By Doug Hansen
Every wine aficionado knows that the Sonoma-Napa region of California is home to a multitude of world-class wineries. But during our trip my wife and I discovered that Sonoma offers so much more, including exceptional scenery, history and food.
We visited Sonoma in the fall, after the grape harvest, and it didn't take long to discover that this was a spectacular time to be in Sonoma because of the brilliant autumn colors, smaller crowds and still comfortable weather. We flew into Oakland and rented a car for the one-hour drive to Sonoma, but some airlines fly into the much-closer Santa Rosa airport. When we reached the town of Sonoma, there were several places that immediately stood out.
The eight-acre Sonoma Plaza — the largest in California — dominates the center of town, and located among the plaza's towering shade trees are the basalt-stone city hall, a statue commemorating the Bear Flag Revolt (the precursor to the Mexican-American War), the visitors center, a kids' playground, and scattered benches and picnic tables that beckon visitors to sit and take in the scene or enjoy a leisurely picnic.
Surrounding the plaza are architecturally diverse historic buildings, many dating back to the mid-1800s, that are occupied by assorted restaurants, gift stores, bakeries, hotels and — most surprising of all — the Sonoma State Historic Park.
The park consists of six different sites in or near the town center, and the fascinating collection of buildings, including a mission, are woven seamlessly into the fabric of modern-day Sonoma. Kitty-corner from the plaza is the Sonoma Mission (aka Mission San Francisco Solano), which was the last of the 21 missions built in California in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Nearby are the original barracks where Mexican troops lived, the home of General Vallejo, who helped establish Sonoma, and an 1850s hotel filled with period pieces that the docents take delight in explaining to visitors. A pleasant 10-minute walk down the town's bike and hiking trail or a three-minute drive arrives at the final piece of this state park, General Vallejo's second home, Lachryma Montis, which shouldn't be missed.
When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the steady stream of people strolling around the plaza made it clear that Sonoma attracts visitors of all ages from near and far. Fortunately our first accommodation, the historic and newly remodeled El Dorado Hotel, directly faces the plaza, which made it easy to explore the area. Its restaurant, the El Dorado Kitchen, is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in town, featuring California cuisine and as much locally sourced food as possible.
Visitors who consider themselves foodies will find a plethora of places to satisfy their culinary tastes. For example, we ate at the Sunflower Cafe, just a couple of doors down from our hotel, a casual cafe that features a rustic outdoor patio and offers unusual items such as smoked duck breast sandwiches and goat-cheese-filled piquillo peppers along with the more traditional salads, sandwiches and smoothies.
Across the plaza is the Basque Boulangerie, another lunch option, but the abundance of fresh-baked breads and pastries also makes it a prime choice for breakfast. The menu of the ever-popular restaurant across from the El Dorado Hotel — the girl and the fig — is delightful, so reservations are necessary for anyone who wants to try their "country food with a French passion."
After enjoying the hustle and bustle of downtown Sonoma for the weekend, we moved to the MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa, which is located just a few blocks from the plaza. It's a great place to relax in an elegantly appointed room or on a private patio surrounded by fountains, trees and shrubs. From 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. guests mingle in the library and partake of the nightly wine and cheese reception.
No trip to Sonoma is complete without a visit to some of the 450 wineries in this single county. We started with the Mayo Family Winery, where the owner, Jeff Mayo, explained the nuances of winemaking while he introduced us to six of his white and red wines, each of which was an oenological delight. Any wine fan should find this special winery, but their wines aren't sold in stores because all of their wine production is sold in the winery's tasting room or through the website. They also offer a food and wine pairing option at their second location.
California's wine industry started at the Buena Vista Winery in the 1850s. In the wine cellar carved into the rocky hillside it is possible to and notice the Chinese laborers' pick marks on the ceiling.
Located only a few blocks from downtown Sonoma, next to Buena Vista Winery, the Bartholomew Park Winery stands out for its unique combination of a wine-tasting room, museum, picnic area overlooking the vineyards, and three miles of hiking trails among the hills and oak trees behind the estate.
Chardonnay fans will want to find the Acacia Winery halfway between Sonoma and Napa. The ambience is just OK, but the wine is top-quality.
WHEN YOU GO
Sonoma Valley Visitor's Bureau: www.sonomavalley.com/sonoma.html
El Dorado Hotel and El Dorado Kitchen is located in the Sonoma Plaza at 405 First St. W., Sonoma, CA 95476; 800-289-3031 or www.eldoradosonoma.com.
MacArthur Place Inn and Spa: 29 E. MacArthur St., Sonoma, CA 95476; 707-938-2929 or www.macarthurplace.com
Mayo Family Winery: 13101 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen, CA 95442; 707-938-9401 or www.mayofamilywinery.com
Basque Boulangerie is in the Sonoma Plaza at 460 First St., E., Sonoma, CA 95476; 707-935-7687 or www. basqueboulangeriecafe.com.
the girl and the fig: 110 W. Spain St., Sonoma, CA 95476; 707-933-3000 or www.thegirlandthefig.com
Sunflower Cafe is in the Sonoma Plaza at 421 First St., W., Sonoma, CA 95476; 707-996-6645 or www.sonomasunflower.com.
Doug Hansen is a freelance writer and photographer whose photos and articles are at www.hansentravel.org. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.