Sonoma County Review

Sonoma County Review

One of the many benefits of living in the San Francisco Bay area is the accessibility of world-class vacation spots. But, like many, my husband and I are often busy with local pursuits or are traveling far from home. So, when my brother told us that he and his wife would be in the California Wine Country for a medical meeting, we were delighted to spend their two extra days with them.

For my brother and his wife’s first visit to the Wine Country several years ago, we stayed at the elegant, luxurious and costly Auberge du Soleil near St. Helena, dined at the renowned French Laundry in Yountville, and tasted wines at exclusive wineries.

For their second visit to the Wine Country, I wanted us to have a different focal point, and one on a route less traveled than mainstream Napa Valley. And equally as importantly, I wanted our two-day experience to have the beneficial effects of a much longer vacation. In order to accomplish that, I reasoned that we would need to find a nearby peaceful location with a variety of activities and restaurants close by, and an upscale service-oriented hotel that would immediately envelope us in an atmosphere of tranquility.

So, during the rainy, cold days of January, I enjoyed researching the spring weekend that would be just what the (sister of the) doctor ordered. The solution was the Glen Ellen area of Sonoma County, off Route 12. It’s a rather rural locale of less than 1,000 people, although only 50 miles from San Francisco. The bucolic rolling hills, country roads, parks and vineyards coexist peacefully with the hotels, restaurants, spas, wineries and art preserves. The town of Sonoma still has a Spanish plaza at its core that actually attracts locals as well as tourists.

Of the several excellent hotels, spas, inns and B & B’s, I selected the Gaige House Inn. I am happy to report that we loved its quiet sophistication, Asian style décor and helpful and gracious staff. website.

The twenty-three room Gaige House Inn is centered around a large 19th century Queen Anne-Italianate house that belies its urbane interior. In addition to guest rooms, the main building has a sitting room/library at which wine and hors d’oeuves are served nightly, an elegant breakfast room and a roomy porch. In 2005, eight new individually designed and decorated suites were built in two buildings that are separated from the main house by courtyard gardens.

We were graciously upgraded to a serene, large suite, of contemporary Asian décor, that had many creature comforts, including fireplace, refrigerator, wet bar, CD/DVD player, private outdoor area overlooking the Calabazas Creek and a fabulous bathroom with a black granite soaking tub and double shower that opened on to an enclosed Zen-inspired courtyard. Although we might have been content to lounge in our suite, the pool and hot tub surrounded by an expansive lawn and garden were enticing and enjoyable. Unfortunately, from the hot tub, we could sometimes overhear neighbors on the adjoining property, but then, I guess they heard us, too.

Exploring the surrounding area was also delightful. Hiking in the nearby Jack London Historic State Park (website) was a pleasure that was accentuated for my brother by the addition of a Loggerhead Shrike to his birding Life List. The small Jack London Museum in the redwood grove in the Park is worth a stop.

Also literally down the road is the exceptional Di Rosa Preserve, an art preserve and sculpture park of over 200 acres that specializes in modern Northern California artists. See the website for needed reservations. website.

Viola Frey Sculpture at the Di Rosa Preserve

While I continued my relaxation mode with a luxurious in-room massage and my sister-in-law took the 50 minute drive to shop in the now chichi town of Healdsburg, the others took an enjoyable 30-mile bike ride on rolling country roads from Sonoma to Cuttings Wharf and back.

The Gaige House Inn offers preprinted itineraries, such as an hour or more drive to the Pacific Coast, and maps of the many local wineries, including the neighboring estate of the Benziger Family Winery on Route 12. website.

The best of the restaurants we tried was The Girl and the Fig, a French style bistro in the center of Sonoma. (website) The same group operates the more casual, Fig Café and Wine Bar in Glen Ellen. Its menu is more limited and it doesn’t take reservations. Our dinner at the Kenwood Restaurant was a pleasant evening in a quieter room, but the menu was not as noteworthy. (website)

One caution about the Gaige House Inn…the Thomson Hotels group, (Website),

which recently took over from the original owners of the Inn, operates a number of post-modern, edgy hotels in New York and Los Angeles. The Gaige House Inn, on the other hand, blends its sophistication with a calm, low-key atmosphere and informal, helpful local staff, including Anne and Peter. The team from Thompson Hotels in their skinny black ties doesn’t seem to fit in. I hope they will continue to maintain the delicate balance between country charm and urbane sophistication that makes the Gaige House Inn unique.

The previous two California vacations my husband and I had taken were both along the Pacific Coast, in Big Sur and Dana Point. We traveled much further to get to each one, and it is hard to compare the majesty of the ocean with the country hills of Sonoma. But for making two nights seem like a refreshing week’s vacation, Sonoma is just what the (sister of the) doctor advises.

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San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for