Plenty of stops on weekend road trip to Sonoma County

FORT ROSS – Should you be lucky enough to take a summer weekend road trip to the Sonoma Coast, know that you will eat well along the way.

Well, as in healthily, but also as in rich. And rich, as in it will lighten your wallet as much as it will fatten your waistline. But you are traversing the breadth of Sonoma County, from the Valley of the Moon to the rocky, curvy coastal cliffs, so significant expense is a given.

You also will consume more than a little wine, but let's leave that analysis for The Bee's numerous oenophiles; our scope today is the travel experience in Sonoma, which is inextricably linked to gastronomy.

Sonoma was farm-to-fork when Sacramento was still trying to raise its streets from floodwaters, so farm stands, local bistros and high-end, small-plate "dining experiences" abound.

Also on the menu for this trip is a heaping entree of history at Fort Ross, once a Russian outpost and now a state park, garnished with verdant hikes on wind-swept hillsides. Oh, how you'll strain a muscle stretching for just the right adjective to describe the ocean views.

Along the way, we'll also stop at the quirky towns of Sebastopol, Guerneville and Duncans Mills, plus check in with two Santa Rosa legends: Luther Burbank and Charles Schulz.

On the way

Fremont Diner, Sonoma

Cruising along Highway 12 between Napa and Sonoma, having endured the inevitable traffic crawl after exiting Interstate 80 near Fairfield, you start thinking about breakfast.

You won't find chains on this stretch of road, no Denny's or IHOP, but just before you veer right heading into the retail stores edging into Sonoma, your eye is drawn to a red, retro sign in all caps: DINER. You've reached a strange culinary hybrid called "slow food truck stop" dining.

Meaning, it's down-home Southern cooking, biscuits and gravy and the whole nine yards of grits. It's not great for your cholesterol levels, but does wonders for your soul and girds you calorically for the long trip ahead.

From the counter with stools made from rusted tractor seats to the corrugated metal-ceiling patio, this place screams old- timey. But really, it's only been around since 2009.

Eighty percent of the ingredients the diner uses are grown on site. Yes, those pigs snorting around the property eventually become your bacon.

Deal with it.

Know that on weekends the wait is long, but worth it.

Every time traveler Lynnel Goncales of San Diego visits her son, she makes him take her to the diner, where she'll order something like chicken and waffles or hash brisket. On this day: prawns and grits – breakfast of champions. "I've never had a bad meal here," she said. "Never."

Directions: 2698 Fremont Drive, Sonoma. From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to Highway 12 west toward Napa and Sonoma for 17 miles. The Fremont Diner will be on your right.

Hours: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Sunday.


Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, Santa Rosa

Burbank, of course, was renowned as something of an agricultural alchemist, and Santa Rosa was his laboratory. His home and gardens where he did much of his early work, including the Frankensteinian "plumcot" (mix of plum and apricot) is in what is today downtown Santa Rosa. (His experimental farm is 10 miles west in Sebastopol, but the vast majority of Burbank's legacy and artifacts – and even his remains – are here.)

Docent Claudia Silkey doesn't hold back, touting both Burbank's successes, such as the Shasta daisy, and his missteps, such as his attempt to perfect a spineless cactus after noticing that the spines had deleterious effects on cattle. Turns out the cactus needed too much water to be viable. He spent 22 years working on it.

The inside of Burbank's 1885 Greek Revival home, where he entertained the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Helen Keller, is maintained like a time capsule.

But it's the flora that is the star attraction. It's what brought Gail Fitzgerald all the way from Lawrenceville, Ga., and Diane Leach from Laguna Niguel in Southern Californial. The two gushed over the crape myrtles and said they couldn't wait to see the lilacs.

Directions: 204 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa. From Sonoma, take Highway 12 west for 25 miles, turn left on Farmers Lane, turn right on Sonoma Avenue and left on Santa Rosa Avenue.

Hours: 8 a.m. to dusk daily. Guided tours, April through October, are between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Cost: $7. Parking is free on the street.


Charles M. Schulz Museum, Santa Rosa

Any doubts about the enduring popularity of the "Peanuts" comic strip is put to rest on a visit to the museum that Charlie Brown built. Well, the creator of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy and the gang.

Roam the bright hallways looking at strips and artifacts from more than five decades of the multipronged "Peanuts" media empire.

A boy tugged on his dad's sleeve and pointed out that Snoopy looked different (floppier ears, longer snout) in what was a 1950s rendering. The boy's father, Robert East, who brought his family from Eureka to bow at the "Peanuts" altar, said his 7-year-old knows all about the famed strip and characters.

"He reads the comics every day," East said.

In many ways, though, the museum is a sentimental stroll down memory lane for baby boomers, for whom the seasonal "Peanuts" TV specials are must-see events.

It's all there – life-size renderings of Lucy snatching the football away from a flailing Charlie Brown, Snoopy doing his dance, the jazz piano soundtrack wafting from the ceiling.

Directions: 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa. From the Luther Burbank Home, head north on Santa Rosa Avenue, turn left on Third Street, turn right on Morgan Street and take the onramp to Highway 101 North. Go 1.2 miles to the Steele Lane/Guerneville Road offramp. Take Steele west for 0.3 miles; turn right on Hardies.

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesdays.

Cost: $10 general, $5 children, seniors


The French Garden, Sebastopol

If breakfast was "slow food truck stop," then why not make lunch "slow food chic French bistro?" That's what you get at the French Garden, perhaps 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. The sublime touch of head chef Arturo Guzman is what brings it all together.

Guzman himself is a success story, starting as a dishwasher at famed Meadowood in Napa at age 17 and working up to manager of the kitchen before a long career as executive chef at several North Bay eateries.

Directions: 8050 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. From the Schulz Museum, head south on Hardies Lane, turn left on West Steele Lane, left on Guerneville Road. Merge onto Highway 101 southbound and go 1.7 miles. Take exit 488B toward Sebastopol. Merge onto Highway 12 and travel 6.2 miles west. In downtown Sebastopol, continue straight onto Bodega Avenue for one mile.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner 4:30-9:30 p.m.


Andy's Market, Sebastopol

On your way out of town on Highway 116, you'll pass a few fruit stands. Then you'll see Andy's, which is an über-fruit stand and apparently a must-stop. The parking lot was packed, and the two bike racks were 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. Customer Dan Goldfield said he drives to Andy's almost daily from his home in neighboring Occidental because "everything – I mean, everything – is fresh. And they are good people. What's not to like?"

Directions: 1691 Gravenstein Highway (Highway 116), Sebastopol. From the French Garden, go left on Bodega Avenue, cross Highway 116 southbound (North Main Street) and turn left on Highway 116 northbound (Petaluma Avenue). Follow Highway 116 for 1.7 miles. The market will be on the right.

Hours: 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m.

Downtown Guerneville

Your last stop before making the final push downriver (the Russian River, of course) is Guerneville, which thrives as a haven for old-timers, neo-hippies, gay and lesbian transplants from San Francisco, and river-rafting enthusiasts.

Check out the Guerneville 5 & 10, a five-and-dime store dating to 1949 that is a trip back in time.

Speaking of trips, cross Main Street and mosey over to Shakedown Street, a boutique whose raison d'être is to bow at the altar of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Dead trinkets run the gamut: hemp guitar straps and woven Guatemalan guitar cases.

If you pass through Guerneville on a Friday afternoon or on a weekend day, make a pit stop just off the main drag at Russian River Vintage Trailers to have a look-see at how owner and restorer Kevin O'Connell has lovingly refurbished vintage Airstreams.

Directions: From Andy's Market, head west on Highway 116 (Gravenstein) for 15.5 miles. Turn left on River Road.

Jenner and Fort Ross

Fort Ross State Park

Long before anyone harbored Cold War fears, the Russians invaded our shores. They nudged aside the Kashoya Pomo Indians and built a fort in a grassy valley surrounded by verdant woodlands on a cliff overlooking the Sonoma Coast.

From 1812 until 1841, workers from the Russian-American Co. had a settlement to take advantage of the fur and lumber trade.

It was the farthest south the Russians made it in North America, at least until the current crop of Russian oligarchs "discovered" San Francisco a few decades ago.

Anyway, the forbidding wooden fortress remains intact. The dormitories still look habitable and the warehouse has been re-created as in old times.

If you're lucky, you'll visit Fort Ross on a day when schoolchildren are visiting.

Fourth-graders from the Yuba River Charter School, a Waldorf Academy, were squatting at the camp, in full period costume. They learned about the Russians' stab at commerce and heard from one of the last speakers of the Kashoya language.

"The kids had to go a whole day without cellphones or electronics," parent Laura O'Brien said. Even more difficult, perhaps, was that the fourth-graders had to eat borscht.

"We really sweetened the borscht," parent Stacey Ward added.

The fort itself is only three-tenths of a mile from the visitors center and museum. The road paved and handicapped-accessible. A half-mile loop around the property on a trail also sends you past the first windmill erected in California. You can go a little farther afield and hike out to the Russian cemetery.

The only bad news? Because of state budget cuts, the museum and site are open only Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Directions: From Guerneville, take River Road west and turn right on Highway 1 near Jenner. Continue north for 12 miles. The entrance will be on the left.

Parking: $8

Open: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays


Timber Cove Inn

There are more than a few cliffside dwellings (B&Bs, motor courts, four-star resorts) at which to stay along this curvy stretch of Highway 1. Perhaps the most celebrated is the Timber Cove Inn, about halfway between Fort Ross to the south and Salt Point State Park to the north.

As its name implies, it overlooks a cove with sunsets worthy of a Conde Nast magazine. Or, better yet, view them from your in-room hot tub that lets you recline, loosen those knotted shoulders from the harrowing drive and still catch the setting sun out the window.

Everything is about the view at this inn. Its four-star restaurant, Alexander's, manages to be situated so that every table has a view. Under chef Benjamin St. Clair, a product of the Culinary Institute of America, Alexander's has adhered to the "local" edict, serving Tomales Bay oysters and lamb from free-range Sonoma stock.

Directions: 21780 Highway 1, Jenner. From Fort Ross, travel four miles north on Highway 1. The hotel will be on the left.

Salt Point State Park, Pygmy Forest hike

I don't profess to be an expert on pygmy forests, but I've got to say this one seemed a bit puny. Well, let me rephrase: not puny enough, at least compared against the truly dazzling pygmy cypress tree forest near Mendocino.

Still, the drive out to Salt Point State Park for this four-mile trek is worth it if only for the diversity of flora seen on the way. Native-plant enthusiasts will see some rhododendrons, but not as many as at nearby Kruse Natural Preserve.

The first 1.5 miles leading to the Pygmy Forest on the North Trail take you through a combination platter of coastal redwood, tan oak, madrone, fern and Douglas fir. Nearing the Pygmy Forest, all you have to do is look down at your feet to know why the trees' growth is so stunted. The soil, so rich at the lower elevation, turns sandy and parched as you climb among the dwarf cypress and pines.

This is a challenging trek because the first half is all uphill, gaining about 800 feet in elevation, then the second half is a swift descent as the trees regain their comparatively majestic height and grandeur.

Directions: From the Timber Cove Inn, travel 4.4 miles north on Highway 1. Turn right at the sign for the Woodside Campground. Park in the lot beyond the guard shack ($10 parking fee). Trailhead is a gate at the northeast end of the lot.

Duncans Mills

A few miles from the mouth of the Russian River – where the harbor seals sun themselves at Goat Rock Beach – lies the extremely small but infinitely fascinating burg of Duncans Mills. (Yes, there's no apostrophe; and yes, it's plural. As Christina Harrison, one of the three sisters who own the town of 85 residents, explains, "Originally there were two Duncans and three mills, so it's plural.")

Grammar aside, Duncans Mills is the perfect final stop after making the winding, arduous drive from Fort Ross and Jenner proper.

No less than four antiques shops dot the town, which has 21 businesses. The weirdest enterprise has to be Jim & Willie's. Jim is Jim Raidle and the late Willie was his dog. An expat from San Francisco, Raidle has brought a citified insouciance to this small town.

You can buy an Argentine horsehair gaucho belt with coins woven into the design for $95, a toy cap pistol (with ammo) from the 1930s for $245, and souvenirs from the über-wealthy, über-male Bohemian Grove enclave that encamps each year.

"We make it a point to stop here every time," said traveler Mary De La Roca of San Anselmo. "It's a long drive and this is kind of fun. A lot of people miss it. They just drive right by."

Directions:From Jenner, make a left on River Road heading to Guerneville and drive 3.5 miles. The town has exits on the left and right.

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.