Join Maria de la O for a family weekend escape to a storybook cottage in the Russian River Valley.
By Maria De La O
Harvest Moon, Hook & Ladder, Iron Horse, Red Car, Woodenhead … the names call to me as I drive along River Road. Although the titles remind me of selections from my 2-year-old’s book collection, they are actually signposts pointing to nearby Russian River Valley wineries. How I long to stop for a little swish and swallow, but Vivi woke up yelling as soon as we exited Highway 101, and we need to get this toddler to our home base and out of the car—stat!
Nestled between the best of Sonoma wine country to the east and the dramatic Northern California coast to the west, our destination was the Russian River Valley, specifically the little outpost of Cazadero, about 45 minutes away from Santa Rosa.
The valley, a former logging mecca, is both a perfect base of operations for exploring the nearby wineries and nationally rated locavore cuisine, and a family-focused destination in itself for kayaking, river tubing, hiking and camping. Not being much into camping under the most ideal of circumstances, much less with the wee one, we decided to skip that last claim to fame and find a place that welcomed kids without requiring them (or us) to sleep on the ground.
The town of Guerneville is the largest in the Valley, but we had stayed there before and thought we’d like to try something a little off the beaten path. We picked Cazadero, which is composed of little more than a general store, a post office and thick groves of redwoods growing along Austin Creek. Beyond private vacation homes, there are really only a couple of places to stay in Cazadero—the CazSonoma Inn and Elim Grove. Once we found out that Elim Grove was super kid-friendly (the owners have three kids under 10) and featured the award-winning Raymond’s Bakery right on the premises and smore-making fixin’s on demand, our minds were made up.
People come from all over western Sonoma County to eat fresh pizza and pastries and listen to local bands at Raymond’s; Elim Grove itself has a similarly local feel—in fact, during the time we stayed at these cabins surrounded by 1,200-year-old redwoods, most of the other people we met were either locals or friends and family of the owners, Mark and Elizabeth. Note: The kids at Elim Grove tend to grow in number exponentially. At one point over the weekend, we counted 10 kids—who took over the bakery one night for a sleepover.
We kept our goals for the trip manageable and toddler-friendly: an easy hike in Armstrong Woods, floating in the Austin Creek swimming hole, a trip to the beach in Jenner. While dreaming of wine-tasting and sampling Michelin-starred cuisine, all we really needed was serious relaxation combined with introducing a city kid to “the woods.”
The ROAM Report : Russian River Valley
Travelers : Maria, Alice and Vivienne (2)
Date : June 2015
Itinerary : Cazadero, in California’s Russian River Valley (4 nights)
Budget : Under $1,000. About $700 for accommodation in a creekside cottage, with included breakfasts; add in another couple hundred dollars for inexpensive (toddler-friendly) restaurant dinners and supermarket supplies.
The Good Stuff
Pastry! Pastries from Raymond’s Bakery come included as part your Elim Grove breakfast. Eat ’em while they’re hot! They’ll never be fresher than they are right this minute. During the week, you’ll get a hot breakfast tray complete with more pastries than you can likely eat, and yogurt, oatmeal, hardboiled eggs and a pitcher of organic coffee delivered right to your cabin door. On the weekends, when the café is open, just mosey on over and order whatever you like from the pastry case, plus the above-mentioned proteins to sustain you on your future hike through Armstrong Woods. Make sure to order a fancy coffee—these folks do espresso right!
Music, Music, Music and Pizza You can pretty much hear live music most any night of the week in the Russian River area, but I’d say that Raymond’s Bakery pretty much owns Fridays. You see, not only do they have a stage nestled in a stand of redwoods, they have a secret ingredient: pizza. And not just pizza but “the best pizza I’ve ever had,” said a friend when I told him where I’d be staying. The combination delighted Vivi, and after getting down with a sausage and olive number she got down to Mick and the Maniacs blend of “bluesy folk and rock with a jazz attitude.”
But the Russian River’s thriving music scene isn’t just relegated to bars, restaurants and bakeries. Heretell you can even go to the late afternoon Sunday concert during the summer at the Cazadero Music Camp, located just down the road. (You can sometimes hear the kids practicing throughout the day from Elim Grove, a musical soundtrack that’s actually quite beautiful.)
A Real Swimming Hole Yes, the green algae and seemingly stagnant water of Austin Creek under drought conditions freaked us out at first. But after having the situation explained to us by one of Mark and Elizabeth’s young daughters—who swims in the swimming hole every freakin’ day of the freakin’ summer—“the algae is only on the edges and I kind of like the way it tickles,” we got over our issues and waded in. Correction: I got over my issues and made the baby come with me. Alice, as a rule, doesn’t do water and wasn’t about to start now. After a brief float, Vivi joined her on the rocky bank, and Alice demonstrated proper stone-skipping technique. (Who knew my honey had such talents?) Vivi, who enjoys throwing things in general, took to it with gusto. Like mother, like daughter.
Seal Pups We took Highway 116 west to Jenner, where the Russian River meets the Pacific near Goat Rock. When the weather isn’t foggy (just like in San Francisco, the sun can be shining in the east while a thick fog soup hugs the coast), you can get an excellent view of Goat Rock and the nearby fauna that call this biodiverse area home. Stop at the viewpoint off the highway just past the funky little town of Jenner and you’ll be treated to a display of elephant seals, sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals. (Much easier when the sky is clear, but not impossible under foggy conditions.) In fact this is an official harbor seal pupping ground, so do your best to speak in hushed, calm tones, just as you would for any newborn baby.
More Wildlife If you happen to be visiting the Russian River in the off-season, you’ll have the opportunity to scan the coast for the gray whale migration, which usually peaks in mid-January (south to Baja California) and mid-March (north to Alaska). Whenever you visit, you’ll also spot shorebirds like cranes, egrets, kingfishers and various cormorants. You may also spot the hang-gliders drifting above Goat Rock Beach – or a friendly kitty to pat.
Festivals Aplenty The Russian River area hosts a festival nearly every weekend in the summer and quite a few throughout the spring, autumn and winter as well. The weekend we were there it was the rodeo in nearby Duncans Mills, but the diverse selection ranges from the gay men’s Lazy Bear Weekend in early August to the topnotch Jazz and Blues Festival in September to all manner of food and wine festivals all year long. Of particular interest to families is the Independence Day fireworks on the river, the holiday Parade of Lights and Stumptown Daze Parade (Sadly, Stumptown was the original name of Guerneville, because of all the redwoods that were logged here in the late 1800s. Luckily there are plenty of new redwoods to gaze up into these days.)
The Not So Good
No Food Good thing Raymond’s Bakery is the bomb, because you won’t be strolling to a cozy café in Cazadero any time soon. The problem is that Raymond’s is only open on Fridays for dinner, and Guerneville, which beckons like a shimmering food metropolis in the redwoods, is a good 25-minute drive away. Note: This would be a reasonable distance to travel for a meal if you didn’t have an alternately screaming and sleeping 2-year-old traveling with you.
No Diapers A good bottle of wine, freshly smoked salmon or even a tie-dye onesie is a lot easier to procure at the general store in Duncans Mills or Cazadero than a box of diapers. Did I mention that the Safeway in Guerneville is a 25-minute drive?
You Will Wait for Pizza The Friday night pizza and music jam at Raymond’s is immensely popular in these parts. Be prepared to camp out at a table while the band tunes up, grab a pitcher of fine local beer and order before the crowds get crazy. Then wait. It’s a small kitchen with a small staff, handling their biggest crowd of the week. Just remember that this is your entertainment for the evening, not a quick stop at Pizza Hut.
Good to Know
No Constant Contact Do plan to be out of contact with friends, family and Facebook. There’s very little cell reception in these parts. You’re getting away from it all, remember? Still, I found myself searching for bars in the parking lot of the Guerneville Safeway more than once.
Don’t Forget Water Shoes The creek and river beds here are full of tiny, slippery rocks, and I personally saw a crawfish the size of a small lobster in Austin Swimming Hole—and, no, I don’t have photographic evidence. But I did, in fact, warn another swimmer to watch out for the lobster in the pond, and they were as freaked out as I was. Tourists!
Don’t Stress the Small Stuff Do stay flexible and load your car for different options—your day won’t be the way you planned it, especially if you have an opinionated and narcoleptic toddler like we do. You may not make it to the major hike you had planned, but poking at the algae along the creek might be just as fun. (Just remember, your regular green algae is fine, but blue-green algae, which has recently hit the area as the water warms and drought conditions persist, can be toxic. In any case, don’t get the stuff in your mouth and take a good hot shower after swimming.)
Good for Next Time
Row, Row, Row Your Boat Although we found one outfit, Russian River Adventures, that would take a toddler who can’t swim out on a kayak (what, me worry?), at the last minute we decided that this plan wasn’t the best. Forget the drowning part, the day we wanted to go was predicted to be extremely hot. Since my San Francisco kid tends to wilt as soon as the temps hit the high 70s, we put the kibosh on the plan. The thought of a hot, dehydrated, crying child on a three-hour trip down the river was just more than either of us could handle.
Fine Dine The last time I spent any time in Guerneville, about 20 years ago, it was pretty much a gay hangout in the summer, left to the crystal meth burnouts in the winter, and the word “locavore” hadn’t yet been invented, much less used to describe the food in the Russian River Valley. Now, central Guerneville is home to a bevy of options, including Big Bottom Market, Betty Spaghetti and Boon. But between the toddler who fell asleep without fail before we hit River Road and, well, the fact of having a toddler, we never did manage to partake of any of the area’s fine dining options. The one night we decided to pick up takeout grilled octopus, beet and burrata salad, and gnocchi from Betty Spaghetti, our fine and friendly hosts invited us to a lamb BBQ cooked by one of their many visiting friends, who just happened to be the head chef and owner of GreenFire in Rockford, Illinois. With friends like these, who could resist?
We did manage to make it to one interesting food spot on our way out of town, Pat’s Restaurant and Bar is a combination old-school diner and soda fountain linked to an old-school, wood-paneled, deer-antler bar. But here’s the interesting part: It features amazing Korean BBQ fused with diner food! (Think kimchee slaw hot dogs.) It was awesome, and Vivi had great fun twirling on the counter stools before losing her mind completely. Luckily, the staff had a great sense of humor and was apparently used to this kind of thing.
Good Family Trip?
Very much so. Mark left a high-stress career in finance to retire to the middle of nowhere (or the middle of everywhere, depending on your frame of mind) and raise a family, and family is the center of life at Elim Grove. In fact, if the thought of wild kid tribes running around turns you off, you’d be better off staying at the Applewood Inn (no kids) down the road in Guerneville or at the Michelin-starred Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, where no unaccompanied or out-of-control child is permitted on the property (and they will gladly book a nanny for you if this is a problem).