With its irresistible combination of pristine nature (towering redwoods meet dramatic oceanside bluffs); manicured vineyards and dairy farms; and picture-postcard towns brimming with gastronomic delights, an exploration of California’s North Coast and Wine Country is bound to surprise. Buckle up and join us for the ride…
As the historic (and oh-so-charismatic) port city of San Francisco grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, the region north of the city became a mecca for artisans, artists (the area was Hippy Central in the 1960s), and high-end farmers (dairy and wine are especially big). Not to mention wealthy city folk who wanted their own slice of country paradise on the side.
This irrepressible combination of creative minds, top-notch ingredients, and well-heeled weekenders led to a gastronomic explosion that spawned the global farm-to-fork movement and, in the case of Napa and Sonoma counties, put New World wines on the map. If your idea of the perfect road trip includes fine wines, artisan cheeses, and a double dose of unspoiled nature, then you’ve come to the right place. Better still, the North Coast of California offers incredible diversity – one day you can be reclining in the lap of luxury in Napa Valley, the next you can be spending the day picnicking on the bluffs of Mendocino and chatting about the region’s history – without the need to cover large distances.
You’ll feel the rural calm washing over you almost as soon as you leave the captivating confines of San Francisco. Less than an hour after departing your downtown accommodations, you’ll enter a world of primordial trees and delicate ferns. The old-growth redwoods at Muir Woods may only be 12 miles north of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, but they feel half a world away. The grove, which owes its survival to early politician William Kent who bought the land in 1907 to thwart the construction of a dam, is a fitting tribute to John Muir (read more about him here) whose spirt inhabits its shady walkways and dappled clearings.
Once you’ve torn yourself away from the forested paradise that is Muir Woods, you’ll discover a gem of an entirely different sort. You won’t find fresher oysters (best enjoyed with a Napa Valley sparkler) than those at Hog Island Oyster Co. which has been farming certified sustainable shellfish on the shores of finger-shaped Tomales Bay for almost four decades. A little further north, you’ll come to the sleepy fishing town of Bodega Bay where you can explore the endless coves and tidal pools of Sonoma Coast State Beach. (Believe it or not, idyllic Bodega Bay was the setting for Hitchcock’s terrifying 1963 avian-horror movie The Birds.)
Ten picturesque miles further up the coast, you’ll come to tiny Jenner-by-the-Sea, your base for the night. The cuisine at the legendary River’s End Restaurant & Inn is matched only by the views of both the untamed Pacific Ocean and the mouth of the Russian River (which you’ll also encounter during your exploration of Sonoma Wine Country later in the week). With a menu featuring everything from ‘local oysters served with wasabi tobiko and lime ginger mignonette’ through to ‘all-natural grilled elk with wild mushroom spaetzle and red wine poached pear with gorgonzola and green peppercorns’, you’re guaranteed a meal to remember.
The California redwood is the tallest tree on earth. There are over 50 trees taller than 360 feet. The tallest of them all is Hyperion, a 380-foot giant that’s found at a secret location in Redwood National and State Parks.
Also known as the Coast Red or simply the Big Tree (John Muir’s preferred name), the trees are found only in California and a small section of Oregon. Redwoods are defined as either ‘old growth’ or ‘new growth’ depending on whether they survived the scramble for lumber (their strong beams make for fantastic building material) which followed the 1849 Gold Rush.
The California redwood is also one of the oldest trees on earth. The oldest verified specimens are 2,200 years old, but scientists believe there are older trees somewhere. (As an aside, we’d love to take you to see the oldest tree on the planet, the 4,500-year-old bristlecone pine which is also found in California.)
Leaving Jenner, you’ll enjoy a leisurely and extremely scenic drive through yet more redwoods to Mendocino, ‘the end of civilization’ on the northern California coast. Depending on how often you succumb to the temptation to stop and savor the views, you should arrive to Mendocino in time for a midday meal to remember.
After dropping your bags at your overnight lodgings – if you’re in the mood for a strategic splurge, the boutique Albion River Inn gets our vote every time – you’ll discover the charming town (think rose gardens, picket fences, and upscale boutiques) by foot with a local, and have a gourmet picnic on the dramatic sea bluffs that look out to the Pacific, chatting about the region’s history (the town was settled by New Englanders in the 1850s) as you munch on local fruits, cheeses, and seafood.
Departing Mendocino the following morning, you leave the Pacific Coast for the winelands, via the delightfully rural Highway 128 and its imposing redwoods. By now you’ll probably be itching to try some Pinot, but we’d highly recommend stopping at Big Hendy Grove – a small but beautifully preserved stand of old-growth redwoods that sees hardly any tourist traffic - en route to Sonoma. Follow this link for details of the splendid two-mile hiking route through the trees, ferns, and mosses of this very special spot.
Their wines need absolutely no introduction, but Sonoma and Napa are also home to truly world-class food producers, restaurants, and – whisper it – craft breweries. Better still, the rolling hills, character-filled towns, and grandiose wineries are also almost unjustifiably gorgeous.
As you’ll be arriving from the coast, you’ll start your Wine Country wanderings in quirky Sonoma, where farmers still drive pickups, and dense oceanic fogs result in delicate cold climate chardonnays and pinot noirs. Based on your own preferences and the recommendations of your wine-loving local expert guide for the day, you’ll enjoy a bespoke itinerary that’s guaranteed to tickle your every taste bud. Hopheads will also want to check out the Russian River Brewery Company to try to get their hands on a bottle of Pliny the Elder, one of the most sought-after craft beers in the world.
The small distances between Sonoma and Napa mean you get to choose your base for the night. The once sleepy farming village of Healdsburg now boasts fantastic eateries, shops, and tasting rooms on almost every corner. Built around a central plaza and featuring loads of period architecture, it can get rather busy on weekends. Forty miles away, in neighboring Napa, lies Yountville, a 3,000-person community that might just be the most exclusive village on the planet. Once a historic stagecoach stop, this charming, wooded spot is home to some of the world’s best restaurants and boutique hotels.
Wherever you choose to rest your head, you’ll wake up revitalized and ready to explore Napa’s famous wine estates … by train! In the plush surroundings of a vintage dining carriage with a difference, you’ll enjoy a three-course gourmet meal as the sweeping Napa views unfold from your window. The menu changes according to the seasons, but typical choices include yellowfin tuna tartare, Cabernet braised short rib of beef, and blueberry lavender semifreddo.
After lunch you’ll be back on four wheels, exploring the legendary Napa Valley wine estates in the company of your sommelier guide. By evening, you’ll enjoy one last California meal in one of many exceptional restaurants. In the morning you’ll be heading onwards. But being so close to San Francisco means you’ll have plenty of time to fit in some more wine tasting (or even a hot air balloon ride!) before you say your goodbyes.
The three-Michelin-star The French Laundry in Yountville is the kind of place you have to book months in advance (we’ll gladly assist in this regard), but it’s well worth the effort. Housed in a 120-year-old stone building which was originally a saloon, the menu focuses on classic French cuisine, fine local ingredients, and fanatical attention to detail. Superstar Chef Thomas Keller was one of the pioneers of the farm-to-fork movement. “Execution will always be in the hands of the chef and represents many elements—knowledge, training, experience, skill, and tools—that contribute to the cuisine we serve,” he explains. But at the same time, “when ingredients arrive at the restaurant they are, in one sense, already finished. At the stove, we have no control over how an animal was raised or the way a peach was harvested.”
Meadowood is the definitive and unparalleled Wine Country escape. This Relais & Châteaux property, which boasts its own three-Michelin-starred restaurant, leaves no high-thread-count sheet unturned in its pursuit of perfection. Guests are encouraged to participate in Meadowood’s daily wine reception, take advantage of the fitness center, enjoy nearby hiking trails and on-site tennis and lawn croquet, and indulge themselves with unrivaled treatments at the region’s finest spa.
It’s hard to believe that in one 350-mile road trip you can take in pristine beaches and rugged bluffs, awe-inspiring forests of the world’s tallest tress, and some of the finest food and wine on the planet. But this is what makes California so special. To curate the Golden State adventure of your dreams, speak to a Destination Expert now.