Sonoma, California: An Emphasis on Family

Genie Davis August 5, 2011 No Comments

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Sonoma, California is near Napa, California.  And as such, it’s home to lovely wineries and pretty villages, rich forests, rolling hills, and pleasant cafes. However, what makes Sonoma different than Napa is its emphasis on nature rather than the wine culture, its family-oriented restaurants and activities, and a more laid back, and slightly less expensive feel than its neighboring vineyard community seventeen miles away. Sonoma is separated from Napa by the Sonoma mountains and the Mayacamas, creating a special valley world with a strong Spanish heritage. Need another reason to visit Sonoma with the family? How about history, a relaxed feeling, and a rolling, rich landscape dotted with wineries.

A fun town to explore in the Sonoma Valley is Glen Ellen, near the entrance to the Jack London Historic park. Glen Ellen holds the delightful Fig Cafe, which has fantastic skinny fries and a relaxed atmosphere for lunch.

MacArthur Place strolling paths

Strolling the paths at our hotel in Sonoma was a trip in and of itself.

The Jack London Park just outside Glen Ellen is even better, a short walk through a shady oak path leads you to the ruins of London’s coveted dream house, which burned down the night before the 19th century novelist and his wife were scheduled to move in. The stone walls and the reflecting pool make interesting ruins to explore.

Near the park, we also loved taking a tour of the Benziger Winery, a family owned operation that emphasizes organic growing practices. We were late for the tour, but try not to miss it – we were told the tour is given while visitors are towed by a tractor across the vineyard. Just strolling through the property and learning about the organic and biodynamic alternatives this winery practices was fascinating.

In the heart of Sonoma proper, there’s more history to be found in the downtown plaza, including the home of General Vallejo and the Sonoma’s mission San Francisco de Solano. The Mission building is wonderful to explore, as is the Vella Cheese Company a few blocks away from the plaza. Here you can sample to your hearts content and learn a little about the cheese making process – including letting the kids laugh over the repeated information about “cutting the cheese.” On Tuesday nights, a large, attractive Farmer’s Market runs in the central plaza square. We loved walking around the stone buildings that ring the plaza. There’s an ample children’s playground off the square as well, if your little ones need to burn off some steam on slide or swings.

In the center of the plaza and still in use is Sonoma’s early 20th-century city hall. We learned that it was designed and constructed with four identical sides. Why? So that none of the merchants on any side of the plaza would feel slighted. There are many restaurants all around the plaza, including the Girl and the Fig, where we enjoyed trout and a view of the bustling Farmer’s Market, which is held every Tuesday evening from April to October.

We stayed in an historic spot ourselves, splurging on the lush, garden filled MacArthur Place just a few blocks from the plaza. The grounds offer a fine afternoons exploration themselves. The property was originally a three hundred-acre vineyard. While some rooms are available inside the property’s main Manor House, the original residence, we stayed in a garden suite. Our kids really enjoyed strolling the paths, sniffing fresh growing herbs and flowers, sculptures, and meandering past fountains and quiet nooks with benches for reading or resting.

The weather was hot when we were there and we spent a fair amount of time at the pool, surrounded by this bucolic setting. With iced tea and fruit flavored water offered up gratis, it made for a perfect, restful afternoon. The rooms themselves were beyond comfortable, large, with rain showers, and DVD players for evening downtime.

Gardens at MacArthur Place in Sonoma, CA

Gardens to explore at MacArthur Place in Sonoma, CA

As hard as it was to tear ourselves away from this luxurious inn, we were there to explore the Sonoma region, so exploring we went. Sonoma is a town circled by wineries and picturesque vineyards, and you can’t go wrong in picking one to visit. We found every stop to be child friendly, with grassy areas to run and play on, picnic tables for family lunches, and interesting gardens to explore. Ferrari Cantano winery had an incredible five acre garden, in which fragrant lavender was blooming when we were there. We were able to play a rousing, if somewhat incompetent, game of bocce ball – Italian lawn bowling – in a shady spot at Alderbrook Winery.

Outside of town you’ll find the sweet, funky, perfect for small children Traintown. There’s four miles of track and a quarter scale rail road on which to take a twenty minute trip. You go over bridges, pass through a tunnel and stop in a “town” with a petting zoo and lots of goats. There are amusement rides the little ones will enjoy too, including a Ferris wheel and a merri-go-round.

And when the clatter of the clickety clacking tracks got a little too intense, it was time to retreat to MacArthur Place and the peaceful pool again, with a bottle of fine Sonoma wine for the adults and some delicious Vella cheese cheddar and soda for the kids.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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