By Alice Ford, Epicure & Culture Contributor
On a recent Sonoma vacation, I learned there is more to touring wine country than just sipping delicious glasses of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
What could that be?
Farm-to-fork cuisine, forest views, and stargazing — all enjoyed while enveloped in laid-back vibes.
These are just a few of the things you will experience during a weekend on the Sonoma Coast.
Now Napa Valley may be the most famous destination when exploring wine country in California, but the Sonoma Valley is actually home to twice as many vineyards.
They plan on being the first 100% sustainable wine region in America by 2020.
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Sonoma Vacation Overview
Of course, there are many California wine regions to choose from, though I think Sonoma should be at the top of your list.
Blended seamlessly with nature, Sonoma is full of small towns and miles of open space preserves for hiking, walking and exploring.
From the cliffs and beaches of the Pacific Ocean, Sonoma winds along the Russian River, passing through farmland and redwood forest.
Time spent here exploring this region — whether as part of a California road trip, a pit stop on the way to climb Mount Whitney, trek the James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon, or hike in Sequoia National Park, or a local getaway — can take you from the seashore, through the Redwood forests, kayaking down the Russian River, whale watching off the coast, eating farm-fresh foods, locally caught seafood and sipping on organic wines.
Sonoma Weekend Escape Accommodation
My long weekend in Sonoma starts on a Friday, with an early evening arrival into the Santa Rosa airport.
Whisked away from the airport, I head towards Guerneville, where the vineyards meet the redwood forest. Sonoma is one of the best wine regions in California, and this town is the perfect place from which to explore it.
I pull into a small redwood grove and park my electric vehicle up front to charge.
A welcoming low profile building beckons me to enter and, passing a selection of bikes and red wagons, I head up the steps into the lobby to check in.
This is Autocamp, a luxury and dog-friendly glamping destination where you can stay in a cabin, an upscale airstream or in a glamping hut.
The camp features a semi-circle of airstreams all tucked into their own nooks, with private decks, fire pits, and outdoor seating areas.
Interiors offer every comfort you’d find in a hotel, like plush bedding, kitchenettes, full bathrooms, and cozy bathrobes for the cool mornings.
Skylights in the bedroom connect you even more deeply into the forest environment.
Feeling one with nature, I am soon sipping a welcome glass of Russian River Rose at the communal fire pit under a woodland canopy.
After a refreshing walk around camp, I settle into the lounge area, which surrounds a large gas fireplace, its large metallic hood reminding me of an upside-down ice cream cone.
I spend this evening of my Sonoma getaway by the fire playing board games, chatting with new friends and marveling at the many dogs on the property that seem to love these cozy hangouts as much as the people.
Giddy on the great company and several glasses of pinot, I retire into my Airstream for a relaxing night under the stars.
Not a sound is heard during the night. When I arise in the morning, barely a soul is stirring.
After a coffee and a fresh biscuit from nearby Big Bottom Market — a must-try when visiting Guerneville — I hop in my car and set off for the forest, this time with my friend and her furry companion.
We head just minutes down the road to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, an 800-acre preserve of coastal redwood trees. These trees are the tallest living things on the planet and remind us how small we are in this big world.
What makes the experience even more incredible is having the place practically all to ourselves on this cool Saturday morning.
Dogs are not allowed on trails but can wander the paved areas that snake through the forest. The setting has an enchanted feel, as light streams through the trees, breaking up the forest. This gorgeous scenery proves that California vineyards aren’t the only landscapes to swoon over in Sonoma.
Many of the redwoods here were cut down in the early 1900s, but there are still some old giants among the newer growth.
Parson Jones, the tallest tree in the reserve, is estimated to be over 1300 years old and stands at more than 300 feet tall.
Ocean, Forest & Wildlife In California
Forest bathing complete, we turn back onto the 116 and head toward the coast.
In the small coastal town of Jenner, we connect with Highway 1, California’s coastal highway and turn north to explore the Jenner Headlands, which I’ve really been looking forward to on this Sonoma weekend getaway.
This spectacular protected area stretches from the edges of the ocean over the rolling hills and into forest land that is made up of a mosaic of redwood, douglas fir, oak, and chaparral.
Home to many rare and endangered species, I spot a peregrine falcon soaring over the coastal estuary almost immediately.
More exploration leads us down to the sea where we spot a few sea lions. During the summer months, this area is often teaming with both seals and sea lions, and can also be a great place to watch migrating whales.
Goat Rock Beach
We eventually turn around, heading back towards Jenner, stopping at Goat Rock Beach.
Goat Rock Beach is part of Sonoma State Park and is a famous movie location.
The end scene in the movie The Goonies was actually filmed on this beach, and you may recognize the large rock formation as the once hiding place of a massive pirate ship.
Accessible on one side to dogs and humans on the other, it is an area enjoyed by all.
Playing a game of tag with the incoming tides, we soon find ourselves laying in the sand and taking in the beautiful rock archway several hundred yards out to sea.
Local California Cuisine In Sonoma
Continuing down the coast we stop in Bodega Bay for a late lunch at Fishetarian Fish Market and Cafe.
They specialize in fresh seafood, and it just happens to be crab season.
We sit outside, watching the fisherman begin to make their way back to port.
It isn’t long before our number is called and we can pick up our crab delicacies, which include freshly cooked crab cakes and a crab sandwich with fries.
Simple, but oh so delicious.
The afternoon is slipping away so we head back towards Guerneville, stopping for a few samplings of cheese and meat at Freestone Artisan Cheese.
They specialize in cheeses you can’t get anywhere else. Many local small-batch cheeses, meats, and chocolates can be found and tasted here.
They also have a smattering of olive oils and vinegars as well as other artisanal products made by local farms.
Discovering Wine Country In California (For A Cause)
Back in Guerneville, we take an early evening walk across the Russian River before the light ebbs away into dusk.
Our day wouldn’t be complete without exploring the Sonoma wineries, and before we know it we’re sitting down — dog and all — in the quaint wine tasting room of Equality Vines.
Equality Vines donates a portion of every bottle purchased to women’s and LGBTQ+ charities.
We taste a line called “19th Amendment”, a celebration of women getting the right to vote in 1920, with my favorite being a rose called “Love”.
The space fills up quickly with jovial folks and dogs from near and far.
One of the things I love about Guerneville is how unpretentious it is, especially compared to the more popular Napa Valley. We’re here in flannel shirts and hiking boots fitting right in with the other patrons.
The people of Guerneville welcome one and all and have been doing so for decades.
Our indulgent day isn’t over yet.
After a quick recoup at Autocamp we head back into town for a phenomenal smattering of locally purveyed cuisine at boon Eat + Drink, located on Main Street it is the sister restaurant to the boon Hotel & Spa.
Main Street in Guerneville is home to three great places:
- El Barrio
- Big Bottom Market
- boon eat + drink
Big Bottom Market was co-founded by Chef Michael Volpatt. He’s become quite the local celebrity after Oprah fell in love with his biscuits at Big Bottom.
Our dinner that night will never be forgotten.
Passionate about supporting the local economy, they only serve Russian River Valley wines and source most of their ingredients from local farms.
Additionally, they believe in organic, seasonal and fresh cuisine, with many ingredients coming straight from their own garden.
With a seasonal menu, you never know what delicious morsels you may be adding to your culinary palette.
We start with a unique take on macaroni and cheese.
The creamy cheese sauce is accompanied by an assortment of small mushrooms from nearby Miacopia Farms. Topped with breadcrumbs, it brings me back to infancy.
Honestly, I could barely stop myself from shoveling it all down my throat in one bite.
The only thing that does stop me is actually the other dishes that continue to appear on the table.
Next is a delicata squash — a variety of winter squash — with goat cheese.
What makes this dish so good is the mixture of flavors — the richness of the squash pairs with the creaminess of the cheese, a light kick of spice, and a touch of sweet from a marrying of walnuts and honey.
The most unusual, but incredible, part is the lightly fried sage leaf.
Crunchy and salty, it’s an unexpected and delicious ending to this garden fresh appetizer.
Rounding out our starters we have a creamy and refreshing plate of fresh burrata with an olive tapenade on crispy bread.
After the salads, we dive into a polenta lasagna and a flank steak with chimichurri on a bed of arugula.
I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of options for vegetarian eaters on this small menu.
The polenta lasagna is hands down one of the best takes on polenta I have ever had. Not one to waste food, it’s also my lunch the next day.
Our meal ends with a simple but rich dessert in the form of a salted caramel brownie.
Happy and stuffed, it’s soon time to roll ourselves back to AutoCamp for our last night of serenity under the redwoods during our California wine country vacation.
What would you add to this Sonoma vacation itinerary? Any favorite spots when traveling through wine country in California?
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