Sonoma Valley may be world-famous, but many visitors miss the rest of Sonoma County. I have been traveling to Sonoma County for years, especially its largest and most centrally located city of Santa Rosa. It can be a great home base for visiting the Russian River, the Sonoma Valley, or the Sonoma Coast. But don’t miss what the city has to offer.
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- Charles M. Schulz Museum
- Safari West
- Luther Burbank Home & Gardens
- Sonoma Canopy Tours
- Restaurants and Bars
When you walk around downtown Santa Rosa you will see Peanuts characters everywhere. This is more than a love for the comic strip, it is a love for the creator Charles Schulz who spent many years in the city drawing his famous characters. He was very involved in the community and you would find him most mornings at the ice rink he built in 1969, Snoopy’s Home Ice, eating breakfast at the Warm Puppy Cafe. The building, which looks like a Swiss Chalet, is still filled with kids learning to skate or adults playing in a senior hockey league. After the ice rink, Schulz added a gift shop as people wanted to take home Peanuts paraphernalia. The gift shop had a small exhibit upstairs about Schulz and his famous characters,
But my destination was across the parking lot from the ice rink, the Charles M. Schulz Museum. In all my trips to town I had not taken the time to visit this iconic museum and, I know now, that was a mistake.
I wouldn’t say that Peanuts was my favorite comic strip when I grew up, but I didn’t realize just how much it was a part of my childhood until I was wandering the museum. Schultz drew Peanuts for almost 50 years, creating almost 18,000 daily comics. Add in the Peanuts specials that I nearly have memorized and even the musical “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” in which I played Linus in community theatre and I found I knew so very very many of the comics in the museum exhibits.
When I visited the temporary exhibit space downstairs had an exhibit on Peanuts in politics including letters from presidents (like Reagan asking Schulz to talk Snoopy out of his run for president), strips about the characters running for class president and even a few voting booths where you could vote for your favorite Peanuts character (spoiler, Snoopy is winning in a landslide). There was also an exhibit about Peanuts and medicine. When Schulz injured his leg, so did snoopy, although Schulz did not eventually become a world-famous surgeon as Snoopy did.
The permanent exhibit tells the history of Schulz and his art, has a re-creation of his studio and photos of his dog growing up which could respond to 100 different commands, but did not ever become a World War I flying ace. The museum also has a theater that shows Peanuts movies in rotation throughout the day. Don’t miss the exhibit that shows the introduction of the different characters in chronological order. It is hard to picture Sherman was one of the major characters at first, the Van Pelts were missing and Snoopy was just a dog.
Admission is $12 for adults and $5 for kids.
After Snoopy and Woodstock the most famous animals in Santa Rosa these days are those out at the Safari West wildlife preserve. Safari West has zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, antelope, cape buffalo and even some white rhinos. As great as the animals in the park are, it was the humans that impressed me the most.
Lead guide Leslie Thalman took me first on a walk through the large aviary and around the smaller enclosures at the front of the property where they have an incredible collection of birds, cheetahs and some lemurs and other primates. Her knowledge of the animals was encyclopedic. She knew not only the type of animals but the names of all the animals and not a few of the birds. Not bad, when you consider she got the guiding job 22 years ago not because she was a zoologist (at that time) but because she could drive a truck.
As great as the walking tour was, it is the safari ride into the hills and valleys of this 400-acre property that truly make it a memorable experience. I am not saying that it is the same as being on safari in Africa but it is easily the next best thing. I was there on what passes for a winter day in California. We drove around the property in a 4 wheeled drive vehicle. This is not a petting zoo so don’t expect to go out and pet a giraffe but you will certainly get close enough for some great photography.
I wish I could remember even 5% of what Leslie told me about the different sub-species of herd animals, the current scientific arguments on the definition of a species and the scientific studies that Safari West is conducting. I suspect if you bring 3rd grade questions, you would get great 3rd grade answers, but if you bring a scientist you could also get a great discussion as well. My questions were probably somewhere in between, but my giddiness on seeing rhinos, giraffes and Cape Buffalo was probably closer to that of the 3rd grader.
Safari West is cheaper than a trip to Africa, but not inexpensive. Safaris start at $83 for adults and $45 for kids but are more expensive on weekends and in the popular Summer months. You can also spend the night in one of their glamping tents that look down on the enclosure for the giraffes. Sign me up!
In his day, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the most famous resident of Santa Rosa was the plant breeder Luther Burbank. Next time you are eating french fries or some other potato dish, tip your hat to Burbank who discovered and started breeding a sport (mutation) from South America potatoes that was resistant to the potato blight that starved Ireland and also destroyed much of America’s potato crop. Burbank worked as a plant breeder for 55 years and introduced between 800 and 1000 new species of plants including the spineless cactus, Shasta Daisy, freestone peach and Santa Rosa plum.
Many of the plants that Burbank bred were to take advantage of the new refrigeration railroad cars and canning industries. It was more profitable for farmers to have fruits that shipped better, were a uniform size or ripened at the same time so that they could harvest a field only once. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison visited Burbank in Santa Rosa and Edison later lobbied congress for patents to be extended to plant breeding saying it would “give us many Burbanks”. Burbank was finally granted his first plant patents when the legislation was passed 4 years after his death.
The Burbank Gardens can be toured on your own. There is a cell phone tour but I had trouble getting past stop 5 on my cell phone. The same tour is available online. A tour of the house can only be done on one of the docent tours and is worth doing for the knowledgeable guides alone.
Sonoma Canopy Tours
Visit Sonoma Canopy Tours for a fun experience. This video shows ziplining among the redwoods and fir trees. The Russian River area has had numerous camps for years and many of them have had a difficult time making ends meet in recent years but one clever camp set up a wonderful zipline course. My wife had visited Sonoma Canopy Tours last year with some girlfriends and gave this trip to me for Christmas. The course includes 8 ziplines, 2 rope bridges and rappelling down from a redwood tree. This video is shot via a helmet camera.
No trip to Santa Rosa would seem complete to me without stopping at a winery or two. I visited two on this trip, with the first of them being the very scenic Paradise Ridge Winery which is on a hill above the city. This winery was both beautiful and delicious.
I didn’t get all the way to the winery before I made a couple stops on the grounds to see some of the large sculptures in their sculpture gardens. The large LOVE sculpture is from the Burning Man festival and is a popular picture spot for brides who are hosting their reception on the property. Behind it is the Temple of Remembrance which is covered with strips of paper with the names of lost loved ones. The papers are gathered each year and taken to Burning Man where there are added to the flames. Many of the sculptures on the grounds are for sale and are managed by The Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation. The winery has also recently added a self-guided tour of the vineyards which emphasizes its sustainability.
But you don’t go to a vineyard just for the view. Tasting is available both in the main winery and in the new tasting room in Kenwood. I tasted a flight that included the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2014 Barrel Select Chardonnay, the 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, the 2013 Rockpile Zinfandel, and the 2013 Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon. All the wines were very good. The wines tend towards a more lightly oaked and very drinkable wine. If I had to choose a favorite I would probably choose the Pinotâ€¦ but it would be a difficult choice.
The winery owner, Rene Byck, explained that the original winery in this area (the Fountaingrove neighborhood but oddly not the Fountaingrove appellation) was built in the late 1800s by Japanese born Nagasawa Kanaye who gained a reputation as the “Wine King” of California. Sadly his family lost the winery and the rest of the 1,000-acre Fountaingrove ranch with the forced relocation of Japanese and Japanese Americans in WWII. Paradise Ridge has an exhibit about Nagasawa Kanaye in their tasting room.
If you happen to be in the Santa Rosa area in the Summer months on a Wednesday night, come up for a Wines & Sunsets event which includes wines, festive live music, local gourmet food vendors.
I also stopped at the St Francis Winery in the northern Sonoma Valley for a tour and tasting. St Francis was the first winery to plant merlot (one of my favorite wines) in the valley. St Francis is known for its Wine Cheese and Charcuterie pairings and also has a Wine & Food Pairing which has one them the “#1Restaurant in America” as judged by OpenTable Diners in both 2013 & 2015. That is rather odd because they don’t exactly have a restaurant. They run their wine & food pairing 3 times a day (11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm) Thursdays – Monday so don’t expect to just stop by for lunch, let alone dinner. They usually book out these pairings a month in advance although sometimes last-minute tickets are available because of cancelations.
I tasted the 2015 Estate CuvÃ©e Blanc, the 2014 Russian River Pinot Noir, the 2013 Behler vineyard Merlot, the 2013 Anthem Meritage, the 2013 Old Vines Zinfandel, and the 2104 Port. They also had a white port that I was curious to try but I was driving home after this and had to draw the line somewhere. All the wines were quite good, but I think my favorite was the 2013 Anthem which the vintner so named because it’s like a “symphony in your mouth”.
Sonoma County also has a growing number of breweries, distilleries and even one cidery that I will have to save for another visit.
Restaurants and Bars
One of the great things about going to wine country is where there is good wine, there is good food. The first night we joined the rest of the group at the California Welcome Center in the old trains station near Railroad Square and walked to a couple of the nearby nightspots.
County Bench (reviews)
We stopped at County Bench for a cocktail and some appetizers. I took a risk on a dark daiquiri with quince and rum. While it is easily my favorite quince cocktail, I am not sure I would order it again, but part of the fun of a cocktail bar is trying new things.
Belly Left Coast Kitchen and Tap Room (reviews)
We walked two doors down the street to Belly for dinner. Chef Gray Rollin is a private chef for rock and roll bands part of the year. Since 2011 he has toured with Linkin Park to more than 40 countries, but before that toured with Motley Crue, KISS, Black Eyed Peas, Sarah McLachlan, the Rockettes, Katy Perry, Blink 182, Godsmack, and Tori Amos. I understand the draw, after trying the food at Belly, I would bring him along on my next trip if I could afford him.
We had a sampling of dishes from his current menu. The Beer Cheese Bread with honey butter is nearly mandatory in my opinion. The artichokes are the best I have ever eaten and I grew up 6 miles from where they crown the artichoke queen every year. I also loved the Diablo Pizza (meat) and Tres Chorizo Street Tacos. You need to bring lots of friends to this restaurant so you can try more dishes.
Best of Burma (reviews)
I had lunch at Best of Burma. It was only the second Burmese restaurant I have been to but I loved the food. I had the Mango Chicken and Coconut rice which were quite good. They were just the right level of spicy for me (I like spicy). The dish also came with a tea leaf salad which is one of my favorite Burmese dishes in my limited exposure to the cuisine. I tried the Burmese ice tea which is a bit more potent than a Thai ice tea and probably not my favorite. For dessert, I had Sooji which can best be described as a Cream of WheatÂ® based pastry. It was served with green tea ice cream and I would recommend it. Santa Rosa Plaza is 2 blocks away with free parking for 90 minutes.
I ate dinner at Bistro 29, which has a French / Breton inspired menu, so I ordered their version of a French Onion soup based on a cider instead of a beef broth. It was quite good. I also had a savory Buckwheat CrÃªpe with Jambon de Paris, Cave Aged GruyÃ¨re and a sunny side egg. My plan was to have something less filling than the Oso Bucco or Cassoulet because I was staring all dinner at a sign which read “la vie est corte, prenez un dessert” (life is short get a dessert). The crÃªpe was much more filling than I planned but I had a dessert anyway.
My waitress recommended the Fig Sticky Toffee Cake. She told me “my boyfriend and I came in last week and he had thatâ€¦ I didn’t get any of it”. I figured that was either a very good dessert or a very bad boyfriend. After trying the cake, I found myself better able to defend the actions of the boyfriend.
The final breakfast was at Dierk’s Parkside Cafe which is a quintessential neighborhood breakfast spot. They don’t take reservations and weren’t so impressed by a bunch of bloggers and tourism people coming that they changed that policy for us. I had the French Toast, but the special of the day was hash browns, an egg, fried chicken, avocado and gravy.
I had some slack time at one point and went for a nice walk around the lake at Spring Lake Regional Park. The tourism board also recommended the trails at Sugarloaf State Park or the redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. All who I talked to who had been to Armstrong, preferred it to the better known but over-crowded Muir Woods just north of San Francisco.
I stayed at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country which is just down the hill from the Paradise Ridge Winery. It is also on the old Fountaingrove ranch land, and just next to the Round Barn that Nagasawa Kanaye built. The hotel is comfortable and either new or recently updated. I had breakfast one day at the Nector restaurant (reviews) which is on the property. It has a good breakfast buffet with a patio with a view that would be lovely on a Summer day. The heated pool was surprisingly warm given the “winter” chill when I was visiting. There is also a workout room that looks out over the pool.
I already knew that Santa Rosa is a great place but appreciate it even more now. My thanks to Visit Santa Rosa for their wonderful sponsorship (they paid for my trip) and hospitality.