Sonoma County is a massive geographical area with many different terrains, views and personalities. Yes, it is the wine country and known for its lush climate where everything grows. It is green and manicured yet rough and wild. Exploring the rugged beauty of the Sonoma Coast, between Bodega Bay and Jenner, is 20 miles of breathtaking vistas.
I live here in the charming yet on-the-tourist-radar hamlet of Healdsburg. This may be the trendiest part of Sonoma County, but there is so much more that even we locals forget about the charm and relative closeness of the Sonoma Coast.
A Day Drive to the Sonoma Coast—Sebastopol
My favorite day drive out to the Sonoma Coast winds through Route 116 and starts in the hip but still hippie town of Sebastopol. Coming into the town watch for signs for Bodega Bay, but stop in the Barlow district first to refresh and explore.
These old warehouses have become destinations for food, wine and beer exploration and some of the leading innovators make their home here. Zazu Restaurant, run by husband and wife chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes, has a long history in Sonoma’s West County. It has led the farm-to-table and butchering snout-to-toe movements.
Spirit Works Distillery now boasts one of the few all-female distilling teams in the world. Founded by husband and wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall, the appointment of Lauren Patz (daughter of famed winemaker Donald Patz of Patz and Hall) as head distiller makes Spirit Works a true woman-helmed powerhouse. Spirt Works produces Vodka, Gin, Sloe Gin, Navy Strength Gin, Straight Wheat and Straight Rye Whiskey using the grain-to-glass method. Stop by for a tasting and purchase up to three bottles.
A Day Drive to the Sonoma Coast—Discover Freestone
Leaving Sebastopol, check the GPS twice, as even natives get confused by the routes heading west. Stay on 116 and pass Fork Roadhouse then ease off the road into the very tiny blip of Freestone. I have never passed Freestone without stopping into Wild Four Organic Bakery to sample (many many samples) their amazing breads—many filled with nuts, fruits and olives—made in a true wood-fired oven. They also serve up biscotti, sweet rolls and coffee.
Recently I stumbled into Freestone Artisan Cheese Shop to be surprised to find my old friend and neighbor, Omar Mueller, behind the counter as owner and head cheesemonger. So happy to see him and even more excited with what he has done with this old farmhouse. Stocked with excellent cheeses at fair prices as well as creative gourmet offerings (Elderberry Balsamic Vinegar, anyone?), this is where you create your picnic as well as stock the pantry. I can honestly say his truffle cheese cost half as much as the identical one I was buying in France…and just as good!
A Day Drive to the Sonoma Coast—Bodega Bay
You are now ready to descend into Bodega Bay. Alfred Hitchcock put this area on the map when he shot scenes from his movie The Birds here and many of the buildings shown in the film are still standing. Fortunately, in all the times I have been here, other than spotting a few seagulls, I've had nothing life-threatening as depicted in the movie.
Bodega Bay is that classic combination of working fishing village and luxury vacation destination. It is a fascinating crescent carved out of the ocean that is ripe with marine life and recreation activities. Fishing, hiking, golf, creative cuisine, never-ending scenery and, finally, world class accommodations make up the relaxed beauty of Bodega Bay.
Staying in Bodega Bay
At the pinnacle of hotels is Bay Hill Mansion, a property that has been brought into a glamorous renaissance by its new operators, Kirtis and Kris. As avid travelers and seekers of elegance and luxury, Kirtis and Kris have brought their unwavering taste to Bay Hill Mansion.
Bay Hill Mansion is a stately property with views of both the ocean and bay. The flower-filled grounds served as the back drop for many weddings each year. The first level offers a light-filled living area and dining room with a table that seats at least 12. Always available is Nespresso coffee, sparkling water, tea, fruit and snacks. Four canisters hold nuts, chocolates, peanut M&Ms and other goodies, while protein bars and apples are there for the health conscious.
In the library, comfy chairs and books abound as well as a range of games and musical instruments. Bay Hill Mansion is a study in civilized living and stimulating relaxation. A discreet armoire at one end of the room, holds after-dinner liqueurs and spirits. Kirtis creates a special cocktail for happy hour each evening—his first job was at Trader Vic’s and he knows his drinks. There is a complete variety of digestives for when guests return from dinner in town, and it's all complimentary.
Peaceful Rest at Bay Hill Mansion
Guestrooms at Bay Hill Mansion are as gorgeous as the gathering rooms. Walking into the Captain’s Suite is jaw-dropping. Spacious and well-appointed, the suite has a 180-degree view over the trees to Bodega Bay. In-room amenities include a state-of-the-art Nespresso machine, flat screen TV, excellent high speed WiFi, fluffy robes, slippers and even a copy of The Birds. Upon arrival, surprises like fresh baked cookies may be awaiting. Upon retiring at the end of the evening, there may be a cognac and chocolate to relax before bedtime.
Bedtime means being absorbed into the finest linens and the highest quality mattresses imaginable. King size beds with king size down pillows assure a peaceful night. Leave the windows open and let the distant waves lull you to sleep.
Breakfast at Bay Hill Mansion is an unforgettable experience. Wake early for pastries and sit down to a full brunch at 9:30 a.m. A baked cocotte’ of soft eggs and mushrooms may be the main course with fresh tomatoes and grilled potatoes to accompany. Melon, grilled thick-sliced ham and pancakes may round out the smorgasbord of local favorites and Kris’s creations. Kirtis also has a role at breakfast by crafting a mean Bloody Mary.
For a weekend or a week, there is no better choice in Bodega Bay than Bay Hill Mansion and its five luxurious guest rooms. Renting the entire house is also an option for weddings or family gatherings.
Dining in Bodega Bay
The news that a Michelin-starred restaurant could be found in this tiny town came as a bit of a pleasant shock. Terrapin Creek Café is on Eastshore Road, a stone’s throw from Bay Hill Mansion. The scallop appetizer I had there featured some of the best scallops I have ever eaten.
Other Ways to Explore the Sonoma Coast and Bodega Bay
Other options for long-term stays in Bodega Bay can be found through Bodega Bay and Beyond, a real estate and vacation rental firm in business for over thirty years.
Since only about 28 percent of Bodega Bay homeowners are full-time residents, Bodega Bay and Beyond rents over 70 properties. From Tomales Bay to Jenner, there are stunning residences on and near the Coast from studios to massive five bedrooms homes. All are fully furnished and turn-key, whether you want golf course or whale-watching views, a business retreat, romantic getaway, pet-friendly or kid-friendly.
Whether you are looking to get away for a weekend or a month, Bodega Bay and the Sonoma Coast is a wonderful and easy escape. The Sonoma Coast is brimming with excellent accommodations and fabulous restaurants. You can’t beat the miles of savage scenery outside of the relatively civilized borders of downtown Bodega Bay.