OCCIDENTAL, Sonoma County -- Thefirst thing I saw when I pulled intotown and opened the car door was abig golden rooster standing by my left front tire.The handsome creature cocked its head, waggledits wattle, squawked twice and proceeded tostrut across the Bohemian Highway.
So, er, why did the chicken cross a two-laneribbon of asphalt bisecting a blink-and-you'll missit hamlet in western Sonoma County?
Why, to get to the Cock & Bull, of course! TheBritish-style pub in a Victorian-era building evenhad a picture of a golden rooster on its signboard.
The anecdote was good for a cluck thatevening during wine hour in the stunning,apricot-colored living room of the Inn at Occidental.Longtime town resident Mary Comdon filledme in.
"Ah, you met 'The Mayor,' " she said with asmile as she poured me a glass of Belvederemerlot and offered a plate of cheese, fruit andother goodies.
It seems "The Mayor" fell off a slaughter trucka few years back and took up residence in thecommunity of 1,500. He wanders between MainStreet and the hill behind the inn, where he feedsat a feral cat station maintained bylocal animal lovers.
It was my first hint that this quirkylittle town -- a place watched over atnight by a giant hilltop peace signoutlined in white Christmas lights -- deservedmore than than a quick drive-through. Situatedmidway between Santa Rosa and Bodega Bay,Occidental makes a superb base for exploring themany charms of western Sonoma County.
"It takes a good three days to cover it all,"innkeeper Jerry Wolsborn said, ticking off alaundry list of nearby attractions that include aJapanese-inspired spa, garden nurseries, antiquesstores, fine restaurants, Russian Riverwineries, Armstrong Redwoods State Reserveand the wild, beckoning coast.
But it was the town itself thatmost acutely aroused my curiosity.Occidental may be small, buteven a casual visitor can sense itspalpable yet mature countercultural spirit. Andnever mind that the former lumber and railroadtown has been "tarted up," in one resident'swords, with modern-day tourism. Nowadays,five restaurants stand poised to feed the hungry,while a reasonably priced motelprovides an alternative to theluxury inn.
Perusing the boutiques andantiques stores on Main Streetcan easily consume severalhours. My favorite shop wasHand Goods, an absorbing,35-year-old institution sellingartisan ceramics, glass, jewelry,clothing and books.
While there, I met Kit Neustader,who 25 years ago helpedfound the Redwood Arts Council,a nonprofit that sponsorsmonthly chamber-music concertsat the 140-seat CommunityChurch two blocks away. Neustaderis one of many Occidentalresidents who moved here in the1970s, drawn by the rural settingand proximity to San Francisco.
"My husband was in lawschool and wanted to hang hisshingle in a nice place," sherecalled.
Back then, the area was amagnet for people experimentingin self-actualization techniques,communal living andback-to-the-land alternativelifestyles. A lot of those folks arestill around, Neustader said,though "most dress differentlynow."
A countercultural vibe
My initial impressions of the town were confirmed over a first-night dinner at the Union Hotel. The landmark, circa-1879 fixture on Main Street serves family-style Italian meals in a dining room dressed with red-checkered tablecloths and white candles stuck in straw-clad Chianti bottles.
The bruschetta, minestrone and homemade ravioli were hearty and satisfying. Equally interesting was a group of 40 or so townspeople gathered in a back room, all of them there for the first installment in a series of 12 weekly dinners with Italian lessons. Scenery of Lucca played on a projection screen as the diners sipped their wine and - enthusiastically and with increasing volume - repeated Italian phrases after the instructor. Salute!
Later, I wandered across the street to Facendini's Occidental Market. Community bulletin boards are always revealing, and the one outside the wood-floored grocery perfectly captured the town's personality.
There, amid notices for trailers, canoes and firewood for sale were fliers advertising back-porch zendo, yoga classes in several disciplines, "organic house cleaning," someone wanting to trade labor for food from a sustainable garden, and the services of practitioners in "assisted emotional clearing" and "equine-assisted self-exploration."
The most perplexing solicitation had been posted by someone identifying herself as an "organic baby-sitter."
Did that mean she didn't eat children?
I was starting to like this place. Even my room at the 18-room inn fit the Occidental profile, albeit in a very evolved, four-star kind of way. The cozy retreat, dubbed the "Safari Room," had butter-colored walls and was outfitted with an oversize bathtub, a gauzy mosquito-net canopy over a king-size bed, a hand-painted African animal mural on the wall. Piles of leather suitcases served as nightstands. There was no TV (inns like this are for real romance, not "Sex and the City" reruns), but a CD player, a gas fireplace and a good book provided diversion enough for the three nights I snuggled in.
As Wolsborn had said, the area is full of accessible surprises for visitors, and even some that will intrigue but are forever off-limits. Bohemian Grove, just up the road near Monte Rio, was founded more than a century ago by the all-male Bohemian Club of San Francisco. The rustic retreat is said to host some of the country's most influential politicians and corporate bigwigs during a closely-guarded confab each July.
The Bohemian Highway, which bisects Occidental on its run between Freestone and Monte Rio, takes its name from the mysterious enclave.
Curious to learn more about the area, I ventured the next day to the nearby Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. The 80-acre preserve's organic gardens and orchards have been a source of inspiration and training for thousands of gardeners since its establishment in 1974 as the Farallones Institute. People from around the world come to take courses in sustainable food systems, permaculture, biointensive gardening and such, while the public pours in for periodic tours and plant sales.
Wednesdays are volunteer days at the center, so I donned gardening gloves and joined a handful of others, ranging in age from 2 to 86, to help with pulling weeds and cutting back perennials under the tutelage of garden managers Doug Gosling and Michelle Vesser.
"Volunteer days are great for us, because there's lots of good energy and conversation," Gosling noted as a distant gong sounded and the group headed up a hill for a fabulous vegetarian lunch.
Next stop was Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery, just up the road, where Maggie Wych, originally from England, has for 32 years nurtured and propagated rare and exotic plants from around the world. She doesn't advertise and there's no Web site, but people from far and wide come to buy seedlings and admire what Wych describes as her "experimental garden."
"There's no plan; it's just whatever will grow. We try to do things other people don't," she explained as we admired a specimen of rare Cupressus cashmeriana (Kashmir cypress), which Wych described as "the most elegant and beautiful of conifers."
Swinging back to Occidental and inland on Graton Road, I journeyed next to the fringe of Russian River wine country for a tour and tasting at Marimar Torres Winery. The ochre-colored, Mediterranean-style aerie features a high-ceilinged tasting room with vineyard views for sipping the estate's well-regarded chardonnay and pinot noir.
Just down the road in the town of Graton is a restaurant said to be the best in the region. It was 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday when I stopped at the Underwood Bar & Bistro, which already was buzzing. I ordered an appetizer - white sardine bruschetta - and after that, a bowl of mussels with smoked chorizo that qualifies as one of the best shellfish preparations I've ever enjoyed.
Executive chef Matt Greenbaum and general manager Sally Spittles opened the Underwood two years ago after a decade of success with the more casual Willow Wood Market Cafe across the street. The small-plate, Mediterranean-inspired menu features, among many choices, five oyster preparations and cheese plates served with caramelized walnuts, quince jam and sliced apples.
Despite its redwoodsy character, Occidental is just 10 miles from the sea. Often as not during the winter, the coast basks in sunshine while inland valleys lie misted in fog. Such was the case on the morning I wound my way up Coleman Valley Road, a narrow, 8.5-mile asphalt track that twists through stands of redwood and ferns before opening up to breathtaking highland vistas.
The coast indeed was clear - and windy. I drove into the town of Bodega Bay (locals call it "Blowdega"), stopped by the tourist office and was directed to bluff-top hiking trails at Bodega Head. An hour spent soaking up the dramatic scenery, followed by an excellent lunch at the nearby Sandpiper restaurant, had me primed for an afternoon at Osmosis, a Japanese-inspired day spa in Freestone, 3.5 miles south of Occidental.
As I drove there, wondering what it was going to be like to lie buried up to my neck in a bed of enzyme-heated sawdust (see related story on page M1), I had new appreciation for a rare slice of California that has cultivated, nurtured and retained a wonderfully singular identity.
Long live "The Mayor."
Travel wise: Occidental area
Getting there: Occidental is about 110 miles and a 2 1/2-hour drive from Sacramento. Take Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 (Marine World turnoff) to Highway 101. Follow 101 north to the Highway 116 exit at Cotati. Take 116 to downtown Sebastopol, where it intersects with Highway 12. Follow 12 west (Bodega Highway) to the Freestone turnoff (Bohemian Highway). Turn right and continue to Occidental.
For a splurge: Jerry and Tina Wolsborn bought the renowned Inn at Occidental two years ago and have maintained both an impeccable level of service and a delightful decor. Full breakfast and evening wine-and-cheese hour are included in rates of $199 to $309. Seasonal specials include a midweek Rejuvenation package, $399, with lodging in a courtyard room and spa treatments (enzyme baths and 75-minute massages for two) at Osmosis in nearby Freestone.
Check the inn's Web site, www.innatoccidental.com, for other specials. For more information: (800) 522-6324.
On a budget: Negri's Occidental Hotel has clean, basic rooms priced from $60 weekdays, $70 weekends; www.occidentalhotel.com or (707) 874-3623.
In Occidental: The town's five restaurants, all on Main Street, include a pair of family-style Italian places - Negri's and the Union Hotel - which have been fixtures for generations.
Naked Lady (the name refers to the simple, mostly organic local produce that goes into the cuisine) is a new restaurant serving Californian-and Italian-inspired dishes, including delicious wood-fired pizza. Howard's Cafe is popular for breakfast and lunch, with a bakery and juice bar, while El Mariachi dishes up simple Mexican fare. The Cock & Bull, a British pub, recently closed; new tenants are expected by summer.
All of Occidental's eateries are moderately priced.
Nearby: Worth a 20-minute drive up Graton Road is Underwood Bar & Bistro, serving "small plates" in a chic, urban-style setting. Reservations recommended; (707) 823-7023. The same proprietors operate the well regarded Willow Wood Market and Cafe across the street; (707) 823-0233.
Don't miss: Wild Flour Bread, an organic bakery at 140 Bohemian Highway in Freestone. The hand-kneaded sticky buns baked in a wood-fired brick oven are to die for - but so is the seeded French bread and just about everything else they make. Open Fridays-Mondays; (707) 829-8101.
Things to do
Osmosis, 209 Bohemian Highway in Freestone, offers Japanese enzyme baths (see related story). Information: (707) 823-8231 or www.osmosis.com.
Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery, 16250 Coleman Valley Road, has hundreds of varieties of exotic plants for sale and viewing. Open limited hours in winter, most Thursdays through Sundays in summer. Call ahead: (707) 874-3731.
Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, 15290 Coleman Valley Road, offers a course in a wide variety of ecologically-oriented subjects, as well as arts and Chautauqua programs in summer. Open to the public by appointment and for special events: www.oaec.org or (707) 874-1557.
The Redwood Arts Council sponsors monthly chamber music concerts in Occidental. Coming up are performances by the Windscape quartet on Feb. 19, guitarist Cem Duruoz on March 12 and New York Chamber soloists on May 14. Tickets are $20. Information: www.redwoodarts.org, (707) 874-1124.
Marimar Torres, a Catalan-style winery specializing in estate-grown chardonnay and pinot noir, is one of the closest wineries to Occidental. Open weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Barrel tastings available March 5-6 in conjunction with Russian River Wine Road event (www.wineroad.com). Information: www.marimarestate.com or (707) 823-4365.
For more information
Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, www.sonomavalley.com or (707) 996-1090.