A Weekend Getaway on the Sonoma Backroads

Coleman Valley Roadside, Sonoma Backroads view near Occidental California
Sonoma Backroads View near Occidental. RMB Images / Photography by Robert Bowman / Getty Images

From a winemaking point of view, the area around Sebastopol and Occidental is part of the Russian River Valley. From a visitors' perspective, the river is less obvious than it is near the coast and the experience is different. This guide focuses on the often-overlooked area inland.

If you live in Northern California, you may have heard of Sebastopol, but your knowledge of Occidental may be as fuzzy as your understanding of the word's meaning. Just to round out your knowledge of it, the word used as the opposite of "oriental." 

The two communities make a great base for exploring some really interesting, less-traveled roads. 

Occidental

Occidental may be one of the least-known yet cutest little towns in western Sonoma County if not all of Northern California. With a two-block-long main street, it is a perfect place for a relaxing escape.

Founded in 1876 when the railroad went in, Occidental began as a commercial center but soon became popular with vacationers looking to escape San Francisco's fog or Central Valley heat. Two Italian restaurants were founded a few years later, and they still vie for diners, sitting across the street from each other.

Sebastopol

The town of Sebastopol is just 9 miles away, and you can use either of them as a base for exploring a laid-back part of Sonoma County with a magnum of charm.

You can plan your Occidental weekend getaway using the resources below.

Why Should You Go? Will You Like this Getaway?

  • The area is popular for quiet, relaxing weekend getaways. It's ideal for a romantic escape, or just to unwind.
  • In Occidental, you may be totally unplugged. Some mobile phones get no signal at all in most of the town. 
  • All the towns are small enough that you can walk around easily.

Best Time to Go

Both towns are far enough inland to avoid the dreaded "June gloom" that keeps oceanside communities under a shroud of day-long fog in early summer. That makes almost any time a good time to go. On winter weekdays, you'll find it particularly quiet. You can go apple-picking around Sebastopol starting in late summer.

Don't miss

Osmosis Spa: Just five minutes' drive from Occidental in the even tinier town of Freestone, this Japanese-style spa offers unusual enzyme baths, massages, beautiful gardens and other relaxing experiences. Make it your first stop, and you'll feel de-stressed all weekend long. They're often open as late as 9:00 p.m., so for maximum relaxation make an early escape and stop on your way.

The Barlow: Located in an old fruit-packing district of Sebastopol, The Barlow is dining and shopping area, with lots of local eateries and shops to browse around.

5 Great Things to Do

  • Browse and Shop: Occidental's main street is only two blocks long, but you'll find some cute shops along it, selling handmade crafts, interesting imports, and excellent artwork. 
  • Side Trip to Graton: Tiny Graton has a main street about a block long, but don't let that fool you. You'll find several interesting shops there - and a couple of really good places to eat, too.
  • Zip Through the Forest Canopy: Sonoma Canopy Tours has some adrenaline-pumping zip lines and rope bridges to enjoy. They're  about two miles from the town of Occidental.
  • Wine Tasting: About 7 miles north of Sebastopol is one of my favorite central Sonoma wineries: DeLoach Vineyards. Part of the JCB family of wineries, they offer some particularly enjoyable wine-tasting experiences and tours of their biodynamic vineyards. Some of their tasting venues are truly over-the-top fun, and you can also learn how to make mustard and find out how it pairs with their wines. Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards have their own tasting room in Freestone. 
  • Charles Schulz Museum: Located in Santa Rosa just off US Hwy 101 (on the way to Sebastopol), this charming little museum is dedicated to the man who created the beloved Peanuts comic strip. Don't be misled, though. This is more of a stop for adults who want to read all the comic strips than it is for younger children.

    Other points of interest in the area include Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery (Coleman Valley Rd., 707-874-3731) and Wild Flour Bread (140 Bohemian Highway, 707-874-2938).

    Tips

    During summer and on holiday weekends, reserve your spot at Osmosis a couple of weeks in advance.

    Isn't It Romantic?

    Occidental is a great place for smooching (and more) - and my friends have a beautiful baby boy to prove it.

    Best Bites

    If you stay at the Inn at Occidental, breakfast is included. AAA's Via magazine says Howard Station Cafe can be a destination in itself. A favorite of locals is Barley and Hops Tavernfor great pub food and craft beers.

    For other meals, Negri's Original Italian Restaurant and Union Hotel Restaurant are perhaps the last bastions of traditional, checkered-tablecloth-style Italian dining left in the San Francisco area. 

    In nearby Graton, you'll find Underwood Bar & Bistro and its sister restaurant Willow Wood Market & Cafe which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Both are well-rated and serve excellent meals.

    Where to Stay

    The Inn at Occidental is a cozy B&B with a luxurious courtyard and spacious rooms that each have their own theme.

    You can also stay in one of the several places in Sebastopol. Santa Rosa is also an option, but it's further away and busy enough that it might disrupt your laid-back mood.

    Where is It?

    Sebastopol is about 55 miles north of San Francisco, and West of Santa Rosa reached via CA Hwy 12. 

    Occidental is located west of Sebastopol on Bohemian Highway.