At the corner of an indiscriminate intersection, at the edge of Sebastapol, lies an expanse of deserted sheds. It’s quiet. Tumbleweeds blow down the street. Well, I’d like to think they did. It’s Friday, 5pm and as far as I am concerned, I’m well overdue for (another) one of Sonoma’s famous wines after cycling through the countryside to closely “inspect” some of the wineries it is renowned for.
My guide assures me, however, that we need to make this one last stop; one that requires a secret handshake; a special knock, only known to the locals.
A few phone calls later the gates creak open and we’re inside; like a couple of thirsty mobsters about to make a majorly expensive and equally dodgy trade, we drive slowly through to its furthest corner.
And there it was: what we were looking for – The Ace in the Hole. Tucked away inside the monolithic home of Ace Premium Craft Cider, the largest and oldest craft cider producers on the west coast, is its tiny bar, open only between the hours of 1pm and 5pm on a Friday, if that. Lucky for me, things seem to be kicking on through to early evening.
The “publican” comes out to greet us. Geoffrey House is actually the founder of Ace, a rosy-cheeked, wisecracking Englishman with a knack for making you feel right at home, and immediately organises a “flight” of his ciders, each the size of a pot; a dizzying number of ciders, with similar effect. The favourite flavour in Australia, he informs me with a grin, is pineapple.
House made Sonoma his home in 1993, finding the county’s apple country like “England with sunshine”.
Armed with $1000, he began importing beers and cider from Britain. There’s not much need for imports now, with 500 cideries competing for attention across the country as the drink booms in popularity.
He proudly displays one of his latest bottled ciders that bears a familiar face. Ace’s “Space” is named in honour of his wife Angela, who appeared in the original Star Wars movie during the Cantina scene as one of the intergalactic hookers. Released just in time for the latest Star Wars instalment, it pairs real blood orange juice with fresh pressed apple juice. It’s an “other-worldy flavour combination”, he explains, but makes a great substitute for a brunch mimosa.
Ace in the Hole has the feel of an English pub crossed with a downstairs pool room; a man tinkers on a piano in the corner, there’s darts, and a handful of regulars sit quaffing ciders from pint glasses with their dogs at their feet, while House charms punters with his distinctly English sense of humour, which has not faded in 20 years of Californian living.
I’ve got to squash that desire to kick back and chat with the locals after my taste test – this is the Sonoma effect. Surrounded in natural beauty, and bountiful in produce, this county is one where you should sit, relax, drink some wine, eat some cheese and savour. And in April, under cloudless blue skies, when the weather is warm and sunny, its effect is instant.
Sonoma is much more sedate than the neighbouring Napa Valley; there’s no buses, but bikes; and its small wineries are run by people who’ve made their megabucks elsewhere and want to live the Sonoma dream. Time is a rough guide rather than a rule.
It’s a pretty, short drive from the backstreets of Sebastapol to the tiny Italian-themed town of Occidental. On arrival at the Inn at Occidental, I’m informed I’ve missed “wine hour” but nonetheless a large glass of red is thrust into my hands, and there’s another bottle waiting in my room from Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville. Each of the impeccable, homely rooms at the Inn are themed – mine of safari – and contain a huge spa bath. I’m sorry I don’t get to spend more time enjoying, as I have dinner reservations at one of the best restaurants in the county, Hazel’s, which serves superb Italian cuisine with a Californian bent.
This is followed up by a spectacular, homestyle two-course breakfast at the Inn before I head to the mysterious woods behind the tiny Occidental township, where there is an equally tiny grove of famous California redwoods, and not a soul about.
The scenery is perfect fodder to Sonoma’s worst kept secret – the Bohemian Grove, a real-life secret society, touched on in the murkiness of the second season of HBO’s television show True Detective. Like the Freemasons, its members are a group of elite, powerful men rumoured to bear names such as Bush, Roosevelt, Reagan, Rumsveld and Eisenhower. For years – 130 of them in fact – people have speculated over its connections to the occult and its wild parties, its ridiculous fees – including $25,000 for initiation – and the conveniently close tiny airport where you could discretely park your private jet.
From the redwoods, a windy road ribbons around rolling green hills that seem to fall straight into the ocean. A left turn will take you to Bodega Bay; right will escort you north to Jenner, along the Pacific Coast Highway.
I get a taste of the stretch of this magnificent coastal road towards Bodega before heading inland to Sebastopol’s The Barlow, a fairly new complex where you can skip from yoga class to a pizzeria, bakery, brewery or distillery. I amble over to the Nectary and glance at its new-age smoothie menu and groan inwardly (housemade RAW pumpkin mylk? Kale?) but when I take a sip of my luminescent green-coloured selection, I’m forced to swallow my scorn as it is one of the best smoothies I’ve tasted. The protein balls aren’t bad either.
I can’t overdo it as 10 minutes down the road along the Bohemian Highway lies the-little-town-that-wasn’t of Freestone, where the entire population of Sonoma have flocked outside its famous bakery, Wildflower. Four friendly ladies offer samples of sticky buns or unusually flavoured artisan bread such as goat’s cheese and olive. I’m dismayed to discover it’s cash only, but I’m not the only one, which is why these trusty ladies accept IOUs if you care to make a return trip.
The Joseph Phelps winery dominates the landscape here, and on a Saturday it’s a pleasant place to while away an hour while waiting for a massage at the Osmosis Day Spa, where you can enjoy a long Swedish massage or just relax in the peaceful Japanese Gardens. If you’re not feeling zen after this essential Sonoma experience, there’s something terribly wrong.
Allow a lot of time heading to the northern coastal town of Jenner, where the Pacific Coast beckons seductively, and it’s hard to resist photo stops at every corner. North of Point Reyes, this is where the coastal road changes for the better; on a Saturday, there is still little traffic and stopping is easy, in stark contrast to any stretches of the same road further south. At this time of year, the hills are bright green and dotted with contrasting orange flowers that are illuminated by the sun, and as it dips into the horizon, locals wait in camp chairs on the cliff’s fringes to watch the show, glass of wine in hand.
Back in the tiny township of Jenner, which sits along the mouth of the Russian River, people are jostling for space on the balcony at restaurant Rivers End to get the best spot for a view of the sunset, which hovers over a beachside cliff and has views directly up the northern coastline. When I step out onto the crowded balcony with a cacophony of other photographers, the sun burns fiercely as it dips into the horizon, sending a haze of orange over the craggy islands in the distance. A burly Danish man steps out onto the balcony and announces, “free drinks at the bar in five minutes!” laughing uproariously, but his agenda to clear the balcony fails rather epically.
Jenner may lack telephone reception and Wi-Fi, but on this Saturday night at Rivers End it more than compensated with warm hospitality thanks to a superb waitress, excellent Californian nosh and convivial atmosphere.
Drivers are warned to allow ample time to continue the drive north of Jenner as the coastal road zigzags and hairpin turns weave throughout quiet towns and fishing villages. There’s barely space to pull over for photo stops, and believe me, you’ll want to stop.
It’s the San Andreas fault that causes this crazy landscape from Jenner, which goes out to sea a few hours north at Point Arena.
I allow plenty of time to meet my guide and still manage to be a few minutes late before we head out to Salt Point State Park, a wild looking outpost where wildflowers have started blooming, leaving parts of it bright pink, with spatterings of yellow and red. It already looks spectacular, so in May when they reach full bloom, one can only imagine.
Out here, the stunning Pacific Coast bewitches those looking for a seachange, but it’s a tough move; with jobs, friends and even mobile reception hard to come by, they rarely last longer than three years.
On Sunday morning there’s the odd fisherman and few hikers, but plenty of wildlife. Harbour seals – those loveable “sausages of the sea” – lie in uncomfortable positions over rocks in the sun, wide smiles on their faces. Hawks swoop at potential meals on the green hills. But all this fades into the background when a pod of grey whales come into shore. I’ve seen plenty of whales up and down the Californian coastline, but none this thrillingly close; I could have almost hi-fived a fin, clearly making out the white scars speckled over their huge bodies from barnacles as they slowly breached from the swirling seas below.
I resist the urge to abandon my plans and continue north up the Pacific Coast; but San Francisco – a mere hour or two away by car – beckons.