More than 70 percent of the planet is covered in oceanwater, minimally organized by celestial forces that rhythmically deliver waves, ranging from romantic to cataclysmic. Across the world, roughly 20 million people take pleasure in surfing these waves wherever saltwater meets the shore. For those with their feet on dry land, it's an enviable hobby. As a reward for nerve and athleticism, surfers are granted entrée into a spiritual experience — surfers alone know the feeling of an unyielding wave surging, cresting and breaking beneath them.

Yet most of us aren't equipped to bob in the ocean like a seal, waiting for the water to rise beneath us before skating down the face of a wave. But we still want that sweet ocean nirvana. As consolation, many settle for beach vacations and dining al fresco, understanding that proximity to saltwater is medicine for the soul. Want more? We might know a place. Head west (and keep going) until the Pacific becomes so expansive that the ocean's lunar force tugs at the earth beneath you. Here, the view only comes in one aperture — panoramic — and the steely blue water overwhelms every sense. For those who can find it, this is Humboldt County's Lost Coast.

A rugged landscape and remote location have preserved the Lost Coast as a weathered paradise for decades. With a population shy of 700, Shelter Cove has been the region's hub for commerce and recreation since the fishing village was developed by real estate investors in the 1960s. Today, "the Cove" is populated by retirees, surfers and fishermen who live in homes ranging from the humble mid-century rancher to multi-story mansions built around the view. Nestled below the King Range mountains, Shelter Cove is inaaccessable by highways and the crowds they bring. Along with picturesque views on the windy route in, visitors are rewarded with a palpable sense of disconnection, island-style hospitality and a free ride into the waves.

click to enlarge KRIS HILLIGOSS
  • Kris Hilligoss

Outside my third-story room at the Inn of the Lost Coast, a winter storm is starting to brew. Perched atop a seaside cliff, the room sits above the frothy waves, captured in a diorama of swell by large sliding glass doors. My perspective is immersed in waves exploding left and right as I watch the storm gain strength from the sundeck. People should see this, I think to myself, before retreating indoors and turning up the heat on my gas fireplace.

A charming yet unassuming place to lodge, the Inn of the Lost Coast is tucked on the eastern edge of town. After checking in, I'm directed to my room (all the rooms face the ocean) and left alone to absorb the soundtrack of waves. As local surfers know, winter is a particularly good time to visit the Cove; storms that have stacked up offshore arrive to delight and entertain — especially if you're safe and warm inside. Guests of the Inn can also enjoy the scenery from the outdoor jacuzzi or fire pit, warming chilled bodies after a day of hiking or exploring the surf.

click to enlarge KRIS HILLIGOSS
  • Kris Hilligoss

Aside from the ambitious fishermen already on the water, mornings start slowly as the fog recedes to reveal weak winter sunshine piercing the redwoods. After a luxurious night of sleep, I rise early to check the seascape outside and make sure everything, including the ground below us, is still intact. Reassured, I brew a cup of organic Signature coffee, roasted up the road in Redway, and dress lightly (average daytime highs are 58 degrees during Lost Coast winters) for a restorative hike.

Leaving the Inn, it's a five-minute drive to the Black Sands Beach Trailhead, where the famous Lost Coast Trail can be picked up for 3.5 miles of coastline. A devastatingly beautiful beach, Black Sands is a must-see but requires extreme caution around the large and unpredictable surf crashing on the dark sandy pebbles. If you're concerned about the conditions, check in with the friendly owners of the Fish Tank Coffee Shop located back at the Inn — they make a delicious soy latte and won't mince words. Alternatively, guests can mosey from the Inn to Upper Pacific Road and enjoy a short, accessible 15-minute nature trail, maintained by SCARF, the Shelter Cove Arts & Recreation Foundation. Parents will enjoy the option to let little ones run free and educational signs about local flora and fauna.

click to enlarge KRIS HILLIGOSS
  • Kris Hilligoss

If hiking isn't on the agenda, head south from the Inn, passing through the heart of Shelter Cove, where a collection of expansive homes with oblique windows face west like sun-worshippers. Continuing along Lower Pacific Road, stop at the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, originally built in 1868 and restored at Point Delgada in 1998. During its years of service, the lighthouse overlooked the treacherous rocks off Cape Mendocino, the westernmost landmass in the continental United States only 11 miles north of Shelter Cove. Today, it's a memorial to those lost at sea and a reminder to respect this powerful stretch of the Pacific. Venture past Point Delgada and the boat ramp to see the Cove itself, a gentle arc of bowl-shaped coastline, where local families gather to tailgate and sunbathe each summer. Most days, you'll glimpse at least a few surfers paddling out at Dead Man's, the most popular local surf break (and a good clue to the skill level required).

Just after cresting King's Peak and gaining a glimpse of the massive Pacific below, a sign for the Shelter Cove General Store invites passersby to, "Cool your breaks and wet your whistles." Do as the locals do and stay a while.

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Nora Mounce

Nora Mounce

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