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Best Winter Getaway to Wine Country Itinerary

Blooming mustard brings bright color to Sonoma County vineyards in winter. 

You know that feeling winter brings along with it? The dimming light, the disappearance of greenery, the sudden desire to stay in bed until March or book the next flight to Any Place Tropical? We don’t really have that in Sonoma County.

Instead, the time of year that sends people from other places fleeing just makes us want to stay put. Our winter days are often bright and crisp, the nights perfect for cozying up by the fire. Best of all, everything we’re famous for — from the wineries to the redwoods to the coast — is still here.

So deck yourself out in a sweater and sunglasses, pack your hiking boots and your evening wear, and get ready to beat the seasonal blues in Sonoma County’s winter wonderland.

Take in gardens and artwork in Sonoma, stop by Glen Ellen for oysters and elegance, blend your own wine in Santa Rosa, get cultural at a world-class performance venue.

Morning Warm Up

Start your weekend off in Sonoma, a pretty little town that oozes Wine Country chic and laid-back luxury any time of year. Since comfort food and winter go together like biscuits and gravy, get your fill with breakfast at the Fremont Diner. This Sonoma favorite serves the kind of breakfasts chilly mornings were made for: huevos rancheros, chicken-fried steak, and ricotta pancakes with blood orange, all made with ingredients “from the farm out back and our friends nearby.”

The Breakaway Café is a solid local pick for hotcakes, scrambles, corned beef hash, and easy, colorful ambiance. For a quick bite, choose your favorite scone, Danish, muffin, or croissant from the huge array at Crisp Bakeshop, where the menu changes daily.

Cool Beauty

If the sun’s already peeking out, head to Sonoma’s Cornerstone Gardens, an ever-changing series of gardens that makes for a scenic morning amble. 

International designers have dreamed up more than a dozen installations with themes as varied as “the Garden of Contrast,” “The Garden of Visceral Serenity,” and “Mediterranean Meadow.” Cornerstone is also the new home of the Sunset Outdoor Magazine and Test Gardens, offering inspiration to home cooks and gardeners.

The gardens open for self-guided tours at 10 a.m., and you’ll want to save time after your stroll to explore on-site home and garden shops, galleries, and wine tasting venues. From the end of November and through December, Cornerstone will get extra festive with a French-style Winter Circus, carolers, and a slew of illuminated snowmen.

For a morning indoors, get colorful at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. The eclectic museum has been known to feature everyone from little-known local artists to giants such as Picasso and Rodin.

Small Town, Big Eats

From Sonoma, take Highway 12 West for about 15 minutes and get yourself to Glen Ellen — a tiny town that packs a culinary wallop — in time for lunch. The cozy Glen Ellen Inn specializes in oysters, with Wine Country favorites such as homemade pizzas, Kobe burgers, and oversized salads thrown in for good measure.

At the nearby Jack London Lodge, The Saloon offers more than just great cocktails and pub grub, offering pastas, steaks, and more. For something a bit more exotic, turn up the heat with Indian-Nepalese-fusion fare at Yeti. Or, just grab something to go from the excellent deli counter at the Village Market.

Sip, Savor, Blend

Stomachs lined and taste buds awakened, it’s time for a real taste of Wine Country. If you feel like sticking around the Sonoma Valley area after lunch, be sure to pick up a pass for the Heart of Sonoma Valley Wine Trail. The pass gets you complimentary tastings and discounts at a dozen wineries in Glen Ellen and neighboring Kenwood.

Otherwise, go your own way with visits to area wineries that really warm up in the winter. Landmark Vineyards in Kenwood is as renowned for its cozy atmosphere as it is for its stellar Chardonnay.

A bit further north, in Santa Rosa, turn a winter’s day indoors into a special occasion at DeLoach Vineyards. DeLoach’s “MFS” (My Finest Selection) experience lets you play winemaker for the day; you’ll finish the afternoon with a bottle you’ve blended, corked, and even designed a custom label for (visit the winery’s website to reserve your spot in advance).

Dinner and a Show

Sonoma County has two world-class venues where you can settle in for an evening of culture. The Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa stages performances by everyone from rock bands to classical orchestras, celebrated comedians to dance companies. And at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, customized acoustics and warm, modern design make an evening at the symphony a night to remember.

For dinner before your show at the Luther Burbank Center, eat like you’re family at Kin Restaurant in Windsor, or see what’s on the seasonal menu the acclaimed John Ash & Co. Restaurant just a stone’s throw away from the WFC.

Before a show at the Green Music Center, snag a table at the center’s on-site Prelude restaurant. Bathed in firelight and designed in the same warm, sleek style as the music hall itself, Prelude offers two- or three-course prix-fixe menus showcasing local ingredients.

In Santa Rosa, just north of Rohnert Park on Highway 101, a charming downtown district offers lots more options for cozy, elegant dining. Try Stark’s Steakhouse for hearty, sophisticated food around (you guessed it!) a dining room fireplace. A few minutes away in the town’s artsy SOFA (South A Street) art district, Spinster Sisters has been receiving rave reviews for its clever and creative food since opening earlier this year.

Wind Down

After a show at the Green Music Center, make yourself at home at the Gables Wine Country Inn. This enormous Victorian with fireplaces and claw-foot tubs in nearly every room waits just a few minutes away on Petaluma Hill Road.

From the Luther Burbank Center, it’s a two-minute drive to the luxurious Vintners Inn. The WFC also offers easy access to Highway 101: keep heading north to Healdsburg and you’ll find even more places to tuck yourself in for the night. Most of the guest rooms at Healdsburg’s posh Madrona Manor Inn have fireplaces, as do several rooms at the more intimate Raford Inn.

Soar above the vineyards, ice skate with Snoopy, watch out for whales, dine on Dungeness, and warm up by the fireplace.

Rise & Dine

We take breakfast very seriously in Sonoma County, so make today’s count by spending the morning at one of our local institutions. In Santa Rosa, Hank’s Creekside Restaurant is a standby for well done, no-fuss food like eggs benedict, blueberry pancakes, and customizable scrambles. Try for a table overlooking the Santa Rosa Creek, which often rushes along nicely in the winter months.

A more recent addition to Santa Rosa’s brunch scene, Dierk’s Parkside Café has quickly gained a huge following with its modern twists on classic comfort food. Think homemade cinnamon rolls grilled up like French toast, scrambled eggs with Sonoma duck confit, and local vegetable hash with goat cheese and pesto. (You'll find a second location, Dierk's Midtown Café, in downtown Santa Rosa).

If you landed in Healdsburg last night, head straight to Costeaux French Bakery, a local favorite since 1923. The bakery’s known for its excellent breads and desserts, but Costeaux’s café also serves up a hearty menu of pain perdu, quiche, and even egg white omelets for breakfast.

Such Great Heights

Even in the winter, Sonoma County often enjoys a sunny, cool climate, so invigorate your morning by getting outdoors. For an iconic wine country splurge, skip breakfast and book a early-morning hot air balloon ride out of Santa Rosa. There are four local companies waiting to give you a bird’s-eye view of the vineyards, crop fields, and mountains the area’s famous for.

If you’d rather spend the morning gazing up than looking down, try an easy walk through Armstrong Woods. Peace and tranquility reign supreme in this hundred-acre-plus redwood reserve in Guerneville, southwest of Healdsburg and northwest of Santa Rosa.

Happiness is a Warm Puppy

If you’d prefer to spend the morning indoors — or if your inner child is alive and well — don’t miss the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. The man behind Snoopy and Charlie Brown called Santa Rosa home, and the museum that bears his name today is the best place in the world to admire his work. The museum makes it easy and fun to track the evolution of Schulz’s comics, learn about the art of cartooning, and get to know the whole Peanuts gang a little better.

Next door to the museum, the Redwood Empire Ice Arena (also known as Snoopy’s Home Ice) recreates the feel of a Swiss chalet right here in Wine Country. Stop in for a morning skate, or warm up with a hot chocolate at the attached Warm Puppy Café, where a “Reserved” sign sits eternally at Schulz’s favorite table.

In the mood for a more leisurely morning? Not to worry: spend the morning sleeping in and you can still make it out west in time to enjoy a perfect afternoon at the Sonoma Coast.

Way out West

As you head west towards the coast via Highway 12 and the Bodega Highway, it’s worth taking a slight detour along the Bohemian Highway for a stop in Occidental. The quaint little town feels as if little has changed since the 19th century, and in the case of the Union Hotel Restaurant — anchoring Occidental’s Main Street since 1879 — it’s actually true. Lunch here means homemade minestrone and the world’s greatest breadsticks, fresh lasagna, and pesto pizzas, not to mention aged Italian ambiance.

Take your meal in the main dining room, complete with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and Chianti-bottle candles, or pull up a stool next to the locals at the old-school bar.

The Howard Station Café, just a few steps down the road, is the perfect stop for a lighter lunch, serving sandwiches, burgers, soups, and salads in a neighborhood setting. Be sure to bring cash, no plastic is accepted.

On the Look Out

Winter on the Sonoma Coast generally means three things: clear, brisk weather; whales; and Dungeness crab. From Occidental, make the 25-minute drive out to Bodega Bay and you’ll have your choice of all three.

Each year, from January to May, blue and grey whales cruise down the Sonoma coastline on their way south to Baja California. You can often spot them on their epic migration from the Ocean Overlook at Bodega Head. This is one of Sonoma County's top spots for whale watching, and on weekends from January to May volunteers from the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods are on hand to answer questions and share their knowledge of whales and migration.

To maximize your chances of spotting a giant, you can also reserve places on a chartered whale watching tour leaving from Bodega Bay (these trips leave in the early afternoon, so you may want to save lunch until you’re back on land).

Of course, you don’t have to get out on the water to enjoy the Sonoma Coast’s legendary scenery. Popular hiking trails, like the Kortum Trail between Shell Beach and Blind Beach, are perfect for easy bluff-top walks with sensational ocean views along the way.

The trails at Bodega Head are also easily accessible and relatively flat, making them perfect for a quick stroll. While winter weather on the Sonoma coast is often mild, it can get quite windy, so make sure you dress in layers. Or, feel free to stay in the car — a drive north on the Coast Highway affords panoramic views of the Pacific right from your window.

Seasonal Specialty

Now, about that crab: Dungeness crab season in Sonoma County starts in mid-November, and you’ll find the much-loved crustaceans on dinner menus all over the coast throughout the winter. In Bodega Bay, the Bay View Restaurant at the Inn at the Tides, the Lucas Wharf Restaurant & Bar, and Drakes Sonoma Coast Cuisine at Bodega Bay Lodge all serve local Dungeness in warm, inviting dining rooms.

You can also go right to the source and pick up live, freshly caught crab at the Spud Point Crab Co. (Of course, if you can’t wait to try this seasonal specialty, you can order up crab sandwiches or crab cakes to eat on-site until 5 p.m. daily). There’s also Fisherman’s Cove, part bait-and-tackle shop and part deli, for crab rolls and oysters plus Lagunitas beer on tap.

Can’t make up your mind how you’d like your crab? North of Bodega Bay in Jenner, the River’s End Restaurant & Inn offers a multi-course Dungeness tasting menu with crab ravioli, crab salad, crab bisque, and more.

Fireside Night Cap

Our coastal temperatures drop at night, giving you a perfect excuse to settle in front of the fire with a glass of something warming. Drake’s Fireside Lounge (adjacent to Drakes Sonoma Coast Cuisine) is the perfect escape. Relax with a glass of Sonoma County Pinot Noir next to the stone fireplace, or cozy up around the outdoor fire pit as you look up at the stars.

If you’re hungry for something different, skip dinner in Bodega Bay and head inland about 12 miles on Highway 116 to Guerneville. This lush little riverside town’s famous for its hip, bohemian resort lifestyle in the summer months; during the winter the scenery’s just as pretty but the crowds disappear.

Enjoy views of the redwoods and gushing Russian River as you make your way to the Applewood Inn. Designed to resemble the inside of an old farmhouse’s barn (albeit an exceptionally pretty one), the restaurant’s pan-seared, oven-roasted menu will warm you up almost as much as the dining room’s central fireplace. 

Settle in and Stay a While

Wherever the night takes you, you’ll have plenty of cozy, comfortable lodging options nearby. In Bodega Bay, treat yourself to a night at the Bay Hill Mansion B&B, where a glowing LED fireplace heats each luxurious bedroom, or sit by a wood-burning fire at the Bodega Bay Lodge and keep warm as you take in the ocean views out your window.

If you’ve made your way to Jenner for dinner at the River’s End, stick around for the attached lodge’s “luxe unplugged” guestrooms. Kitted out like rustic-chic cabins, each room features a gas fireplace and a private deck with views of both the river and the ocean. And in Guerneville, it’s the Applewood Inn again. Like its restaurant, Applewood’s guestrooms are flooded in warm colors and firelight, and some even feature private hot tubs.

No matter where you end your trip, chances are you’ll wake up looking at winter in a whole new way. Whether you're coming for the holidays or after the new year, check the Sonoma County Calendar of Events for current festivals, wine events, and other happenings. Find lodging, restaurant, wine tasting deals here.

Written by Sonoma Insider Jessica Quandt