North of San Francisco lie the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma Counties. While the small towns of St. Helena, Yountville and Calistoga in the Napa Valley are becoming well known, Sonoma County has many towns worth a stop.
The town of Sonoma itself, built as a Mexican pueblo around a central square while California was still part of Mexico, is home to the northernmost and last of the 21 California missions. The plaza is charming, surrounded by quaint shops, restaurants, hotels, and the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma. The Vella Cheese Factory produces California’s Monterrey Jack cheeses; the Sonoma Barracks offer visitors a glimpse of local history; and the Sonoma Museum of Art has first-class exhibits of local, national and international artists.
Petaluma — once called the egg or chicken capital of the world — has a well preserved historic center of nineteenth century buildings that survived the earthquake, including a unique chicken pharmacy. In the center of the downtown, on North Petaluma Boulevard, is Della Fattoria, a bakery and cafe in the 1860 U.S. Bakery Building. The bakery makes wonderful breads and the cafe serves outstanding breakfast and lunch fare, including a great Chinese chicken salad and a tuna sandwich on pizza dough cooked in an iron skillet.
Sebastopol is much smaller than Sonoma and Petaluma. Originally also a Coast Miwok village, it is located between Santa Rosa and the Pacific Ocean, and is known for its liberal politics. The town’s prosperity was based on its apple production, and it was known as the Gravenstein apple capital of the world. Today, many of the plum and apple orchards have been replaced by vineyards. The city hosts an annual Apple Blossom Festival and Gravenstein Apple Fair. On the outskirts of town is the French Garden, an elegant, fine dining restaurant housed in a lovely building with an enticing patio. The food is French inspired with fresh, local ingredients and excellent fish. The restaurant offers a three-course prix fixe menu along with an extensive a la carte menu.
The West County Museum, located in the restored 1917 downtown electric train station, focuses on west Sonoma County history, including movies filmed in Sonoma County, historical toys, eclectic collections from the community, the World War II experience on the home front, the apple industry and apple festivals and fairs.
Forestville, a town of little more than 3,000 inhabitants, attracts artists and writers, as does Sebastopol. There’s not much to see in town, but there is a very good Italian restaurant: Canetti’s prepares such specialties as oyster-filled ravioli, grilled Romaine hearts, halibut burgers and cannoli and tiramisu. The Case Ranch Inn is a delightful B & B in town with pretty rooms and excellent breakfasts. The Hartford Family vineyard where some excellent wines can be tasted (and purchased) is nearby.
Tiny Occidental with a population of under 1500, is unique for its many artists and community-centered social movements in the 1960s and 1970s including Sonoma’s neo-hippie movement in the 1990s. Occidental has several restaurants, including Howard’s Station and Cafe, famous in the region for its breakfasts which include terrific creamy polenta.