Sonoma County: Beyond the Vines
Sonoma County, California is renowned for vineyards and winery tours. Guests arrive from around the world to sample some of the world's finest Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots. But this picturesque region, starting 45 miles north of San Francisco, has so much more to offer. From towering redwood forests and rugged coastlines to charming antique shops and historic settlements, Sonoma County offers a delightful array of activities and sights beyond the vines.
Santa Rosa: This county seat of Sonoma County, is a bustling, yet welcoming community. Home of beloved cartoonist Charles Schluz, it's the location of the Schulz museum, complete with a Snoopy head labyrinth. The museum is next door to Snoopy's Home Ice, the arena where Mr. Schulz lunched daily and often played senior's hockey. In addition to its pretty downtown, antique-filled "old town" and summertime farmers market, Santa Rosa is a horticultural delight. Check out the rose gardens and spineless cacti at the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, on the south edge of downtown. If great performances are more your style, I highly recommend the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. The main theatre seats only 1600 in an intimate setting, yet consistently brings world class acts to wine country. (www.wellsfargocenterarts.org)
Sonoma Valley: Steeped in history, the town of Sonoma is home to the Spanish Sonoma mission and at nearby Jack London State Park you will find the impressive ruins of the famed author's home. Â The Sonoma town plaza was the site of the 1846 Bear Flag "revolution", declaring California a republic. Also, each spring, Sonoma plays host to the prestigious Sonoma International Film Festival (www.sonomafilmfest.org).
Healdsburg: This charming community, north of Santa Rosa is a foodie's paradise. Streets surrounding the lovely town square (complete with gazebo), reveal 5-star dining and artisan food products galore. In between these upscale eateries are boutiques, galleries and numerous B & B's. The surrounding countryside is great for cycling and on many mornings, hot air balloons dot the sky.
Petaluma: Remember "Back to the Future" and "Peggy Sue Got Married? These are just two of numerous films that have used Petaluma as a backdrop. The southern most town in the county, Petaluma also has an active theater community. (www.cinnabartheater.org). Often thought of as a picturesque victorian river town, the Petaluma River is actually a tidal estuary linked to San Francisco Bay. A wonderful place for bird-watching.
West County: For stunning natural beauty, few places rival the west county. Driving west from Santa Rosa along the Russian River, visitors experience awesome redwood forests, including Armstrong Woods (www.parks.sonoma.net/Armstrng.html) near the lively hamlet of Guerneville (pronounced "gurn-vil"). Continuing west on River Road will reveal the tiny resort towns of Monte Rio, Duncans Mills, and eventually Jenner, where the river spills into the mighty Pacific Ocean. The majority of the Sonoma coast is publicly owned and offers a myriad of beaches, coves and vistas. Traveling south from Jenner to the fishing town of Bodega Bay is a breathtaking journey. Other west county highlights include the bohemian hamlet of Occidental and the eclectic and artsy Sebastopol.
Sonoma County is one of my favorite places on earth and my suggestions only brush the surface of things to do and places to see. Certainly, go for the wine country experience, but be sure to make plenty of time to discover things "beyond the vines". For more info, check out the tourism bureau at www.sonomacounty.com.