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Travel & Culture

Sonoma, CA Travel Guide

After Disneyworld, Sonoma is my favorite vacation spot. What’s not to love about wine and relaxation! Rob and I have ben a few times now and honestly have never had the same experience twice. We have stayed at several hotels now, tried a lot of wineries, and found some great food options. Now, I get share some of those with all of you.

First, let me start by saying that Sonoma is a pretty big county. It can take several hours to drive all over it and in that time you can see mountains, beaches, wine country, and as many different temperatures/weather patterns. So, keep that in mind if you visit; you can be along the coast where is cold and foggy and then in the valley where its clear and hot within a few hours.

Also, while they both represent “wine country”, Sonoma and Napa are really pretty different. They each have their own vibe and certain elements may suite different tastes better. As a general rule, Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley will be a little slower and quieter than Napa Valley. Even in Napa Valley, southern Napa is more developed while the northern end is a little more like Sonoma.

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Sonoma County Vacation Map

Sonoma Hotels

We split our time this trip between two different hotels. We were looking for slightly different aspects from each and they definitely delivered and I would highly recommend either hotel!

Olea Hotel

The Olea Hotel is a small hotel nestled up into a hill in Glen Ellen, a small village at the northern end of Sonoma Valley. Rob had wanted to stay at this hotel for over a year; prior to our last trip the hotel experienced some damage from wildfires and spent time rebuilding/remodeling and had been closed. This trip he finally got to

Patio Terrace

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It has a quieter, more secluded vibe located on a small road about a 1/2 mile from the center of Glen Ellen. The hotel has really nice outer seating areas set up in terraces along the hillside along areas for each room and a nice 24/7 access pool/hot tub. Its not a huge hotel, maybe only 15-20 rooms and even when pretty much full still feels pretty quiet.

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The small staff is all really friendly and helpful, and you will see them every time you go into the main lobby area. Something that was almost novel to us was the use of ACTUAL KEYS for the rooms. Neither of us could actually remember the last time we stayed somewhere that didn’t use a card or even your phone now.

One of their highlights is a two course (three plates though) daily breakfast that is complimentary. Its absolutely delicious and definitely a great way to start a day of wine tasting. They also have complimentary wine in the afternoon-evenings which is nice to have when sitting out by their fire pit or on the terrace.

The rooms are excellent with plenty of space, big TVs, heated bathroom floors (which is pretty nice in the mornings), and an overall clean decor. Pool towels and robes were provided in the room along with a number of complimentary snacks. For a small independent hotel, it was very impressive besting many bigger brands’ “higher end” hotel offerings.

MacArthur Place Hotel

The MacArther Place Hotel actually just completed a major remodeling and reopened only a few weeks before we arrived. I actually heard about the hotel from an Instagram post by Geoffrey Zakarian, whose restaurant group was involved with the hotel’s restaurant and bar. And I was so happy that I saw that recommendation.

Nightly Cookies

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In contrast to the seclusion of the Olea, the MacArthur Place is only a few blocks from the Sonoma City square. It is set-up into a rather sprawling campus consisting of a number of larger buildings and smaller cottages. Ground floor rooms had private deck areas and the second floor rooms had large balconies. The grounds had a number of fire pits seating areas in addition to a pool/spa area and some green space.

I have to say that the service and staff were among the best at any hotel we have stayed at. For the longest time, our benchmark has been the Four Seasons in Maui where we stayed on our honeymoon. The MacArthur place was right up there!! From the moment you pull up for the complimentary valet parking, to the check in process, and even the coffee bar staff, many of the staff remembered our names and were constantly saying hello. When our room was ready, they had our bags already up there and a cold water bottle was always offered when we were heading out for the day (and appreciated given how hot it was).

MacArthur Place Grounds

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Lastly, the room. Oh my god, the room!! It was awesome with a massive balcony, a breakfast nook area, a small seating area for the huge TV/fireplace, a kind sized bed, and big bathroom with separate shower and soaking tub!! They do an evening turndown service where they leave you fresh water bottles on the night stands along with a small box of freshly made cookies!!

Restaurants

Given the shear number we ate over the course of the week, I am not going to bother highlighting each one individually. Needless to say though, there are a lot of really great restaurants in Sonoma that warrant a stop. What I really love about a lot of the restaurants is, that despite being excellent and even critically acclaimed, many retain an almost neighborhood/local favorite status.

Glen Ellen Restaurants

  • Glen Ellen Star – a local favorite serving creative flavorful dishes started by one Thomas Keller’s proteges at French Laundry, its small and you DEFINITELY need a reservation.
  • The Fig Cafe – original restaurant that has spawned another restaurant, a catering company, and a food truck. Neighborly vibe with free corkage and a lot of locals. Reservations not accepted.
  • Garden Court Cafe – small diner vibe serving breakfast and lunch. Nothing fancy, but good food.
  • Village Market – Basically a local grocery store, but with a good selection of local beers/wines and sandwich options perfect for a wine tasting picnic.

Sonoma Square Restaurants

  • The Girl & the Fig – sister restaurant of the Fig Cafe serving an eclectic largely French inspired menu. Reservation recommended.
  • The Red Grape – local pizza joint offering crispy, thin crust pizzas in a wide range of styles. No reservations, but generally not too crowded and pretty casual.
  • Oso – small bites menu featuring a range of culinary styles from Mexican to Asian. Wasn’t too crowded on a weeknight.
  • El Molino Central – small roadside place for authentic Mexican food. Parking is pretty limited and it’s pretty popular at lunch.
  • Layla – the restaurant at the MacArthur Place Hotel in partnership with Zakarian. Mostly Mediterranean-inspired menu with a bright, open atmosphere.

Napa Lunch Spots

  • Addendum – basically the best fried chicken EVER!!! Its a seasonal outdoor stall by Thomas Keller and a favorite of Ina Garten. Nothing more to say.
  • Oxbow Market – Two of my favorites here are C Casa and Five Dot Ranch. Five Dot makes some great sandwiches that can be good as picnic options. If you have an AirBnB or kitchen its also a great place for great meat and produce.

Wineries

Obviously a trip to Sonoma or Napa is mostly about wine tasting. This was really Rob’s area of the trip to plan as he is more of the wine nerd (don’t get me wrong I love wine, but he is better at picking them out). We tried a lot of new wineries this time and explored some new areas as well. I am also including a few wineries from previous visits to help round out the list.

Keep in mind that different areas have very different atmospheres. Dry Creek Valley and smaller wineries in Sonoma and Napa will generally be a lot quieter with fewer crowds allowing for more one-on-one or personalized experiences. While larger wineries in Sonoma or Napa can be packed, loud, and generally have less ambiance. Neither is necessarily bad, but know what kind of experience you want before selecting wineries. Wine tours like Platypus Tours can also be a good way to visit a lot of wineries (3-4 typically) while having transportation and some inside scoop.

Also note that a lot of wineries require reservations. Make sure to read on their websites before going. Some do this as a way to control the flow of customers for their staff, while others use it to limit the number of guests to allow for more personal events. Generally, Napa wineries will require reservations while its much more of a mixed bag in Sonoma.

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Another tip is when finishing a tasting, ask around for recommendations to other wineries in the area. You can often get great insights on similar wineries to ones you like and even discount referral cards.

Sonoma Valley

  • Lasseter Family Winery – one of my favorites, small production focused on French-style blends. Reservations are required and tastings tend to be more structured.
  • Arrowood – another favorite, small focused on Cab. Reservations required but generally available. Located adjacent to Imagery.
  • Imagery – larger, more popular winery, voted Best in Sonoma at one point. More of a tasting bar atmosphere with extra amenities for club members. Reservations not required.
  • Passaggio – Small winery tasting room just off the Sonoma square with a wide variety of white and red styles also serving wines by the glass. Reservation not required.
  • B.R. Cohn – larger winery offer outdoor or indoor tastings along with olive oil and vinegars. Live music on the weekends and a music festival in September. Reservations not required.
  • Buena Vista – larger, more popular option offering a range of tasting and tour options. Nice outdoor areas. Reservation required for tours (which I would skip personally).

Dry Creek Valley

  • Truett Hurst – amazing outdoor spaces with sitting areas along the creek in a salmon spawning area. Wines are a range of whites and reds focused on Zinfandel. Reservations not required
  • Trattore Farms – located up a little bit on a hill with views of the valley. Produces both wine and olive oil, with a good mix of red and white wine options. Reservations not required
  • Mauritson – Easy to find and a fairly major intersection in the valley. Good mix of wine styles and a few partnered vineyards. No reservations required.

Napa Valley

  • Sullivan – A small winery in the Rutherford AVA specializing in Cabs. The tasting experience is shifting to focus on a more one-on-one style with a short tour and discussion of the wines and winemaking philosophy. Reservations required.
  • Goosecross – Small-medium sized winery in the Yountville AVA featuring a more mixed wine list. Generally, upbeat tasting room vibe with nice patio weather permitting. Reservations required.
  • Rombauer – A larger, more commercial winery with a less personal tasting experience. The highlight is the location on a hill with extensive valley views and great picnic areas. Reservations required.
  • Silverado – Hilltop location and owned by the family of Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane. Tasting room offers great views and indoor/outdoor options.

Explore Sonoma

As I said early Sonoma is a big county with a lot to experience. It has an extensive coastline and a diverse in-land ecosystem. Its also adjacent to Marin County with has Muir Woods. Both can make for fun, exciting, and very scenic drives that are worth taking some time to do.

This trip we made about a 3-4 hour loop in Sonoma starting in Glen Ellen, up through Santa Rosa, across through Sebastapol, up the Pacific Coast Highway through Bodega Bay, and then along the Russian River, and finally up into the Dry Creek Valley. Rob was in absolute driving heaven and the scenery was straight out of a post card. The best part was rolling the windows down in the Russian River Valley and just smelling the pine trees.

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