may know it for its wine, but Californias Sonoma County has an appeal that
extends far beyond grapes. A spectacular, rugged coastline, majestic redwood forests,
idyllic farms, the scenic Russian River, colorful farmers markets and some
of the nations finest restaurants make this region north of San Francisco
a feast for all the senses.
My husband maintains
that the reason I remain so enthralled by Sonoma County, California, is a certain
handsome, Italian-born waiter named Guilliano.
What do you mean? I protest. I loved the seacoast, the kayaking,
the biking, the restaurants, the
And Guilliano, he interrupts.
So maybe hes part of it, I admit, getting a bit dreamy-eyed as
I think back to the meal we enjoyed in Scalas, a restaurant in the small Sonoma
town of Graton. Call me shallow, but having a handsome young man sing to me
in Italian is going to get my attention. Especially when hes bearing pasta.
Guilliano wasnt the only surprise awaiting me in Sonoma. It is a land both
wild and manicured, a place of tiny farms as well as grand estates, gleaming luxury
cars parked next to rusting VW vans painted in psychedelic colors. Its small towns
are quintessentially American until you happen to wander into a little restaurant
like Scalas that seems to have been transported from southern Italy. Sonoma
is full of unexpected delights.
A Land of Contrasts
When God was passing out beautiful landscape, someone from Sonoma must have pulled
a fast one and sneaked back through the line several times. How else can one explain
such a varied set of landscapes within just one county? Redwood forests, dramatic
seacoast, bucolic farmland, open cattle and sheep ranges and tree-covered mountains
make Sonoma one of the most diverse counties in the nation.
This diversity of landscape, in fact, helps account for the success of Sonomas
wine industry. A patchwork of microclimates makes this one of the worlds most
perfect wine-growing regions. Today more than 200 wineries operate in Sonoma, ranging
from large operations that produce many thousands of gallons each year to small,
family-run establishments of just a few acres.
Though wineries dot the landscape in Sonoma, the county offers many other enticements
to visitors. While a taste for wine is optional here, what is far more necessary
is a willingness to slow down, relax and open your senses. Like a fine wine, Sonoma
is a place best savored slowly.
Or so we found on our recent trip to Sonoma. We began our first day by driving west
out of the busy city traffic of Santa Rosa on Highway 12. Within a few miles the
urban environment opened into a magical panorama of tree-covered hills shrouded
in mist, the morning sun just beginning to shine through the fog that often blankets
Sonoma in the early hours.
We knew we had chosen the right route when we came upon Wild Flour Bread, located
just across the street from the Osmosis Enzyme Bath (both situated on the aptly
named Bohemian Highway). As we stepped inside its door, the aroma of baking bread
filled our nostrils.
The only thing better than a drive down winding country roads is a drive down
those roads eating a scone still warm from the oven, I said to my husband
as we got back in the car a few minutes later, relishing my first taste of a cranberry
and orange-flavored scone.
Our breakfast proved a fitting omen for the day. Our meandering route down the Bohemian
Highway and Coleman Valley Road took us past quaint general stores and overflowing
antique stores, underneath canopies of redwoods and cedars and past fields of ripening
grapes and grazing sheep.
As we neared the coast, the landscape changed yet again, this time to open range
land nearly devoid of trees. The smell of salt greeted us as we began our descent
to the ocean, driving down a steep, winding road of hairpin turns.
At last the rugged
seacoast of Sonoma County lay before us, a landscape of rocky cliffs, crashing surf
and secluded beaches. California Highway 1, one of the worlds most scenic
routes, beckoned us onward. Winding like a serpent as it hugs the seacoast, the
roads bends bring one spectacular vista after another.
Eager to explore on foot as well as by car, near Bodega Bay we hiked a coastal path
above the ocean, watching fishing boats chug by below us as raucous gulls flew overhead.
The wind blew in great gusts about us, exhilarating in its power.
Back on the road again after our hike, our day ended with a visit to yet another
natural wonder of Sonoma County, the old-growth redwood forest in Armstrong State
Reserve near Guerneville. Walking amid the magnificent giants, we felt like we had
wandered into a dimly lit, living cathedral. We marveled at trees that were already
ancient when the Spaniards first came to this region in the early 17th century,
growing from seeds that had taken root when Charlemagne ruled Europe. Sitting amid
the hushed silence of the forest was truly a holy experience.
The next day we returned to the Guerneville area for another outdoor adventure,
this one powered by our arms. The Russian River that flows through Sonoma County
is one of Californias most scenic waterways, particularly the lower section
as it nears the ocean near Jenner. In our rented kayaks we launched into the water
a few miles from the rivers mouth, first paddling upstream for an hour to
view an area where dozens of osprey nests lined the trees near the river.
Turning our boats around, we headed back toward the ocean. We knew we were approaching
the mouth of the river as we started to spot harbor seals, sleek beasts that were
sunning themselves on rocks and partially submerged logs.
This is a great place for seals because there are so many fish near the rivers
mouth, our guide, Seth Murchison, explained, pointing out even more of the
skillfully camouflaged animals than we had been able to spot.
Steady paddling at last brought us to Jenner, a small village that clings to the
hillside above the ocean. In a sheltered cove we feasted on a shore lunch of pasta
with sun-dried tomatoes, freshly baked sourdough bread and a tossed salad made with
locally grown produce. After the exertions of the morning, the food tasted like
Finally, on our last day in Sonoma we headed south to explore another region of
this varied county, the evocatively named Valley of the Moon. After driving past
exquisitely maintained vineyards, many dominated by huge mansions, we entered the
charming town of Sonoma. Here a Spanish flavor reigns, reflective of the towns
origins as the site of the northernmost of Californias 21 missions. The 1824-built
adobe church still stands at the edge of the large, shaded plaza that forms the
After a tour of the
history exhibits inside the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, we hopped on
bikes to further explore the area. Our meandering route on country roads took us
past vineyards heavy with ripe fruit. Stopping for a sample, we were amazed at the
intensity of the flavor.
Grapes meant for wine are far more succulent than table grapes, explained
Lance Ruttledge, our guide for the trip.
Our tour eventually took us to the Bartholomew Park Winery, one of the oldest in
California. There we sampled wine from the vineyards and cheese from the nearby
Vella Cheese Company, a family-owned company founded in 1931. Delicately flavored
mezzo secco, asiago and dry jack perfectly complemented the flavors of the wine,
a delectable treat after our hours of biking.
Our time in Sonoma
ended with yet another shift of landscape, this time to Italy. Over dinner at Scalas
in the small village of Graton, our waiter Guilliano took us to Naples, floating
on a carpet of gnocchi, capellini and scallopini.
Ill be dreaming of Sonoma once we get back home, I told my husband
as we headed back to our hotel.
Dream all you want, he replied with a grin. As long as Guilliano
stays in California.
Lori Erickson has written about destinations ranging from Costa Rica and Ireland
to Japan from her home in Iowa City, Iowa.
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