Say "redwoods" and you're apt to think of Yosemite. But the world's largest remaining old-growth redwood forest is actually 200 miles north of San Francisco, along a fairy-tale stretch of the 101 Freeway. Dotted with small towns and kitschy roadside attractions, Humboldt County's redwood corridor supplies a literal breath of fresh air to anyone with an urge to get far from urbanism. In April, my husband and I spent two nights in the region. Not including gas for our drive from San Francisco, we spent about $50 for meals at Sicilito's and the Lost Coast Café. We would have spent $435 more for a room and dinner at the Benbow Inn if it hadn't been for an extraordinarily thoughtful wedding gift — what sent us here in the first place.
Pulling into the Benbow Inn (445 Lake Benbow Drive, Garberville;  923-2124, rooms for two start at $155 in summer) feels as if you're in a 1920s movie set in England. The stately Tudor interior continues the British theme, with décor that includes coats of arms, coronation mugs and playful references to court jesters and Lewis Carroll tales. The inn's 58 rooms are furnished with tasteful antiques; in ours, No. 113, we enjoyed the balcony that overlooks a stone bridge spanning a tranquil Eel River tributary.
We dined in the Benbow's restaurant ( 355-3301; entrees $21-$45), also faithfully Tudor-style. The lovely ambience is more memorable than the global cuisine (we had fettuccine primavera and a Thai curry) and the earnest service. And don't expect to get out of dinner for less than $80 for two. For a more down-to-earth meal, we headed three miles north to hole-in-the-wall Sicilito's (445 Conger St., Garberville;  923-2814. Large pizzas from $15), where our made-from-scratch pesto pizza took a while to arrive but tasted fresh and delicious. Walls are plastered with down-home memorabilia, and the patrons all seem to know one another's names — and their secrets.
At the northern tip of the 31-mile Avenue of the Giants is Ferndale, one of the most Victorian towns we've ever seen. We stopped at tiny Lost Coast Café (468 Main St., Ferndale;  786-5330) for tasty vegetarian snacks and good conversation with owner-chef-cashier Mario Lorenzo, then window-shopped the antiques stores along Main Street.
The lessons learned
Hit the road early to experience the majesty of the Avenue of the Giants, and definitely plan a hike: Some of these trees are 2,000 years old and 370 feet tall, and they look their ancient best at dawn and dusk. Also, if you want to kayak, raft or tube the Eel River, bring your own watercraft. We assumed there'd be a rental outfit nearby to get us on the water, but there wasn't. My river-loving husband and I ended up just wading along the banks.