Sonoma County: A Guide to the Perfect Family Friendly Vacation

April 27, 2016 at 5:18 pm

The secret to a successful family vacation, as any parent knows, is variety. Balancing things the kids want to do, with adventures that will keep mom and dad loving life, is that sometimes elusive charm. It’s a truth no matter what thrilling part of the globe you’re tripping.

In Sonoma County, with more than a million acres to explore, there’s something to engage everyone from the tiniest traveler, to picky teenagers, to world-traveled adults looking forward to indulging in authentic Wine Country.

Here, landscapes brim in gorgeous diversity, with sandy beaches and rugged ocean cliff hiking trails beckoning, alongside grassy meadows tempting for picnics, lakes and ponds promising boating and fishing, and mountain trails perfect for hiking as they soar to scenic peaks amid lush forests.

In the many tiny towns anchored by relatively large city of Santa Rosa (172,000 pop.), there’s plenty for families to do indoors, as well, like ice skating year-round, visiting world class art galleries, and playing state-of-the-art arcades.

Certainly you could spend a week or more in Sonoma County and just scratch the surface of its many joys. But even a two-day getaway comes packed with delights the whole family can enjoy – all together!

Day 1

Fly into Sonoma County Airport (STS), right in the heart of the Santa Rosa vineyard region, and convenient as a connection from major hubs like Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas.

Other options:

Head first to the storybook town of Occidental, and check into the Inn at Occidental, a cozy, 28 room retreat nestled at the base of a beautiful redwood forested hillside that’s perfect for letting kids burn off steam with Mother Nature. Theme rooms are fun, like the Safari suite boasting a giraffe mural. There’s a seasonal swimming pool, and you’re just steps from the Village’s restaurants, Friday Night Farmers Market, Performing Arts Center, and eclectic shops like Mad Hatter Toys, or Hand Goods, offering a fine selections of locally-crafted works such as pottery, hand knits and jewelry.

Inn occidental safari room

Inn at Occidental Safari Room

Other options:

After a morning touring the village, enjoy lunch at the Union Hotel, founded as a railroad saloon and boarding house in 1879, and now home to a lovely Italian café, bakery and pizzeria. Run by the property’s owners since 1925, the café is pure charm, from the red-checkered tablecloth tables set with candles dripping over Chianti bottles, portraits of the original owners on the walls, and whimsical touches like a jukebox. Favorites include chicken Parm, grilled rib eye with mushrooms, Margherita pizza, a mouthwatering spaghetti/ravioli combo smothered in Bolognese, and an appealing kids menu.

Other options:

Next, amble over to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in nearby Guerneville. This 805-acre oasis is a quiet place for a leisurely stroll among towering coast redwood trees. As huge as the park is, it’s easy to navigate, over the mostly flat, mile-and-a-half long round trip Pioneer Nature Trail. Some of the most pop­u­lar trees include the Ici­cle Tree, with its mys­te­ri­ous “burl” for­ma­tions, the Colonel Arm­strong Tree, esti­mated to be over 1,400 years old, and the Par­son Jones Tree, towering to 350 feet (that’s taller than a football field is long).

armstrong woods

Armstrong Woods

Other options:

Downtown Guerneville offers plenty of amusement for everyone, as well, browsing eclectic toy stores, vintage shops and art galleries, and a romp at Johnson’s Beach, just beneath Guerneville’s entryway bridge. Here, you can lounge on the spotlessly clean river sandbar with rentable umbrellas and beach chairs, or on the water, meandering its gentle currents with by-the-hour canoes, kayaks and pedal boats.

Other options:

For dinner, Three Alarm Grill on Main Street satisfies everyone with its tasty prime rib specials, chicken pot pie, and the River Dog, an all beef Vienna hot dog wrapped in bacon, with BBQ sauce and fries.

Other options:

Finally, after the kids are tucked in at the hotel, mom and dad can head to Barley and Hops Tavern, to sip local craft beers, nibble on big, warm German pretzels dunked in spicy mustard, and groove to live music on weekends.

barley hops

Barley and Hops Tavern

Day 2:

Welcome morning with a delicious breakfast at Howards Station Café, a quaint Victorian home-turned-restaurant complete with a dine-in porch. The menu is expansive, ranging from corned beef hash and homemade biscuits, to smoked salmon Florentine omelets, crab Benedict, and even tofu rancheros with soy cheese.

Howard's Station Cafe

Howard’s Station Cafe

Other options:

Fueled up, it’s time to zip over nearby Sonoma Canopy Tours, for zip-lining. The course wings you up to 25 miles per hour through an Occidental redwood forest, over a ravine 300-feet below, and along a creek. Part of the fun is just getting to the jump canopies, since eleven different platforms test your clambering skills, too, daring you to scale a skinny spiral staircase 30 feet up, and wobble across a 175-foot-long sky bridge.

Zip lining!

Zip lining!

Other options:

Next, channel everyone’s energy  to Scandia Family Fun Center in Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa. This is a kid’s fantasyland including two 18-hole miniature golf courses complete with tiny buildings, bridges, and waterways, 18 batting cages with slow pitch and fast pitch, bumper “blaster” boats equipped with water sprayers, a Lil’ Indy Raceway, and an indoor game arcade.

Scandia Family Fun Center

Scandia Family Fun Center












By now, you’re hungry, so skip over to the new Amy’s Drive-Thru just up the street. It’s fast food with burgers, burritos and pizzas, but everything is purely vegetarian and made from scratch. You don’t even have to tell the kids – they won’t notice it’s not meat in the divine Amy’s Burger of two veggies-grains-mushrooms patties topped with double cheese, tomato, onion, Sonoma Brinery pickle, and Fred Sr.’s regular or spicy secret sauce all on a toasted bun.

Other options:

Scamper over to Petaluma now, for a complimentary (reservations, please) tour of Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory, the oldest and largest sticker company in the United States. You can admire some of the millions of stickers getting printed, plus there’s a sticker museum, a gift shop, and a class where kids — young and old — can decorate postcards using the signature stickers.

Next, head into nearby Santa Rosa, for a tour of the Charles M. Schulz Museum. The entire family surely adores Peanuts, and this is a true museum celebrating the longtime former Santa Rosa resident cartoonist. Spanning 27,000 square feet of whimsy and art, including about 7,000 original cartoons, it’s the largest collection in the world. The Peanuts crew was often seen skating in popular strips, so in tribute, Snoopy’s Home Ice operates year-round just around the corner from the museum, too, with open public skating and skate rental daily.

Snoopy's Den

Snoopy’s Den

You’re ready to put up your feet for a bit by now, so check into your rooms at Flamingo Conference Resort & Spa in Santa Rosa. Newly remodeled luxury rooms attract modern guests for sleek fixtures in cozy palates of gold and cream, yet the property is still a beloved heritage destination for its stylish wood-trimmed rooms that once welcomed celebrities like Jayne Mansfield.

The low-slung style of dramatic stone and glass spans several wings of suites around a lavish pool and expansive gardens, now designated a Historic Landmark, and still 1950’s retro-chic marked by a

revolving, neon trimmed 50-foot tower capped with a spindly legged pink bird neon sign.

Flamingo Pool

Flamingo Pool

Bonus: all stays include a breakfast buffet and free wine tasting passes at a rainbow array of nearby wineries, while mom and dad will like the salsa dancing lessons in the ballroom, too.

Other options:

Finish for dinner at Flavor Bistro, located on Old Courthouse Square. This Cal-American bar and eatery is a see-and-be-seen destination for business folks, politicians, neighborhood regulars, and the occasional very lucky tourist who happens to discover a local (secret) treasure. Dinner is a particular jewel, starting with the extensive Sonoma-centric wine list, and luxurious entrées such as pan-roasted quail, center-cut short ribs, or roast duck in honey-balsamic reduction.

On Farmhouse Wednesdays, the kitchen sends out full, first-rate family style suppers with a glass of wine included, for a jaw dropping $18.95. That might mean chicken Parmigiana, creamy garlic potatoes, arugula pasta, winter veggies, sautéed spinach, Blue Lake beans, heirloom tomato soup, organic romaine salad in lemon-Romano dressing, warm stone oven bread with butter, and pear tart with Chantilly cream.

Other options:

As you’re ready to fly home, keep this in mind: Alaska Airlines invites you to check up to a case of wine for free when you depart from the Sonoma County (STS) / Santa Rosa Airport.

Need more information, please visit

If you are looking for a vacation package, please check out our Napa and Sonoma Valley Package, and start planning your next getaway!

Carey Sweet is a food, wine and travel journalist based in Sonoma County. You can read her work in the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Time Inc. publications, airline travel magazines, Gannett newspapers and numerous travel magazines and websites. Follow her on

A Hawaiian Getaway – Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu and Maui

November 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Are you looking for sun and fun adventure during the winter season? Load up on family fun without unloading your wallet! First time visitors to Hawaii and their families will want to keep this travel list handy for free and nearly free things to see and do on the islands of Maui and Oahu, Hawaii.

Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority – Tor Johnson

Free and Nearly Free Activities in Maui


1.   Tide pooling – A wonderful early evening activity – don’t forget to bring your camera, as the spectacular sunsets are free, as well!  There are several protected tide pool areas around the island of Maui, including the Wailea area near Ulua Beach.  Take a flashlight and water shoes and prepare to find anemone, brittle stars, crabs, eels, sea cucumbers, shrimp and maybe even a baby octopus!

2.   Hiking – Maui is blessed with many hiking trails that run the gamut from highly advanced to easy, family-friendly strolls.  A favorite hike through Ko’olau Forest Reserve starts in a bamboo forest and over the course of a few miles, you’ll find yourself crawling over rocks, crossing streams and swinging from vines.

Hawaii Sunset3.   Take in a sunset – Sunset viewing is a time of gathering with family (ohana) and friends (hoaloha) to toast the close of a day. Maui’s colorful sunsets are best viewed from the south side of the island, including parks such as Kamaole III.  Residents and visitors gather on the grassy knoll and watch for the infamous green flash!

4.   First Friday – As part of the revitalization of Wailuku Town, First Friday, held the first Friday of each month, is a street festival with live music, a beer garden, local crafts and food. The banana lumpia is not to be missed!

5.   Eco-adventures – Voluntourism, as it’s been coined, offers not only free fun for the family but a sense of fulfillment and a greater understanding of the island.  Visitors may work as a farm hand on an organic farm in Kula, collect invasive species at the top of a volcano, or assist in reconstructing an ancient fishpond. You won’t get paid for your work, but the memories are priceless. For more information, check out

Hawaii Snorkeling6.   Snorkeling and scuba diving activities right off Maui’s shores – this counts as FREE only if you happen to have the equipment. However, I think it’s good to note that you don’t have to pay a lot of money for a boat dive when shore dives are easily accessible.

7.   Whale watching during the season (December- March) – the Maalaea area is best for viewing whales. They have pullouts for whale watching along Honoapiilani Road.

8.   Hookipa Lookout – It’s free to watch top windsurfers, surfers, and kiteboarders take on strong winds/waves.  (Near Mama’s Fish House)

9.   The Boo Boo Zoo – or East Maui Animal Refuge – you have to call in advance and they ask for donations but it’s free. The Boo Boo Zoo is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned animals.

10.   Some resorts offer Outrigger Canoe paddling – such as Fairmont Kea Lani and Four Seasons Maui –  free for guests. Makena Beach Resort charges $30 for 1 hour excursions.


Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu


Oahu is an affordable, family-friendly tropical destination with hundreds of exciting things to do, see and experience for FREE or for less than $10 per person. Visit Oahu and discover the energizing sights, sounds, art, culture, history, nature, and adventure of the island.

Photo by Polynesian Cultural Center


1.   Visit the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa on any Friday to experience its weekly Aloha Friday” Polynesian show featuring Tahitian drummers, hula dancers, lei making, and music.

2.   Stop in at the lei stands that line Maunakea Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown and see firsthand how these intricate lei are created.

3.   On the first Friday of every month, art galleries in downtown Honolulu open their doors from 5-9 p.m. at no charge. This event is popular with art enthusiasts of all ages.

4.   Walk the booths at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet for affordable made-in-Hawai‘i souvenirs on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 6 a.m.-3 p.m.

5.   Enjoy locally-grown produce and meats, fragrant flowers and tasty treats at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

6.   Watch the fireworks explode on Friday evenings in remembrance and celebration of King Kalakaua’s Jubilee at Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Photo by Oahu Visitors Bureau

7.   Drive to the North Shore for Matsumoto’s famous shave ice, a Kua Aina hamburger and garlic shrimp from a roadside shrimp truck.

8.   View the work of local artisans at the Art on the Zoo Fence along the fence of the Honolulu Zoo.

9.   Visit Ward Warehouse for free hula lessons on Thursdays, country line dance classes on Tuesdays and live Hawaiian music every first Sunday of the month. While there, check out Ward Centers’ locally-owned boutiques for affordable Hawaii souvenirs.

10.   Meet Hawaii’s local fishermen at the early morning Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38, where the fresh catch is displayed and auctioned off to island chefs and merchants daily at 5 a.m.

Hawaii Sunset

For more information:

Maui Visitors Bureau – Information on sights, activities, events, accommodations and more.
Oahu Visitors Bureau – Information on how to plan your trip to Honolulu and the island of Oahu.
California Tours Hawaii Vacation Packages – California Tours can arrange flights and hotel accommodations in Honolulu and Maui, as well as the Big Island!

About the Author:

Nancy Brown is a lover of all things travel-related.  She has combined her passion for travel with her professional writing career. Aside from writing for California Tours, Nancy has her own travel blog, and writes the “What a Trip” newspaper column for the Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun, a publication of Media News Group.  She is the Lodging Editor for and the on-line Travel Editor for Diablo magazine.  Horse lovers will find her on the Writing Horseback blog.