Exploring Russian River

A terrific spot for camping, canoeing, hiking, and simply relaxing

Nestled in the redwood-shaded western reaches of Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley is one of Northern California’s most relaxing and gay-friendly weekend getaways. Although the area is occasionally ravaged by wintertime floods, it offers cool and typically sunny weather much of the year, especially in summer. The area comprises the towns of Guerneville, Forestville, Monte Rio, and – where the river empties into the Pacific – Jenner. Gay folks have been weekending here for more than three decades, and the area has always been a terrific spot for camping, canoeing, hiking, and simply relaxing amid peaceful and picturesque surroundings. More recently, the eastern reaches of the area have blossomed into a hub of superb wineries.

Although a steady influx of well-heeled San Francisco professionals has given the Russian River a slightly more polished sensibility in recent years, Guerneville and its neighboring communities still look and feel unpretentious – even a bit raffish – compared with such swanky Wine Country towns as Healdsburg and Rutherford. This is a spot where flannel shirts and jeans are as much in vogue as designer wear. Life here moves at a snail’s pace, and that’s how most locals prefer it.

The river defines not only the community’s personality but also the region’s geography. It’s a threat, to be sure, but it’s also the reason devotees love the area. Perhaps the leading activities in summer are floating for several miles down the river on inner tubes and embarking on one of the popular canoe expeditions offered by Burke’s Canoes. For a spectacular hike, drive a few miles north of town to 800-acre Armstrong Woods, home to some of the tallest and oldest trees in northern California.

If you’re hit with a rainy day, fear not: Downtown Guerneville holds an increasingly intriguing selection of shops. Possibilities include the Five & Dime, with its old-fashioned candy section and offbeat gifts; Stone’s River Feed, a whimsically stocked pet-supplies store; River Reader, a quirky bookshop with a LGBT section; and Kings & Queens, which stocks cool vintage threads. At Hemp & Chocolat, you can pick up – you guessed it – hemp clothing and accessories, along with gorgeous handmade chocolates. And Wayne Skala Jewelry & Antiques carries some of the most intriguing decorative items and household gifts around.

Wine-tasting is a top pastime in these parts, and a great way to begin your explorations is by consulting with David DeVries and John Haggard, two knowledgeable and friendly experts on local wine who operate Sophie’s Cellars, a wonderful little wine and cheese shop in Monte Rio. These guys can recommend and make introductions for you at several high-quality, lesser-known vineyards, some that aren’t otherwise open to the public.

If you’re out exploring on your own, the best winery-hopping plan is to drive east of Guerneville on River Road. Just outside of town, stop at Korbel Champagne Cellars, which is headquartered in a century-old, creeper-covered brick building. The facility’s Korbel Deli and Microbrewery is a delightful spot to grab lunch – it serves superb panini sandwiches (try the one with salami, Brie, tapenade, roasted peppers, and greens), prepared salads, and fresh-baked sweets, and there’s seating on a lovely tree-shaded deck. Continue along River Road and make a left onto Westside Road, following this toward Healdsburg. Over the next several miles, you’ll encounter one exceptional winery after another – best bets include Gary Farrell, Porter Creek (amazing pinot noirs), Davis Bynum, Hop Kiln, and Roshambo.

Alternatively, explore the wine-growing region south of the river. Fine vineyards in the towns of Forestville, Graton, and Windsor include Joseph Swan, La Crema, DeLoach, Topolos, and Hanna. Many businesses and accommodations in the area distribute free “Russian River Wine Road” brochures and maps, which can help you plot your oenophilic journey – or log on to wineroad.com to see the maps there.

Where there’s great wine, there’s great food, and Guerneville has gradually improved as a culinary destination in recent years. Charizma Wine Lounge and Deli is a relatively new spot for breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine-tasting, and live jazz some nights. Sophisticated but well-priced options include a baked Petrole sole with mango-jasmine rice, baby beans, and blue mussels, and the smoked-ham and provolone sandwich with peach-and-onion barbecue sauce. Cape Fear cafe is another very good lunch source – it’s in a small complex of historic buildings a scenic 15-minute drive south of Guerneville.

When it’s a good old-fashioned burger you’re after, drop by gay-owned Bob N’ Boy in downtown Guerneville. Chase down your burgers, hot dogs, and fries with Red Hook beer. Grab breakfast, lunch, or an afternoon espresso snack at the Coffee Bazaar, just off the main drag along Armstrong Woods Road. The sunny little cafe with free Wi-Fi has wonderfully hearty soups and sandwiches, egg dishes, cakes, cookies, and similarly enticing treats.

In Forestville, you’ll find a couple of the region’s best restaurants, including Mosaic Restaurant and Wine Lounge, which serves first-rate contemporary American fare, and the famed Farmhouse Inn, Restaurant, and Spa, which has garnered all kinds of awards and kudos for its innovative cuisine. A typically delicious dish here is the plate of seared pork medallions with caramelized onions, black Mission figs, and parmesan polenta.

With dinner out of the way, don’t overlook Guerneville’s gay nightlife. Some of the restaurants in these parts have lounges or bars popular with the LGBT crowd, and then there are a couple of self-standing bars. One spot that’s friendly with men and women, old and young, is the Rainbow Cattle Company, a former gambling hall, which draws a genial, outgoing bunch, many of whom tumble in after 11 for a nightcap…or two…or seven.

Across the street is Club Yamagata, a space that’s gone through a few incarnations over the years and was known until recently as Liquid Sky. It opened in June 2007 as a hip, mixed gay/straight lounge serving everything from fancy sake-infused cocktails to green teas, smoothies, and appetizers. The Asian-themed spot offers a departure from Guerneville’s somewhat predictable scene.

The Russian River has a number of gay-popular accommodations, the most romantic being the posh yet unpretentious Applewood Inn and Restaurant, which is a few minutes’ drive south of downtown Guerneville. Half of the elegant rooms are in the main 1922 Mission Revival house; the others are in a newer building done in the same style. All are loaded with antiques and have European down comforters, and many have hot tubs and fireplaces. Applewood also contains the best restaurant in the area, serving such stellar Mediterranean-influenced victuals as braised rabbit with potato gnocchi, bacon, and English peas.

The Sonoma Orchid Inn, a sunny yellow farmhouse set high on a bluff along River Road (very near the Westside Road wineries,) has a hot tub in back, six guest rooms in the main house, and four more contemporary and private units in a separate cottage (some of these have fireplaces). Welcoming of kids as well as pets, the Sonoma Orchid is nonetheless a peaceful, romantic hideaway – a terrific addition to the Russian River’s gay-friendly lodging landscape.

The pet-friendy Fern Grove is another highly recommended establishment – many of the knotty-pine units have fireplaces.

You don’t often find a predominantly gay resort owned by a straight couple, but the reasonably priced, beautifully situated Highlands Resort is just that. Friendly innkeepers Ken and Lynette, who know all there is to know about the region, operate this rambling 3-acre spread tucked beneath the boughs of towering redwood trees. Accommodations are set in a series of secluded, nicely appointed cabins, many of them with fireplaces, refrigerators, and coffeemakers. It’s a peaceful spot (no TVs or phones in the rooms), and nudity is permitted around the pool and hot tub. When you’re truly looking to get away from it all, this compound, just a five-minute walk up the hill from downtown Guerneville, makes the perfect escape.

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