Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wine Country Mini Vacay: Sonoma

Being the fabulous photographer that he is, Todd won a contest earlier this year featuring this lovely photo he took of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo by the fantastic Todd Sipes. Check out more of his work at

Great work, love! The prize was a night at the prestigious Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, which neither of us had ever stayed at before. Even though we only live 40 minutes from Sonoma, I actually haven't spent much time there at all other than visiting a couple wineries, so we were ready for a new adventure.

Todd and I have the habit of over-scheduling our time on vacations and trying to pack in absolutely everything humanly possible into the small amount of time we will actually be there. We opted instead for a relaxing getaway, and didn't make any plans in advance to just see where the journey took us.

Let's live spontaneously!

On Sunday morning, we ate a tasty breakfast at one of our favorite local spots, Theresa & Johnny's, and made it up to Sonoma just after noon. We checked into the hotel, which is more of a luxury resort and spa than just a hotel. It's kind of a little heavenly oasis tucked away in a not-so-lovely area of town, with a long driveway leading up to the lobby lined with palm trees and roses and hanging baskets of bright flowers. Cushioned benches and wooden lawn chairs with tables made from the tops of barrels are speckled throughout the lawns so you can sit outside and enjoy the glorious California weather.

The lobby itself is huge, with a massive fireplace, beamed ceiling, and some really great mix-and-matched posh-yet-rustic furniture (very Wine Country). Different areas connect to the lobby like spokes on a wheel: the pool, the bar, the 5-star restaurant, staircases to guest rooms, etc. We checked in and found our room (which was small, but very nice!) complete with complimentary bottle of wine, and headed right out to enjoy the sun by the pool.

Photo courtesy of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn's Facebook Page

The pool was set up surrounded by traditional lounge chairs which were segmented into groups of 2 with small tables, plus cafe tables/chairs off to the side, and even a raised area in the shade with cushioned outdoor couches for large groups. We claimed some lounge chairs, and were almost immediately greeted by a poolside server who brought us sangria and piña coladas right to our chairs. We also decided to order some lunch, and I enjoyed a vegetable hummus wrap while Todd had a mozzarella and tomato panini. Yum!

After some time spent at the pool, we decided to go drive through town and perhaps check out a winery. We settled on Patz & Hall, since we drove by and it looked fairly accommodating (and was the only one in our immediate vicinity). Every time I had been wine tasting before, we had just shown up, gone up to a bar, ordered the available flight, and spent time walking the grounds. This was totally different. First of all, we needed an appointment (whoops!) and they only did tastings at the top of the hour. Fortunately, we arrived just before 3:00pm, and they had room for us to squeeze in. We sat at the corner of a square bar in enormous comfy bar chairs and waited as the other chairs filled up as the reservations arrived. Once everyone was there, the tasting was more like a group lesson, where they would talk about the wine before we tried it, and we each had a little dish of truffle oil almonds and breadsticks. We tried 3 Chardonnays and 3 Pinot Noirs, and I found myself actually  being able to identify subtle flavor differences (traditionally, all wine sort of tastes the same to me). I'm getting better! Future sommelier in the making, perhaps?!

After our wine tasting excursion, we headed back to the hotel. We had some time before the 4:30pm complimentary wine tasting in the lobby, so we walked the grounds a bit, checking out the spa and mineral pools (with insanely priced treatments, oh my goodness!), the fitness center (8:00am free yoga class, anyone?!), and the boutique. Apparently they also have a golf course, but we didn't get that far. Instead, we headed back to the lobby and enjoyed the wine tasting, this time from Valley of the Moon.

We had some time to kill before dinner time, so we went back to the room to have some of the complimentary wine (are you sensing a theme here?) and coffee. Our original thoughts had been to maybe check out a restaurant in downtown Sonoma for dinner, but we decided to call down and make dinner reservations at Santé, the award-winning restaurant in the hotel.

Santé was AMAZING! We were absolutely under-dressed for a fine dining experience (not horribly so, but noticeably so), but that didn't dampen the experience. We were given a window table with plush armchairs and started out with (surprise!) more wine selected from a wine list iPad, and fancy types of bread with long names and descriptions that the waiters presented to us with 2 kinds of fancy butter. We split an appetizer of risotto that was to die for, and then had the beef tenderloin for two, accompanied by mashed potatoes and local vegetables, with two fancy sauces, all of which were amazing. Dessert was a peanut butter ice cream with a chocolate lava cake, and they sent us home with these little tiny cakes coated in beeswax. I may not have ever been so full in my life!

Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

The next day, we ordered room service--waffles with strawberries and whipped cream with maple-pecan sausage on the side for me, pancakes and eggs for Todd--and did the whole "breakfast in bed while wearing fluffy hotel bathrobes" thing.

We checked out by 11:00 and headed into town to check out the square. For those of you who have never been to Sonoma, the downtown area known as Sonoma Plaza is a National Historic Landmark and is essentially a large, square park outlined with a road whose outer perimeter is rimmed with boutiques and galleries and cafes facing inward. You can walk around the whole square with the shops on one side and the park on the other, sometimes with little alleys that cut backwards through narrow corridors and open up into little coves of more shops with fountains in the courtyards and lights strung on the trees.

Photo courtesy of

We parked Gandy (my Prius) at one corner and made our way around the cobblestone sidewalk, taking in the sights: a cheese factory, an old theater, a restaurant boasting gelato and burgers and whiskey on the awning, stores selling specialty footwear, a gourmet chocolate tasting room, to name just a few. Along the way, there are also some historical sites to visit, which was fun to run across on accident. Old servants quarters the remains of La Casa Grande complete with a carriage house with an antique cart on display, and the military barracks which were well-curated into soldiers' living quarters, a small museum featuring artifacts from Mexican/Native American history of the area, a gift shop, a small theater that played videos on the history of the park, and a spacious courtyard. We also visited the Mission, which is the northernmost Catholic Mission in the state of California (second northernmost is ours here in San Rafael!), and which dates back to 1841. Exhibits were set up inside the museum, and you could also go into the old chapel and the large courtyard that contained a huge fountain in the middle (dry, since we are, after all, in a drought), and a big prickly pear cactus in the back which served as natural protection for the living quarters of the women as well as a food source. We also saw a large tallow pot which was used for making candles, a beehive oven for baking, and even a grill.

Another one of our favorite stops in the Plaza was an art gallery that was showcasing photographs from a fantastic local photographer neither Todd nor I had ever heard of, Lisa Kristine. Her humanitarian photographs feature indigenous people from a variety of cultures, and are both striking and thought-provoking. I encourage you to check out her website here.

Photo by Lisa Kristine,

The last thing we did was walk through the park itself. It has a Visitor Center, as well as a fragrant rose garden, playground, and City Hall right smack-dab in the center, rising up as a beautiful early 20th-century stone work of art. We spent some time literally smelling the roses and sat on a bench by the duck pond watching a turtle bask in the sun and a group of ducks get into an exciting duck brawl.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

We certainly didn't see everything there is to see in Sonoma and I'm sure there were important things we missed. But ultimately, this was an extremely successful mini vacation, relaxing and interesting and fun, and we will definitely be taking future day trips to check out more!

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