While “hustle and bustle” of Wine Country isn’t really a thing, we all know about the fast-paced life of the San Francisco Bay Area. If you want to dial it way back, the tiny, sparsely populated towns of Occidental and Freestone make up the perfect Wine Country getaway for exploring some of the more unique and charming nooks and crannies of Sonoma County.
Only about 90 minutes from San Francisco, and mere miles from the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River, Occidental and Freestone are nestled in a nature-lover’s dream, with plenty to explore — including the state’s famous Redwood forests — on foot, kayak, bike, or horseback. These towns are also rich with history, not to mention plenty of opportunities to sip and savor local wines and culinary delights at independent and family-run places.
If you can, grab a room at the Inn at Occidental, where Wine Country charm meets old-fashioned hospitality in a cozy yet elegant setting. You will feel like you are staying with close relatives as you are welcomed by owners Jerry & Tina Wolsborn, and invited to mix and mingle with other guests during the hotel’s complimentary evening reception featuring Sonoma County Wine. Try not to get lost among the variety of antiques, artwork, family heirlooms, and treasures that adorn each room and hallway, making it truly unique.
The Occidental Guest House properties are another standout option in the area. Visitors stay in lodging that is beautifully integrated with surrounding nature — some of the most majestic in California. Choose from three different guest houses, depending on your preferred natural element: The Farmhouse, The Trees, or The Hills. All three offer spectacular views of the Occidental Valley and surrounding Redwoods. The restaurant at the adjoining Union Hotel offers family-style Italian dining seven days a week.
For a slice of history, stay at the Valley Ford Hotel, built in 1864 but appointed with modern Wine Country amenities. Each room features Egyptian cotton sheets, bathrobes, and oversized bath towels to enhance your stay.
If it were us, we would grab a fresh-baked brick oven loaf (or scone or pastry) at Wild Flour Bread in Freestone and some other provisions like cheese, roasted nuts, and sweet and savory crêpes at Freestone Artisan Cheese, along with a bottle or two of local Sonoma County wine, then picnic somewhere amidst the natural California beauty that Freestone and Occidental have to offer.
If more traditional restaurant dining is what you’re going for, snag a table at Hazel along the scenic, two-lane Bohemian Highway in Occidental for wood-fired pizzas, roasted octopus, and other Cal-Mediterranean dishes, not to mention tons of local wines. Just up the street, also on Bohemian Highway, is Negri’s Original Italian Restaurant, serving up traditional Italian fare served family-style. Four generations of authentic Italian family recipes have earned this restaurant a thriving business since 1943. Sip a seasonal cocktail at the adjoining Joe’s Bar, then save room for a plate of deep-fried Oreos for dessert. For down home cooking that focuses on organic, locally sourced ingredients, visit Howard Station Café in Occidental, but be sure to bring cash because the restaurant doesn’t accept credit cards.
Don’t let the sleepy vibe of Freestone and Occidental fool you. You can still stay plenty busy while you are visiting. Adventurous types will want to check out Sonoma Canopy Tours. These guided eco-adventures feature zip lines, sky bridges, and rappels for panoramic forest views and unparalleled immersion in the beauty of California’s Coastal Redwoods.
For some lower-key exploration, head to Western Hills Garden, just off Bohemian Highway in Occidental. Described by the New York Times as “The Tiffany’s of Plants,” Western Hills Garden is open for public tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment. Bring lunch, your dog, and the kids and dine al fresco in the picnic area or outdoor event space. The lush garden, nestled among the Redwoods, even offers scavenger hunts for the little ones.
For the ultimate in Wine Country relaxation, book a treatment, such as the signature Cedar-Enzyme Bath, at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. Don’t forget to check out their award-winning Japanese gardens for some self-care and reflection.
During your stay, be sure to also visit Hand Goods in Occidental to browse through the handcrafted goods, artisan jewelry, and works produced by local artists and authors for a unique gift or memento from your trip.
No trip to Sonoma County would be complete without a little wine tasting, so make sure to leave some time for sipping. While the region is home to some of Northern California’s most celebrated vineyards, many of these are not open for tours and tastings. There is nevertheless a small handful of wineries open to the public.
Furthermore Wines, just north of Sebastopol, offers a selection of limited-release wines made primarily from pinot noir. Owners Bob Zeches and Chad Richard are deeply passionate about the exploration of how pinot noir expresses itself throughout the different macro- and microclimates of California, a love that shows in their lineup of wines — available for tasting daily.
Stop in to the tasting room at Bohème Wines in Occidental, named after the Bohemian Highway that winds through the Redwoods, vineyards, and farms of the Sonoma Coast. Here, you will sip estate-grown, small production wines made primarily from pinot noir, chardonnay, and zinfandel, crafted at the hands of owner/winemaker Kurt Beitler.
For a mere $5, you can belly up to the tasting bar at the family-owned and operated Occidental Road Cellars and sip chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel, and syrah grown from lands farmed by the family for four generations.
In Freestone, book an appointment at the small, family-owned Freeman Vineyard & Winery. Believing that California is as capable of producing wines as noteworthy as those from another of their favorite regions — Burgundy — owners Ken and Akiko Freeman set out to produce world-class, cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay in Western Sonoma County. Tastings are $30 and limited to groups of six or less. They include a tour of the winery as well as the adjacent Gloria Vineyard, Freeman’s first estate vineyard property, and a tasting of small-lot chardonnay and pinot noir from the West Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley.