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!
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.
- San Francisco International Airport is only 90 minutes south. Enjoy the scenic drive with a photo stop at the north end of Golden Gate Bridge.
- Sacramento International Airport is just over an hour northwest with convenient I-80W access.
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.
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.
- El Mariachi Café, an ultra-casual Mexican joint with first-rate burritos
- The farm-to-table, countryside Corks at Russian River Vineyards
- The iconic Russian River Pub for great burgers and patio dining
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).
- East Ridge Trail for older kids, an easy 2.2 mile loop course with moderate climb
- A leisurely stroll along Johnson’s Beach
- Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail, Bodega
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.
- Burke’s Canoe Trips self-guided canoe and kayak adventures on the Russian River
- Russian River Adventures
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.
- Negri’s Original Italian Restaurant of Occidental, serving Italian classics since 1943
- The chef-driven Backyard of Forestville with potpie, fried chicken and steak frites
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.
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.
- Wild Flour Bread’s hot-from-the-wood-fired-oven fresh artisanal loaves, scones and sticky buns plus coffee drinks
- Rocker Oysterfeller’s Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; charming Valley Ford
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.
- Horseback riding at the 378-acre ocean view Chanselor Ranch overlooking Bodega Bay
- Water Treks EcoTours and Kayak Rentals, Jenner
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.
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.
- Lombardi’s BBQ Deli with its expansive lawns for playing
- Filling, handcrafted casual Italian at Art’s Place
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.
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.
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.
- The centrally located Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel
- Hillside Inn with kitchenettes, a swimming pool, and walk-to-shops/restaurants location
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.
- The family owned Mary’s Pizza Shack with excellent pastas and chicken Parmigiana, too
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 sonomacounty.com.
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 careysweet.com.