My partner Keith and I recently spent five days over in Sonoma County, which for you, dear reader, means high-quality (ha!) posts. This is the first.
The Russian River in Sonoma County is one of my favorite destinations in any season. Winter has its own quiet charm without the throngs of visitors brought out by warm weather and time to play.
Ive been coming to Guerneville (GURN-vill) since 1991 but my parents paved the way for me with their visits in the early 1940s of which they spoke fondly. This area was developed in the mid 19th century for its rich stands of redwood trees but in addition soon became a popular vacation destination for San Franciscans when the railroad reached Guerneville in 1877. Its first heyday as a resort town lasted until the 1930s.
The railroad was removed in 1935 and after WWII the region went into a quiet decline as a destination until the late 1970s. At that point Guerneville was discovered by gays and lesbians, which happily for the tourist trade resulted in the rehabbing of a number of older resorts to attract this new audience. Thirty years later, it is clear that the gay visitor wave, too, has crested, leaving only a couple of establishments that still market primarily to that demographic.
We stayed at one (more or less) of those places, the Highlands Resort. Ken and Lynette McLean have owned the Highlands since 1995. They retained the clientele but took the resort from fun and funky to fun and functional. (Funky mostly meant dilapidated under the prior owners.) Accommodations range from two suites in the main building (where the office and common room are) to small rooms, larger rooms, and cabins. We like the cabins best because they sport fireplaces and kitchens, great for cocooning on a dank winters night.
The rustic 1940s feeling about the place takes me back to my parents youth, and is part of what I like so much about the Highlands along with the quiet setting amidst the redwoods. The name is apt because its location, a very short distance up a hill from the center of town, protects it from floods that seem to inundate Guerneville every ten years.
The first night of our stay there was just one other guest. Winter is the off-off season for Guerneville. Every hostelry offers seasonal specials, now more than ever with the recession keeping people home. The Highlands, for example, offers three nights for the price of two between November and March.
Over the years we’ve become pals with Ken & Lynette so Keith and I brought pizza up from Andornos and then the four of us watched Barack and Michelle race from inaugural ball to inaugural ball. (We had to quit after merely watching six but the new First Couple had to go to all ten whew!)
Andornos has great pizza! When the weather is nice establish yourself on Andornos small rear deck, order the North Coast Pizza and wash it down with a pitcher of Bear Republics Red Rocket. Nothing could be finer. Youll find Andornos by the little plaza in the center of town right next to the 1927 bridge now used only by pedestrians.
Lest you think that Guerneville is only about cabins and pizza, allow me a 180 change of direction and present something more upscale.
Perhaps a third of a mile south from the center of town on Hwy. 116 is the Applewood Inn.
Part of Applewood is old: the original building was constructed in 1922 as a private villa. The inns present day owners built a second, complementary structure for additional accommodations along with a separate modern restaurant that seems like a treehouse because of the views of the property and redwoods from the dining rooms second floor situation. The buildings lie around the courtyard as shown in the picture. (Take a look at the website for extensive photos of the entire property.)
Applewood is understated, unpretentious luxury in a sublime setting. Looking for that romantic getaway, big birthday trip, or a slightly decadent Sonoma County wine escape? This might well be the place. As with any local establishment they offer winter specials but this year they have a doozy: two nights in certain rooms for a total of $200 (plus tax), and you can order a bottle of wine in the restaurant at 50% off! This deal goes through March and is not shown on their website but ask for it when you call; its called the “Too Broke to Travel” deal.
Regardless what you pay for your stay, a fine breakfast in the dining room is included in the price. And be sure to have at least one dinner at Applewood whether you stay at the inn or you lodge elsewhere in the area. Some of their other special rates may also include dinner.
Weve stayed here twice in winter and loved it. Both times we were in cozy room 5 on the lower level of the historic Belden House. Room 5 is the only room in the building that has direct access from the courtyard without having to first go through the entrance on the main floor . The Belden House has a magnificent fireplace and sunroom perfect for hanging out with a cup of coffee or glass of wine, and a good book.
Five miles west of Guerneville is the smaller burg of Monte Rio. As you enter Monte Rio youll see Sophies Cellars on the right side of River Road. Sophies Cellars has an outstanding selection of wine (especially Sonoma County, naturally) and cheese. As of this writing they still have a deal struck with a number of nearby restaurants (including Applewood) where corkage is waived if you buy the bottle at Sophies.
Armstrong Woods State Park
The ambiance of the river is laid back but you can get in some serious hiking if youre up for it. Armstrong Woods State Park is only two miles north of Guerneville, and contiguous to it is the Austin Creek State Recreation Area. Yes, you can go to simply stroll through the last stand of original growth redwood in this area, but you also have the opportunity to get a good workout while taking in some marvelous views.
…LOOKING SOUTH TOWARD GUERNEVILLE FROM THE EASTRIDGE TRAIL
On this most recent trip we did a relatively short hike from the main entrance parking lot up and to the end of the East Ridge Trail. (In a normal winter this never would have been possible since it would have been too muddy but in our year of drought it was easy.) However on several other occasions during the summer weve done tough 15-mile hikes with a great deal of elevation gain on very hot days. After those hikes the pizza and beer (or dinner at Applewood) were absolutely necessary simply to replace all of the calories expended. Comment back to me if you want info on these hikes.
Two more quick touristic notes about the area
The Guerneville cemetery is quite pretty and offers an interesting and poignant look into the citys past, both distant and recent. And The Band Played On and Conduct Unbecoming author Randy Shilts is buried here. Youll find the cemetery higher up on the hill from the Highlands Resort.
Korbel Winery lies a few miles east of Guerneville in a most beautiful location where the river valley widens out. Korbel is not an intimate small producer like most other west Sonoma County wineries but they offer an excellent tour in an historic and bucolic setting. And I make it a rule to never turn down free sparkling wine.
Rail and history buffs take note that one of the few surviving remnants of the Russian River branch of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad can be found here. The old Korbel station serves as the waiting room for winery tours. You can view a number of railroad related pictures on the Korbel websites gallery section as well as in the old depot itself.