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By CARY ORDWAY

When ordinary folks think of well-known California vacation destinations, the city of Santa Rosa probably does not appear near the top of the list. In fact, this "under-the-radar" destination may not show up on the list at all.

Better known is Sonoma County -- where Santa Rosa is located — which is famous for its rolling hills and scenic vistas of vineyards and backcountry farmlands as well as a cluster of charming communities that attract wine-lovers and visitors who just enjoy the rural ambience. All of this just further makes the case for Santa Rosa as a destination with plenty to see both in and outside the city.

Santa Rosa is an easy one-hour drive north from San Francisco on the 101 Freeway. With a population of around 150,000, the city is not a rural enclave but rather a commercial hub in an area where the countryside is dotted with small towns. Charles Schultz Airport (a lot of things around here are named after the famous artist) is the destination of many visitors who fly in from California and the Pacific Northwest to visit Sonoma Wine Country.

We drove to Santa Rosa but, before heading out to explore the countryside, we stopped by Railroad Square — a historic area of town that is like Sacramento's Old Town or Monterey's Cannery Row. The difference here is that this isn't just a tourist center — it's where locals come to have dinner in one of several gourmet restaurants, or visit the shops in the many historical buildings. In fact, this entire section of Santa Rosa is on the National Register of Historic Places, and visitors are encouraged to take a walking tour of the area.

After exploring Railroad Square it was time to drive about 15 miles north on Highway 101 to the quaint town of Healdsburg. The town derives its name from Harmon Heald, an Ohio entrepreneur who initially set up the town grid back in the 1850's and sold lots for $15 apiece. Healdsburg was built around a Spanish-style plaza which, today, remains the centerpiece of a downtown that still retains many historic buildings. The town has something of a Mayberry feel with its Sweet Shop selling gumballs on the corner and institutions like the Raven Performing Arts Theater that hosts local plays and touring musical acts.

But while the town may seem as simple as Mayberry, life here is definitely more sophisticated. There is a high per-capita number of gourmet restaurants, and high-end galleries, jewelry, apparel and other gifts are clustered around the plaza. More than anything, though, Healdsburg is a jumping off point for gorgeous drives through the Central Sonoma County countryside where one begins to see just how important wine and grapes are to the local economy. You can get started at one of the many wine tasting rooms in town or wait until you visit the wineries along the way — in this part of Sonoma County, a glass of premium wine is never far away.

A local resident directed us north and west on Dry Creek Road, a country road that almost seems European it is so lush and colorful. As promised, the road meanders through vineyards and bright fields of flowers, offering mystic vistas of the nearby hills. We passed farmhouse settings so idyllic they seemed like they were created for fairy tales. And, of course, every couple miles or less there was another winery, many with tasting rooms beckoning the traveler to stop in and just "drink up" some of this famous Sonoma County atmosphere.

The Dry Creek Road runs parallel to Highway 101 for several miles and then we took a right on Canyon Road to cross back under the freeway and head over to Geyserville, just east of 101. This town of about a thousand souls is home to some inns and is known for its location right in the heart of wine country. It's estimated that about 70 wineries are within a 15-minute radius of town.

It was in this area that we came across the Ferrari-Carano Winery, one of the most spectacular we've visited. If you're into small mom-and-pop wineries, this isn't your cup of tea — or, shall we say, glass of wine. Farrari-Carano has spent a lot of money on creating an attraction that is part winery, part theme-park. Villa Fiore is the name given to the extravagant chateau-style building where the Hospitality Wine Center is located, and guests will especially enjoy touring the five acres of lush gardens surrounding the winery. You'll enjoy a quiet walk on a meandering path that takes you over foot bridges where you'll view fish-filled ponds and waterfalls. The winery says there are more than 2,000 species of trees and shrubs on the property.

Guests also can sign up for tours that will give them an up-close look at wine-making as well as the winery's cellars or tank rooms and the vineyards. Tastings begin at $15 and may cost more depending on the type of wine you are sampling.

We drove back toward Santa Rosa and, near the downtown area, found a modern multi-story building housing the Charles M. Schultz Museum and Research Center. As most people know, Charles Schulz gained fame as the creator of the Peanuts syndicated comic strip that ran in thousands of newspapers worldwide from 1950 until shortly before he died in 1999. The museum opened in August 2002, with the mission of preserving, displaying, and interpreting the art of this legendary cartoonist. It was created in Santa Rosa because Schultz had lived there the last 30 years of his life.

Visitors to the Schultz Museum will find walls covered with the work of Charles Schultz — his comic strips blown up bigger than life. In addition to the 6,000 comic strips, there are photograph collections showing the life and times of Charles Shultz, and a library full of books about the famous comic strip creator. Especially interesting is Schultz's studio, which has been re-assembled with the same furniture, decorations and artwork to make you feel like you just happened by his studio while one of his drawings was still in progress. His "real" office was just two blocks away from this re-creation and the exhibit is a must for devoted fans of Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

Charles Schultz left quite a mark on Santa Rosa and we drove over by the airport named after Schultz to visit another Santa Rosa attraction we had heard about — the Pacific Coast Air Museum. People who love to kick the tires of historic and military aircraft will completely enjoy this unpretentious collection of vintage aircraft, most of them jet aircraft of the mid to late 20th Century. A friendly volunteer will collect your modest admission in the small gift shop that serves as the starting point of your tour. From there, you walk out to the outdoor display area where dozens of aircraft await your inspection.

The Air Museum is a great family activity because the kids love sitting in the cockpit of the various aircraft on display. The collection is quite complete and includes fighter jets such as the F-14's actually used in the filming of Top Gun, a Harrier vertical take-off jet, Vietnam-era aircraft like the F-4 Phantom and Korean War jets such as the F-84 and T-33.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Santa Rosa is about 55 miles north of San Francisco and easily reached on Highway 101, the main north-south freeway north from the Bay area.

WHAT: Santa Rosa is ideally located to be a base of operations for touring various Sonoma County attractions. Best known for its wineries, Sonoma County also boasts many scenic attractions to the west in places like Guerneville and along the coast. Santa Rosa is in the middle of it all and offers several attractions within or close to the city.

WHEN: Any time of year. Spring and fall are especially good because you still have consistently good weather but fewer crowds.

WHY: Santa Rosa is one-stop shopping for travelers wanting a variety of attractions all within a reasonable driving distance, and scenic beauty as great as you'll find anywhere in California.

HOW: For more information on Santa Rosa, contact the Santa Rosa Convention and Visitor Bureau www.visitsantarosa.com or phone 1-800-404-ROSE. For details on Ferrari-Carano Winery, visit www.ferrari-carono.com. For more information on the Charles Schultz Museum, visit www.schultzmuseum.org. To learn more about the Pacific Coast Air Museum, visit www.pacificcoastairmuseum.org.

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OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Santa Rosa is your idea of a California vacation, also check out our articles on San Luis Obispo County, a romantic Central Coast getaway, Dana Point and Napa Valley.


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