Bisected by the river for which it's named and nestled amid groves of towering redwood trees, the Russian River Valley has for years been San Francisco's preeminent gay weekend getaway. It's a 75-minute drive to this peaceful swath of western Sonoma County which is anchored by the hip yet unpretentious river town of Guerneville, along with the nearby villages of Rio Nido and Monte Rio.
Stellar accommodations are available from the Pacific to Napa County. Keep in mind that the Sonoma towns of Forestville, Sebastopol, Occidental, and Jenner are all very close to the Russian River, so hotels in these communities are additional good bets if you plan to spend a lot of time in Guerneville.
About 10 or 15 years ago, the Russian River contained quite a few exclusively gay, sometimes clothing-optional, resorts. Most of these properties have broadened their market to welcome a mixed gay-straight crowd, and, in general, the Russian River region has become more mixed, especially as a number of cool, even urbane, bars and bistros have turned Guerneville into a foodie hotspot. If you haven't visited the area in a while, you may be surprised to find that Guerneville has become quite trendy with San Francisco hipsters, although favorite long-running gay bars like Rainbow Cattle Company still thrive. There are also still a high number of gay full-time and weekend residents and local business owners.
The accommodations landscape is pleasingly varied, with a mix of friendly gay-owned B&Bs and small resorts, plus both rustic and luxury cottage compounds and inns. Distinctive, independently operated properties are the norm - the Russian River Valley is almost entirely without chains.
The romantic Applewood Inn and Spa (13555 Hwy. 116, Guerneville, 707-869-9093) in Guerneville is of the most luxurious resorts in the Russian River and is a secluded, peaceful refuge to unwind and relax. The 19-room inn is surrounded by six acres of towering shade trees and lush gardens and is just a half-mile from downtown Guerneville on one of the main routes in the region. However, although it is on one of the main routes, this complex of ivy-covered, red tile-roofed Mission Revival-style buildings set around a charming courtyard is set well back from the road. Rooms are downright cushy, many with private balconies and terraces overlooking soaring redwoods. The swankiest suites have large hot tubs and gas fireplaces. There's an intimate, gorgeous full-service spa offering a variety of treatments, including Swedish massages, a deep tissue massage, aromatherapy and much more. In-room massages can also be arranged in several of the suites. Another reason to stay here is the outstanding, and romantic, Applewood Restaurant, which is set in a handsome barn-like building with a pitched ceiling and large windows. Beautifully plated farm-to-fork cuisine with a Mediterranean flair is served, and there's a stellar wine list. Rates here are among the highest in the Guerneville area, but the charming bed and breakfast and amenities justify the cost. Included in the rates is one of the most fabulous full breakfasts in the region. The Applewood is particularly ideal for a special-occasion getaway or even planning a destination gay wedding.
Located just under a mile from Guerneville's main drag and up the peaceful country road that leads to Armstrong Redwoods Park, the hip and inviting Boon Hotel & Spa (14711 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville, 707-869-2721) is part of a recent wave of more urbane and sophisticated, yet still entirely fun and playful, hotels and spas that have opened in the area in recent years. The hotel is operated by chef and restaurateur Crista Luedtke, who also owns the similarly cool Boon Eat + Drink restaurant, El Barrio cocktail bar, and gorgeously stocked Big Bottom Market, all of which are located downtown along River Road. This terrific little hideaway has 14 rooms and suites decorated in a decidedly minimalist chic, with fine organic linens by Coyuchi, Malin + Goetz bath soaps and lotions, minibars stocked with thoughtfully curated treats, small refrigerators, iHome radios, and Scandinavian-inspired low-slung platform beds. Pets are welcome, and rooms lead to a terrace and saline pool and hot tub, as well as to a spa offering deep-tissue and Swedish massages, brightness facials, and other alluring treatments. In the morning, breakfast is brought right to your door on a tray. Boon Hotel strikes the perfect balance between low-keyed relaxation while offering plenty to keep busy, and the wonderfully friendly and helpful staff is happy to suggest fun activities in the area, from the best wineries nearby to canoeing and hiking.
Nestled under tower pine trees, and just a short walk up the hill from downtown, the peaceful and picturesque Highlands Resort (14000 Woodland Dr., Guerneville, 707-869-0333) has been a favorite hideaway among LGBTQ visitors for more than 30 years. Helpful innkeeper Lynette McLean describes this 1930s compound of 16 cabins and cottages as "straight-friendly" too. Indeed, all are welcome, but this is definitely a longtime favorite with gay and lesbian guests. Amenities include a clothing-optional pool and sunning area; a guest lounge with TV/DVD, a grand piano, and games; a barbecue and picnic area; and free Wi-Fi. At this adult-oriented property, relaxation is key. In fact, only two of the larger, deluxe rooms (the Pool Suite and Garden Suite) have TVs. Want to bring your pup? This pet-friendly resort allows guests to bring along four-legged friends. However, only a few of the cabins allow pets inside. Set on three acres of leafy, wooded grounds, the resort offers a nice mix of lodging options, from fairly compact and economical cabins to rather plush but still warmly rustic suites with deep two-person soaking tubs and gas fireplaces. In summer, tent-camping sites are available. One interesting, on-the-cheap option is the shared-cabin room. Guests have their own room in a two-bedroom cabin but share a bath, deck, and sitting area with another guest. Sounds like a fun way to meet new friends, right? Continental breakfast is included as well, with coffee, orange juice, tea, hot chocolate, home made granola, fresh fruit and other assorted items.
One of the stalwarts of the Russian River gay scene over the years, the former Russian River Resort, now known simply as the R3 Hotel (16390 4th St., 707-869-8399), is one of the few true gay resorts in Northern California. It's a 21-and-over adults-only property, and the crowd is predominantly gay men, making this a very good option for guests looking to socialize and be in a lively, fun-loving environment. A big draw to staying at this 22-room resort is that it's home to a lively pool scene and sunning decks, with a bar and barbecue area open late spring through early fall, a lively main bar, a piano bar, a game room, and the dishy and colorful Betty Spaghetti Restaurant, which has a popular weekday happy hour, a bottomless-champagne Sunday brunch, and all sorts of festive entertainment, including gay comedy shows, drag shows, and more. The simple and attractive rooms, some opening to lovely little terraces and others with cozy wood stoves, are reasonably priced, and the property is just a couple of blocks from the main commercial drag in Guerneville. For social butterflies, especially during the summer months, this is very much the place to be.
The gay-owned, nine-room Sonoma Orchid Inn (12850 River Rd., Guerneville, 707-869-4466) is a 10-minute drive east of downtown Guerneville, close to the handsome grounds and historic tasting room of Korbel Winery and closer to the famed Westside Road wineries and Healdburg than most other Russian River properties. Operated by friendly and professional innkeepers Brian Siewert and Dana Murphy, the property comprises a sunny yellow early-20th-century farmhouse on two tree-shaded acres set back from the main road, as well as an adjacent cottage with three rooms. Although all nine rooms have private bathrooms, they range greatly in size and price, making Sonoma Orchid a good choice for both economy-minded guests to those seeking genuine pampering, in which case you might want to book one of the larger rooms, with private exterior entrances, in the cottage. Guests can expect a hot tub, guest kitchen with tea/coffee service around the clock, afternoon snacks, an impressive full breakfast served each morning, and plenty of other thoughtful touches. Most rooms have satellite TV, and some have DVD players.