The rolling hills and vineyards of the Sonoma Valley are just part of a natural tapestry that has beckoned art-lovers and wine connoisseurs to this region for decades. Indeed, the fathers who founded missions here were growing grapes hundreds of years ago. Then, in the late 1850s, a fellow named Col. Agoston Haraszthy figured it all out.
Haraszthy was a Hungarian immigrant who convinced the state of California to send him to Europe on a fact-finding mission to see just how European growers created what were acknowledged to be the best wines of the time. He came back convinced that the soil in the Sonoma Valley was ideal for growing grapes, and that locally produced wines could rival those in Europe. He founded the Buena Vista winery and, by 1876, the valley was producing more than 2.3 million gallons of wine per year.
Today, the Sonoma Valley and the nearby Napa Valley are the cornerstones in a winery industry that continues to grow well beyond Northern California. Whether you're visiting Mendocino in the north, or Temecula in the south, the California wine-growing regions continue to show the world that the local product can compete with the best wines anywhere.
And so Sonoma and Napa keep packing in visitors seduced by the fertile landscape, the charm, the history and now the variety of wineries that each region has to offer the California traveler. Stately inns and luxurious resorts have sprung up alongside the hundreds of wineries in those regions today, each accommodation offering a getaway experience that becomes almost spiritual in the way it transports the visitor to a completely different way of life.
In Sonoma Valley, you're likely to see more family-run California wineries and fewer of those owned by international conglomerates. The landscape is similar to Napa but everything seems just a bit more "small-town."
Our first visit was during one of its many festive events held down in the Plaza - a "town square" kind of park that all of the downtown buildings are built around. During this celebration the park was decked out with dozens of booths offering draft beer and food items, and locals were toe-tapping to classic rock performed by a lively group of middle-agers. The party was spilling out into the historic shopping district that surrounds the park and, on this hot summer Sunday, this seemingly rural town was attracting a parade of weekend visitors.
At least a half-dozen wineries - including Buena Vista - are within a few blocks of the Plaza. But for serious wine-lovers, this is only the beginning. Drive up Highway 12 a few miles and you run into a bunch more - continue onto Highway 101 and you discover wineries all the way from Santa Rosa on up to Geyserville. Then you begin to realize that the Sonoma Valley is just the tiny southeast corner of Sonoma County, and that visitors will find an excellent selection of California wineries throughout the county.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the attractions in the Plaza area - such points of interest as the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the Sonoma Cheese Factory and a wide variety of stores, most of them housed in well-maintained historic buildings. Then it was off down the road a couple miles to the resort we'd chosen for this short getaway to Sonoma - the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa.
Driving into the Fairmont is like arriving at your French country estate for the weekend. The ambience and grandeur just make this seem like a larger-than-life experience as you make your way into the circular driveway and are immediately greeted by the helpful hotel valet. You notice at once that the grounds of this stately hotel have been impeccably manicured, not a blade of grass out of place. Walkways weave around the main inn and into the forest behind the inn where the hotel has dozens of stylish new suites.
In fact, the Fairmont has just spent $62 million upgrading the inn to make it one of the most prestigious spa resorts in Northern California. Built in the style of a mission in 1926, the hotel has a rich history of beckoning travelers even before the present structure was built. The inn's Mission-style architecture has been maintained, but enhanced. Rustic woods and wrought iron are used in the restored lobby to fit in with the feel of the surrounding wine country. French antiques adorn the lobby. Just outside the lobby a three-tier circular fountain is the centerpiece of the entrance plaza and looks like something you would find in Rome.
We were shown to a suite that was tastefully decorated with furniture featuring the most stylish fabrics, carefully color-coordinated to look like a scene out of Architectural Digest. A little breakfast nook looked out the shuttered windows to the lush landscaping, trees and gardens found throughout the resort's eight acres. A fireplace was at the ready with a small couch positioned nearby for total relaxation. The spacious bath area was typical five-star with its separate shower stall plus an oversized bathtub.
One reason the Fairmont has long been popular with travelers is the natural hot springs that provides thermal mineral water for soaking. This goes hand in hand with the spa services offered at the resort - more than 50 such treatments in all, making the inn a hit with guests seeking a little renovation of their own. The hotel offers a successful "Girls Weekend" package that has proven too much to resist for homemakers and professional women wanting that special pampering. The inn is one of the most popular spa resorts in Northern California.
The Fairmont also offers what is reputed to be the valley's best 18-hole golf course. And, to top it off, the resort is known among locals for its especially fine dining at Sante, the resort's signature dining room. Chef Joseph Brown has been brought on board to prepare a healthy, uncomplicated cuisine that focuses on the fresh ingredients found in the Sonoma wine country.
So it was obvious to us that we had found a big-town resort in what really could be Smalltown USA. The recipe for relaxation at the Fairmont is one part ambience, one part style, one part history lesson, one part world-class recreation and one part total indulgence - whether it be fine dining, the spa or the wines produced by some of the best vintners in California.
Just a short drive from the Fairmont are several attractions to see while you're in the area:
General Vallejo's home — Sonoma founder General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo purchased this historic home's site in 1850 and today you can get a sense of history while at the same time enjoying the various fruit trees, cottonwood trees and Castilian roses that are part of the home's landscaping.
Haraszthy Home — Agoston Haraszthy's home is still there at the site of the historic Buena Vista Winery.
London State Historic Park — Located on 800 acres, this park has the remains of London's house, which was burned. The park also has a museum and picnic spots to enjoy a little cheese and some of that local wine.
Sonoma Cheese Factory — Celso Viviani was the founder of the Sonoma Cheese Factory in 1931 and today his son and grandson still run the business. You'll see how the cheese is made and the best part is you'll get to taste any of the cheese they make.
Sonoma Train Town — If you're into exploring full-sized cabooses, this attraction not only has cabooses, but nearly two miles of train track located on 10 acres. It also has a 47-foot clock tower modeled after the 16th Street Depot in Oakland.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Sonoma is located about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco. If you love spa resorts and California wineries, this valley will be Nirvana.
WHAT: The valley is right next door to Napa Valley with the same breathtaking scenery and ambiance and the same good wine, just with fewer people and wineries. Wineries here tend to be smaller, family-run.
WHEN: Any time of year. The weather is pleasant year-round, although check with the locals about when to see the grape crush and harvest and other special events that occur throughout the year. Be sure to check ahead for travel deals and vacation packages.
WHY: A charming destination in its own right but made even more special with a stay at a world-class spa resort like the Fairmont Sonoma Inn and Spa. A great place for a Northern California vacation.
HOW: For more information on Sonoma Valley, please go to www.bestinsonoma.com. For information on the Sonoma Fairmont Resort and Spa, please go to www.fairmont.com/sonoma/. For a complete list of hotels in Wine Country, please click here. For information on other spa resorts, please click here.
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