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Slumming in Sonoma:

It's Rough, but Someone Has To Do It

The first time I visited California’s Russian River, I was prepared for beauty. I wasn't prepared to want to move there.

Just outside of Healdsburg, the oak-canopied Westside Road curls alongside the Russian River past vine-covered hills that rise and fall into each other like the sloping waves of a topsy-turvy sea. One bend reveals a farm where visitors sample local produce, another the Hop Kiln Estate, a national landmark hops-drying barn built by Italian stonemasons in 1905. Farmhouses and old Victorians nestle in pockets of cottonwoods, or perch proud above their vineyards.

At the top of the hill--both literally and figuratively--sits the Madrona Manor, a majestic three-story Victorian mansion built in 1881 by a wealthy San Francisco businessman and turned into an elegantly romantic bed & breakfast one hundred years later. Impeccable gardens flank the main house, while the carriage house overlooks acres of woods. Antiques--many original to the estate--furnish the 16 rooms, all of which have private baths and many of which offer fireplaces as well.

On that first trip to Sonoma years ago, Madrona Manor was already a three-star experience fitting of its first-class setting--both chefs had trained at the California Culinary Academy and worked at Chez Panisse. Memories of lamb skewered on fresh rosemary branches still linger.

Ready to make a few new ones, I looked through the seasonal menu online. The entire thing spoke to me, from the egg served with smoked sabayon and prosciutto=sherry syrup to the side of white truffle that can be added to any dish. I couldn’t begin to figure out how I would choose between the options next time I went. So I was pretty excited about the “I Want It All” option, which allows you to share the entire a la carte menu with your besties. It’s not cheap but, as they say, you get what you pay for.

Less than five minutes away, Healdsburg--an enchanting town where opportunities for window shopping and antiquing abound--offers a host of other feasting options. Of course, you can always stock up at the local deli and head to one of the local wineries. You’ve got three wine valleys to choose from--AlexanderDry Creek and Russian River. If you haven’t tried the wine from the first two, you’re missing out. Not that the Russian River wines aren’t also pretty great (think Rodney Strong, J and Kendall-Jackson among others).

 

Head north on Hwy 101 and then east on Hwy 128, and you’ll run into Geyserville. Stop there. No matter what. Just half-a-dozen blocks long, the town is like a drink of cool water on a dusty day. An old-timer pushes back his cowboy hat and squints at the painted raffle sign in his pickup that reads: Geyserville Fire Dept.: $1; Win half a beef. Yup, this town of 862 residents still has that Wild West wooden-boardwalk feel. But you sure won’t be roughing it. In addition to quaffing as much Alexander Valley wine as you can get away with, you can eat brilliantly and then browse the local shops stocked with everything from art to collectibles. That’s assuming you don’t want to take advantage of the mineral hot springs that inspired the town’s name.

For a scenic detour on your way back to San Francisco, veer off Hwy. 101 at Santa Rosa and head down Sonoma Valley (Hwy. 12). Possible stops include the towns of Kenwood and Glen Ellen, where writer Jack London's restored ranch is located.