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Sonoma Insider Getaway Itinerary

Sonoma Valley Regional Park looks small from the highway, but it's a 202-acre oasis with a fenced dog park and miles of trails.

Sonoma County boasts many “must sees” among its hundreds of wineries and restaurants, its many terrific hotels, B&Bs and inns, and pretty parks and beaches within its million acres of gorgeous landscape.

Yet there’s a secret Sonoma, too, where the locals and savvy visitors know to go to for more relaxed, neighborhood moods and a bit of quirky character. Here, you’ll often see the winemakers and chefs themselves hard at work, meet the actual innkeepers and probably a family pet or two, and enjoy vast expanses of forest and oceanfront without tourist crowds. Getting to Sonoma County is easy. Just fly to Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa via Alaska Airlines, American Airlines (Sky West), United Airlines, or Sun Country (seasonally), or drive from San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge to Santa Rosa.

Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet.

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Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Petaluma

Get off to a power start with Grandma Dierk’s pull-a-parts, heavenly buns of moist and dense fried bread dough, dusted with cinnamon and sugar. They’re yours to savor at Dierk’s Parkside Café in Santa Rosa, or at owner Mark Dierkhising’s newer offshoot, Dierk’s Midtown Café, just 1.3 miles away.

Dierkhising is a graduate of the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and has cooked alongside greats like James Beard and Julia Child, so the original’s setting is a bit surprising, next to a tattoo parlor. But locals crowd in for a mouthwatering mélange of French, Mexican, and classic mid-West comfort food, like silky duck confit with eggs, hash browns and fragrant warm applesauce; or chicken fried steak of crispy-battered beef partnered with hash browns, eggs, and rich homemade sausage gravy.

You’re right next to the SOFA neighborhood, which is the South A Street Art District in Santa Rosa. So cross Mendocino/Santa Rosa Avenue from Dierk’s to tour art studios, in the largest concentration of artists in Sonoma County.  See painting, printmaking, photography, collage, jewelry, glass, and more. To keep your energy going, pause amid the galleries for a coffee and pastry at Atlas Coffee Company, where records spin on the turntable and locals bask in the sun on the hidden courtyard.

SOFA is just a bit south of Railroad Square, a Historic District brimming with independently owned shops. This is where you can enjoy a walking tour of the picturesque area, snapping up treasures like rhinestone encrusted cat collars at Western Farm Center, six-panel Japanese screens hand painted with cranes from Green Fish Trading, handmade felted soap wrapped in softly spun wool from Cast Away Yarn Shop, and delicate china tea cups from Whistlestop Antiques.

Another don’t miss is the beautifully restored Northwestern Pacific Railroad Train Depot made of locally quarried stone – it sits right on the western edge of the neighborhood, and is a stop on the new Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train route.

You’re hungry again, and The Spinster Sisters brings you back to the SOFA neighborhood for its creative spin on California cuisine and funky, fashionable setting in an old home. Seasonal stars include delicious, devilish shrimp and grits decorated with two poached farm eggs, tasso and Tabasco; or a BLT of SCMC bacon, heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, and Sriracha aioli on Italian como toast with mixed greens or fries.

Hop on Highway 12, now, just a block from the restaurant. Locals know to go to southwest Sebastopol for some of the best hidden delights, in restaurants, wine bars and one-of-a-kind shops.

Sip some wine at the MacPhail Tasting Lounge in the heart of The Barlow artisan and culinary center. James MacPhail launched his Pinot Noir-focused brand back in 2002, when the Sonoma Coast was still a risky frontier of winemaking. After his whimsical label with little red wagons appeared on the cover of Wine Spectator, he partnered with Hess Collection. Everything in the industrial-chic styled tasting room is re-imagined, re-used, and recycled, including the Radio Flyer sculpture.

Then, mosey over to the Antique Society a bit south, boasting more than 125 mini-stores all under one roof, and each managed by private curators. You may find sparkling costume jewelry or real gold, a well-loved rocking chair or a velvet armchair, and the hunt is half the fun.

That will put you next door to California Carnivores, the largest carnivorous plant nursery in the United States for the past 25 years. Weird, yes, but it’s really a fascinating place to visit, and certainly celebrates the quirky, creative culture of Sonoma County. Venus flytraps are very pretty, you bet.

An icy cold beer sounds good about now, and Washoe House on Stony Point Road five miles southeast of Sebastopol has been pouring them since 1859. The former stagecoach stop, saloon, and brothel has been spruced up a bit recently, but still holds its historic charm such as the bar ceiling thickly papered with business cards, photographs, and lots and lots of dollar bills.

You’re on the edge of Petaluma, so continue south, and check in to the Metro Hotel & Café, a small, eclectic, self-serve-style boutique hotel with French charm in a 140-year-old building that was restored in 2010. It’s located within walking distance of historic downtown Petaluma and its many antique stores, boutiques, wine bars, and restaurants. 

As another option, the hip Hotel Petaluma opened its doors in 1924 and recently underwent an extensive renovation. The five-story hotel has more than 90 guest rooms with upscale amenities (some still under renovation), a grand lobby with a courtyard entrance, and the on-site Barber Cellars tasting room specializing in Zinfandels.

Scoot on over to dinner at Wild Goat Bistro, tucked away in the back of the historic brick Great Petaluma Mill along the riverfront. Decorated in mostly reclaimed materials, the 1856 building brims with charm, and wows with savory delights like polenta pot pie, the savory crust of stone ground corn capping a hot melange of mozzarella, parmesan, pesto, peas, carrots, panko and roasted red pepper sauce. 

Sonoma

Metro Hotel & Café offers complimentary organic coffee, pastries, and crepes in the morning. Thus fueled, you’ll head to Sonoma Valley, for more adventures on the other side of Sonoma Mountain.

Your first stop will be at Glen Ellen Village Market, to pick up a picnic and a bottle of Sonoma Valley wine. The specialties are huge sandwiches piled up in Manhattan deli style on a choice of a dozen breads, such as the Jack London combo of turkey, crisp bacon, avocado, Jack cheese and sprouts, The Call of the Wild with roast beef, bacon and Cheddar. Sixteen kinds of soups, chowders and chilis are homemade daily, there’s an enormous salad bar or just head straight for the entrée bar, stocked with more than three dozen hot items, from Swedish meatballs to enchiladas.

To gear up an appetite, head to the outdoors. Hiking is a wonderful Wine Country pleasure, and usually only locals know to go to Sonoma Valley Regional Park. It looks small from Sonoma Highway, but just past the dog park is a 202-acre oasis with miles of trails for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Surrounded by even more preserve, it feels much larger than the park actually is, like your own secret world.

Enjoy that picnic lunch, polish off the wine, and take a short drive to downtown Sonoma. There are lots of tasting rooms here, but one of the insider favorites is Hawkes tasting room, nestled in a cottage with a gracious garden. On First Street West, it’s just a few steps off the Sonoma Plaza, and impresses with its hallmark Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lounge a while, then scoot over to Tin Barn Vineyards on Eighth Street East. It’s a bit hard to find, way in the back a group of industrial warehouses. But it’s worth searching out for a very relaxed, good time in a tasting room that’s stylish with a gray marble topped wood bar and pendant lighting, and often hosted by co-owner/winemaker Michael Lancaster.

Tonight is pizza time at the award-winning Red Grape Restaurant (best local pizza, according to Sonoma Index-Tribune's People's Choice Award 2015) just off the Sonoma Plaza.

Some lodging options include: Sonoma Creek Inn is a value packed, quality lodging option, in a Spanish/cottage style boasting private outdoor patios or porches. Just 16 rooms means a stay is cozy, with lots of amenities like in-room checkers, discounts on area winetasting, and discounts on bike rentals. Or check out these fantastic inns and bed & breakfasts in Glen Ellen: Olea Hotel, Gaige House + Ryokan, Beltane Ranch, Glen Ellen Inn, and The Jack London Lodge.

If you have more time, check out things to do in Sonoma County and enjoy!