. Or, if ambition tugs, you can amble down improbably gorgeous Greenwood State Beach among skittering sandpipers, unearthly sea stacks and storm-tossed driftwood piled like pickup sticks.

And, if you have energy to spare, you can ponder the two eternal questions of Elk: What, exactly, is a dog-hole port? And why do old-timers refuse to call the town by its official name?

A century ago Elk was a flourishing lumber town, with its own mill and wharf, but it suffered the same fate as many of its neighbors along the timbered North Coast. The 1929 stock market crash, a string of disastrous fires and shifting markets wiped out the logging industry, reducing Elk to the happily somnolent village it is today.

Attracting a smattering of driftwood sculptors, New Age poets and itinerant gourmets, the town seems like a smaller, more intimate, pretourist version of Mendocino.

A heavy mist shrouded the Mendocino Coast as we drove northwest through the Anderson Valley, skirting the vineyards along the Navarro River, approaching Mendocino. As we wound our way down Highway 1, the clouds parted occasionally to reveal dazzling glimpses of sheer sea cliffs and the wave-battered sea stacks just offshore.

We were nearly through Elk before we realized we had arrived. We pulled into the Greenwood Pier Inn, a collection of cozy, quirky, one-of-a-kind cottages perched atop the cliff.

Ours, the Garden Cottage, was a narrow two-story affair, with a whirlpool spa for two, a fireplace loaded with wood, a refrigerator that held a bottle of chenin blanc from nearby Husch Vineyards, a small stereo with a stack of CDs, and a collection of Indian temple carvings.

A spiral staircase led to a light-filled aerie with a brass bed and a small deck with Adirondack chairs and a view (partly obscured by cypress trees) out over the sea stacks.

Outside, a pathway wound through the jasmine-scented meditation garden, with its koi pond and little lava-rock Buddhas, to a hot tub that seemed to teeter on the edge of the precipice.

There was no television, no phone. Cell phones don't even work here. (At least mine didn't.) It was tempting to light the fire and shut ourselves away for the weekend, emerging only to retrieve the breakfast basket _ freshly baked scones, fruit salad and a large pot of coffee _ left on our doorstep.

Instead, we made our way across the road to Queenie's Roadside Cafe, a convivial diner that doubles as Elk's community center.

At the counter, local ranchers in flannel shirts and suspenders chatted with artists bouncing babies on their knees. Tie-dyed flower children scampered around the deck, popping inside to grab a handful of free dog biscuits from the counter jar for the tail-wagging residents of the town.

Next door, at the 75-year-old, plank-floored Elk Store _ a grocery shop with a deli counter and a great selection of Mendocino County wines _ owner Ben MacMillan solved one of my Elk mysteries.

"Among ourselves, we don't call it "Elk,' " he told me. "We still call it "Greenwood.' "

The town, he said, was originally named in honor of Britton Greenwood, one of the rescuers of the ill-fated Donner Party. He settled along the North Coast in the late 1870s.

But Greenwood eventually moved to the Sierra foothills and named another town there after himself, and the Sierra town got the official post office designation. So the lumber town near Mendocino grudgingly changed its name to Elk, after the big animals that used to graze at the edge of the nearby redwood forest, even though generations later residents doggedly cling to its original name.

At Bridget Dolan's Pub & Dinner House, I came closer to solving the other mystery. Occupying an old clapboard house, the place has the feeling of a true Irish pub. Locals dropped in on their way home from work for a pint of Guinness and a little chat with the gregarious bartender _ he scampered off before I could get his name _ who was always ready with a quip or a conversation starter.

It was the bartender who told me about the origin of the term "dog-hole port." These tiny coves are strung along the North Coast and played an essential role in the timber trade.

"Most people think the expression means that the little coves, which the schooners had to maneuver into, were barely big enough for a dog to turn around in and bite its own tail," he said, crowning my Guinness with a creamy head.

"But there's another theory: Each cove had a lumber mill and each mill had its resident dog. The schooner captains memorized the distinctive bark of each dog, and as they made their way along the coast in the heavy fog, they navigated by listening for the barking.

"Of course, sometimes the mill workers took their dogs out for a walk down the coast, which might explain why there were so many shipwrecks around here."

Just one more thing to meditate on while you're in Elk.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Elk is about a three-hour drive from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. From Highway 101 at Cloverdale, follow Highway 128 through the Anderson Valley and out to the coast. At Highway 1, turn south and travel for about 7 miles to Elk.

STAYING THERE: Greenwood Pier Inn, 5928 Highway 1, Elk, CA 95432; (707) 877-9997; e-mail gwpiermcn.org; www.greenwoodpierinn.com. Nine cottages ranging from $130 to $300 a night, including breakfast.

Elk Cove Inn, 6300 Highway 1, Elk, CA 95432; toll-free 1-800-275-2967 q; www.elkcoveinn.com. Rooms range from $130 to $350 a night.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Mendocino County Visitors Bureau, 525 S Main St., Suite E, Ukiah, CA 95482; toll-free 1-866-466-3636; www.gomendo.com.

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