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Set on the Northern California shoreline just south of Mendocino, the quiet town of Elk enjoys small-town charm and year-round moderate temperatures. Pastel cottages perch along the coastal ridge, and an artists' collective serves as home to 28 local artists, whose output spills onto a front lawn dotted with delicate bronze sculptures and weathered wood carvings. "We have such a geologically exciting landscape," says local plein air painter Deborah Nord, referring to the steep ocean cliffs that crop up so often in her canvases. The ocean-side bluffs also provide ideal lookouts for whale watching. "The easiest whale to see here on the coast is the California gray whale," says Tanya Smart, an instructor of environmental ethics at Point Cabrillo Light Station. The 50-foot-long leviathans journey southward in January, and upon their return in March, the area welcomes them back with a series of whale festivals and whale-size party hats.

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