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Nosing around in Sonoma's other yards

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bill Strubbe
Globe Correspondent / April 27, 2008

OCCIDENTAL - It borders on the sacrilegious to live in Sonoma County - wedged right between two vineyards - and not care a hoot about wine. Perhaps I lack a certain innate sophistication or am too frugal to acquire a taste for the stuff. When friends visit, I let them traipse the wine-tasting trail on their own, and afterward treat them to some of the other great stuff one of the wine capitals of the world has to offer.

From an abundance of charming towns and hamlets, picking one as your base can be tough. Occidental is centrally located in "West County." Dutch Bill Howard, a Danish sailor on the lam, settled here in 1849, establishing a squatters' camp; it was called Howard's Station until 1876, when it was renamed Occidental. In the 1880s, there was a little boom of migrant Italians who worked in farming, lumber, and coal mining and whose stamp on the town remains.

Accommodation of choice is The Inn at Occidental, its 18 rooms splendidly appointed around a particular theme or antique collection: Safari, Cirque du Sonoma, Kitchen Cupboard, etc. After a long day soak in your private Jacuzzi tub, then snuggle into the down feather bed.

Heading out from town, the view from Coleman Valley Road winding over the hills toward the Pacific Ocean is breathtaking, assuming the fog has not rolled in. Point Reyes juts into the sea and on clear days the Farallon Islands rise like jagged teeth on the horizon. Windswept Bodega Bay's claim to fame is as the locale for Alfred Hitchcock's suspense thriller "The Birds." Fans still love to have a drink in the bar at The Tides Wharf, where Tippi Hedren encountered the frightened locals.

Every weekend from January to May volunteers on the vantage point atop Bodega Head, in Sonoma Coast State Park, assist visitors in spotting whales migrating northward. We lucked out and saw several within minutes.

If at first blush Bodega Bay seems an improbable location for fine Japanese art, nevertheless the Ren Brown Collection Gallery displays modern Japanese prints, antique furnishings, and paintings, and jewelry by local artisans.

You can arrange with local painter Tony Mininno for a private viewing of his oil canvases at his home studio outside Occidental. His innovative composition and bold brush strokes capture the essence of the county's natural beauty.

In the tiny hamlet of Freestone scoot into Wild Flour Bread and snatch up a loaf or two of the finest organic bread butter ever melted on: seeded French, three-seed whole wheat, cheese and herb fougasse, and more. The oven is filled with wood and left burning through the night. At 5 a.m. the ashes are scooped out and the loaves cooked by radiant heat, creating a unique crust.

We ended our day across the road, relaxing at Osmosis day spa. After sipping peppermint tea and donning cotton kimonos, we were escorted to an enzyme tub.

Osmosis is said to be the only spa in the country offering this unique heat therapy, a brew of cedar flakes, rice bran hulls, and 600 active enzymes that generate warmth biologically through fermentation. For those dubious about all those bodies wallowing about in what might seem like a fancy compost heap, well, not to worry. It is replaced once a week, and the camphor and phenol in cedar are a natural antiseptic. Besides, the generated heat - up to 140 degrees - kills germs.

The next morning we headed for the coast again. Down Bohemian Highway, we passed through Monte Rio, home of the famous Bohemian Grove, perhaps the world's most exclusive "summer camp" for grown men. For over a century tycoons, politicians, and the rich and famous - William Randolph Hearst, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, the Bushes, etc. - have come here to schmooze and pretend they are roughing it.

We stopped at Duncans Mills, another of those oddly laid out towns with an unusually wide main street (like Occidental's) where the felled redwoods were cut, milled, and loaded onto steamers, and later trains. Check out the specialty shops, the general store in the well-preserved 19th-century buildings, and the tiny museum in the old train depot.

Continuing west along River Road to the town of Jenner, we stopped and quickly spotted sea lions after the salmon that still run here. Then a leisurely - and very winding - drive north along the dramatic coast to Fort Ross, the distant outpost of the czarist empire. Founded in 1812 by the Russian-American Co., a trading and fur trapping enterprise, Fort Ross is short for "Rossiya" or Russia, and it produced food for Alaskan settlements and gathered seal and sea otter pelts. The wooden fort - constructed entirely without nails, replete with a diminutive church - has been preserved as a fascinating museum.

On our late afternoon return, we decided to catch the movie at the Rio Theater in Monte Rio. They've replaced the funky couches with seats and upgraded the sound system, but the Quonset hut, graced with hand-painted murals, still has that down-home feel. And the first-run movies - well, maybe a month or two late - cost only $7. Some locals come just for the hotdogs, served on steamed buns and slathered with sauerkraut and fixings.

All being gardening fans, my friends and I spent a few hours one morning volunteering at the organic gardens of Occidental Arts & Ecology Center. The center offers workshops on ecology, seed saving, social and environmental justice, sustainable living skills, and nature-based spiritual renewal.

In the little village of Graton the unassuming Willow Wood Market Cafe serves up top-notch breakfast, lunch, and dinner offerings such as asparagus and green garlic soup, roasted tarragon half chicken, grilled swordfish, and fennel crème brûlée.

Ace Cider in Graton has revived the once nationwide tradition of producing hard cider. We sampled four: the apple and pear ciders the color of liquid flax; the honey a lovely amber; and my favorite, the raspberry tinged berry. Tasty, light, and deceptively "virgin," they packed far more wallop than I would have guessed.

The nexus of Russian River life is Guerneville, a funky town that every few winters finds itself submerged. The waterlogged denizens wait for the muck to subside, hose things down, and start life anew. Being the West Coast equivalent of Provincetown, Guerneville hosts Women's Weekend in September, Gay Bear Week in July, and also summer blues and jazz festivals on the riverbank.

The glory of one of the few remaining, pristine redwood groves is best experienced by strolling through the 725-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve north of Guerneville. A dozen people would barely suffice to embrace one of these massive trees, some 300 feet tall and more than 2,000 years old.

Leaning against the trunk of one giant, I gazed up at its towering neighbors. For all the fun and beauty that West County has to offer, for me its heart and soul are these redwoods.

Bill Strubbe, a freelance writer in Occidental, Calif., can be reached at bsbillbs@yahoo.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

The Inn at Occidental 707-874-1047 innatoccidental.com Since tranquillity prevails, pets and children are permitted only in the separate, two-bedroom cottage. Doubles $259-$359.

Avalon Luxury Inn 11910 Graton Road Sebastopol 707-824-0880 avalonluxuryinn.com Three guest rooms in a secluded, home-style B&B amid the redwoods. Gourmet breakfast included, $200-$330.

Flying Cloud Retreat Windsor 415-482-8726 flyingcloudretreat.com A rural compound with a two-bedroom main house, two tent cabins (one with wood stove), and poolside Air Stream trailer. Sleeps 10-12, $450-$550 per night, $2,750 weekly.

Where to eat

Willow Wood Market Cafe 9020 Graton Road, Graton 707-823-0233 willowwoodgraton.com Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Monday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. (till 3 Sunday), $8-$16.

Bistro des Copains 3782 Bohemian Highway Occidental 707-874-2436 bistrodescopains.com Provincial French cuisine: pumpkin raviolis; pizza with caramelized onions, black olives, and goat cheese; or the pan-seared sole with lemon caper butter sauce, $15-$22.

What to do

Osmosis 209 Bohemian Highway Freestone 707-823-823; osmosis.com Day spa offers enzyme bath and 75-minute massage, $160-$185. Arts and Ecology Center 15290 Coleman Valley Road Occidental 707-874-1557; oeac.org The county's premier organic farm community, offering classes, workshops, and tours.

Will's Bait & Tackle 1580 East Shore Drive Bodega Bay 707-875-2323 In addition to whale watching (January-April), harbor tours and crabbing trips, $45-$50 per person.

The Ren Brown Collection 1781 Highway 1, Bodega Bay 707-875-2922; renbrown.com Specializes in contemporary art from both sides of the Pacific, $100-$20,000.

Tony Mininno Paintings 707-874-2200 tonymininno.com Arrange a private showing with this acclaimed local landscape artist. Paintings $300-$1,000.

Ace in the Hole Pub Cider 3100 Gravenstein Highway Graton 707-829-1101; acecider.com Sample the brew, tour the facilities, and dine on pub fare; sausages, soup, and salads, $6-$14.

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