Best Recreation

Staff Picks

Best Local Nude Beach

Where there is sun, sand, and water--three elements that the wine country has in spades--there's nude bathing. The county has its share of naturalists, naturally, and they have their share of favorite nude beaches. One of the most highly rated, according to published reports and local lore, is near Wohler Bridge, a sunny spot purchased in 1996 from the family of the late actor Fred McMurray by the Sonoma County Water Agency. Out-of-towners appreciate it because the quarter-mile strip of flat, soft sand and river gravel is just minutes away from a pair of bed-and-breakfast inns. On a warm day (and those are sure to materialize) up to 50 people can be found lounging in the buff. Of course, this bit of hedonism isn't without risk--the beach is subject to raids by sheriff's deputies who know how to break up the tedium of a long, hot summer day on duty. And canoers, kayakers, and gawkers are a constant problem. Oh, yeah, bring your sun block. Take Highway 101 north to River Road, drive west 10 miles to Wohler Road. Turn right, cross the bridge, and park in the first parking lot on the right. Walk back to where Wohler Bridge first meets the beach, hop the steel fence, and follow the path past the public beach until it leads to the nude area. You'll know the nude beach when you see it.

Best Place to See Wild (Non-human) Animals

Reverse the two parts of the word zoological and you come up with logical zoo. Smack in our own backyard is just such a place--Safari West. A Sonoma Serengeti, it's the next best thing to Africa's famed wildlife park. Peter Lang, an artist, real estate man, and former cattleman in Southern California (he refers to himself as the last cattle rancher in Beverly Hills), and his wife, Nancy (a former curator at the San Francisco Zoo), came to Sonoma County in 1989, enticed here by 400 idyllic hilly acres that they envisioned as a place to promote conservation--through breeding, research, and education--of African wildlife at risk of extinction (largely courtesy of the species Homo non-sapiens). And thus was established this magical, even sacred, sanctuary, where exotic animals are unjeopardized by predators, can nosh on the staff's daily handouts, have a vet always available, needn't worry about being shot (except with a camera), and live longer and healthier lives than they would in their ancestral habitat. One of four naturalist guides drives you and a few others in a renovated power wagon over a narrow, twisting dirt trail (an adventure in itself) for close-up encounters with over 20 species of hoofed animals, who gaze indifferently or benevolently at the two-legged weirdos who stop by to admire them. Among the animals you'll see, including strikingly horny ones (in the non-Clintonian sense), are gazelles, addaxes, zebras, oryxes, bongos, springboks, nyalas, kudus, and the Watusi cattle that are the mainstay of Africa's Masai people, who survive mainly on the blood, milk, and, occasionally, urine of their herds. In other quarters, a giraffe family of three looks down at you non-condescendingy, with papa up there at 17 feet (not exactly stunted, but not the usual 18 or so). Nearby, lemurs, emus, African cats, ostriches, and other enchanting creatures neighbor a spacious walk-through aviary of exotic species from all over the world. Taking care of all this is a huge staff of six, plus a bevy of volunteers (college students can earn credits). For overnight guests, 15 authentic African tents surrounding a lake will be completed in late spring or early summer. Welcome as you are at Safari West to gawk and rhapsodize, drop-ins are out, so be sure to make an appointment. Groups of 15 or more can arrange custom-tailored or walking tours. The basic 2 1/2- to 3-hour tour costs $48 for adults and $24 for children 16 and under. Safari West, 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa; 579-2551.

Best Place to Get an Urban High

The granite monoliths of Yosemite are hours and miles away from Sonoma County, but as local builderers or urban climbers know, there is a little bit of climber's heaven tucked right in downtown Santa Rosa. The "Lost Autumn" sculpture at the south end of Santa Rosa Plaza--a mottled chunk of Sierra granite sporting classic smooth sides and a thin crack--is the perfect spot for some spring-morning vertical exercise. It's not for novices, but the plush manicured lawn makes failure less bone-jarring. If the police or mall manager stop by to remind you that buildering is illegal, tell them it's performance art.

Best Place Not to Break Your Back While Having a Good Ol' Time

I counted last week, and I know three people who've broken a back, tailbone, or both while jumping off the Hacienda Bridge. Now I can smugly count off on my fingers the numbers of broken backs I've seen when someone calls me a wimp for refusing the jump. Nevertheless, the Hacienda Bridge hovers over one of the best beaches on the Russian River. It's sheltered on both sides by trees and bushes; there are houses all around, but the space is public; the security guard (when he appears) is friendly; the beach spots are small and sandy; and the water is almost clear. Before frolicking the day away, you can stop at the deli two blocks up the road to buy fat sandwiches, SunChips, and mineral water, and nobody seems to mind if you play your radio loud (as long as you have good taste in music). The Hacienda Bridge is on River Road (west of Forestville), just past the Mirabel Trailer Park; 869-9212.

Best Inspiration to Throw Your Weights Around

Thanks to 24-Hour Fitness club's recent and much-maligned advertising campaign, we all now know which humans the aliens will eat first when they arrive: They'll eat the fat-headed executives who approved billboards that could only serve to, ahem, alienate the very same folks they ought to have been making feel welcome inside a health club. That said, we must nevertheless report that club's new facility in Petaluma is, well, kind of great. We could argue all day about the fishbowl environment on the ground floor--where sweaty exercisers trot on treadmills and pump away on stairmasters right in front of the windows facing out onto the onlooker-crammed sidewalk of Petaluma Boulevard--but the fact is that the architects have done a magnificent job of turning the red-brick former granary mill into a surprisingly comfortable gym, complete with a gleaming, light-filled aerobics floor, a co-ed sauna and steam room, and a fun-looking child-care area. And that's just the ground floor. Upstairs--continuing the old-brick and new-metal decor that greets members downstairs--is a massive, well-equipped free-weight room and another, even larger room where the "machines" lie waiting. Best of all is the view. While taking your requisite recovery break between leg lifts and crunches, you can take inspiration from a glance out the back windows. There below you sparkles the Petaluma River. Rowers and kayakers jockey with ducks, seagulls, and the occasional Canada geese--and the whole effect is nothing short of pretty damn nice. Not to mention that, up here 20 feet above the sidewalk, there are no curious little faces peering in through the glass. At least until the aliens show up. 24-Hour Fitness, 6 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma; 789-9050.

Best Secret Swimming Hole

OK, it may be raining in March. But it's gonna cook in July and you probably don't own a swimming pool. You could go to the public pool and get trampled by fourth graders driven insane by heat, sugar, and tribal instinct. Somehow that doesn't cut it. Do you recall that old treeline cutting through a crispy field where a persistent creek fed a chilly swimming hole beneath the leafy canopy; or an earthen pond where the bohemians swam naked, hurled mudpies, and picnicked above a coastal view? Those days are gone now as a once common wilderness becomes enclosed. But lucky for you, there's still a watery solution to the summer heat. Our staff pick for best local public swimming hole is Lake Ilsanjo, only about an hour's walk, on a three-mile trail, in Annadel Park. This glistening gem fits the bill: a tremendous lake on a mountaintop where birds sing, cattails rustle, and sky vibrates sky blue.Lake Ilsanjo, Annadel State Park, east of Santa Rosa (Channel Drive off Montgomery Drive); 539-3911 or 938-1519.

Best Place to Appreciate Local Diversity

OK, so maybe we can't all agree on some issues--politics, music, or what channel to watch. But there is, it seems, accord on the important stuff. "Take the skinheads bowling," advises one semi-famous pop song. And you'll find 'em, along with cowboys, punkers, hippies, soccer moms, working-class stiffs, kids galore, and yuppies with shiny new balls at Boulevard Bowl, where diversity flowers every night between the gutters, and the lion and the lamb lie down together to the sound of rolling balls and falling pins. Whether you're into savoring the full range of Sonoma County's diverse population or just interested in improving your score, this is the place to be. Boulevard Bowl, 1100 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma; 762-4581.

[ MetroActive Central ]

From the March 25-31, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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