The perfect California trip, pt 4: Sonoma County and Sonoma-Mendocino Coast

By now you're right in the swing of your California trip - you've started out in San Francisco, got into the great outdoors at Yosemite, then on to Point Reyes for the wildlife and wildflowers. Now it's time for a refreshing drink and a nice sea breeze. In part four of this series, taken from Lonely Planet Magazine (July 2010) and put together by Lonely Planet author and California resident John Vlahides, we motor on to Sonoma County then further along to the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast.

Miles into your trip: 460

Sonoma Valley is 40 miles northeast of Point Reyes, 80 minutes by car.

Napa put California on the world's viticultural map but, nowadays, gone are the family farms that once defined its landscape. Not so in Sonoma, however, which remains truer to its agrarian roots. Countless you-pick-em orchards,  goat-cheese farms and vegetable stands dot the winding back roads.

Produce stand

'Sonoma has a rich agricultural tradition that predates the emergence of the California wine industry,' explains Scott Adams, founder of Bella Winery. 'What makes Sonoma County unique is its rich diversity. The vast majority of the wineries in the Sonoma area are still making wine on a small scale.' You feel just how small this scale is wending towards Adams' winery up West Dry Creek Rd, an  unndulating trail – just one-lane wide in some spots – and the favoured route of winery-hoppers on bicycles.

Signs to wineries

At the road's end sit two contrasting wineries, Bella and Preston: new Sonoma, old Sonoma. Although Bella Winery has a block of 95-year-old, gnarled zinfandel vines on its estate, the winery building itself is new. The single-vineyard zinfandels are elegantly lean and structured, taking a cue from Europe, not its neighbours. The vibe is playful and young: with its late-harvest zinfandel tastings, Bella serves peanut-butter cups.

Across the road, the maturer Preston Winery occupies a century-old organic farmstead surrounded by a weathered picket fence, with large wicker rockers lining the big front porch. This is salt-of-the-earth Sonoma, with a mishmash of different Rhône varietals and vegetables for sale. Each Sunday locals gather here, bringing their own jugs to fill and sit under the shade of walnut trees, drinking wine and playing bocce ball (Italian boules), munching on Mr Preston's homemade bread and olive oil between turns.

Once you've wended your way through wine territory, head for a freshening trip to the coast. Forget the California you've seen on TV: the rugged north coast is nothing like the Baywatch beaches. Rocky headlands jut into the sea, studded with pines, not palms. The ubiquitous fog keeps the air cool, even in July. The Sonoma-Mendocino coast is largely undeveloped, looking pretty much as it always has and, best of all,  there's not a single traffic light for over 150 miles.

Mendocino coast

'Where else can you go in California and be the only person on the beach in the middle of summer?' asks Renata Dorn, proprietor of Mar Vista Cottages in Anchor Bay. 'It's a place to focus on yourself, not on shops and other distractions. People come here to connect with nature.' Like they do at Bowling Ball Beach, where rows of near-perfectly round boulders line seaweed-covered rock alleys, an other-worldly scene that only emerges at low tide. Or at Stornetta Public Lands, surrounding the Point Arena Lighthouse. From the top of the 35m-high tower, you can spot the San Andreas fault line slicing between the coastal hills.


Dorn says, 'The land here is full of Pacific drama – the crashing, curling surf, birds and bobcats busy with their prey, and even wild pintos on the hill above Point Arena.' Hardly anyone drives this stretch of coast, preferring the inland freeway, Route 101, towards Mendocino, a 19th-century village of salt-box cottages, like a Cape Cod town plunked on the California coast. Charming yes, but lately it's become a parody of itself. After a day of gallery-hopping and shopping, nothing beats heading back south to solitude, off the tourists' radar, and napping in a hammock at Mar Vista with a book on your face.

See where it all began with part 1 of the series, then motor on ahead and check out part 2, and part 3.

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