By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency
What a way to start the day!
My daughter Reggie, a San Francisco teacher, and I are soaking in a piping hot mineral pool — one of four at different temperatures — at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn’s expansive spa. The picturesque hotel, spread over 13 acres and built to replicate a California mission — complete with bell tower — is famous for these pools, which are fed by underground mineral springs and which have drawn locals and visitors for centuries.
As we soak, we talk about the memorable chocolate souffle that capped our dinner the night before at the inn’s Sante Restaurant, considered one of the best in an area known for restaurants that showcase seasonal and locally grown ingredients. We lament that we didn’t get up early enough for yoga (there is even a water yoga class in one of the outdoor mineral pools) or one of the complimentary guided hikes. We discuss what we’ll do the rest of our day — after our spa treatments (there are 50 to choose from). Most important, we’re having a good time together with no distractions.
Who says grown kids don’t want to travel with their parents? I don’t get to see my daughter that often and was determined to make our few days together as fun and as stress-free as possible for both of us. The key, I discovered, is choosing the right locale.
Sonoma County, which incidentally is just an hour from San Francisco and twice the size of the Napa Valley, proves ideal for a mom-daughter getaway. The area is ideal for whatever you want to do, whether you want to camp like you might on safari in Africa at Safari West, stay at a quaint bed and breakfast or luxuriate at a high-end resort like the Fairmont. (Check the Fairmont’s website for special packages.)
Sure there are wineries to tour — 400 wineries, including 40 within 17 miles. Many are family owned. (Plan a route along the Sonoma Wine Road.) We learn the California wine industry actually started in Sonoma. (Weekends at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, while parents taste the wines, kids are challenged to recognize different fruit flavors with tastings of smoothies blended by a smoothie expert with the season’s seasonal fruits — all for just a $1.)
But we also have our pick of 40 spas and 20 beaches (we spent our first night in Bodega Bay, our room at the Bodega Bay Lodge) and got the chance to see soaring 250-foot-tall Coast Redwoods that are more than 500 years old, including at the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve where you can hike amid these huge trees.
There are 11 state parks where you can hike and bike. There is also the chance to visit farms and farmers’ markets. In this one county, there are 120 farms open to the public, 12 farmers’ markets and 500 restaurants, many of them like Sante, committed to serving what is locally grown and in season. Did you know there are 30 cheese makers just in Sonoma County? (Sample them at the Epicurean Connection in Sonoma where you can also take a cheese-making class.)
We got up close to rare African animals, including the recently born baby giraffe and Waterbuck at Safari West (more about that in another column) and even learned a little history a few minutes’ drive from the Fairmont when we strolled through Sonoma’s famous eight-acre plaza with its hidden courtyards, historic adobe storefronts, tasting rooms, boutiques and restaurants (like the well-known The Girl & the Fig where we enjoyed lunch.) Sonoma is the location of the Bear Flag Revolt that transferred California from Mexico to the United States.
Of course, this is the place to drink wine and we certainly did, visiting family-owned wineries where the vintners are determined that you enjoy the surroundings, as well as the wine.
“We want a visit here to promote a coming together of wine and people, dogs and kids. … We want it to be a full experience that takes every one of your senses,” said Anisya Fritz, who, with her husband Lynn, runs Lynmar Estate in Sebastopol. The winery boasts a guesthouse and beautiful garden (where kids might have the chance to pick ripe berries or veggies) and where their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are paired with a picnic — locally sourced, of course.
Rene Byck, the second generation to oversee his family’s Paradise Ridge Winery, joined us for a wine and local cheese pairing overlooking their vineyards. He explained that the winery got its name when his dad, a local doctor, looking for a place his family would gather for generations to come, first bought the land some 36 years ago. He came home and told his wife and five kids he’d “seen paradise.”
The Bycks are also committed to offering visitors more than their excellent wine. There is the public sculpture garden named Marijke’s Grove in honor of Rene Byck’s mother after her untimely death in a car accident. The garden is currently showcasing the 20(at)20 exhibit, which celebrates the family’s 20 years of winemaking. It’s a great place for kids to run around, suggests Byck, a father of three young children himself.
Visitors are encouraged to picnic — there is no charge — take a stroll through the vineyard or enjoy the sunset. Families come for the pizza served certain nights and music on others. “You don’t even have to do a tasting,” Byck says. “Even if you don’t drink wine, you can come and have a good experience here.”
“It started with an overflow from Napa,” says P.J. Rex, who, with her husband Robert, runs Deerfield Ranch Winery, known for their low-sulfite wine. “But today people are also coming for the ocean, the redwoods and all of the farm-to-table food.
“Our focus has always been local,” she laughed. “Now it’s just IN.”
Reggie and I laugh — and get ready to eat more local cheese.
(If you are planning a West Coast trip, look for Eileen’s Kid’s Guide to LA County and later this year, to San Francisco available online and at major booksellers. There are also Kid’s Guides to NYC, Orlando, Washington, DC, Chicago and Boston. )
© 2014 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.