In June of 2011, we had the great reason of two friends getting married to explore Northern California’s Sonoma Valley. The bride is from the area, where her family still lives and runs a vineyard. They’ve been growing grapes in the Sonoma Valley since before it was cool. We decided to split our extra-long weekend between San Fran and Wine Country. The first few days we wandered our way around the city and then crossed the big red bridge headed toward Sonoma.
Sonoma is full of charm, whether you are out on a scenic drive or sampling your way through Healdsburg square. The whole valley seems to have a cozy small-town feel that is very appealing…
Everywhere you look there is a Vineyard or a tasting room not far away. If your mission is to try a good amount of wines in a short amount of time then Healdsburg Square is where you should find yourself. In the square, nearly every other storefront is a tasting room. Take it slow because a typical tasting flight has about 4 wines with about an ounce or two each. If you prefer to go to the source then visiting the vineyard itself is in order. Simply find a vineyard on the map, take a tour, and then sample their potions. The full vineyard experience was our preferred method. We enjoyed leisurely going from vineyard to vineyard, stopping along the way anywhere that looked interesting.
We are not talking about airplanes here either. Most established winemakers charged for their tasting flights. The cost was anywhere from $5-$10 and that fee was waived if you bought a bottle. We did buy a few bottles of the wines we really enjoyed. For the most part, we wanted to keep the tastings cheap because we are not wine connoisseurs by any means. We were just trying to learn our taste preferences, and for the fun of it. Yelp and Foursquare to the rescue! It turns out that a good 50% of the wineries offered free tasting flights for checking in. It is still polite to purchase a bottle to cover your flights but if we did not like any of the wines we did not buy.
Not just for wine lovers
Nestled between the wineries and gift shops are a few good breweries too. Bear Republic brewery is in wine territory, setting up shop in the Healdsburg square. Lagunitas another one of my favorite breweries is located a little ways south, in the city of Petaluma, CA. After all this talk of wine and beer, the last thing on your mind may be taking a nice long scenic drive, but it should be (maybe on a light or non-sampling day!).
Driving the Coast
Hwy 1 runs along the coast of Northern California and makes for an amazing day trip. As you pull out of wine country heading toward the coast you soon see fewer and fewer vineyards until they finally give way to the mountains. The mountains are rocky, arid, and populated with pines instead of grape vines. Once through the mountains you are greeted by the cliffy Pacific coast line and cows. Yes, lots of cows with oceanfront views. Maybe those California cows are happier as advertised. Dark, almost black rocks form the cliffs that look down on to the beaches. Many large boulders are planted in the sea for the waves to crash against. You will soon find yourself looking for a place to pull over and pull out your camera in this very picturesque place.
If you plan your drive right you can find yourself walking among the GIANT Red Wood Trees. There are several parks that house these trees, and no matter your route you are sure to be close to one of them. We stopped at Armstrong Woods which came recommended by our friends (List of parks). The trees themselves are often more than 1000 years old and topping 300′. They are truly a natural wonder and are a must if you are in the area. Next time we hope to make it up to Humboldt County to Redwoods National Park.
Trip summary & Tips
There are plenty of inexpensive things to see and do in NOR-CAL. Flights to SFO are generally reasonable. A good amount of time in the area would be a long weekend. About 3 nights should allow a good ‘sample’ of Sonoma. If you are an enthusiast you could easily fill an entire week with all that Sonoma has to offer. Priceline-ing a hotel in the Sonoma area should score you a reasonably priced room. A car is a must for exploring, a company called “Advantage” rented through Priceline has rates as low a $12/day for mid-sized. Taxis should be avoided, things are spread out and cab fares seem to be high. We had a bad experience where we were slapped with a $50 cab ride for a relatively short ride. Another alternative would be to rent bikes to tour the area. Just don’t oversample, because you can still get a drunk driving ticket on two wheels. For a memorable inexpensive meal pack a picnic and find yourself a piece of driftwood along the shore. Don’t forget to pack a bottle of Sonoma’s finest!
Final tip: When driving back to the airport do yourself a favor and stop at an “In-n-Out Burger”. Skip the airport food and fill up here. This small California-based chain is frequently rated as the top fast food restaurant. Look like an insider and order your burger “Animal Style”. You won’t see it on their overly simplistic menu but they will know what you mean. Animal style kicks up your burger with pickles, cheese, spread and grilled onions (The onions make the burger!).
Make every trip your own! Happy Traveling…