In Marin and Sonoma, quaint towns, unique spots

05/26/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 11:56 AM

Despite the heavy promotional campaign, there’s more to Marin and Sonoma counties than just wine-tasting. Outdoor recreation awaits, as does shopping, farm-to-fork dining and plenty of quirky stops with equally “interesting” characters.

It’s close enough to Sacramento so that you can make a long day trip or, if you’ve eaten too much or overdone it on the trail or the white-water rapids, you can spend the night in a cozy B&B.


A quick stroll down Main Street and its arteries bear that out. It ranges from the beautiful and diverse antique furniture at the Sonoma Nesting Co. to the nostalgia-laden Russian River Vintage Trailers.

The ’60s (that’s the 1860s, folks) are on display at the Riverlane Resort, where owner Alby Kass proudly shows off a blown-up photo of loggers felling wide-trunked redwoods while his erstwhile boardinghouse serves as home base. The other ’60s is represented by a boutique called “Shakedown Street, “ purveyor of all things Grateful Dead-related, with a winking-nudging “Hippies Use Back Door – No Exceptions” sign in the front window.

The ’70s, too, have had a big influence. In the 1870s, that noted cabal of rich and powerful from San Francisco, the Bohemian Club, took root in nearby Monte Rio and radiated affluence and culture to Guerneville as well. Today, its influence can be seen in upscale resorts such as the Applewood Inn (with its Michelin-starred restaurant) and bistros such as boon eat + drink.

Not to be outdone, the 1970s saw the advent of gay and lesbian culture hit town, as nightclubs such as the Rainbow Cattle Co. took hold. Today, yearly Dionysian festivals such as the Lazy Bear Weekend and Women’s Weekends are tourist staples, and the community gathers for “Born This Way Bingo, with a Lady Gaga Costume Contest.”

The unifying element, what makes Guerneville a thriving tourist stop and not just another one-light town, is the Russian River. It’s at once a blessing of a recreational haven for anglers, kayakers and hikers, as well as a curse of a natural disaster area when flooding threatens to whisk away the community in its wake. And the floods inevitably do come, at least once a decade.

Outdoors types can hike at Armstrong Redwoods and Austin Creek state parks or kayak at Johnson’s Beach and Resort, and there are plenty of fine bed and breakfast options, including the Applewood Inn, Creekside Inn & Resort and Riverlane Resort.

Bodega Bay

Long before Alfred Hitchcock discovered it, Bodega Bay and its neighbor slightly inland, Bodega, attracted birds. Bird-watchers, too, attracted in large numbers by the irresistible geographic combination of open shoreline and diverse flora. The National Audubon Society has called this area one of the nation’s top birding spots.

On any spring weekend, even well into summer, you’re as liable to see as many folks peering through binoculars as fisherman. Bird-watching ranks with whale watching, crabbing, camping and hiking as the prime outdoor activities for a Bodega weekend trip. Two peregrine falcons make Bodega Bay home, reports Tom McCuller of the Audubon Society, one perching in eucalyptus trees, the other at Doran Beach. Bald eagles perch in Cypress trees near the fire station at Doran Beach. Black-crowned night herons congregate at Hole in the Head, a pond near Bodega Head that resulted after townsfolk stopped construction of a nuclear power plant in the 1960s.

But, yes, movie buffs still make a pilgrimage to “The Birds” shooting sites, though they may leave disappointed. The inland hamlet of Bodega is a better “Birds”-watching locale, with the movie’s schoolhouse intact. Alas, no tours. Private residence. “Birds” lore can be found a few hundred feet away at the Bodega Country Store, where owner Michael Fahmie has set up a little shrine. Out front is a mannequin of Hitchcock, with a crow perched on its shoulder. Inside is an array of memorabilia for sale, from a Tippi Hedren Barbie doll (in requisite green dress) to a photo of Hitchcock with a bird perched on his cigar, to DVDs of the film, to a $17,690 original autographed movie script

Commune with nature along the Spud Point Marina on Westshore Road, where commercial crabbing boats bring back the day’s catch and watch anglers hoisting lines. Best of all, you can enjoy clam chowder or a crab-salad sandwich at the Spud Point Crab Co.


Bolinas is a great place for a day trip – if you can find it. There’s only a single turnoff from Highway 1 and, Bolinas residents keep tearing down the signs, wanting to stay undiscovered.

But for those with GPS, you turn west on Olema Bolinas Road. Eucalyptus trees on the right wave to you. On the left is the lagoon, the main topographic feature that enables the town to separate itself from society. At a T-junction in the road, just below a yellow CalTrans double-arrow sign, is what amounts to a Welcome-to-Bolinas sign. It reads: “Entering Socially Acknowledged Nature-Loving Town.”

From there, around a bend, the town awaits. It’s a three-block stretch of commercial buildings – cafe, bar, grocery, galleries – on Wharf Road, with another block of shops on Brighton Road. Beyond lies the beach, which curves south and west and remains sheltered from prevailing northern winds. Above, houses, ranging from modest to manses, dot the bluffs with views, on clear days, of San Francisco, which is as close as many Bolinasites want to get to the city.

Once you get out and walk around, you find many surprises: there’s a “Free Box” walk-in closet where people can take and drop off clothing; a bookstore that runs on the same premise; a popular bar where that rumpled guy in the corner might be a famous poet or rocker-in-his-dotage, or maybe just another drunk; a museum with a quality of work from coastal artists that far exceeds what you’d expect from a small town; and a beach with consistently friendly waves that draws surfers from all over Northern California and brings agate-seeking beachcombers as well; and a cafe with a menu in which “fresh catch” really means fresh, like, you know, the same day.


If for no other reason, you want to stop in this inland Sonoma County town for a look at the Florence Avenue Project: 20 front-yard sculptures erected over the past 10 years.

It’s the work of Patrick Amiot, and his creations grace more than 200 locations in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. Some are public-art commissions, some stand in front of businesses as eye-catchers, some just are there. Amiot started building them for his neighbors and things just got out of hand. With renown came attention – and people. Soon, Florence Avenue became a roadside attraction, even if the road is hardly near any highway. Strangers routinely stroll the ‘hood and most neighbors are OK with it.

“Each neighbor took a little work to find their soft spot, “ Amiot said. “(One neighbor) is an A’s fan, so I did a ballplayer for her. I did a little profile of each neighbor and eventually found the piece that was appropriate for them.”

Once you’re done looking at Florence Avenue homes, you’re probably going to be hungry. Sebastopol has that covered.

At the French Garden, they tout “slow food chic French bistro.” A Michelin-rated restaurant, it’s Sebastopol’s answer to the famous French Laundry in Yountville. Actually, Sebastopol is too low-key and liberal-guilt- ridden to put on airs. But people here like an elegant meal as much as the next guy. Judging by the lunch crowd on an expansive patio shaded by a gorgeous, many-limbed cypress tree, Sebastopol can support fine dining. Critics seem to like it, too; it garnered a recommendation in the Michelin Guide only five years after opening.

Many of the vegetables come from the 30-acre organic farm of owners Dan Smith and Joan Marler. All the cheeses, fish, bread and chicken are from local suppliers.

If you’re on a budget, try Andy’s Market. It’s on your way out of town on Highway 116. It’s an über-fruit stand and apparently a must-stop. The parking lot is routinely packed, and the two bike racks are overflowing, as well. (A bike trail parallels the highway.) Again, local is the key to the success of Andy’s, which has been in the same spot for more than 45 years. Andy, by the way, is Andy Skikos, whose brother runs daily operations, and many of his 19 grandchildren work around the produce stand. Among the favorites are the goat cheese and yogurt from Redwood Hill Farm, which is less than two miles from Andy’s.

Information: Directions to the Florence Avenue Project: Take Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 toward San Rafael. Turn onto Highway 101 north and travel eight miles. Exit at Highway 116 west. Turn left onto Bodega Avenue. After 0.3 miles, turn right on Florence Avenue. The French Garden is on 8050 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. Web:; Andy’s Market is on 1691 Gravenstein Highway (Highway 116). Web:

Annadel State Park

For hikers, runners, equestrian and mountain bikers, the seven-mile Annadel Loop through the heart of a 5,500-acre stretch of the Sonoma Mountains, near Santa Rosa, is challenging but not overtaxing, the perfect combination of forest, meadow and sparkling lake.

You start at the well-signed Cobblestone Trailhead, and you see why this area was once a quarry whose stones paved the streets of San Francisco and Sacramento. It’s a little rocky, but a series of live oaks provide a canopy and lichen growing on the boulders give the trail a primeval vibe. The Orchard Trail leads to man-made Lake Ilsanjo then straight up a fire road to the North Burma Trail, where the next mile and a half is a downhill, single-track jaunt, sometimes steep and rocky, through groves of Douglas fir and madrone and the omnipresent oak.

The park extends for many more acres, and the park station provides maps to trails such as the 4.3-mile Marsh Trail and the 2.9-mile Lawndale Trail.

Information: Directions to trailhead: Take Interstate 80 to the Highway 12 exit at signs for Napa/Sonoma. Continue on Highway 12 past Sonoma for approximately 15 miles. Turn left on Melita Road, which turns into Montgomery Drive. Make a left at Channel Drive and park in the gravel lot next to the sign for the Cobblestone Trailhead.


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