Sonoma shines Whales, Wine and the Cult of Chefs by Edith Wagner

Sonoma is a familiar name triggering thoughts of wine, ocean breezes and the freshest gourmet cuisine. It conjures idyllic, bucolic vineyards, dazzling green gardens and fields of cows, goats and sheep munching their way to some world class cheeses. Sonoma County, California, is a great reunion destination with spectacular vistas, accommodations and tastes you’ll long remember. In fact, long-time resident and famed horticulturist Luther Burbank called it, “God’s chosen place on earth.”

Sonoma is a font of interesting history and influence of immigrants from all over the world and US regions. Stake your reunion claim to northern California: land in San Francisco if you’re flying, and a short ride gets you into Sonoma County’s heart.

“Charming” describes much of the area, from Petaluma’s stately Victorian homes to the giant redwoods and the clouds enveloping pre-dawn Occidental. I wouldn’t have considered antiques of such importance anywhere in California, but there’s a concentration in this area.

Elegantly costumed docents from the Petaluma History Museum become “street walkers” to show you around their unique, well preserved downtown, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They deliver the colorful history and point out special architectural features that survived earthquake damage. Petaluma has been a location in many movies and a self-guided tour will put you in scenes from American Graffiti, Peggy Sue Got Married, Shadow of a Doubt, Basic Instinct, Howard the Duck and more.

Small reunions of immediate family, friends or buddies will find ideal locales and wonders in this area, though there are large group accommodations.

Up the coast road, consider Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa, a magnificent Woodside Hotel overlooking bird-filled marshes, flower-covered dunes, pristine Pacific coast beaches and, from December to April, nearby whale-watching. Rooms have panoramic views, balconies and fireplaces. Nearby is the Bodega schoolhouse where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. The Duck Club at the Bodega Bay Lodge is one of only six Five-Star Diamond restaurants in the US. Don’t miss an unforgettable Chef Jeff Reilly gourmet meal.

At nearby Gourmet au Bay, you can sample (they call it “surfing”) countless local wine specialties. Sit on the deck as the ballet on the bay unfolds; watch seals, blue heron, sandpipers; at low tide, crabs and crustaceans frolic.

I have always loved the name Sebastapol and there it is, in the middle of Sonoma County–a small but by no means sleepy community with a traditional bustling downtown. Lunch at Pasta Bella where owner and young mother Ryn Wood produces Italian cuisine staples. At GTO, Creole fare reigns with a Pennsylvanian touch; something for nearly everyone. Nearby Full House Farm offers a unique small reunion venue for friends or family.

Sip Intelligently

Sonoma County is the origin of fine California wines of many genres, colors and textures. Take the opportunity not only to sample, but to learn and perhaps develop special tastes. Learn to “volumize your esters” and enjoy the wine experience much more. Betsy Fischer of Winespeak (707-577-8358; [email protected]) presents wine seminars and tastings which are both fun and a learning experience. Betsy is one of a select group of Sonoma residents who joyfully announce “I drink for a living.” Another is Linda Viviani (800-658-1940), who stages an ice breaker called “Who Wants to be a Wine Taster?” Both support the philosophy that wines are to be enjoyed however or wherever they’re savored.

Sonoma County wineries are open seven days a week and eager to tell their stories. Many host special events including product samples. Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa, overlooking the Russian River Valley, produces hand-crafted wines and has fine event accommodations. The charming owner, Marijke Byck-Hoenselaars, offers a greeting–“Welcome to Paradise”–that is very real. Don’t leave without touring their impressive sculpture garden. Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma Valley has a lovely wine country gift shop and small conference room that can be reserved with catering service and their excellent wines.

Spas are In

In Sonoma County, spas are popular and readily available. Some, such as Sonoma Mission Inn, are famous for their extensive offerings, while newer operations can be found at Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa in Bodega Bay, and MacArthur Place in Sonoma. If your reunion is a group of adults, this is a perfect time to pamper yourself. Feel rich and wonderful with a massage, facial or pedicure that leaves you sparkling. Or try a rejuvenating Japanese heat treatment with an enzyme bath and massage at Osmosis in Freestone.

Planning a Special Party?

Sonoma County hotels include off-site venues for your special events. An example is Flying Cloud Ranch near Petaluma, where a wine barrel room and reception area are adjacent to a horse arena. Area riders might be performing on their gorgeous animals. After wine grapes, horses are the area’s second major “crop.”

Plan a croquet breakfast and get everyone laughing on the front lawn at the Doubletree Hotel in Rohnert Park.

For guided walking tours, call the Petaluma Historical Museum and Library, 707-778-4398. Petaluma Visitors Program, 800 Baywood Dr, Petaluma CA 94954; 877-273-8258;; ask for self-guided film tour map.

When You Go

General Information

Ask for a free 68-page visitor guide from Sonoma County Tourism Program, 800-380-5392;


  • Doubletree Hotel, One Doubletree Dr, Rohnert Park CA 94928; 707-584-5466.
  • Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa, 103 Coast Highway #1, Bodega Bay CA 94923; 707-875-4406; Ask for 101 Things To Do In and Around Bodega Bay.
  • Inn at Occidental, 3657 Church St, Occidental CA 95465; 800-522-6324. In a setting that is so European, you’ll have to pinch yourself. If you are early enough or all the rooms aren’t taken, you might be able to tour some of their uniquely and exquisitely decorated theme rooms. Ask just in case! Wine and cheese in the evening is a lovely array of special treats. Breakfast is by a master chef (who can cater other meals). The morning I was there, breakfast included house-cured salmon.
  • Full House Farm Retreat House, 1000 Sexton Rd, Sebastapol CA 95472; 888-596-6006. Just outside Sebastapol is a fully furnished house atop a hill with an excellent view from the dining room or the hot tub just outside the door. Accommodates up to eight comfortably. The owner, Christine Cole, also offers equestrian services, teaching you to ride or learn the language of horses (fascinating).
  • Hotel La Rose, 308 Wilson St, Santa Rosa CA 95401; 707-579-3200. A historic hotel on Railroad Square in Santa Rosa that even boasts ghosts.
  • Fountain Grove Inn, 101 Fountain Grove Pkway, Santa Rosa CA; 800-222-6101. An elegant venue with meeting facilities.
  • Safari West, 3115 Porter Creek Rd, Santa Rosa CA; 707-579-2551; Offers a tent camp adventure in deluxe safari tents surrounded by an impressive collection of wild animals.
  • Sonoma Mission Inn, 18300 Highway 12, Sonoma CA 95476. A large, pink mission design and luxurious accommodations throughout. First-class spa and world-class cuisine.
  • MacArthur Place, 29 E. MacArthur St, Sonoma CA 95476; 800-722-1866; In Sonoma, once a 300-acre vineyard and working ranch, now a luxury inn and spa within walking distance of Sonoma Mission and downtown area.
  • Vineyard Creek Hotel, Spa and Conference Center, 170 Railroad St, Santa Rosa CA 95401; 888-920-0008 (toll free).
  • Sheraton Petaluma Hotel, 745 Baywood Dr, Petaluma CA 94954; 707-283-2888; [email protected];


Try these great eateries. Hana’s Restaurant in Rohnert Park is said to be the best Japanese food north of San Francisco. The Duck Club at Bodega Bay Lodge and Pasta Bella and GTO in Sebastapol are great treats. Or for a picnic, visit Springhill Jersey Cheese Farm, where proprietor and cheesemaker Larry Peter makes an ever-increasing number of fine, prize-winning cheeses. Saddles Restaurant in Sonoma specializes in steaks (no surprise) and offers an extensive menu of Martinis which you can enjoy while sitting in a saddle! An elegant choice in Santa Rosa is Fountain Grove Inn.

Wine Country Attractions

  • Paradise Ridge Winery, 4545 Thomas Lake Harris Dr, Santa Rosa CA 95403; 707-528-9463.
  • Gourmet au Bay on Bodega Bay, where sunset is the event. Try wine surfing: for the price of a regular glass of wine ($6), they’ll give you three small samples (on a surf board tray) from a vast choice of area wines.
  • Landmark Vineyards, 101 Adobe Canyon Rd, Kenwood CA 95452;

About the author
Edith Wagner is editor of Reunions magazine and loves to explore reunion places.