Did you know that the Northern California Wine Country has enchanting small towns and villages hidden away in idyllic, lesser-known valleys? Far from the maddening crowds of wine tasters and merrymakers who flood Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, here are some of my recent stories of great daytrips and weekend getaways in California Wine Country villages—waiting your discovery!
Redwoods and Ravioli in Occidental
In the late 19th century, the last stop west on the narrow-gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad was the village of Occidental, isolated high in dense redwood forests. An 1890’s account described a “well-built” town with “a neat depot, two shoemaker shops, four hotels, a winery, warehouses and … commodious dwellings.”
Today, the 2-block-long main street is lined with original and recreated buildings from that era, housing Italian restaurants and cafes, art galleries and curio shops. And a few minutes beyond on country roads is a world-famous botanical garden; zip-lining through a high forest canopy; a gorgeous walk through a grove of ancient redwoods; and wineries.
Add to that two Italian restaurants that bring diners here from miles away, and you’ve got reasons to drive up the scenic Bohemian Highway to Occidental.
Anderson Valley Village Lost in Time
For a short stopover on the way to the North Coast, or a leisurely weekend in the country, head to Boonville, an old Anderson Valley village filled with treasures — from a quaint ice cream shop and wild gardens to boutique hotels and wineries. Settled in the mid-1800s, the secluded farming and logging community once served as a stagecoach stop, and today still has a sort of lost-in-time atmosphere on the 2-block-long main street.
Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and find a sidewalk table in front of the Boonville General Store — the perfect perch for watching the passing scene of old-timers and long-haired Bohemian types, grape-stained farmers, and snazzy-dressed urbanites on the hunt for cult wines. Wander the aisles of the Farmhouse Mercantile and wander in a prominent, nearby art gallery. Then, head up the road a bit for wine tasting, produce and antiques shopping, and noshing on some sophisticated grub.
Base camp for Anderson Valley expeditions is the Boonville Hotel, a vintage inn turned country chic, and a much-lauded foodies’ destination.
Lake County Surprises
Vacation resorts and campgrounds dot more than 100 miles of shoreline on Clear Lake, Lake County’s focus of watery summer fun. A family vacation destination since the 1880s when families arrived in stagecoaches, the small towns of Lakeport, Kelseyville and Clear Lake are also hubs for a wine region sporting more than 40 wineries. Wine lovers know all about Napa and Sonoma wines, and even Mendocino wineries, and yet, Lake County remains delightfully off-the-beaten-track, awaiting discovery by oeonphiles seeking the high-elevation — and increasingly highly rated — sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons.
Many come for swimming, water-skiing, kayaking, paddleboarding and, most famously, fishing in Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in California. Just you and I know about the wonderful wines, and:
- fabulous birdwatching
- leafy lakeside picnic parks
- one of the state’s most beautiful state parks
- the Old West-style, circa-1800s hamlet of Upper Lake
- one of the most spectacular collections of vintage boats in the West
A Gourmet Ghetto in West County
Tucked away on a winding, narrow road in western Sonoma County, the tiny village of Graton is loaded with history, old gardens, and timeworn cottages. In just a block or so are also an impressive art gallery, wine tasting rooms, two packed antiques shops, and an array of 19th-century false front architecture reminiscent of a Western movie set.
Those in the know about Green Valley wines, and foodies, come here for three nationally acclaimed restaurants, each just steps from the other on the main street. The Paul Mathew Vineyards tasting room is famous for pinot noir, while Bowman Cellars’ shiny Airstream trailer serves snacks to wine tasters as they relax in the gardens. Plan a whole day to enjoy the hidden pleasures of Graton, and don’t fail to stop at Mom’s Apple Pies as you head back to the Bay Area.
Arts Alive in Guerneville!
As it has since a narrow-gauge railroad brought vacationers from the new city of San Francisco in the 1800s, a carefree “summer of love” Bohemian vibe continues to attract resident artists, and their patrons, to the little town of Guerneville in the Russian River Valley. Guerneville also anchors a world-famous wine region, where 50 notable wineries are within a 20-minute drive. This short story heralds the resilience of the local colony of artists and craftspeople, who survived a major flood earlier this year.
Also worth the scenic drive are a vibrant restaurant scene; several lively nightspots, and the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, where easy hikes, and picnics under the tallest trees on the planet, are likely on your bucket list.
Top of the Lake
Tucked away on the north end of Clear Lake, a summer vacation hub and wine region, the village of Upper Lake welcomes visitors with an arch over Main Street, announcing the founding of the town in 1854. In the mid-1800s, the first vacationers arrived in stagecoaches, then cruised the lake on steamboats to waterfront health resorts. Then, the main attractions were “taking the waters” at natural hot springs, which were believed to have healing properties. Nowadays, hamlet of Upper Lake is a weekend destination, where visitors linger on the two-block-long Main Street, discovering Old West-style and late Victorian buildings lined up along wooden sidewalks.
Anchoring the town, as pure white as a wedding cake, with rocking chairs on wraparound porches, the seventeen-room Tallman Hotel once hosted stagecoach passengers, ranchers and loggers. After four decades of neglect, the stately landmark, listed on the California Register of Historical Resources, was purchased and restored by Lynne and Bernie Butcher, and now offers the most elegant accommodations on the lake. Unique here are private patios with Japanese ofuro-style soaking tubs, and commodious Eastlake-style room interiors. A swimming pool hides behind lush gardens, and roses run rampant around the property. Bernie Butcher said, “Much of the town was abandoned when we decided to restore the property. Since then, our town has come to life, and visitors stroll the street, wine taste, and browse in the antiques and gift shops.”
Hotel guests and denizens of the town linger under the maple tree-shaded courtyard at the hotel, enjoying live music, libations and pub fare from the adjacent Blue Wing Saloon Restaurant. Demolished during Prohibition, the original watering hole was reconstructed by the Butchers with a striking interior of old-growth redwood and black walnut, and a fancy 1870s-era back bar, to hold forth today as an architectural icon under festive striped awnings. The annual blues festival and barbecue held in the courtyard is a sell-out every Labor Day weekend, when the hotel’s original 1902 piano gets a workout.
A one stop shop for the discovery of Lake County wines is just across the street from the hotel at Lake County Wine Studio, a sophisticated art gallery and tasting room specializing in locally grown and vinted wines. Across the street from the hotel, Oliveira Antiques specializes in Western history and Americana. Powell’s Antiques is also on Main Street, and the 10,000-square-foot Vintage Antiques emporium has a “first Saturday” parking lot sale every month. Vintage Station Barbecue sports red-and-white, classic gas pumps and a 1950s interior, where popular favorites are brisket, ribs, mac and cheese, “burnt ends” pork belly, and tri-tip. By the circa-1914 town clock in the old bank building, Upper Lake Mercantile is a cross between an art gallery and a boutique, loaded with curios and exotic goods. Click here for more here about the charms of Upper Lake.