One of the best things about the City by the Bay is its proximity to breathtaking natural beauty and vibrant, diverse, neighboring communities. In less than 30 minutes from San Francisco, you can feel on the edge of the world at the cliffs of the Marin Headlands, look up the trunk of a 600-year-old Redwood, or explore the scenic waterfronts of Sausalito and Tiburon. And to the east, Oakland and Berkeley are destinations in their own right for their fantastic restaurants burgeoning art scenes. Plus, if the fog’s got you shivering, any of these locations are worth the trip just to warm up!
From San Francisco, you can reach any of these points in an hour or less by car. Public transportation options are also listed throughout the chapter. Another option is to hitch a ride with San Francisco Sightseeing (tel. 888/428-6937 or 415/434-8687; www.sanfranciscosightseeing.com), which runs regularly scheduled bus tours to neighboring towns and the countryside. Half-day trips to Muir Woods and Sausalito, and full-day trips to Napa and Sonoma are available, as are excursions to Yosemite and the Monterey Peninsula. Phone for prices and schedules.
Picture the whole area as a long, uppercase U in which the two top tongs are pinched together around a light mountain range. On the “left,” or western, tong of the U is vast and widespread Sonoma County, where the principal north-south road is U.S. 101, which goes straight to the Golden Gate; while in Napa County, the eastern half, it’s the more congested 128. In Napa County, the main road is 29, which, especially around rush hour, can be slow going.
At the bottom of the U, the town of Sonoma is connected to the town of Napa, which is 30 minutes east, by a long stretch of rural Highway 121/12. That’s also where Highway 37 links Napa County to Highway 101, as well as to the town of Vallejo (no need to stop there, trust us) and I-80; either road can take you back to the city, although the 101 is probably faster.
North from Napa, the principal towns, which gradually grow smaller and quainter, are Yountville, Oakville, St. Helena (all adorable), and finally the Main Street town of Calistoga (known for hot springs). Not far north from that, 29 turns into 128 and links up with Geyserville, at the tippy top of the Sonoma wine region.
From there, heading south through Sonoma County, you hopscotch between populous towns and quiet hamlets. First is Healdsburg (a swanky-sweet weekenders’ town square good for strolling), and Santa Rosa (bigger and with cheaper motels, but no wineries to speak of within it, though there is an airport here). Route 12, also known as Sonoma Highway, branches off to the east there, taking you through Kenwood and the charming town of Glen Ellen, and finally Sonoma, the county’s historic seat. West and southwest of Santa Rosa along 116 are the towns of Sebastopol and Forestville, and finally, Guerneville, where the thick redwood forests begin in what’s called the Russian River Valley. The vibe here is more laid-back, and in summer, the big pastimes are canoeing and swimming. Guerneville is also a well-known gay resort town, particularly in summer, although you won’t find that it rages often with parties; the visitors tend to be a bit more middle-aged and settled. (For a resource on gay friendly and specific resorts and restaurants, go to www.gayrussianriver.com.
The character of the two counties varies slightly. While Napa is mostly verdant farmland and some small towns, Sonoma has a few larger communities (Santa Rosa) and its topography is much more varied. There’s rolling hills and farms in the east, which gives way to deliciously damp redwood forests in the middle west, to wild and undeveloped seashore. (Remember Hitchcock’s The Birds? It was shot in Bodega Bay, on the Sonoma Coast. It’s still just as rustic now, although it’s about 30 minutes’ drive through forests from what we consider Wine Country.)
It really doesn’t matter which area you choose to make home base. They’re all spectacular. But Sonoma and Napa combined cover a heck of a lot of real estate, so you’d be wise to select and explore either Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, or Northern Sonoma. To do them all justice, you’d need at least 2 weeks!
Deciding between Napa and Sonoma
Choosing which area to visit is a tough call, but the choice can be easily made if you consider the strong suits of each. If world-famous restaurants, super luxury accommodations or funky hot springs, and larger well-known brand-name wineries with elaborate facilities and tours sound good to you, aim for Napa. You can stay in the town of Napa, Calistoga, or anywhere in between—getting across the valley takes about 45 minutes, so it really doesn’t matter. If I were you, I’d plan my accommodations around where I want to dine. Yes, you’ll need to hop in and out of the car all day while wine tasting. (Hire a car service or designate a driver; there’s no public transportation here.) But trust me: There’s nothing worse than gorging yourself silly on a memorable meal and too much wine, and finding yourself a half-hour’s drive from your hotel.
Sonoma County, on the other hand, is the more pastoral, laid-back, wholesome-feeling escape. It’s where you’ll find more family-owned wineries where the winemakers themselves are pouring the day’s drink. More expansive with charming rural little roads leading to the next great wine tasting experience, it’s less congested, more spread out, and has the most attractive square around (in Healdsburg). That’s not to say you won’t find luxury and hot springs here, too. Famed Sonoma Mission Inn is case in point. There are also noteworthy dining excursions and an abundance of exceptional wines. Should Sonoma be your pick, I highly recommend you choose between spending your time in Sonoma Valley (cute shopping and dining square in the town of Sonoma, a handful of great wineries, including some historic ones) or Northern Sonoma (vast, with Healdsburg as its epicenter, a plethora of wonderful wine regions scattered over winding roads flanked by overgrowth, and fun outdoor activities such as canoeing along the Russian River).
Maybe it’s not so easy to choose. But the good news is, you really can’t go wrong.
When to go to Wine Country
Because the area is a major draw from the cities in the Bay Area, you’ll find that crowds build when people are normally vacationing. Summertime is ludicrously busy, and the season’s lines of cars and endless traffic on the counties’ two-lane roads can truly try the patience. Still, the scenery is gorgeous then, with the grapes sprouting on the vine; and it’s also the season for garden tours. The grapes are harvested and squeezed in the fall, and, alas, this time can also be maddening, because people flock here to witness some of the rare action involved in harvest and the resulting winemaking. I’m a fan of visiting in winter: Tourists tend to stay away then so you’ll get much more attention and education from the vintners, hotel prices (notoriously expensive) are way down, and it’s easier to get restaurant reservations. Plus, with the nip of winter, the dormant grapevines, and twinkle lights illuminating various nooks and crannies, it’s extremely romantic. Spring is a close second, because the area bursts with the green and yellow of mustard flowers. It’s never terribly cold—wine country everywhere, by definition, is mostly mild, because that’s what makes it good for grape growing.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.