ADVENTURE TRAVEL IN WINE COUNTRY

There's life outside the tasting rooms.


Published:

Race a muscle car, swing on a flying trapeze, trek with a llama, raft in white waters…there's life outside the tasting rooms and past the 18th green.

After wading through a vertical tasting of Howell Mountain Merlots or savoring a selection of Russian River Pinots, many visitors to wine country might be up for a little more adventure—something to tantalize the tannins, as it were. And we don't mean a leisurely round of golf that barely scuffs your FootJoys, or soaking in a sumptuous spa. They're certainly laudable endeavors, but not gripping enough on their own to raise one's adrenaline to the heights of the brix level of a late-harvest Riesling.

No, what we were after in our search for adventure in a half-dozen California wine regions was high-energy activity, with a dash of danger tossed in: auto racing, hang gliding, or rappelling down the face of a cave into a chamber large enough to swallow the Statue of Liberty.

So muster your courage and join us for an adventurous romp around the vineyards. Your doubles match can wait.

Mendocino County
The outdoor sports in Mendocino wine country are as plentiful as the bounty of this fertile Northern California county. Start with the Pacific Ocean, where you can navigate a kayak from rivers into the deep blue sea at Gualala, Albion or Mendocino. Contact Noyo Pacific Outfitters (707/961-0559; www.noyopacific.com). At Catch-a-Canoe, you'll find ocean canoes for rent, plus mountain and road bicycles (707/937-0273; www.catchacanoe.com).

And don't forget whale watching, scuba diving, abalone diving, and deep-sea fishing. North Coast Fishing Adventures (707/964-3000; fortbraggfishing.com) is Fort Bragg's largest charter operation, specializing in salmon, rock cod, albacore, whale watching, crab cruises and sunset excursions. The Rumble Fish is the only boat in the region that goes for Pacific halibut. Hook one of these lunkers and your back and arms are in for a strenuous adventure.

Would-be wranglers can take a bracing horseback gallop on the beach or a ride through the redwood forest by calling Ricochet Ridge Ranch (707/964-7669; 888/TREK-RRR). Also hitching up are Back Kountry Trail Rides (707/964-2700) and Ross Ranch (707/877-1834).

For hikers, trek to the waterfall at Russian Gulch State Park or up to the Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park. Experts can try mushrooming in Jackson State Forest, but don't eat any fungi that looks unfamiliar.

For bicycling inland, take the East Side Road through the vineyards between Ukiah and Hopland. It's a rolling, twisting back road that is not difficult, but gets narrow in a few spots. Campers will find campgrounds near the Eel River and around Lake Mendocino. Back on the coast, hikers trek through the world's tallest redwoods in five state parks laced with fern-lined trails, abalone coves and teeming tide pools.

Wild to try some llama trekking along the Mendocino Coast? To check out the wooly beasts, contact Llamas & Lodging (707/964-7191).

For lodging in the colorful town of Mendocino, try Stevenswood Lodge (800/421-2810; stevenswood.com)—Chef Marc Dym even can give you a few pointers on kayaking in the area. Nearby and highly recommended is the elegantly rustic Brewery Gulch Inn (800/578-4454; www.brewerygulchinn.com), where owner Dr. Arky Ciancutti and general manager Glenn Lutge pour excellent local wines in the afternoon. In Hopland, Fetzer Valley Oaks Farm (800/846-8637; www.fetzer.com) makes a perfect headquarters inland—and the tasting room for premium wines is worth a visit.

Other Mendocino contacts: www.mendocinocoast.com;goMendo.com

Sonoma County
This diverse wine region, featuring mountains, valleys, lakes and the Pacific Ocean, is as ripe with outdoor adventure as it is with premium, plump grapes.

Lead-footers and would-be hot-rodders love the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School (800/733-0345, www.russellracing.com), located at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma. Teaming with MacArthur Place, Sonoma's historic country inn and spa (800/722-1866; www.macarthurplace.com), the racing school offers a high-performance package that features fast cars, slow massages and a cozy inn where the frazzled can relax after an adrenaline-pumping day of auto racing. Racing courses vary from a three-day "Techniques of Racing" to a half-day test drive. Directed by professional race-seasoned instructors, the courses are conducted in a state-of-the-art formula racecar. After a day behind the wheel, guests return to the quiet ambiance of MacArthur Place, and chill out with a variety of soothing massages and spa treatments.

An adventure you can really leap into is the flying trapeze program offered by Trapeze Arts, where visitors learn aerial arts and static trapeze. If you ever wanted to run away to join the circus, check out the outdoor classes held on Sundays only in the town of Sonoma, beginning in April and running through October. For information, (510/419-0700; www.trapezearts.com)

For an unusual "down to earth" experience, try skydiving. Two companies in Sonoma County feature this high-flying adventure. At Skydive Cloverdale (707/894-9241), after training and a demonstration video, the novice can take a tandem jump with a certified jumpmaster. You'll thrill to a 60-second free fall at 130 miles per hour in a parachute built for two.

At Skydive Santa Rosa (707/573-8116), tandem jumping is also available, along with a video to capture your free fall. And, after six to eight hours of ground school, you can move up a nerve bundle or two and take a static-line solo jump from 3,500 feet, doing the steering and landing by yourself.

To get high on ballooning above the vines, check with Up & Away Ballooning (800/711-2998; www.up-away.com), Aerostat Adventures (707/433-3777; www.
aerostat-adventures.com), or Above the Wine Country Ballooning (707/829-9850; www.balloontours.com).

Saltwater lovers head for the coast and the Bodega Bay Surf Shack (707/875-3944; www.bodegabaysurf.com) to enjoy some of the best beginner surf along the North Coast. Rent a soft short board and a wetsuit and you're ready to catch a wave. Beginner lessons include water safety, in- and out-of-water guidance and interpreting surf conditions. Instructors have more than 15 years' surfing experience and six years of instruction.
For general information visit online: www.sonomacounty.com.

Napa County
Next to swirling a big-nose Napa Valley Cabernet, some great pastimes in this world- class wine region are hiking, ballooning and bicycling. And you can follow those up with a soothing mud bath and massage in the funky spa village of Calistoga. Various outfitters offer hiking and biking treks, plus those lofty balloon rides.

A typical itinerary includes hiking around Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, named after the famous author who spent many summers here attempting to cure his
ailing health. The half-day hike can take you to the summit of Mount St. Helena (4,400 feet) north of Calistoga, which affords unsurpassed views of San Fran-cisco, the Sierra, the Pacific Coast and the world-famous vineyards below. Getaway Adventures can help you organize a trip to suit your needs. (800/499-2453; www. getawayadvertures.com).

Each year, thousands of people take to the skies over Napa Valley for an experience often described as "a walk in the clouds," in the most heavily traveled hot-air balloon corridor in the entire world. Experienced companies like Bonaventura Ballooning Company (800/359-6272) know that hot air balloons operate best when winds are not strong, so Napa Valley flights take place exclusively in the early morning hours before winds have a chance to pick up. Ballooning is done in total silence, other than the occasional puff of the propane burner.

A typical flight in Napa Valley lasts about one hour, and most passengers enjoy a catered brunch in a vineyard or one of the area's well-known restaurants after the ride. Most companies will pick passengers up at Napa Valley hotels at no additional charge.

The best way to get an up close and personal Napa Valley experience is to park the car and climb aboard a bicycle. Several companies offer biking excursions through the vineyards with stops at wineries that are off the beaten track. Most outfitters also provide a picnic lunch at a picturesque site to break up the ride.

Napa Valley is only 35 miles long and five miles wide, so the entire area can be explored in a single day if riders limit themselves to the valley floor. However, the Vaca mountains to the east and the Mayacamas to the west offer more advanced riders challenging hills, winding trails and lofty vistas. Contact Bicycle Trax (707/258-8729); Getaway Adventures (800/499-2453); Napa Valley Bike Tours (800/707-2453); or St. Helena Cyclery (707/963-7736).

For lodging, choose the Silverado Resort, where you can work out kinks in the spa (800/532-0500; www.silveradoresort.com) or the charming Milliken Creek Inn (888/622-5775; www.millikencreekinn.com), which hangs over the Napa River near COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts. If you want to take a break from adventure for culture, Copia is your stop.

The Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau (800/257-9520) offers comprehensive bicycle trail maps of the valley, complete with difficulty ratings for each route.

Gold Country:
The Sierra Foothills

The Sierra Gold Country wine region is worth discovering. Here, along with old-vine wines, visitors can explore challenging rivers, trails, caves and sheer rock faces.

Stretching along Highway 49 from Placerville to Sonora, this 10-county area is chock full of lakes, rivers, mountains, forests and fresh air. The area is packed with nuggets of adventure, colorful history and some outstanding wineries.

Here's what's awaiting you: horseback riding, seaplane tours, cave exploring, rappelling, hot-air balloon rides, hiking, biking, llama trekking, mountain climbing, bungee jumping, camping, tennis and even panning for gold.

Perhaps the most spectacular adventure is the chance to don gloves and hard hat and rappel 165 feet into the gaping Moaning Cavern, located just outside historic Angels Camp. Just watching is a thrill. More energetic cave explorers follow this descent with a two-hour exploration through deep chambers and narrow passages that require visitors to climb and crawl through tight quarters behind experienced guides. Call Sierra Nevada Recreation (209/736-2709; www.caverntours.com). For tamer caving, explore winding passages, deep black lakes and unique underground formations at California Caverns and Mercer Caverns.

Whitewater junkies can go for Class 3 and Class 4 rapids, with river rafting and kayaking adventures down the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers. At the evening campsite, guests are treated to a gourmet wine dinner with Steve Kautz, president of Ironstone Vineyards (209/728-1251; www.ironstone.vineyards.com). Located in Murphys, Ironstone features an aging cavern, the famed Alhambra Theater pipe organ, a gift shop and tasting room, beautifully landscaped gardens and a large amphitheater. Summer performances include the Russian Symphony Orchestra and Dave Brubeck.

For a look at high adventure from the past, visit the Ironstone's Gold Country museum, which houses a 44-pound crystalline gold-leaf specimen, the largest of its kind in the world.

Motorcycle lovers can strap on a Harley and ride some gnarly mountain back roads in the Sierra, like Stark's Grade Road (www.pashnit.com/roads/cal/StarkesGrade.htm), but save this for a day when you're not out wine tasting. If you need a bike or service for your hog, contact Hangtown Harley-Davidson (530/344-0401; www.hangtownharley.com/index.cfm).

While we promised no golf coverage here, the place to stay in Calaveras County near caverns and caves is Greenhorn Creek (888/736-5900; www.greenhorncreek.com). This restful country club resort offers private cottages sprinkled around the beautiful golf course redesigned by Robert Trent Jones, II. The resort is home of Camps restaurant, where wine director Bob Trinchero makes sure the wine list carries winners like Renwood's Old Vine Zinfandel and Beaulieu Vineyard's Georges de la Tour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

More resources:
El Dorado Visitor's Authority:
www.co.el-dorado.ca.us/visit-eldorado/
Calaveras Visitors Bureau:
www.visitcalaveras.org
Gold Country Visitors Association:
www.calgold.org
Amador County:
www.amadorcountychamber.com

Santa Cruz/Monterey Counties
Hang gliding along coastal sand dunes, rock climbing, kayaking Monterey Bay or hanging ten in the rolling surf at Santa Cruz are all options for visitors to the Monterey and Santa Cruz wine country. And Monterey Bay is one of the most popular places to scuba dive along California's coast. Contact Adventure Sports Unlimited (831/458.3648; www.asudoit.com). For hang gliding, check Western Hang Gliders (831/384-2622; www.westernhanggliders.com).

For exercise, you can start slowly in Monterey with the waterfront recreation trail that winds 18 miles from Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove to the city of Castroville. The trail offers the coastal beauty of the Monterey Bay to walkers, runners, bikers and in-line skaters to enjoy. Visitors can rent bicycles, skates and kayaks from several companies including Monterey Bay Kayaks (800/649-5357). In Moss Landing, take the Elkhorn Slough Safari (831/633-5555; www.elkhornslough.com) to explore the pristine waterway. If you want to heat up the adventure and you long to jump out of a plane, contact Sky-dive Monterey Bay (888/229-5867; www. skydivemontereybay.com) can make arrangements for you.

Several parks, including Molera State Park and Garland Park in Carmel Valley,
are great for nature hikes, off-road mountain biking or horseback riding. Molera
Horseback Tours (800/942-5486; www.molerahorsebacktours.com).

In Santa Cruz, you'll find some of the sweetest surf spots in the world for beginners and pros alike. And, you'll find riding a wave for the first time is truly a unique experience.

Cowell's Beach, next to the Santa Cruz wharf, is arguably the best place to learn to surf. A sheltered point break provides long, gentle waves in shallow waters. Surf instructors outfit beginners with wetsuits and surfboards, coach first-timers in small groups or one-on-one and guarantee to get even the weak-kneed up on the waves during the first lesson. Contact these dudes: Ed Guzman (831/459-9283; www.club-ed.com) and Richard Schmidt Surf School (831/423-0928; www.richardschmidt.com).

The Santa Cruz Mountains region, where David Bruce, Ridge, Cinnabar, Thomas Fogarty and others make great wine, is also a mecca for bikers, with many trails and fire roads perfect for mountain biking. Some wind through shaded redwoods, others climb to stunning vistas of Monterey Bay. For rentals and information, call Another Bike Shop (831/427-2232, www.anotherbikeshop.com) and Cruiser King (831/477-1288, www.cruiserking.com).

For rock climbers, Santa Cruz has one of the largest rock gyms in the world. First-timers find stable footing with established routes, great gear and supportive instructors. When you're ready for the outdoors, Pacific Edge climbing Gym (831/454-9254; www. pacificedgeclimbinggym.com) takes climbers to Castle Rock State Park for the real thing.
Finally, if adventure enough for you is to combine wine tasting and camping among 2,000 year old redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, contact Going South Wine Tours (415/252.749; www.evilgrape.com).

Other sources:
www.montereyinfo.org
www.santacruzca.org

Glen Putman is a freelance writer from Los Altos, California.

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