Exploring Sonoma from the Vineyards to the Sea

Whale Watching Sonoma
Photo by Michael Housewright

Renowned as one of the world’s premier wine-growing regions, Sonoma offers  visitors experiences that range from adrenalized outdoorsy adventures to gentle floats down the Russian River, strolls along the coast, musical theater and tastings at craft breweries. Explore as much as you like, but also linger and celebrate the historic towns, the redwood groves and the breaking waves of the Pacific Ocean.


Illustration by Trisha Krauss

Sonoma is full of famous beer joints, none more renowned than Russian River Brewing Co., in Santa Rosa. It’s home of Pliny the Elder, a double IPA, and Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA, the latter of which is released in thimbleful amounts each February to long lines of adoring fans. There’s also Lagunitas in Petaluma, which offers tours of its brewery, as well as a spacious taproom with light bites that’s a favorite locals’ hangout. In Healdsburg, check out Bear Republic Brewing, a family-owned craft brewer best known for its Racer 5 IPA. There’s also a full restaurant on site.


Home to the Amgen Tour of California, Sonoma attracts both road cyclists and mountain bikers with its diverse trails and itineraries. The West County Regional Trail that begins in Sebastopol is ideal for families or anyone looking for an easy, fun ride. Hardcore cyclists will prefer the 55-mile ride that starts along the Pacific Ocean in Jenner and travels through redwood forest to steep, challenging terrain along King Ridge, a route that climbs 4,500 feet in elevation. The Santa Rosa Cycling Club can help with maps and route suggestions. For mountain biking, Annadel State Park is awash with challenging, rocky single-track trails. At less-crowded Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, 21 miles of trails peak at 2,729 feet above sea level.

Don’t Miss

Transcendence Theatre Company offers Broadway Under the Stars all summer within the ruins in Jack London State Historic Park. Top Broadway performers put on rousing evenings of song and dance—some numbers are famous showstoppers, others lesser-known gems. Food trucks and wine from local producers create a true wine-country experience.


For an easy walk on mostly paved roads, head to Spring Lake Regional Park, a good option for young kids and dogs. More challenging trails can be found at Annadel State Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Jack London State Historic Park, which includes a museum about the author and century-old buildings. If you crave sea air, head to the Kortum Trail, which extends three-plus miles along the California Coastal Trail between Wright’s Beach and Blind Beach.

Paddle Boarding

Petaluma Stand Up Paddle rents boards to enjoy on the Petaluma River or on tours of the Carneros Nature Preserve. SUP yoga sessions are also available, from a beginners’ group session to adventure yoga. The Bodega Bay Surf Shack rents boards and gear for paddles in Bodega Bay, Salmon Creek or the Pacific, while Russian River Paddle Boards does lake and river tours.

Hot Air Ballooning

Hot air balloon
Illustration by Trisha Krauss

There’s no better way to understand the topography of the region’s vineyards than from a hot-air balloon. Up & Away Ballooning starts its adventure with a gourmet pre-flight snack at Healdsburg SHED before the early-morning launch. After the flight, guests enjoy a more hearty breakfast, again at SHED. The company also offers Balloons, Bikes & Brews, where an aerial tour is followed by a bike ride to local breweries.

Whale Watching

Gray whales that travel north from March through June can be best viewed from Bodega Head, the highest point of Sonoma Coast State Park. Guides are generally on hand to help visitors spot the magnificent creatures.

Zip Line

Ride zip lines through coastal redwoods at speeds of up to 25 mph with Sonoma Canopy Tours in Occidental.

Where to Stay

Illustration by Trisha Krauss

In downtown Healdsburg, h2hotel has 36 “eco-chic” rooms with balcony or patio, and also offers a swimming pool and spa. On the ground floor, it houses Spoonbar, a world-class restaurant and bar; stop by for happy hour whether or not you’re spending the night. A Victorian-era bed and breakfast on four acres overlooking the Russian River Valley, the Raford Inn offers five quiet guest rooms with private bath, a wrap-around veranda and personalized hospitality from the longtime innkeepers, who also farm the property’s estate vineyard.

Photo by Eric Wolfinger

Where to Eat

One of the most anticipated Sonoma openings in years, SingleThread, a farm, inn and restaurant in one, has lived up to the hype since its December debut. Owner/chef Kyle Connaughton, who once lived and worked in Hokkaido, Japan, shows his expertise with kaiseki-inspired 11-course tasting menus that undergo subtle changes daily.

At Virginia Dare Winery, owned by the Coppola family, the house restaurant emphasizes Native American cuisine (think bison ribs, fry bread, wild rice and wild berries. A percentage of the restaurant’s revenue benefits Native charities. On the company’s website, Francis Ford Coppola says that this theme is in keeping with the winery’s focus on the roots of American winemaking.

Harvest Moon
Photo by Paige Green

The Harvest Moon Cafe is a longtime favorite in Sonoma Plaza is helmed by Jen and Nick Demarest, with help from their young daughter, Annabelle, who grew up playing in the restaurant’s garden. The weekend brunch here is a must. Be sure to pick up a pint of Jen’s ice cream on the way out.

Brothers Dustin Valette and Aaron Garzini showcase Sonoma farmers and wine-makers at Healdsburg’s Valette, a family tradition ever since theirgreat-grandfather ran Healdsburg bakeries at the turn of the century. Each dish centers on at least one local ingredient, like the Gari Blasi heritage apples that gild a sassafras-brined pork porterhouse.

Theresa Heredia
Photo by Stian Rasmussen

Tips from Local Experts

Theresa Heredia, Winemaker, Gary Farrell Winery

A cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialist, Theresa Heredia is also an avid hiker, swimmer and aficionado of inventive cocktails. A former Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, she traded the classroom for hands-on work in the cellar and vineyards, which included a stint in Burgundy, before landing in Sonoma County.

“I love that there are so many outdoor activities to choose from, and we have amazing and eclectic food: Indian, Ethiopian, Puerto Rican, Peruvian and, of course, Mexican. My wife moved here from New York, and she especially loves the weather here in February because it tends to be sunny, with temperatures as high as the mid-70s.

“Stay at the Fort Ross Lodge in one of the rooms on ‘The Hill’ for an affordable room and amazing view. Then drive up Meyers Grade Road to Fort Ross Winery to taste delicious Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage.

“In Forestville, rent canoes and/or kayaks through Burke’s Canoe Trips, where you can keep things simple by booking a campsite. [You can] pull out the canoes and walk right up to your site. This trip tends to be good for the less-adventurous folks who want a fun, yet relaxing afternoon on the river. You can stop along the way at Stumptown Brewery.”

“I love that there are so many outdoor activities to choose from, and we have amazing and eclectic food: Indian, Ethiopian, Puerto Rican, Peruvian and, of course, Mexican.

For relaxation, Heredia suggests making a stop in Guerneville, in particular “the R3 Hotel pool for summertime cocktails, DJs and socializing at the pool. Holiday weekends can be packed, so get there early.”

She recommends the Boon Hotel & Spa as a beautiful place to enjoy Guerneville, as well as El Barrio, “a great bar highlighting Tequila and mezcal cocktails and Mexican bites.”

In Santa Rosa, Heredia heads to Bird & Bottle for its excellent Southern-influenced food and drinks (“try the drinking-vinegar cocktails”) and to Saźon for authentic

Peruvian favorites like ceviche, lomo saltado, sangria and pisco cocktails. “It’s seriously one of my favorite places in Sonoma County.”

Amy Miller, Artistic Director/CEO Transcendence, Theatre Company

Amy Miller
Photo by Theo & Juliet

This Cincinnati native and actress, singer and dancer from smash Broadway shows like 42nd Street left the city for Sonoma. Miller is the engine behind the theater company’s live summer performances at Jack London State Historic Park.

Peter Lowell’s Restaurant in Sebastopol is a fantastic hidden gem. Sonoma is filled with favorites: brunch at Community Café, hiking in Jack London State Historic Park, dinner at Fig Café, El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen and Glen Ellen Star. Kunde Family Winery holds special memories for me, as well. The mountaintop tasting is incredible. My backyard and stargazing with a fire pit is truly my favorite. The stars are stunning here.

“I love sharing the Tuesday Farmer’s Market in Sonoma, Imagery’s art gallery and cornhole/bocce on [the] lawn, VJB Cellars for an Italian experience, and adventuring in Glen Ellen, where I live with my husband, Brad, and our dog, Junior.”

Jeff Mangahas, Winemaker, Williams Selyem

Jeff Mangahas
Photo by Williams Selyem

From Washington State, Jeff Mangahas started out as a medical research scientist before he gave in to his curiosity about why things taste the way they do. He switched gears and became a winemaker.

“While Cali cuisine is prevalent throughout the county, there’s a world-class Japanese restaurant in Rohnert Park called Hana. The sushi is amazing, with fish flown in from Tsukiji fish market and other top sources. Stop by and who knows, you might just see me.

“Another food gem is Mateo’s Cocina Latina [in Healdsburg]. Complex and deep flavors come through in Mateo Granados’s creations that pair well with wine. The bar is a great place to stop by and enjoy a couple of tacones [a taco in a cone-shaped shell], cocktails or learn about mezcal.

“In Petaluma, recharge with a latte and a pastry at Della Fattoria, a quaint spot known for exceptional artisanal breads.”

Published on May 25, 2017
Topics: California