Less than 15 minutes from town hall in Sonoma lies the charming laid back town of Glen Ellen. Much smaller than Sonoma, Glen Ellen is essentially a village. The town was made famous by the residence of Jack London years ago. The town houses the Jack London State Park which is a must to see for its interesting home of London and the gorgeous grounds which overlook the valley.
However the drive from Sonoma to Glen Ellen taking CA 12 (Napa Street) , left on Petaluma Drive, and right onto Arnold Drive which is the main drag of Glen Ellen. There you will find a quaint series of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and shops to visit.
Healdsburg is about 44 miles north of Sonoma via Hwy 101. It is still Sonoma County and there are many fine wineries to check out in the Healdsburg area. I found a new favorite when my wife, Sue, and I joined my cousins, who are locals in the area, to have a picnic lunch at the Lambert Bridge Winery in the Dry Creek Valley area of Healdsburg.
We first drove up to Healdsburg in less than an hour from Sonoma and headed for the historic town square. One of the shops located around the square is the Oakville Grocery. We bought everything needed for the picnic except the wine which we would get at Lambert Bridge Winery.
The winery was only about 10 minutes out of the Healdsburg Square in the Dry Creek Valley. The trees were in full fall color and I fell in love with the grounds as soon as we drove in the entrance to the winery. If the Lambert Bridge Winery wines are as good as the picnic grounds, I was in for a treat. At the tasting bar, we tried several wines and they were all great. We decided on two bottles, one red, a Cabernet Sauvignon that was lively and smooth, and one white, a crisp Chardonnay. Both excellent and great with picnic fixings. Now, down to the picnic table to enjoy the spoils of the day.
I have fallen in love with the homes on this street. I have separated the tip only because I felt each home/mansion deserved their own space. This one catches my fancy. You really must see them in person to be inspired. From the Somona Square, go east on East Napa Street about 6 blocks to Armstrong Drive, turn right. You are there. Somewhere in time.
Not much to do concerning wine or historic sites but the large Victorian Style of homes in Sonoma sort of shock you when you first see them because you do not expect to see these beautiful estates in the middle of the wine country. Built within a few short years ago, they are from another time and place in beauty and grace. Quite a diversion for a wine country drive. Only a few blocks east from the Sonoma Town Square. Located at E. Napa Street and Armstrong Drive. The center estate takes up the circular street. This mansion will knock your socks off.
This beauty from the past in architectural looks but present in building codes, sits right on Armstrong Drive off E. Napa Street. In my mind, I can see the children running around on the wrap around porch, while mom sits in her rocker pealing apples. I have placed this as a seperate tip to show the beauty of the homes I thought were fantastic.
Sugarloaf State Park is in close-by Kenwood. Take Highway 12 to the Landmark Winery and then turn right. Go up the hill until you get to the park. Miles of hiking trails in gorgeous wooded surroundings offer some spectacular views, and you get a real appreciation for Bald Mountain Vineyard planted on the steep hills.
The Cornerstone Gardens, located outside of Sonoma, are unlike any gardens you've ever seen. The New York Times has said that they blur "the boundary between landscape architecture and art."
Designed by well-known landscape artists, the 20+ individual gardens are more like three-dimensional artwork that you can walk through and touch and experience, e.g. a red bamboo maze with a reflection pool at the center, a wall made of eucalyptus bark, undulating hills covered with soft rope, simulating a Vietnamese lullaby; a colorful field of daisy pinwheels.
The Blue Tree -- a dying tree resurrected as art, with 70,000 sky-blue Christmas ornaments glued to its branches and trunk -- is a landmark on the road into Sonoma, so it was interesting to me to see it close up for the first time. (And, yes, we've heard every joke in the book about blue balls...) I was just as glad, however, that the army of sinister, illuminated snowmen that appear every year at Christmas time had been packed away. They remind me of the Wicked Witch's minions in The Wizard of Oz.
The complex also includes wine shops, a café, and galleries full of interesting things that I could never afford. There are event spaces that can be rented for parties and weddings.
23570 Highway 121 (Arnold Drive), across from Gloria Ferrar Winery -- see website for directions. Open daily 10 - 4. Children are welcome. Admission to the gardens is $7. Wear comfortable shoes and sunglasses -- there's not much shade.
Jack London State Park, dedicated to the prolific American author whose works include The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf, is located in Glen Ellen, about 8 miles from Sonoma. This is an interesting day trip that will satisfy history mavens, literature buffs, and outdoor enthusiasts.
The 800 acre park includes The House of Happy Walls (now a museum showcasing London's travels and writings), where he and his wife Charmian lived, the guest cottage where he did his writing, his innovative pig farm that neighbors dubbed "The Pig Palace," stables, barns, and the ruins of the magnificent Wolf House that was to be the Londons' new home. Wolf House was destroyed by fire before they could move in. London's grave, marked only by a boulder, is also in the park, and there are other hiking and horseback riding trails, as well as picnic areas. Photography is not allowed in the museum.
The hike to Wolf House is about half a mile along a mostly-paved trail, and it's a walk I'd highly recommend. Coming through the trees and suddenly catching sight of those immense stone ruins is very impressive. Wear comfortable walking shoes and take water with you. There are drinking fountains and port-o-sans along the way. Golf cart rides for visitors who cannot manage the walk may be arranged in advance with the park rangers.
Hours: 10 AM to 5 PM during standard time and 10 AM to 7 PM during daylight savings time. Park entrance fee is $6 per car -- $5 for seniors (over 62).
Directions from Sonoma: Get onto Arnold Drive heading west. Follow Arnold Drive through the Sonoma Developmental Center and into the town of Glen Ellen. Turn left at London Ranch Road. Follow the signs to Jack London State Park.
From the plaza head west up Hwy 12 about 3 miles to Aqua Caliente Rd. Turn right, go up the hill, then down the hill and turn right onto Park Ave. You will see a wild wall. Using heavy equipment and a group of Hispanic stonemasons a local artist built a series of walls with protruding boulders and metal accents that must be seen to be believed. Is it candy for the eye or just an eyesore? You be the judge, but only a local like Jake Lorenzo would show you this.
The Fruit Basket turned out to be a place to buy much more than just fruit or vegetables. There were wines for sale, assorted breads and biscuits, hordes of pre-packed nuts and candies and other miscellaneous items. Ok, so I really just wanted to stop for a picture with the haystack decorated with pumpkins, which is actually what caught my attention and caused me to swerve into the driveway.
After we made our purchases from the Vella Cheese Factory and stepped out into the sidewalk, I saw a sign across the street and just had to check it out. It was a very simple self-serve produce stand filled with autumn's bounty. The first thing that caught my eye were the fresh figs in their crates! The taste of fresh figs were a mystery to me until then. I let out a shriek and made a beeline for them.
The kind man in charge was thrilled that I was thrilled and he immediately transferred some into a little plastic basket, which is how they measure and price them, and asked me how many I wanted. I stammered something about 3 or 4, paid him and grabbed a basket from him. He said to go right ahead and try them, so I did. I bit into one and felt a little bit closer to paradise. I closed my eyes and really tasted it. It was incredibly sweet! It's unique texture is a combination of it's smooth thin skin, crunchy seeds and soft chewy flesh. It was gooooooood! And very well worth the wait. :)
Most tourists will find their way into the Sonoma Jack Cheese shop on the plaza. The cheese is good, but the place is overrun with tourists. Locals travel a few blocks from the plaza to buy wonderful cheese produced by local legend Ig Vella. Vella Cheese Company is located at 315 Second St. East. Most famous for his Sonoma Dry Jack, Vella has a terrific Oregon Blue made by Ig's brother and loads of other interesting cheeses. They even make their own butter.