|Location:||Sonoma County California|
|LODGING:||Inns, Hotels, B&Bs|
|HIGHLIGHTS:||Fine Wine, Fine Food, Fine Friends and Fine Lodging.|
My fantasy getaway involved lots of time spent on bucolic mountain trails and to be within walking distance of good eateries, fun activities, and a winery or two. Our destination: the tiny Sonoma Valley hamlet of Glen Ellen.
For nearly a month I’d been swamped with the kind of pressing deadlines that had me rising at dawn, racing to meetings, and working into the wee hours. Lately I’d begun to yearn for a respite from phones, email, messaging, and—was it even possible?—driving.
So when three days suddenly opened up in my calendar, I didn’t hesitate. My fantasy getaway involved lots of time spent on bucolic mountain trails and to be within walking distance of good eateries, fun activities, and a winery or two. And sleeping on high-thread-count sheets would be great.
“Good luck with that,” my brother said. “Three days is actually one day with a half-day and a night on each side. You can’t go far.”
But I didn’t intend to. I lassoed one of my long-time traveling companions, Dennis, and we soon headed out the door of my wine-country cottage an hour north of San Francisco. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at our destination: the tiny Sonoma Valley hamlet of Glen Ellen.
This 20-mile long cleft between mountain ranges was known as The Valley of the Moon to Miwok and Pomo Indians, whose legends say that the moon resided in and rose from within its confines. Standing on the valley floor on a warm summer evening, when the rising yellow moon seems to spring full-grown from the surrounding hills, it’s easy to see how that myth was born.
Today’s Valley of the Moon is known for legends of a different sort, most having to do with the area’s reputation for immense natural beauty and that relaxed elegance often referred to as a “wine-country lifestyle.” Glen Ellen offers plenty of both.
We officially started our getaway over lunch at Yeti, a Nepalese-Indian fusion restaurant that employs fresh local ingredients. I’d been here a few times for dinner, dining outside on the patio above the creek. But this spring day was drizzly, so we stayed tucked and cozy inside. We each opted for Yeti’s lunch-only version of a bento box: a square platter holding small bowls of vegetable curry, dal, rice, saag paneer, mango chutney, naan, and a sweet yogurt with diced fresh fruit.
It was too early to check in, so we headed off on our first hike. Easily-accessible and right in Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley Regional Park is extremely popular with runners, walkers, hikers and bikers of all levels. A two-mile paved loop trail is flattish and easy, but some of the unpaved trails are steep and allow you to work up a sweat. That day the hills and meadows of this mixed-oak and grassland preserve were bright green and dotted with wildflowers. As we walked along scrub jays chattered from on high, rabbits scurried through the grass, and squirrels jumped effortlessly from limb to limb.
Around three o’clock we checked in at the historic Glenelly Inn & Cottages, built in the early 1900s to serve visitors arriving by train. Our cottage, surrounded by a lush garden, had a private patio, a whirlpool tub and a fireplace. The Inn’s bountiful breakfasts come with the room, as does a Complimentary Wine Tasting Card for two good at nearly 30 Sonoma Valley wineries.
Soon we walked down Warm Springs Road and into town. Actually, “town” is way too hefty a word to apply to Glen Ellen. Village is good, or even hamlet, which, according to my dictionary, is smaller than a village. A hand-made sign advertising fresh eggs and cookies “at the end of the lane” fit right in.
The “downtown” portion of Glen Ellen stretches for a couple of blocks, but not all the land is occupied. A few buildings are new, but most are old and well-preserved, such as the beautiful Charles Poppe Building built in 1900 of local stone. A few Craftsman-looking wooden cottages have been converted into shops or restaurants, and we ended up having dinner in one of them.
The Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant, housed in a 1940s cottage, has received kudos in local and national publications for its use of local ingredients in an exuberant fusion of Asian, French, and Italian cuisines. Flowers were everywhere, the table settings were lovely and imaginative, and our server, Sandra, managed the difficult art of being simultaneously friendly, helpful and totally professional.
I’m always surprised (and delighted) to receive an amuse-bouche: ours was a tablespoon-sized piece of extremely light polenta anointed with chives and a sprinkle of chive oil. My first course, seafood chowder, possessed a tantalizing citrus background and was topped with fried leek strings and crème fraîche—fabulous! Dennis chose the just-shucked fried oysters; crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, they were accompanied by a spicy Tabasco butter. We both chose Boar chops in whole-ground mustard cream for the main course, accompanied by a potato cake, yellow beets, and a lavender/yellow oregano garnish. The boar was juicy, flavorful, and fragrant (and huge). We chose a local wine, the unfiltered Eric Ross Marsanne-Roussanne 2007, which was excellent—so good that we stopped by the winery on our way home two days later to get more.
Next morning, after a fabulous breakfast at the Glenelly—Blueberry Bread Pudding (see recipe here) was the star—we set out early for our day’s first hike at Bouverie Preserve. I wanted nothing to do with cars while in Glen Ellen, but the Preserve was four miles away. Walking there and back would interfere with our afternoon hike, so we knuckled under and got behind the wheel.
The 570 wild acres of Bouverie Preserve were donated to Audubon Canyon Ranch in 1979 with the proviso that they be used to instill an appreciation for nature in children. Every year about three thousand Sonoma County third graders visit here, some having never been in a wilderness area before. They explore the land in groups of five, accompanied by one docent and a chaperone (typically a teacher or parent). But grownups can visit too. The Preserve offers Guided Nature Walks to adults on six Saturdays in both spring and fall. In addition, the Bouverie Backyard Naturalist Series is a series of Saturday seminars geared to adult amateur naturalists, with time in the classroom and on the trail.
Wondering just how beautiful Bouverie’s land is? In 2007, Plein Air artists (see details on this year's event here) from around the nation came here for a week of painting the Preserve’s landscapes. You can see a few of the paintings on the website.
As for our hike, it was fantastic. Wildflowers dotted the endless stretch of meadows and hills. Our docent, Jim Moir, pointed out a Cicada which had just left its chrysalis and was moving tentatively along a tree’s bark. Beneath a rock he discovered a Blue-Tailed Skink; in another location, an impossibly small Slender Salamander. We moved through oak-covered hilltops and evergreen forests, and down into a riparian wilderness beside a fast-rushing creek. Once, standing atop a hill and gazing at gnarly oaks on a distant hill and the mountains beyond, I felt as if I were in a Plein Air painting myself.
But it was time to move on to our next walking adventure: Jack London State Historic Park.
We drove back to the Glenelly Inn, left the car, and made our way down the hill on foot. We turned right and then right again, heading uphill along London Ranch Road for a bit more than a mile. This is a forested country road, with driveways now and then leading to high-end estates surrounded by lots of acreage. The little traffic we saw was headed to Benziger Winery, about a quarter-mile below the Park.
Jack London SHP was once part of the 1350-acre Beauty Ranch belonging to writer and adventurer Jack London. At one time the world’s most successful and highly-paid writer, London had been born into poverty in Oakland, California in 1876. In his early years the impossibly handsome man was an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay, a prospector for Klondike gold, and a sailor voyaging through the South Seas.
In 1905 London moved to Glen Ellen with his wife, Charmian, and soon became caught up in modern agriculture and advanced methods for rearing livestock. He raised English Shire horses, cattle, and pigs; and planted vegetable crops, grain, and fruit trees. The revolutionary piggery he built, with a central feed house and 17 pens (one for each pig family), was considered so fancy that nearby ranchers mockingly dubbed it the “Pig Palace.” London’s sudden death in 1916 from gastrointestinal uremic poisoning shocked the world; he was only 40 years old.
I love this Park for many reasons, including its nearly palpable history; its fabulous and varied hiking trails; and the sheer number of things there are to see and do. In fact, it’s impossible to take it all in during a single visit. Dennis had never been here, so we spent the afternoon hitting the most obvious high spots.
First up: the magnificent ruins of the writer’s 15,000-square-foot home, Wolf House. The trail from the Park entrance is about one mile roundtrip, through a woodland forest of oaks, redwood, douglas fir, and madrone.
Wolf House was constructed of local materials—huge lava boulders, blue slate, and rough-hewn redwood logs, with red Spanish roof tiles made at a nearby pottery works. The four-story house was U-shaped, with an open-air courtyard and 15x40-foot pool at its heart. Nice touches included pergolas, porches, a carriage entrance, a 19x40-foot top-floor writing room for Jack, a game room, a two-story living room with an open ceiling and huge fireplace, and a dining room to seat 50 people. State-of-the-art construction techniques were intended to make the house earthquake- and fire-proof. Yet in August 1913, less than a month before Jack and Charmian were planning to move in, a fire tore through the house and left only the rock walls standing.
It’s sobering to circle these majestic ruins, peering through spaces meant for windows and doors into the vast and empty interior. In London’s day the panorama from here took in much of the Valley, but the trees have grown thick and tall, shutting out the view and creating a hush. Here and there ferns grow from the spaces between boulders, and lichen had long since etched the rocks.
It was impossible not to ponder the transitory nature of life while observing the ruins of Wolf House. On one of the discreet signboards I read these unintentionally ironic words, written by London long before the fire destroyed his dream home: “My house will be standing, act of God permitting, for a thousand years.”
We walked from there to the Beauty Ranch buildings. An absolute must-see is the wood-framed cottage where Jack and Charmian lived, furnished with their belongings—Jack wrote many of his later novels and stories here. The picturesque stone buildings nearby include a former winery building that pre-dates London’s ownership and two barns. Following a trail from here brought us to the 1915 Pig Palace, two 40-foot silos, and the remains of a smokehouse.
From there we walked the Lake Trail (a 2-mile loop) through a redwood grove to London Lake and its Bath House, where Jack, Charmian and their visitors relaxed and played on hot summer days.
The Park has a superb trail network that ranges from flat-and-easy walking to far more serious treks. For instance, the steep 8-mile roundtrip Mountain Trail leads to the summit of Sonoma Mountain, with stunning views showing the length of Sonoma Valley all the way to the Bay. That’s a trek I’ll do sometime soon.
Our last stop in the Park was at The House of Happy Walls, built by Charmian a few years after Jack’s death. It’s a great deal smaller than Wolf House, but uses the same lava boulders and roof tiles. Charmian lived here until a decade before her death in 1955, but today it’s a museum devoted to the Londons and their adventurous travels. It’s filled with photographs, books, anthropological items, books, clothing, furniture originally intended for Wolf House, and a lot more.
On our way down the hill we stopped at Benziger Family Winery, which uses certified Biodynamic, organic and sustainable farming methods, producing outstanding wines in the process (I think they do a great job on Pinot Noirs in particular). We sampled a couple of wines, but were too late in the day for a vineyard tram tour. I’ve heard from friends that this is a great experience, wheeling you around the Estate for a close look at the vineyards, the fermentation facility and crush pad, and into the barrel caves. Well, next time.
On our final night we ate at the Bluegrass Bar & Grill, located inside a 19th century grist mill situated on a fast-moving creek. We had a glass of wine at the bar, watching the mill wheel outside turning slowly around, and then hit the dining room. Tired but hungry, I opted for the Salmon Burger topped with Roasted Red Pepper Slaw and other condiments on a Grilled Basque Boulangerie Potato Bun. It came with a heaping pile of fries and was just what I wanted.
Next morning after checking out, we stopped in at Eric Ross Winery. It’s a small, cozy place with a wood-burning stove, a big comfy leather couch, and a friendly woman standing behind the tasting bar. We did walk out with some of that lovely Marsanne-Roussanne.
Fifteen minutes later I was home, feeling that odd hybrid of energized relaxation that comes with a good long trip away. It hadn’t been long, but it sure was good.
Sonoma Winegrape Commission
Sonoma Wine Road
Sonoma Highway (Highway 12) at approximately Mile Marker 31.00
Sonoma Plein Air Art Festival
May 17-22, 2010
Jack London State Historic Park
2400 London Ranch Road
Glen Ellen, CA 92345
Sonoma Valley Regional Park
13630 Sonoma Highway (near Glen Ellen)
Eric Ross Winery
14300 Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen, CA 95442-9475
Photos: Inn, courtesy Glenelly Inn & Cottages; flowers, courtesy Bouverie Preserve; all other photos by Suzie Rodriguez. Visit Suzie at The Culinary Gadabout.
|Location:||Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California|
|LODGING:||Inns, Hotels, B&Bs|
|HIGHLIGHTS:||Wine, flowers, Glenelly Inn, Great Food, Great company.
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