Napa once held little attraction for tourists beyond the discounts at its premium outlets, but foodies and wine lovers routinely pay their respects at several stops along the highway. If you’re driving up from Oakland, pull into Yountville for a sweet from Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery (6528 Washington St., Yountville, 707-944-2253). Enjoy this taste of Keller’s magic because if you haven’t reserved well in advance, don’t expect a table at either of his restaurants, Bouchon bistro and The French Laundry. Do try your luck on the other side of the highway, however, at Domaine Chandon (1 California Drive Yountville, 888-242-6366), which makes an impressive place to stop for lunch and a glass of bubbly. Equally worthy is Domaine Carneros (1240 Duhig Road, Napa, 707-257-0101) which serves its bubbly and still wines from a French chateau-style winery.
Nearby St. Helena is also a charming town where Food Network fans will want to check out the Culinary Institute of America (2555 Main St. St. Helena, 707-967-2320) where you might take a cooking class or stop at the Spice Islands Marketplace for a chocolate tasting. If you’re run ragged, pause in Calistoga for its natural hot springs and mud baths.
Horseback riders, kayakers, and surfers will be drawn to the Sonoma Coast’s Bodega Bay, but the spot also packs appeal for spectators who favor quieter pursuits like whale watching as well as searching for aquatic life in tide pools, best attempted an hour before low tide. Speaking of wildlife, Sonoma County harbors a 400-acre slice of Africa that calls itself Safari West (3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, (800-616-2695) where giraffes, cheetahs, and zebras roam. Walk among the animal enclosures or hop on a double-decker bus for a narrated tour.
Yellowstone’s Old Faithful is a bit of a drive, of course, but you can get your geyser fix at Old Faithful Geyser of California. (1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga 707-942-6463), which spews hot water and steam upwards of 100 feet in the air every half hour. Just as impressive are the trees in these parts. At the Petrified Forest, (4100 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga, 707-942-6667) step back in time to see oaks, redwoods, and pine trees that have turned into stone. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the place up in his book Silverado Squatters; naturalists give tours of the forest if you want one.
From Santa Rosa, it's a winding 40-minute drive out to the town of Sonoma, but don’t rush the trip. Highway 12, better known as the Sonoma Highway, is dotted with wineries beckoning you to stop and sip. Prominent because of their imposing entryways along the highway are St. Francis (100 N. Pythian Road, Santa Rosa, 707-833-2148), Chateau St. Jean (8555 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-833-4134) and Blackstone (8450 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 800-955-9585). Their tasting rooms will satisfy your thirst for zinfandel, chardonnay or merlot. Closer to town, Kenwood Inn & Spa (10400 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-833-1293) is a good bet for lunch or a massage. Also stroll the historic town square, ringed by such shops as Red Wolf Gallery (134 Church St. Sonoma, 707-996-5111), whose courtyard’s filled with found-object sculptures.
Just down the street, the Vella Cheese Company (315 Second St. East. Sonoma, 800-848-0505) has made wheels of award winning Monterey Jack since 1931. Probably the best known restaurant here is Sondra Bernstein's super charming The Girl and The Fig, (110 W. Spain St. Sonoma, 707-938-3634) with spot-on French fare. Despite being in the middle of cabernet country, this spot features Rhone varietals including Grenache, syrah, viognier, and marsanne.
This may be the toniest town in western Sonoma County, but don’t be intimidated. Exploring the main square and its side streets could take up the better part of a day. Pick up a pair of chic shoes or just gaze longingly at creations by designers like Jeffrey Campbell and Coclico at Rainsong Shoes (117 Plaza St., 707-433-8058). If you're feeling guilty about leaving Rex at the kennel, get him a consolation prize at Fideaux (43 North St., 707-433-9935). The most beautiful delicate glassware, bar sets, and table top accessories await at Saint Dizier Home (259 Center St., 707-473-0980). Or pick up a juicy vacation novel or a book on wine-making at independent seller Copperfield's Books (104 Matheson St., 707-433-9270).
It wouldn't be a trip to Healdsburg without a meal and choices include an outpost of the vegan Cafe Gratitude (206 Healdsburg Ave, 707-824-4652). The locals hit Scopa (109A Plaza St. 707-433-5282) for seasonal Italian style dishes, while foodies make the pilgrimage to Cyrus (29 North St. 707-433-3311), where Doug Keane creates multi-course seasonal menus.
Napa’s counterpoint is all open expanses, winding roads with names like Apple Blossom Lane, and cows grazing in a field. While crisscrossing this farm country on Highways 12 and 116, expect to get lost, even if you do have a map. Just enjoy what one winery owner calls the mystery tour in Sonoma.
The Russian River Valley's bright days and cool nights lend themselves to creating beautiful pinot noirs like those at Martin Ray (2191 Laguna Road, Santa Rosa, 707-82302404) and the complex syrah at Dutton Estate Winery (8757 Green Valley Road, Sebastopol, 707-829-9463). Iron Horse Vineyards (9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol 707-887-1507) uses chardonnay and pinot noir to make still wines and award-winning sparkling wines. The rustically beautiful plain-air tasting room overlooks Green Valley. Stop into Kozlowski Farms (5566 Gravenstein Highway 116, Forestville, 707-887-1587) for a jar of jam, specialty mustard, or a turnover made from their estate-grown apples.
Sebastopol's a town where the Age of Aquarius dawned about 40 years ago and still hasn't ended. The front yards of Florence Street, strewn with crazy junk art sculptures, help underscore that vibe. If you’re hungry yet again head over to the casual-chic organic cafe Peter Lowell's ( 7385 Gravenstein Highway, Sebastopol, 707-829-1077) for a hand thrown pizza, a slice of Meyer lemon tart or some organic wine, or check out local fave Zazu (3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-4814), where John Stewart and Duskie Estes deify pork and local produce.
Napa and Sonoma wine country has always been about grapes and gourmet dining, but limiting yourself to those obvious charms means missing out on so much. There are also stellar independent shops, art galleries, natural hot springs, and even giraffes. By all means spend the day in polished Napa and make time for the beauty of Sonoma's scenery, but remember that there’s plenty in between. By Maria C. Hunt