Unquestionably, wine-touring is the top draw in Northern California's famously beautiful and sophisticated Sonoma County. The region has more than 400 wineries, most with tasting rooms, and you'll find countless resources for figuring out where to focus your grape-centric explorations (scroll down to the "Finding Great Wineries" section of my Sonoma County Gay Guide). But beyond the vines, and the county's swanky hotels and fine restaurants, Sonoma County has much to offer visitors, including an extensive range of outdoorsy diversions, from bike touring in the valley to canoeing on the Russian River to exploring the beaches on the coast (yes, Sonoma County has a long and stunning coastline that begins just above Marin County). The region is also a hot spot for cool indie-shopping, relaxing spa experiences, photography, art-gallery-hopping, and much more, and it's an easy hop from here east across the mountains to access the equally esteemed Napa Wine Country.
Here are five must-see activities and attractions to consider when planning a gay getaway in this progressive, friendly, and urbane wine region within an hour's drive of San Francisco. For more ideas on touring and exploring in the region, also check out the excellent website of Sonoma County Tourism.
For a look at the top attractions in another of California's most appealing winery-touring regions, check out the San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles Gay Guide.
Set happily off the beaten path in tiny and tranquil Freestone, just around the corner from the lovely Sonoma Coast outpost of prestigious Joseph Phelps Vineyards and the superb Wild Flour Bakery, blissfully relaxing and unpretentious Osmosis Day Spa (209 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone, 707-823-8231) is special for several reasons. This highly LGBT-popular day spa is set inside a vintage wood-frame house with a great little boutique carrying fine, holistic spa products. It's the only spa in the country that offers the unusual and deeply soothing cedar enzyme bath and wrap, which is an especially enjoyable and romantic experience for couples - the process entails reclining in a deep wooden tub (it's best experienced without a swimsuit), at which point your spa attendant gently covers you neck-to-toe in an aromatic blend of Japanese rice bran, pulverized cedar, and enzymes. If it sounds unusual, it is - you can read more about it here. But it's also wonderfully rejuvenating. You can then opt for a facial or massage. Definitely build in some time while at Osmosis to stroll around and sit for a while amid the extensive grounds, which include a serene Japanese Meditation Garden, a "field of hammocks" outfitted with Hemi-Sync sound systems and cushioned hammocks, the tea garden, and several other inviting spots.
Freestone is in southwestern Sonoma County, midway between Sebastopol and the coastal town of Bodega Bay - the spa is a 20-minute drive west of Santa Rosa. After your visit, especially if you're returning north to Guerneville and the Russian River, consider stopping for dinner in funky Occidental, which is just 4 miles north on the curving and beautiful Bohemian Highway and is home to the excellent Barley and Hops Tavern as well as a pair of good-natured rival Italian restaurants, Negri's and the historic Union Hotel. From Occidental, it's another 20 minutes or so up the Bohemian Highway to Guerneville, via Monte Rio and Highway 116. Osmosis offers a number of packages and deals in conjunction with hotels in the area.
Just a couple of miles north of downtown Guerneville, the 805-acre Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve (17000 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville, 707-869-2015) contains one of the nation's largest groves of sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwoods. About 95% of the state's coast redwoods habitat has been lost to development and lumber interests since the mid-19th century, but this surprisingly accessible preserve protects these trees that can grow to well over 300 feet and live for 1,400 years in perpetuity. The most impressive tree in the grove, Parsons Jones, stands at 300 feet - it's just a 10-minute walk from the park entrance, which includes a picnic grove, visitor center, amphitheater, several well-marked trails (ranging from level and about a mile to quite strenuous and a bit over 3 miles). Although there's no camping permitted in the reserve itself, you'll find a campground with 23 tent sites at Austin Creek State Recreation Area, which is adjacent to Armstrong Woods (and reached via the same entrance road). The park is popular for gay weddings - a special group picnic area can accommodate up to 150 guests and 40 vehicles.
Sonoma Helicopter Tours with HeliCo Sonoma
As pretty as it is to drive through, Sonoma County - which encompasses countless acres of neatly planted grape vineyards, dense woodland that includes some of the tallest trees on the planet, gently rolling valleys, and a spectacularly rugged stretch of coastline - is arguably even more beautiful to behold from the air. You may get a glimpse of this 1,768-square-mile county (it's actually a bit larger than the entire state of Rhode Island) if you happen to fly into Sonoma County Airport, but the most memorable way to tour the region is on a helicopter tour with HeliCo Sonoma (5000 Flightline Dr., Santa Rosa, 707-526-8949).
ased out of Sonoma County Airport, which is on the west side of Santa Rosa (off exit 495 of the U.S. 101), this small company that also operates a flight school offers flightseeing excursions of 20, 30, or 60 minutes, although you can work with them to create your own custom plan. The options include flying over Healdsburg and the Alexander valleys, downtown Santa Rosa, the Russian River Valley and Pacific Coast, Dry Creek and Sonoma Valley, Calistoga, Fort Ross, the Pacific Coast Buddhist Temple, and more. These are fun rides simply for gaining an aerial perspective on the different wine regions you may be touring, but they're also great for a romantic adventure - more than a few passengers have proposed on these tours. The pilots and friendly and extremely knowledgeable, and the tours are given in comfortable R44 Raven II helicopters, which can seat up to three passengers.
When the renowned filmmaker and wine lover Francis Ford Coppola opened his gorgeous winery in Geyserville a few years back, it sounded like a slightly odd, or at the very least ambitious, idea to build a huge family-friendly pool and sunning area adjacent to the winemaking operation. But hey, here's a guy who knows how to entertain people, and sure enough, the two beautiful swimming pools and swanky cabines at Francis Ford Coppola Winery (300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, 707-857-1400) are a huge hit. In fact, each season, the cabines - which can accommodate four guests, include the use of four chaise longues by the pool, had private showers, and come with several other neat perks - sell out on weekends well in advance. Pool passes also tend to sell out early on weekend, but if you're visiting during the week, you should be able to score passes - these start at $35 or adults and $15 for kids (wine club members receive significant discounts). The pool is open on weekends from early April through late October, and daily in summer, and all bookings must be made online.
Coppola envisioned the pool area as a great draw for families - he wanted to create an informal, unpretentious atmosphere that would please wine aficionados and fun-seeking casual wine drinkers alike, and he's clearly succeeded. Families definitely are the draw on weekends, but you'll discover more of an adult vibe on weekdays - it's a gorgeous outdoor space, whatever time of the week you visit. Additionally, you can participate in wine tastings, play bocce, check out the fascinating and fun Movie Gallery dedicated to Coppola films, and dine on classic Italian in the winery's handsome restaurant, Rustic, which serves Neapolitan-style pizzas, wood-grilled steaks, and - of course - outstanding wine. The restaurant is open both for lunch and dinner.
The late, incredibly influential, and much beloved cartoonist Charles Schulz, who produced the iconic Peanuts strip from 1950 until his death in 2000, lived in Sonoma County (first Sebastopol and then Santa Rosa) from 1958 onward. A highlight for anyone who grew up adoring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty (and her unusually close friend Marcie), and the rest of the Peanuts crew should definitely check out the wonderfully engaging Charles M. Schulz Museum (2301 Hardies La., Santa Rosa, 707-579-4452). On the northwest side of downtown Santa Rosa, the includes an exhaustive collection of original art as well as letters, photos, and other documents related to Schulz. Several galleries also host rotating galleries.