What to See and What to Skip in Sonoma

PHOTO: Yellow mustard sprouts after recent rains in dormant vineyards Feb. 11, 2016, near Healdsburg, Calif. George Rose/Getty Images
Yellow mustard sprouts after recent rains in dormant vineyards Feb. 11, 2016, near Healdsburg, Calif.

Sonoma is home to world-class wineries and many of the country's best chefs -- and it's also a haven for foodies.

But there's a lot more going on here than fine pinot noir, including sweeping natural beauty and a history anchored in California’s earliest days.

Here are a few unique things for travelers to do in Sonoma.

Skip the Wine, Sip Suds

Winemakers tell me all the time: it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine! It makes sense, then, that the craft beer movement is alive and well in Sonoma County. If you’re staying in downtown Sonoma, check out Carneros Brewing Company, just south of town, a family-owned microbrewery founded by members of the area’s well-known Ceja family. The taproom doles out original-recipe brews -- including a refreshing pilsner and a variety of IPAs -- and the outdoor, acre-long beer garden features a pond and shuffleboard. Visit Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. for a bevy of California ales and German-style brews. If you prefer some guidance, North Bay Brewery Tours and Brew Brothers Brewery Tours lead thirsty guests to microbreweries throughout Sonoma County.

Skip the Beer, Sip Spirits

Need something stronger to perk up the palate? Prohibition Spirits, located south of Sonoma Plaza, is home to the Indigenous Spirits Lab, a hip, friendly spot where you can explore the aromas and flavors of the fine spirits made right on site. Call ahead and schedule a 45-minute distillery tour that depicts how spirits are fermented, distilled and aged. Prohibition may be best known for its line of whiskeys, but its liqueurs made from local lemons, oranges and figs, as well as their rums and brandies, always get high marks.

Skip the Bar, Taste at the Adobe

When it comes to the top-caliber wines, a handful of by-appointment-only tasting options allow for truly intimate and personalized experiences. The newest, and easily one of the best, is The Adobe, just down the street from Sonoma Plaza. The Vallejo-Castaneda Adobe dates back to 1842 -- California’s Mexican period -- and is Sonoma’s oldest occupied residence. Vintners Bill and Eva Price purchased it in 2012 as the private tasting venue for their celebrated Three Sticks label. The meticulously refreshed property carefully preserves its historic essence; artifacts unearthed during the painstaking restoration are displayed throughout the cozy home. Tastings of pinot and chardonnay are doled out as you tour The Adobe one-on-one with Three Sticks staff; you can also schedule a culinary pairing experience, with food provided by celebrated El Dorado Kitchen, located down the street.

Between Sips, Travel in Time

The Vallejo name is integral to Sonoma history. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was the Mexican military commander of what was known as the Northern Frontier and the man who helped drive California's transition from Mexican territory to U.S. state. His former home (just down the street from The Adobe, which was constructed by his brother, Captain Salvador Vallejo) is part of Sonoma State Historic Park and open to the public. “I always love stopping by General Vallejo’s home when I’m there,” said R.H. Drexel, who writes for the popular Vinous wine website and whose wine zine, Loam Baby, includes an edition dedicated to Sonoma wine culture and personalities. “The home features a self-guided tour, which includes a great collection of old wine ephemera and a stellar Koi fish pond,” said Drexel.

Skip the Vineyard, Visit the Mission

Sonoma State Historic Park, one of 11 state parks in Sonoma County, is actually a spattering of historic buildings and locales spanning 36 acres. Its centerpiece might well be Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of California’s 21 historic mission spearheaded by Father Junipero Serra, established in 1823. Much of it is not yet restored, offering a genuine glimpse back in time. The onsite chapel was built in the early 1840s by General Vallejo and the property also features a courtyard and museum. Mission admission includes a visit to the Sonoma Barracks across the street.

Take a Hike, Bring a Book

About 10 miles from downtown Sonoma is another state park worth a visit, Jack London State Historic Park. American novelist Jack London lived here after he bought the property in early 1900s and the home in which he and his family lived, as well as his grave, are located on site. Robyn Berg, part of the concierge team at the luxe Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, recommends the park, which is both a California and National Historic Landmark, to guests who are outdoor enthusiasts. “It has over 26 miles of hiking trails across 1400 acres, including stunning vistas,” she said.

Skip the Hotel Pool, Dip in the Springs

One of the reasons the Fairmont property is so well-known is its remarkable location atop Boyes Hot Springs. The thermal mineral water source was discovered after the California mission-style property was built in the 1920s – 1,000 feet below the ground. Today, the AAA 4-Diamond Inn is one of the few luxury resorts in the country with its own mineral water source, and you can experience them at the on-site Willow Stream Spa. A treatment is not required to access the co-ed bathhouse, and even non-guests can visit for a fee. Various pools, and a large Jacuzzi, are kept at varying temperatures; the Watsu pool, for example, is kept at a constant 98.6 degrees. Nearby, the Sonoma Aquatic Club also taps into the underground waters’ curative appeal; a one-day visit for $20 include access to three mineral water pools and a variety of workout equipment.

Skip Lunch, Eat the Cheese

Nothing matches world-class wine like world-class cheese. The official Sonoma Cheese Trail links close to 30 local farms and creameries, including downtown Sonoma’s own Vella Cheese Company. This is a perfect stop to pile handmade cheddar, asiago or Monterey Jack with Rosemary into your picnic basket. But you’ll also get a peek at how cheese is made from local ingredients. No public tours are offered, but guests can often visit the aging barn, where cheeses wrapped in ash and cloth patiently await optimum ripeness.

Don't Just Use a Corkscrew, Learn All About It

Old wine gadgets enjoy the spotlight at Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery; dating back to the 1860s, this is the oldest commercial winery in California. Their new museum features a unique collection of viticulture tools from the 19th and 20th centuries, all displayed on the walls of the underground cellar and showcased during a 20-minute tour. The tour alone is $10 (children are welcome) but $25 adds a tasting of some of Buena Vista’s best wines.

Skip the Museum, Hit the Galleries

For those who’d rather purchase artwork than just admire it, Sonoma Plaza does not disappoint. Art buffs can visit more than a half-dozen galleries here. The photographs on display at the Lisa Kristine Gallery focus on indigenous people while precious metal fans can dig for souvenirs at the Sonoma Rock & Mineral Gallery.

Skip the Walking Tour, Take Off

Tour companies abound in Sonoma, which allow you to visit the wineries and sights of your choice by everything bike, foot or chauffeured limo. But this gorgeous sprawling landscape may best be appreciated from above. Coastal Air Tours uses a classic 1926 two-seater Travelair biplane to showcase the area’s vineyards and nearby coast; it operates out of Sonoma Skypark Airport, five minutes from the Plaza. Vintage Aircraft Co. uses restored vintage planes for its air tours. Bring your camera!

Get Off the Streets, Hit the Raceway

Racing buffs know the Sonoma Raceway well -- a 12-turn, 2.5-mile course carved into the Sonoma hillsides. Big ticket events are held here and big names – Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt – have revved their engines here. If you’re itching to put peddle to the metal, Wednesday Night Drags take place March through November and allow enthusiasts to take on the quarter-mile dragstrip and race their cars in a safe, legal, controlled environment. Buckle up!

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals to Sonoma and other California wine country destinations here.

Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.