Just a few minutes’ drive, but a world away, lies Wildhaven Sonoma (2411 Alexander Valley Rd., Healdsburg CA. Tel: 707-283-7773. www.wildhavensonoma.com), a glamping facility that opened last June and has proven so popular they’ve tripled their number of tents since then. This family-friendly spot right on the Russian River (yes, the river does flow through Healdsburg) is a vibrant, friendly spot, with tents boasting memory foam mattresses, space heaters for chilly nights, charging ports, and twinkling lights across the tents’ ceilings. You’ll have your own patio grill, a private path down to the river (which here is blessedly unfrequented), and anything you could want for a perfect riverside picnic in their well-stocked shop. Only ten minutes from Healdsburg, Wildhaven Sonoma is truly its own little natural haven.
If you want to be in town, there’s exciting upcoming news: The Madrona (1001 Westside Rd., Healdsburg CA. www.themadronahotel.com) is a significant new project, transforming historic Madrona Manor into a sleek new luxury hotel. Designer Jay Jeffers, who came with his husband to Wine Country for years before finally making the move, is bringing this historic wonder into the 21st century, infusing the historic buildings with, in his words, “bold, spirited modern spaces and experiences.” With twenty-two guest rooms spread across eight acres of grounds including the original 1881 mansion, we can assure you this place is going to be fabulous. Look for an early 2022 opening.
Right at the heart of town, chef Dustin Valette (whose restaurant Valette is one of my favorites in the county) is opening a new spot, The Matheson (106 Matheson St., Healdsburg CA. Tel: 707-723-1106. www.thematheson.com), a farm-focused spot with a wonderful mezzanine area and rooftop cocktail bar. Interestingly, it’s located on the spot where Valette’s great-grandfather owned a bakery in the 1920s. As my own grandfather used to say, what goes around comes around!
Healdsburg lies to the north end of the county. In the south there’s Petaluma, just over the Sonoma County line as you drive up from San Francisco. It’s a fascinating town, one that’s acquiring a hip overlay but still hasn’t lost its agricultural underpinnings. Here, Table Culture Provisions (841 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, CA. Tel: 707-796-3375. www.tcprovision.com), which shared its space for the last eight months before becoming the sole proprietor, offers a creative, varied menu, lovely patio, super-nice staff, and the best fried chicken sandwich in history. Stop in this worthy new addition to the Petaluma dining scene. There’s also a fully equipped food truck sitting on the edge of the patio, so don’t be surprised if they also take their show on the road sometime soon.
Further down Petaluma Boulevard is Tortilla Real (5 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma CA. Tel: 707-658-1415. www.tortillareal.com), which opened in February. I love this cozy little spot with its gracious staff, great food (which you can enjoy inside or on the umbrella-shaded patio) including homemade tortillas that show where the restaurant’s name comes from! Be sure to try the gorditas, little masa cakes with black beans, sour cream, and queso fresco.
Nearby, Barn 5400 (5400 Old Redwood Highway N., Penngrove CA. www.barn5400.com) is in the relatively unknown (to tourists, anyway) town of Penngrove, and I love this former lumberyard that’s been transformed into artisans’ studios. It’s the home of my favorite skin care place on earth, Soap Cauldron (www.soapcauldron.com), which is introducing several new lines of products you must experience: massage oils in such scents as coastal cedar and French lavender, monthly seasonally- based gift selections, and a line of all-in-one body/shampoo/beard bars, perfect for the light-packing traveler.
Meanwhile, the Barn itself (which opened right around pandemic time) has now started attracting all kinds of new shops, and you’ll want to check out the hand-crafted, retro-style joys of Luma Vintage (www.lumavintage.com), the clay cookware of Kickwheel Ceramics (www.kickwheelsonoma.com), and the handmade candles of Emily Lynch (emilylynch.etsy.com). There’s always something new at this unique collection of makers.
About twenty minutes from here, back towards Guerneville, you’ll find the quirky town of Sebastopol, always a good place for foodies and now burgeoning with wonderful new spots to eat. Blue Ridge Kitchen (6770 McKinley St., Sebastopol CA. Tel: 707-222-5040. www.brkitchen.com), which opened last July, is everyone’s favorite new restaurant. The airy space in the Barlow (a former applesauce cannery converted into a collection of shops, restaurants, and tasting rooms) has horse murals on the wall, a bar with seating at the center, and a huge patio. The food’s great, there’s a nice vibe somewhere between down-home and upscale, and I love the spacious, friendly feel of the place.
Flavor Bistro (7365 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol, CA. Tel: 707-861-3642. www.flavorbistro.com), also opened last August, is dedicated to “Celebrating Sonoma County.” Have a seat in one of the comfy rooms, with lots of warm wood and wine bottles everywhere, and indulge in a Chardonnay Pot Pie or some of their other unique creations. Practically next door, the new Khom Loi (7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol CA. Tel: 707-329- 6917. www.khomloisonoma.com) is the brainchild of the guys from Ramen Gaijin, an immensely popular Japanese spot in town, and combines a wide-open modern design with fabulous food that makes great use of the local bounty (“rooted in Sonoma County with its heart firmly in Thailand,” to quote them).
Opened last July in the Barlow, Region Wine Bar (180 Morris St., Sebastopol CA. Tel: 707-329-6724. www.drinkyourregion.com) is my new favorite place to enjoy the vast variety of Sonoma County wines. With two commodious rooms and both covered and uncovered patios, you can relax on a couch or sit at a high counter while enjoying the best the region has to offer. You get your own “card,” head to the ten columns of wine dispensers, choose your wine (and how much you want, from a taste to a full glass), and it’s all recorded on your card to be paid at the end of your visit. The staff is super-friendly, the contemporary, wide-open feel is as relaxing as the wine-drinking, the music is great, and I can’t think of anywhere that offers quite the variety and the comfort.
If combining food and wine is your thing, check out the wineries, one of the county’s major draws (there are over four hundred in Sonoma County.) You’ll often find them combining their vintages with nice food in interesting ways. One example is the Wine & Food Affair sponsored by Wine Road (www.wineroad.com), an association of wineries and lodgings. This event, held virtually in 2020, returns in November (check their website in August for details), while the Barrel Tasting Weekend, postponed in 2021, is scheduled to be back in full force in March of next year.
When it comes to wineries, I can’t say “go to this area or that area,” as they literally stretch from one end of this massive county to the other. So, too, does the beauty, from the towering redwoods to the ubiquitous vineyards, from the ever-changing Russian River to the astounding Pacific coastline. I’ve tried to give you some highlights about what’s new in the area, but there are some things you’ll just have to discover for yourself. The otters paddling their way across the river. The mustard fields full of blossoms in spring, and the blackberries in summer. Cattle grazing on a verdant hillside. Most of all, the wide-open skies: at night you’ll marvel at all the stars you’d almost forgotten exist, and during the day you can sit literally for hours as the sun moves across the ocean, glances across hilltops, and glows through the gigantic trees. “What’s New in Sonoma County” happens on a daily basis.