Sonoma Travel Guide

Sonoma Travel Guide

Fernando Nocedal

From the golden hills, sun-kissed vineyards, and Spanish Mission architecture of the interior to the prehistoric redwood forests and rugged cliffs of the coast, Sonoma is home to some of California’s most iconic landscapes. The scale and abundance of the region’s wilderness provide an inspiring setting for a relaxed exploration of the West Coast’s viticulture, cuisine, and history. Wondering what to do in Sonoma? Mr Hudson has got you covered.

Things to do in Sonoma

The birthplace of California’s internationally acclaimed wine industry, Sonoma contains more than 420 wineries. It’s also become a top destination for LGBT wine buffs—there’s even a Gay Wine Weekend event, Out In The Vineyard, each July.

The first commercial winery in California, founded in 1857 by Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy, Buena Vista Winery is a great place to start your wine tasting adventures, not only for its historical significance and fine Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs but also to experience the flamboyant splendour of the facilities. There are plenty of surprising and festive spaces to explore. For a memorable VIP experience, sample the sparkling wines in style in the Bubble Room. The grounds at Scribe Winery have a relaxed, work-in-progress charm—enjoy a tree-shaded picnic on their Tasting Knoll, overlooking the vineyards. Charming young owners (and brothers) Andrew and Adam Mariani produce exceptional bottles of estate Riesling, Pinot Noir–based rosé, and earthy yet balanced, Burgundy-style Pinot Noir.

Boon Hotel + Spa | Photo: Kelly Puleio

Boon Hotel + Spa | Photo: Kelly Puleio

Overlooking a corner of tree-shaded Sonoma Plaza, Corner 103 tasting room and winery showcases a handsome selection of limited-production varietals in an intimate setting. Owner Lloyd Davis conducts one-on-one tasting sessions with the care and precision of a tea ceremony (food pairings are part of the experience). Whether you’re a connoisseur or new to tasting wine, it’s a great opportunity to learn while you sip. Davis is a man of great passion, and his sparkling (methode champenoise-style) rosé, crisp Sauvignon Blanc, and complex Cabernet Sauvignon are all superb.

Some of Sonoma’s best wineries are on Westside Road in Healdsburg, not far from the Russian River. MacRostie‘s founder Steve MacRostie and celebrated winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen understand that along with sampling fantastic single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, many visitors want to relax, socialise, and enjoy incredible scenery. The modern Estate House offers a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces with panoramic views. The beautiful Michel-Schlumberger Estate in Dry Creek Valley is an idyllic combination of rustic California comfort and European sophistication. The terracotta tile–roof white stucco buildings honour the region’s Spanish influence. Explore the gardens and redwood grove, and relax by the reflecting pool with a glass of Cabernet Franc (with heady plum and dark-fruit notes) or the distinctive Coteaux Sauvages blend of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah.

Fremont Diner | Photo: Fernando Nocedal

Fremont Diner | Photo: Fernando Nocedal

Where to eat in Sonoma

Sample a tempting selection of tapas and wine at Portuguese-inspired Tasca Tasca, the latest creation of Chef Manuel Azevedo’s (LaSalette, Cafe Lucia). The relaxed, bright atmosphere (including music from Portugal and its former colonies and an occasional European football match on TV) recalls Manuel’s Azores Islands heritage. The menu features Porto-style tripe, salt-cod cakes, and selections of Portuguese wines and fine ports. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most satisfying feasts in Sonoma are at Fremont Diner, an updated roadhouse with a 21st-century sensibility specialising in Southern-inspired comfort food. Take advantage of the region’s pleasant weather by dining on the large patio. Try hearty portions of slow-smoked pork ribs, roasted poblano hotlinks, jalapeño cornbread with honey, and buttermilk molasses milkshakes.

In addition to Sonoma’s renowned wine culture, the county has a fast-growing craft-beer scene, which you can experience at Kenwood’s casual gastropub Palooza—it’s a short hop from vaunted wineries like Chateau St. Jean, Kunde, and Ledson. The food includes well-executed versions of traditional American pub fare, such as a Brie-and-bacon burger, shredded kale salad with local Vella dry jack cheese, and a hot dog with Pinot Noir–mushroom reduction and garlic aioli. Artisan ales from Almanac, Firestone Walker, and Santa Rosa’s renowned Shady Oak Barrel House are featured, and there’s also a well-curated wine list.

Restaurateur Crista Luedtke has almost single-handedly put Guerneville on the gastro map (see Boon Hotel + Spa below). At Revival, in the romantic Applewood Inn, she teams with talented Canadian chef Ben Spiegel (whose culinary background leans heavily Nordic) to create a menu of creative yet approachable fare, such as fresh local halibut crudo with roasted bones, and ricotta dumplings with lobster mushrooms. The contemporary rustic interiors, warm lighting, and cabin aesthetic make for a memorable night in the redwoods. For a top-quality dining experience, that’s more festive than some of the fancier wine-centric restaurants in Sonoma County, head to Guiso, a delightful Latin American fusion spot near Healdsburg’s picturesque plaza. Consider the pan-seared lamb chops with yucca gnocchi or Caribbean paella, and don’t pass up the chance to try one of the stellar pupusas (stuffed Salvadoran tortillas).

Farmhouse Inn

Farmhouse Inn

The best hotels in Sonoma

One of the most memorable inns on the California coast, and well worth the idyllic 15-minute drive south of the Sonoma border to northern Marin County, Nick’s Cove offers one-of-a-kind accommodations in carefully preserved fishing cottages perched over Tomales Bay. Open your doors onto the large wooden deck and enjoy a breath-taking sunset over the dramatic silhouette of Point Reyes and Hog Island. The restaurant serves fresh seafood caught in the bay in a rustic yet romantic dining room facing the water.

Fans of mid-century-modern style will appreciate Boon Hotel + Spa, a cheerful, smartly designed resort nestled in the redwoods on the outskirts of Guerneville. The intimate simplicity, light-filled spaces, and clean lines contrast pleasingly with the densely wooded surroundings. Boon takes great care of guests, offering Swedish and full-body massage. Owner Crista Luedtke also operates several terrific dining options nearby in downtown Guerneville, including hip Boon Eat + Drink, serving modern California cuisine, and colourful El Barrio Bar for tequila flights and small plates.

A serene oasis in the small, picturesque Russian River village of Forestville, the Farmhouse Inn offers an ultra-posh overnight experience: a state-of-the-art spa, an exquisite farm-to-table restaurant, a heated pool and hot tub, and luxurious, spacious accommodations that blend a country farm aesthetic with contemporary finishes and plenty of perks. Rooms have an indoor/outdoor fireplace and a spa bath with large windows opening onto a private terrace and are stocked with gourmet goodies. A lavish complimentary breakfast is included.

For a quintessential Sonoma wine country retreat just 2½ miles from Sonoma Plaza, Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is the height of luxury. Thermal mineral waters run through the expansive grounds and feed the 40,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa. This elegant old-world-inspired resort features indoor-outdoor Mission-style design elements and is home to the Michelin star–awarded Californian-French restaurant, Sante.

Just a mile south of the Plaza, the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa is close to shops and restaurants, is set amid relaxed Italian-inspired grounds, and has a swanky spa. Take a midday break from exploring to soak up some golden California sunshine by the pool.

El Barrio | Photo: Kelly Puleio

El Barrio | Photo: Kelly Puleio

Shopping in Sonoma

You’ll find great shopping in Healdsburg’s historic square. First stop at Flying Goat Coffee for some fine single-origin coffees sourced from sustainable operations from Honduras to Ethiopia. Next visit Urban Lumber Company, whose custom hardwood furniture combines large natural-edge slabs with clean, modern lines and artful precision, creating a striking contrast that works well in many settings. Owner Seth San Filippo helps promote sustainability and local handcrafting by milling the lumber and building the pieces in Oregon, using salvaged city trees with detailed grains. Detour for mouth-watering desserts at Noble Folk/Moustache, whose clever setup may draw you in twice for a snack: the original shop, Moustache, offers delectable pastries—corn-and-strawberry ice cream sandwiches, Meyer lemon olive oil cupcakes—while Noble Folk offers artisan ice cream in novel flavours like Japanese purple yam and strawberry sage, as well as baked goods, like mixed berry–ginger streusel pie.

Charming downtown Guerneville is another enticing retail hub. Big Bottom Market is a “contemporary vintage” general store, gourmet deli, and farmers market that stocks the region’s most tempting foods, such as Cowgirl Creamery cheeses and Hooker’s salted caramels. Try a prosciutto-and-fig sandwich, or a trademark homemade biscuits topped with mascarpone and honey or fried eggs and savoury gravy. If you still have room for sweets, visit the Guerneville Bank Club down the block for Nimble & Finn’s handmade ice cream and green chile–apple pie from Chile Pies Baking Co. You’ll also find plenty to peruse, including lifestyle accessories from Commerce Fine Goods and artwork at Look Up Gallery. On your way out of town toward the coast, pull over in Duncans Mills, a whimsical collection of indie shops selling antiques, art, clothing, toys, and more than a few kitschy wares. This community of 85 residents is anchored by a former early-20th-century railroad depot and also includes restaurants, galleries, and a general store.

Nick's Cove | Photo: Val Atkinson

Nick's Cove | Photo: Val Atkinson

Coastal adventures from Guerneville

An idyllic destination of its own, Guerneville is also a strategic base for exploring Sonoma’s majestic coast. A couple of miles north of downtown, Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve contains miles of scenic trails through old-growth forest, providing a wonderful opportunity to experience California’s thousand-year-old redwood trees.

Make a day of driving the coast. Start at Sonoma Coast State Park, a 17-mile stretch of rugged coastline dotted with large sea stacks, including Goat Rock. Hike along the sea cliffs and watch the summer crowds of Pacific harbour seals dotting the beach below—you may even spot migrating grey whales on the horizon. Soak up coastal California hippie vibes in Jenner with your house-roasted coffee and freshly baked focaccia sandwich on the deck at Cafe Aquatica, overlooking the Russian River estuary. Listen to live music on weekends, and admire adolescent pelicans learning to hunt in the waters beyond. The drive north up the coast passes through some stunning cliffside vistas. Blink and you could miss the Sea Ranch Chapel, nestled at the edge of a native forest habitat like a scene from a fairytale. The nondenominational sanctuary designed by artist James Hubbell incorporates organic design elements and is a delightful place for reflection.

Another way to take in the gorgeous setting is by immersing yourself in a cedar enzyme bath at Japanese-inspired spa Osmosis, in tiny Freestone, 15 miles south of Guerneville down the verdant Bohemian Highway. Relieve your joints and muscle stress with a garden tea service before resting in a tub of fragrant fermenting cedar and rice bran. Then pop into nearby Wild Flour for a delectable cheese fougasse or whipping cream scone.

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