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Abroad At Home

My Sonoma Valley staycation



There is a wrong way and a right way to spend a staycation.

The wrong way is to stay home. I tried that once with expectations of leisurely days playing tourist in my hometown. I ended up doing laundry, organizing the garage (again) and answering calls from people I didn't want to talk to. I think I cleaned the bathroom as well. It felt like a waste of my time off, and when it was over I felt like I needed a vacation.

The right way is to leave home and spend a few nights somewhere nice and then play tourist. To keep it a staycation it needs to be close to home. That's easy to do in the North Bay, and a lot cheaper and quicker than jumping on a plane.

I lived in San Francisco for years and never went to Alcatraz until my family came into town and was looking for something to do. OK, I said. I guess I'll go. It was fascinating and I loved the view of the City from the island. I saw San Francisco in a new light, literally and figuratively.

Living now in the land of plenty here in the North Bay, it's easy to take all the wine, food, natural beauty and history for granted. I wanted to see the area with new eyes. But why should I wait until my in-laws come to town to experience what people come from all over the world to enjoy? Thanks to my hosts at the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, my wife and I took a 36-hour staycation to the Sonoma Valley this past weekend to see what we've been missing.

While I was ready to play tourist, I wanted to avoid the tourist-dense zone around the Sonoma Plaza. The square itself and Sonoma City Hall are beautiful, but shopping at the many stores around the square was not what I had in mind. I wanted to get a little more off the beaten track. I was OK being a tourist. I just didn't to hang around other tourists.

TAKE A STROLL MacArthur Place’s grounds are filled with gardens and art.
  • TAKE A STROLL MacArthur Place‚Äôs grounds are filled with gardens and art.

MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa made for a perfect base camp and a rather plush one at that. Rooms start at $425. The hotel is just four blocks away from the square, close but far enough away for me. The hotel, which began as a country estate built in the 1850s, is made up of a series of colonial-style cottages surrounded by meticulously maintained gardens and outdoor sculptures. I'd much rather ramble around the grounds here than roam a hotel hallway any day. A horsey, Southern-country-manor theme pervades the place. It feels a world apart from the busy plaza. I love the varied style of homes and leafy neighborhoods in Sonoma east of Broadway. The hotel put us right in the middle and made exploring the area on foot easy.

As part of my desire to see Sonoma from a different vantage point, I enlisted the help of tour guide Bruce Mackay, a friendly expat from England with a white goatee who owns Vin de Luxe wine tours. There are plenty of tour operators in Sonoma Valley, but Mackay strives to distinguish himself with one-of-a-kind tours that celebrate some of the area's lesser known sights and attractions. Of course winery visits are the core of what he does, but he doesn't offer booze cruises. Instead of quantity, he seeks out quality with appointment-only tours that offer more history and wine education than they do bacchanalia. His background in the wine industry (Landmark, Ravenswood, Quixote) means he's got insider knowledge.

We took a version of his "over the moon" tour that began with a stop at the Sonoma Skypark. The full tour is $850 for two. The "moon" here happens to be Moon Mountain, and we were going over it in Bob Berwick's stunning 1926 biplane. The Wright engine in the plane is the same as Charles Lindbergh used to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

"Not many things are still working at 89 years old," says Berwick, a former commercial pilot who runs Coastal Air Tours and partners with Mackay on his tours.

Good enough for Lindy, good enough for me. I've been in some small planes before, but never a nearly 90-year-old plane with an open cockpit. A layer of fog was hanging over the valley when we arrived at the airport, but as soon blue sky began to appear we taxied down the runway and climbed through a hole in the clouds.

The feeling of flying in a plane that felt no bigger than an amusement-park bumper car was unnerving at first, and I found myself holding on to a support bar in the cockpit as we raced through the cold morning air at about 90 miles an hour. What good would that do if things went wrong? As we bounced over some mild turbulence, I noticed a rising wave of nausea and considered that Berwick was seated directly behind me. And he wasn't wearing goggles. For both our sakes, I really didn't want to get sick. But Berwick has been flying for 40 years and has piloted everything from DC3s to 767s. I focused on that, and started to relax and enjoy the ride.

Moon Mountain loomed at the northern edge of the Sonoma Valley, rising well above the morning fog. Strangely, I felt more at ease as we flew away from the fog and above the rain-greened mountain and its patchwork of vineyards, woods and sprawling estates. As we circled back to the airport and skirted Napa County to the east, the last of the fog burned away and I appreciated Sonoma Valley below in all its glory.

Back on the ground, my nausea was replaced by hunger. We headed south in Mackay's comfortable Lexus SUV to Cornerstone Gardens in Carneros appellation of the valley, land of fog and cool-weather-loving Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I had a vague idea of what Cornerstone was, but my limited expectations made the place that much more of a surprise.

Cornerstone Gardens is nine acres of outdoor sculpture and artful landscape architecture. Each installation is like entering a room in a galley, but this one has no roof or walls. It's a beautiful and inspirational place. I imagine many people drive past as they hurry to Napa or central Sonoma. That's too bad. It would be easy to spend a day here wondering among the art and varied landscapes.

There are also a few winetasting rooms and tasteful shops (Artefact Design and Salvage is great indoor/outdoor shop to explore) and an excellent place to eat, Park 121. Apparently there have been several restaurants in the space that never caught on. This place has all the right moves. It's an open, airy cafe with a delicious, eclectic and locally sourced menu that includes Cuban sandwiches, empanadas, spring rolls, decadent grilled cheese and a Carneros-only wine list.

ROOM WITH A VIEW While Hamel Family Winery is just off Highway 12 it feels a world apart.
  • ROOM WITH A VIEW While Hamel Family Winery is just off Highway 12 it feels a world apart.

The reason Mackay likes to fly guests over Moon Mountain is to give them a bird's eye view of one of his favorite winegrowing regions. Moon Mountain sits on the southwestern slope of the Mayacamas Range and offers expansive views of Sonoma, Valley of the Moon and the Sonoma Mountain range across Highway 12. The newly created Moon Mountain American Viticultural Area is home to mountain vineyards that grow in the lean, volcanic soils created by Mt. St Helen's big blast a few million year back. We headed Petroni Vineyards up Cavedale Road. The steep, mountaintop vineyards are impressive enough, but the newly opened, 18,000-square-foot cave is the real draw. The lush Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sangiovese are worth the drive too. It's open by appointment only.


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