What’s new in the Russian River area is more than anything a feeling—a feeling that this resort area, about 90 minutes north of San Francisco, and for decades a leading destination for LGBT travelers, is on the rise. These blink-and-you-missthem towns, arrayed insouciantly along the river at the heart of a primo wine-producing region, now accessible to a wider group of travelers, have experienced an upswing in recent years, largely due to a growing popularity with a hipster crowd that’s taken a shine to the region. Don’t worry, though, these are mellow Northern California hipsters, and their presence has meant that the area is starting to boast an increasing number of fashionable establishments, including hotels, restaurants, breweries, and wine tasting salons. Of course, the LGBT old-timers remain, and it makes for a fascinating combination with the younger, hipper crowd.
Expanded air access has helped, and that’s probably the biggest news. The tiny Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa has more than doubled its carriers in recent months, and is now served by American Airlines (Tel: 800433-7300. www.aa.com) from Phoenix (as of February) and United Airlines (Tel: 800864-8331. www.united.com) from San Francisco (as of June), in addition to Alaska Air (Tel: 800-252-7522. www.alaskaair.com) with flights from San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, and Allegiant Air (Tel: 702-505-8888. www.allegiantair.com) from Las Vegas. Sun Country Airlines (Tel: 800-359-6786. www.suncountry.com) adds seasonal service from Minneapolis in August. The impact for the area is enormous. You can now fly from cities all over the country to an airport that’s just 25 minutes from the region, as opposed to 90 minutes from Oakland or two hours from San Francisco.
Once you arrive at the Sonoma County Airport, you’ll be in and out in a couple of minutes. The rental car lot, for instance, is about a two minutes’ walk from the terminal, which is about the size of your average living room. The opportunity to fly into this nearby and easy-todeal-with little airport is a godsend.
Guerneville has always been the center of Russian River life, and certainly the center of LGBT life. Park yourself there in the most talked-about new hotel in the area, Autocamp (14120 Old Cazadero Rd., Guerneville. Tel: 707-604-6103. www.autocamp.com/location/russianriver), a row of Airstream trailers and tents made into upscale lodgings that opened mid-2016. These are no ordinary Airstreams, having been designed for the property with a sleek and sophisticated look, high-end linens and bath products, mellow lighting, and, most importantly, incredibly comfortable beds. Check in at the mid-centuryinspired Clubhouse and head to your trailer (or, if you prefer, a spacious luxury tent), with the seasonal Hulbert Creek rushing by the edge. It might be hip as hell, but it offers blessed quiet, with the most exhilarating nightlife being you and your spouse sitting by a fire watching the moon rise.
If you want your own place, check out the offerings at two of the leading holiday rental companies, Russian River Getaways (14070 Mill St., Guerneville. Tel: 707-394-0601 or toll-free 800-433-6673. www.russianrivergetaways.com), and Russian River Vacation Homes (14080 Mill St., Guerneville. Tel: 707-869-9030. www.riverhomes.com), both of which have just added some stunning houses to their lineup of spots along the river and elsewhere throughout the area. Check out the latter’s stunning new Starlight Retreat for a truly luxurious escape! Sit on your deck among the redwoods or gazing down the Russian River, and you’ll be amazed by the major thing that the area has to offer: peace, silence, and about a million stars.
Right in Guerneville, two fab new shops just opened in the former location of the much-lamented Mercantile Store. Forest to the Sea (16215 Main St. #1. Tel: 707-6047116. www.stewardscr.org), a project of the invaluable Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, offers nature-themed gifts from lovely cards and earrings to T-shirts, caps, books, children’s games, and even a Chickadee Home Kit, should you be wanting one! With proceeds going to the Stewards’ wonderful preservation and education work, it’s well worth a stop. Next door, Pamper Me (16215 Main St., Suite 2, Guerneville. Tel: 707-892-1417. www.pamperme.net) allows you to do just what the store’s name says, with handmade bath salts, massage oils, and balms in such scents as Lavender Brûlée, Sonoma Sweet Tea, and Creamsicle. With soaps from Sebastopol-based Three Sisters Apothecary, the cutest baby moccasins in the world (as well as baby oil and powder), and local art on the walls, it’s a welcome addition to Guerneville’s main drag.
On the dining scene, there are some major additions. Applewood Inn has matched its Italianate look by opening (in May) a newly redesigned restaurant, Pinoli Cucina Rustica (13555 Highway 116, Guerneville. Tel: 707-869-9093. www.applewoodinn.com), overseen by well-known chef Christian Darcoli, originally from San Remo and longtime proprietor of Pinoli in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Featuring modern Italian cuisine (fettucine with green beans, potatoes, pesto, and prawns, anyone?), Pinoli is the latest dining incarnation at this upscale spot on the edge of Guerneville.
Up river about twenty minutes lies one of the hottest new restaurant openings in the U.S.: Single Thread Farm, Restaurant, and Inn (131 North St., Healdsburg. Tel: 707-732-4646. www.singlethreadfarms.com), whose much-anticipated opening occurred in December 2016. Run by husband and wife chef/farmer team Kyle and Katina Connaughton, it’s already generating major buzz. You can tell it’s no ordinary eatery from the minute you make reservations: well, you don’t “make reservations,” you buy tickets as you would for a theater or sporting event, and after a call to check on your dietary restrictions, you arrive on your dinner night and are presented with an 11-course tasting menu. With a price tag of almost $300, it ain’t cheap, but the food, grown on their five-acre farm along the Russian River with some extra touches from their rooftop garden, is so fresh, the chef’s touch so light and inventive, that it’s well worth the splurge.
Elsewhere in the environs, Hazel (3782 Bohemian Highway, Occidental. Tel: 707874-6003. www.restauranthazel.com) debuted in 2015 in the tiny town of Occidental, about 20 minutes’ drive from the heart of Guerneville. Drawing a mix of locals and tourists, it’s one of the hippest spots in the area for its creative cookery (be sure and try the octopus with Greek olives and Valencia oranges that will redefine the way you think about this dish).
While this is wine country, brew pubs are also becoming popular. Several have opened within an easy drive of the Russian River, prime among them Gray South Brew Co. (7950 Redwood Dr., Cotati. Tel: 753-4198. www.graysouthbrewco.com) in the town of Cotati. The proprietors are nothing if not local: both of their grandfathers grew Gravenstein apples, so it’s only appropriate that their brewery is now on the southern end of the Gravenstein Highway (Gray South), which runs from Guerneville through the gorgeously hippy-ish town of Sebastopol. Sixteen taps mean Gray South can offer several of its own brews, from Sweet Stout to Strong Scotch Ale, as well as selections from other local craft brewers.
In Petaluma (about 40 minutes distant) you’ll find Brewsters Beer Garden (229 Water St., Petaluma. Tel: 707-981-8330. www.brewstersbeergarden.com). Brewsters, which opened in late 2016, has been attracting attention both for its promotion of local craft brewers (over 30 beers on tap) to its open-air design, with a rooftop garden, bocce ball court, fire pit, and music stage. Food veers toward the Carolinas (as they like to say, “southern BBQ meets California produce”), and, while beer might be the focus as the region’s craft movement picks up steam, there’s a selection of great wines as well—this is Sonoma County, after all!
For those of you who are here for the wine, particularly in an LGBT setting, the Gay Wine Weekend sponsored by the fabulous folks at Out In the Vineyard (Tel: 707495-9732. www.outinthevineyard.com) has now moved to July, so between June’s Pride celebrations (it was the 30th annual this year) and the July wine event, summer is very gay in Sonoma County. (Of course, what time of year isn’t?)
Need something fun to do after dinner? Head to Santa Rosa, where those princesses of humor, Carlee and Lisa Pidge, have expanded upon the success of their Crushers of Comedy presentations by opening a comedy club in the heart of Sonoma County’s biggest town. Called The Laugh Cellar (5755 Mountain Hawk Way, Santa Rosa. Tel: 707-282-9319. www.crushersofcomedy.com/our-comedy-club.html), it was scheduled for a July opening at press time and will mark a major new addition to a region that isn’t exactly booming with things to do at night. The plan calls for stand-up Friday and Saturday nights, a wine/beer lounge and food from fresh sandwiches to pizza from a wood-fired oven. Events include matinee shows designed for younger audiences and an annual three-day festival of comedy in July. Crushers has been such a success, with its monthly shows selling out to the max, that we have no doubt The Laugh Cellar is going to encounter the same degree of popularity. Wine, beer, great food, hilarious comedy: can you think of a better combination?
As you drive back to your digs in Russian River along the amazingly beautiful River Road, the laughs still ringing in your ears, you realize that there really is a lot that’s changing in this area. Yet, the thing that will draw you back, is the thing that will never change: the river itself. Surrounded by forested beauty, with a gorgeous 20-minute drive leading to the most glorious coastline in the world, it’s a retreat into physical beauty as well as a mellow, take-it-slow lifestyle. Even the hipsters take it slow in Russian River. Whatever new developments might be happening, whatever exciting events or hip establishments appear, the river continues its inexorable flow, as it did before there were chic restaurants, offbeat hotels, and fabulous comedy clubs. It might sound hackneyed, but there’s magic in this river, a magic that draws you back over and over again.