In the Lap of Luxury in Sonoma Wine Country Inns
The Pacific was not pacified. Between the strong wind and the deafening sound of crushing waves there was no place for a peaceful stroll on a beach or a picnic under a rock. I had to scramble the initial plan and resort to just standing there, tightly draped in my pea coat, on an otherwise warm sunny day. Watching the rabid sea foam rushing to my feet I remembered a popular warning to never turn one’s back to the ocean. There were cases… killer waves, rip currents, lost souls. A half-immersed rock in front of me resembled a sitting puma. I was staring at the bottle-green rolls of water, at the foamy plumes flying over the puma’s head, and trying to maintain my relative wind-resistance.
There are very few places in the world that can match Northern California, my home sweet home at the moment. With its wild Pacific Coast, its towering redwoods, and fruitful vineyards, nature is the ultimate luxury here. When I want to take my dear husband Yuri on a romantic getaway (yes, ladies, that’s our job) I always look for a sweet deal at one of the Sonoma County Inns. Russian River Valley, our fave for weekend trips, has it all: wineries and wine tasting (Korbel Champagne, anyone?), Sonoma County State Park with a string of sandy beaches and volcanic rock formations, Bodega Bay with flowering aloe vera (and of course, The Birds), a harbor seal colony in the river delta, and Armstrong Redwoods.
Our first night was booked at Applewood Inn in nearby Guerneville. Those who know and love Applewood as much as I do might want to keep it a secret, but like all great things in life it really belongs to humanity, so let me tell you about this place. The owners, Carlos Pippa and Sylvia Ranyak acquired the property last year when they decided to settle in a beautiful place where they would enjoy the nature, the weather, and the lifestyle of California Wine Country. When avid world travelers like Carlos and Sylvia pick a place you better believe this would be about the best place on Earth. The spouses used to own and manage a number of various businesses and travel extensively, recently from Texas to Rio de Janeiro on a BMW motorcycle. Now, in their new roles, they are trying to establish long lasting relationships with their colleague innkeepers and local winemakers, and to provide their clientele with a luxurious romantic experience in a serene and secluded natural environment.
I like to stay on the premises and just soak in the atmosphere of this unique place. Every room in Applewood Inn has its own style, is lovingly decorated, equipped with a fireplace, some with Jacuzzi, and provides lots of rustic charm and comfort. Smaller and cozier rooms are located in the original historic Belden House; larger ones in two newer buildings Piccola Casa and Gate House, reminiscent of an Italian villa and surrounding a rectangular courtyard with a soothing fountain and fragrant rose and lavender bushes. An open air pool with a hot tub is framed by tall redwoods, and a few steps uphill over the pool area, there is an emerald lawn covered with marigolds where it would be great to suntan or have a picnic while enjoying the view of the surrounding hills. The Restaurant at Applewood Inn is the owners’ pride and joy. Awarded top Zagat Guide honors, Diner’s Choice from Open Table, and ranked among the best by Michelin, Fodor and Frommer Guides, it is a destination restaurant at its best. Its highly educated Executive Chef Bruce Frieseke, well-versed in both French and Italian classic cuisine, puts up a seasonal menu full of discoveries and delicious surprises.
On the night we dined, the chef extraordinaire served his own version of burrata. A silky morsel of ricotta cheese was wrapped in creamy mozzarella, garnished with green almonds and pureed sorrel, and decorated with golden calendula petals. Delicate new potatoes soup came with slippery pungent wild mushrooms, tiny bits of crispy bacon, Podere Cogno Leccino olive oil and purple chive blossoms. A perennial people’s choice cocoa nib crusted rack of lamb was accompanied by velvety and refreshingly green mint chimichurri sauce. With a full bar and an extensive wine list featuring many excellent local varietals, the beautifully decorated in red, golden and chocolate hues restaurant with a large fireplace is ideal for small weddings and rehearsal dinners, however, it has a firm policy of providing enough quiet and private space for romantic couples who frequent the Inn. Through the end of this year, Applewood Inn, Restaurant & Spa offers discounts for longer stays and other savings.
For our second night we were heading down South from the Russian River delta to The Inn at Occidental, stopping at all the coastal lookouts from Furlong Gulch to Arched Rock Beach. When it was time to head to the Inn for the nightly social hour, my husband left it up to me to decide which road we should take to our destination: proceed to Highway 1 to the South or return to 116 to the North. Not a big fan of straining my eyes over small-print maps I asked which road was shorter, faster, and straighter. In both cases we had to follow a perimeter to get to the point right across from where we were, so both ways were approximately the same. I had to look at the map. The two highways, indeed, flanked a large rectangular area. However, the map also showed a short, if a little crooked, road going from the coast straight to the town of Occidental. Here, I said, we take Coleman Valley Road, and we’ll be there right in time for the first bottle opening. Yuri was not easily convinced. He said that it was a mountainous road and that we had no idea about its condition. We’d never taken it before, and when in a hurry it’s always better to follow a familiar path. It would also be dark soon, and our cell phones were dead. I checked out our resources. We had a bottle of water, a banana, and an apple I had already started eating to assist my thought process. Our gas tank was half-full. The road, it seemed, would take no more than half an hour. I realized we might very well survive a night on the road should we get stranded there with no help. I was determined to take risks and explore. As his last argument, Yuri mentioned that we wouldn’t even know where to turn to the Coleman Valley Road. I said that we wouldn’t be able to miss it, since there were no other roads going in that direction. The only one we would see to our left would be the correct one. And so we went.
The entrance to the road, like in a fairy tale, was framed with majestic old cypresses, whose branches intertwined above forming a dark passage. Thick trees were adorned with several warning signs. One sign on a private road read: “Though County maintained, no right of way exists. If you are not staying on pavement you might be cited for trespassing.” Yet another sign warned against littering out the car window. I was just trying to get rid of the apple core rotting in my palm, and I knew it was kind of organic biodegradable waste, but the thought of an invisible road cam possibly watching my every move as a potential trespasser made me hold on to the apple remains. For a while, we saw no one. Then a couple of bicyclists passed us by, turned off the pavement and sat on a boulder by the road, resting. A deer crossed right in front of us. I noticed an ocean view from the hilltop, then a picturesque red-roof barn in the midst of emerald greenery, and old pines, yellow mustard flowers, and abundant forget-me-nots by the side of the road.
Soon we were at The Inn at Occidental, just in time for a wine and cheese reception in its Victorian lounge decorated with period antiques and stacked with board games and popular astrology books, and sharing our road adventure with Jerry and Tina Wolsborn, the Inn proprietors and our gracious hosts.
Every meticulously decorated room at the Inn has its own name and its own character. Our Safari Room had giraffes and zebras painted on the wall behind the canopy bed, and wild cats on the opposite wall barred by bronze grills. There were stacks of vintage leather suitcases serving as nightstands, and several African drums in the corner. There were two armchairs on a deck hidden by wisteria flowers, overlooking a fountain in the courtyard, and Out of Africa soundtrack CD playing in the room, and cushions by the fireplace, and a Jacuzzi for two…
In time for dinner, we walked across the street to Bistro des Copains, a local staple, owned and operated by Michel Augsburger and Cluney Stagg. Moules a la Crème, plump mussels in white wine and crème fraiche sauce with shallots and garlic, were followed by the house specialties – Boeuf en Doube a la Provencale and Poulet Fermiere au Vinaigre. In French country style, beef short rib braised in red wine was served in a cast iron cocotte, and delectable Rosie’s chicken in apple cider vinegar came in a skillet, sided by classic mashed potatoes and green beans. Russian River Valley 2007 Dutton-Goldfield pinot noir from the extensive and ever changing wine list perfectly complemented the food.
Next morning, a famed Inn at Occidental breakfast of homemade waffles, muffins, jams, juices, and freshly brewed coffee was served in a spacious dining room downstairs, and the entire staff of the Inn was assisting guests with locating their chosen venues for the day on the map. Some headed for the winery tours, others were hoping for whale watching, or planning horseback riding. For us it was time to start packing, but before leaving the hospitable Inn we asked to see some of the just-vacated rooms. A couple of years back, we stayed in the Sonoma Lodge room, painted the color of California sky, and decorated with birch branches over the bed, fishing nets and rods, a backpack, and other outdoorsy artifacts. This time we briefly glanced at the soothingly-green Leaf Umbrella Room, the luxurious Tiffany Room, the Ivory Room with its display case of ivory netsuke, the Sandwich Glass Suite showcasing a collection of the original sandwich glass, and the Marbles Suite with a boxful of antique marbles. We favored the Cirque du Sonoma Room with its circus memorabilia and toy clowns. Soon we were heading back to the Coleman Valley Road, now our favorite route to and from the town of Occidental.
13555 Rte 116
The Inn at Occidental
3657 Church Street
Bistro des Copains
3782 Bohemian Highway