Downtown Healdsburg has more than 30 tasting rooms, and the surrounding countryside is wall-to-wall vineyards. So when I was invited to sample the merits of this area, I wasn’t sure if I should accept. Should a non-drinker visit Sonoma County? Would I spend three days moping in a corner while my fellow travel writers sniffed, swirled, and swallowed?
I won't deny it that wine is very much a part of Healdsburg. But if you don’t mind the presence of a lot of wine you won’t be drinking, Healdsburg has some fun things to do for non-drinkers. And the countryside is beautiful.
1—Biking in Healdsburg
One of the best things about Healdsburg is how quickly you can rent a bike and ride out of town. “We have some of the best cycling terrains in the world,” Richard Peacock, owner of Spoke Folk Cyclery, told me.
Professional teams come to the area to train in spring. And no wonder! I explored nearby vineyards on a perfect springtime morning: 56 degrees, sunny, a gentle breeze rippling the grasses and orange poppies on the gentle hills. Spoke Folk’s rates start at $14 an hour for a comfortable hybrid bike, with a free map and route advice thrown in. Be sure to pet the adorable shop cats, Cat 1 and Cat 2.
2—River Sports in Healdsburg
Depending on the time of year, the Russian River might fit into your recreational plans. “We suffered the last three years because of the drought,” Eric Markson, regional director at Dry Creek Inn, told me at a welcome reception my first night in Healdsburg. But this summer he expects the river to be ripe for rafting. Want to rent a canoe and bring your dog? Russian River Adventures awaits your call.
3—Shopping in Healdsburg
Downtown Healdsburg is one of those treasures that time almost seems to have forgotten. Filled with little boutiques, independent bookstores, shops with local art and antiques. Die-hard shoppers could easily spend a whole day in the shops around the plaza.
Bella All Things Beautiful at 302 Center Street specializes in exactly that—all things glittery and beautiful. With lots of sparkling Paris-made earrings and a bench outside to accommodate husbands and boyfriends, this is a great spot to find something for that special someone on your list.
Fideaux at 43 North Street gives travelers a chance to assuage their guilt for leaving that special fur baby home by buying upscale toys and treats.
There are plenty of other great options. For example, Yasuko at 383 Healdsburg Avenue specializes in Japanese textiles while Clutch at 307 Healdsburg Avenue features wearable masterpieces from Sonoma County artists. Healdsburg has shops galore.
4—History and Architecture in Healdsburg
Stroll the plaza and beyond to check out Healdsburg’s historic buildings, from the Raven Theater to old churches and wisteria-draped homes.
The Healdsburg Museum, located at 221 Matheson Street, gives visitors a crash course in the town’s origins. The museum is free and open to the public from 11 am to 4 pm Wednesday through Sunday.
If you like unusual museums, Healdsburg boasts the country’s only hand fan museum, located inside the h2 Hotel. I was very sad it had not yet opened for the season.
5—Tea Lounge in Healdsburg
If you feel like you’re missing out on the bar experience, Taste of Tea offers an array of non-alcoholic martinis.
I tried the Tiger Eye, made with cold drip honeybush tea, Sonoma white ginger syrup and a rim dipped in rose sugar. Since Donna and Nez Tokugawa opened this business two years ago, patrons can partake of tea spa treatments, such as a green tea face mask and foot soak, shop in the tea boutique, sample tea flights and order dishes from their simple Japanese restaurant. “If you’re going to do something this eclectic and foodie-focused in Sonoma County, Healdsburg is the place to do it,” Donna told me.
6—Russian River Rose Company in Healdsburg
During peak season, Jan and Michael Tolmasoff harvest 100 pounds of roses per day. They start before dawn and quit by eight am for the highest concentration of rose oil. “I don't think anyone else in the US is doing anything like this. It’s too darn labor-intensive,” said Jan as she led our group through Rose Alley, pointing out Bulgarian, French and Persian roses destined to become rose water and perfume.
April and May are the best months to visit the Russian River Rose Company. Guided and self-guided tours are available.
7—Ziplining in Healdsburg
Early Sonoma County lumber barons cut down old-growth redwoods that had been standing for more than 1,000 years. But now conservationists protect the few remaining old-growth trees, and cultivate the smaller but still beautiful second-growth redwoods. Sonoma Canopy Tours in nearby Occidental gives you the chance to zipline through the canopies of these tall trees. For an extra thrill, you can zipline through the forest at night.
8—Olive Oil Tasting in Healdsburg
Non-drinkers don’t have to let wine lovers have all the connoisseur fun. Several local wineries also grow olives, which they make into high-end olive oil and let visitors taste. DaVero Farms and Winery crushes olives together with Meyer lemons in a stone mill for a special Meyer lemon oil. At Trattore Farms you can try their deep green Spanish harvest olive oil, and buy soap made from olive oil and lavender.
9—Take a class at SHED in Healdsburg
SHED is a huge, gorgeous, light-filled, minimalist space that celebrates modern farming. And that’s not just my opinion – the building won a 2014 James Beard Award for restaurant design.
It’s a combination café/shop/deli/kitchen boutique/bar/event space. Chic back-to-the-landers come to classes here on natural dyes, chicken keeping, ricotta making, seed saving and beehive building. As co-founder Cindy Daniel explained as she showed my group around, SHED teaches “how to be a good farmer.”
10—Hiking in Healdsburg
I went on two short hikes while visiting Healdsburg. Jordan Winery offers six vineyard hikes a year that focus more on growing grapes than consuming wine. Our small group traipsed through chamomile blossoms, with dozens of little blue butterflies darting around as though we were in a Disney movie.
I also ventured 20 miles north of Healdsburg to Armstrong Redwood State Reserve. Volunteer guide Glen Blackley increased my knowledge and appreciation of these ancient trees. He explained how they shed low branches as they grow, resulting in the distinctive look of a long trunk with a high canopy. Glen showed us the tiny inch-long pine cone of the tree that grows to be 300 feet tall.
Thinking about those redwood trees reminds me of something Eric Markson told me my first night in Healdsburg: “The highest concentration of oxygen is inside of a redwood tree.” If you hang out in the redwoods, he said, “You’ll feel smarter, refreshed.” Smarter? Well, I wouldn’t swear to that. But a trip to Healdsburg is refreshing.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.