Think Beyond the Wine in California Vino Country
Nine alternatives to wine tasting.
It might seem counterintuitive to do anything in Napa and Sonoma Valleys beyond drinking wine all day long. However, whether you simply need a break from constant imbibing, are a teetotaler, or have already visited all the wineries on your checklist, here are nine worthy pursuits beyond the famous wine scene.
Unwind at a Spa
In terms of the number of leisure options, spas may come in second after wineries. One of the highest concentrations can be found in Calistoga on the Napa side, thanks to natural hot springs and volcanic mud. A-listers and those with deep pockets head to Calistoga Ranch, a 157-acre property that offers organic spa treatments and outdoor soaking pools. Other area standouts include the 40,000-square-foot spa at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, and The Meritage Resort and Spa, a cavernous space located 40 feet underground. The carriage house spa at the rustic Farmhouse Inn provides a more intimate vibe, and it’s not limited to overnight guests. (Although there’s no reason why you shouldn’t stay here.) Osmosis Day Spa is another day spa option, and the only spa in the country to offer a cedar enzyme bath. This unconventional treatment involves being buried up to your chin in a fermented mixture of cedar, rice bran and enzymes, which claims to aid everything from muscle pain to circulation. Finally, for the ultimate getaway, all the superlatives have been used to describe Meadowood Napa Valley, and the spa is no exception. Each treatment room functions as a private suite, eliminating the need for locker rooms—or any guest interaction for that matter.
Explore Small Towns
Napa is considered the jumping-off point into the region, and it’s worth a stop for the Oxbow Public Market, where you can taste the area’s best oysters, chocolate, cheese and more under one roof. Part restaurant, part upscale goods, General Store Napa combines the best of everything. Head further north to St. Helena for its attractive Main Street; pick up grapefruit mimosa soap at Napa Soap Company, stylish walking shoes at Flats Napa Valley, and designer threads at Pearl Wonderful Clothing. Don’t leave before savoring a meal at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Over in Sonoma, Healdsburg represents small-town living at its best (complete with a bona fide town square and gazebo), and its walkable downtown is filled with enough charming boutiques to occupy an afternoon. Eat and shop at the architecturally stunning Shed, browse through books at Levin & Company, and pop into One World Fair Trade for artisan clothes and crafts. Further south, Santa Rosa tempts with blocks and blocks of coffeshops, independent stores and restaurants along historic Fourth Street. Whistlestop Antiques, Treehorn Books and Kindred Fair Trade Handcrafts are among the finds. Less than an hour from San Francisco, downtown Petaluma is another historic area with cobblestone streets and Victorian homes. Thrift for vintage and consignment threads at local fave Ooh La Loft. Petaluma Seed Bank is a must for gardening fanatics, who will lose it over the variety of tools, books and more than 1,800 types of heirloom seeds. For a change of pace from wine, beer lovers will appreciate Lagunitas Brewing Company’s taproom.
Visit Art Galleries and Museums
Wine country is overflowing with museums and galleries. In fact, there are about two-dozen art galleries in Healdsburg alone. Erickson Fine Arts Gallery is among the oldest, and its imposing gated entrance leads to three airy floors filled with contemporary paintings, sculptures and more. Meanwhile, Paul Mahder Gallery (pictured), showcases contemporary art in 8,500 square feet, making it the largest (single floor) gallery in the state. Elsewhere in the region, Jessel Gallery is the place for quintessential wine country paintings. If you prefer more of a museum experience, head to di Rosa to contemplate about 2,000 pieces from 800 local artists. The indoor and outdoor galleries overlook a lake and vineyards, making it just as hard to take your eyes off the setting as the art. Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz is arguably the most famous local artist. He spent the last decades of his life in Santa Rosa, where you can visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum to enjoy the largest collection of the beloved Peanuts cartoon. The museum also features a re-creation of his studio and rotating exhibits, like the current presidential-themed one. Don’t leave wine country before visiting The Hess Collection, an acclaimed private collection housed in its namesake winery. More than a quarter of the contemporary art is on display at museums around the world, but the home collection still includes preeminent artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz and Anselm Kiefer. Even better? You can visit these world-class works for free.
Partake in Festivals
Although wine festivals dominate, they’re not the only ones worth visiting. Oktoberfest activities are held throughout October in the Napa Valley, while the Napa Valley Film Festival in November will screen more than 100 independent films. Dev Patel, Viggo Mortensen and Chloe Grace Moretz are among this year's honorees. Now in its 20th year, the Sonoma International Film Festival takes place March 29-April 2, and will show more than 90 movies. Past attendees have included Bruce Willis and Susan Sarandon. For a taste of Norman Rockwell living, the 71st annual Sebastopol Apple Blossom Festival (pictured) from April 22-23 is a highlight in this apple-growing region, complete with a parade that goes up Main Street. The end of April heralds the Petaluma Butter & Egg Days Parade & Festival, another annual tradition that attracts as many as 30,000 people.
Play in the Great Outdoors
A mild climate and easy access to the coast, state parks and more make this region ideal for outdoor pursuits. Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa is a popular destination with more than 40 miles of hiking and biking trails. Getaway Adventures serves both Napa and Sonoma, and offers biking, hiking and kayaking excursions. Or try stand-up paddleboarding at Petaluma Stand Up Paddle and Napa Valley Paddle. Swimmers and boaters can choose from Lake Sonoma, Spring Lake Regional Park and Johnson’s Beach. Horseback riding options also abound: opt for Triple Creek Horse Outfit to ride in Jack London State Historic Park, The Ranch at Lake Sonoma for rugged rides overlooking Dry Creek Valley (pictured above), Wine Country Trail Rides for scenic vineyards and Horse N Around Trail Rides for beach excursions. There's a wealth of golf courses too; narrow it down by staying at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn in order to tee off at the private Sonoma Golf Club. On the other hand, The Links at Bodega Harbour is open to everyone and offers stunning bay views.
Go Whale Watching
Grey and blue whales can be spotted year-round off the Sonoma Coast, with peak whale watching occurring during migration periods in the fall and spring. Head to Bodega Head within Sonoma Coast State Park for prime viewing; it helps if you have binoculars and warm clothing. Weekends bring volunteers who can answer all of your whale questions. If you want to get even closer, a number of companies offer whale-watching tours, such as Miss Anita Fishing Charters and Bodega Bay Sportfishing.
Catch a Performance
The intimate Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, just outside of Santa Rosa, attracts big-name talent. Upcoming tours include 19-time Grammy winner Tony Bennett, and Monty Python founders John Cleese and Eric Idle. The space also hosts orchestras, plays, acrobatic troupes and more. Head to Green Music Center (pictured) at Sonoma State University to hear the world-famous Itzhak Perlman and the Vienna Boys Choir perform. The lineup at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater truly offers something for everyone, whether it’s Indian drumming, a tango orchestra or The Nutcracker ballet. It’s also where the Napa Valley Film Festival is held. For a taste of regional theater, the current 6th Street Playhouse season includes musical theater favorite The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
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A hot air balloon ride is the best way to get a full overview of bucolic wine valley terrain, from rolling hills to endless rows of vineyards. Flights usually lift off in the (very) early morning and float for about an hour, depending on the company. Sonoma options encompass Up & Away Ballooning, which includes a post-flight breakfast at cool concept space Shed in Healdsburg, and Sonoma Valley Balloons, which concludes with a champagne toast. In Napa, Balloons Above the Valley provides pastries at sunrise and a champagne brunch afterward. Napa Valley Aloft can arrange a private flight, while Napa Valley Balloons wraps with breakfast at Chandon Winery.
Be Awed by a Redwood Forest
Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, and can grow as high as 350 feet and survive for upwards of 2,000 years. The majority of California’s redwoods were chopped down during the gold rush period, but luckily pockets of these majestic trees have been preserved, including 805 acres at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve (pictured) in Sonoma County. Enjoy a picnic area, nature trails (from easy to advanced), and a visitor center to learn more about the nature reserve. For example, the Parson Jones tree is Armstrong’s tallest at more than 310 feet, while the 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong tree holds the title of oldest. Since this park doesn’t attract the same tourist hordes as Muir Woods, you get to soak in these facts in silence.