Russian River Valley
Exploring California's other wine country
Though budget lodgings are scattered through Marin, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties, they're more heavily clustered and numerous in the area called Russian River Valley. The most cost-conscious of all visitors to the California Wine Country make their base here and then drive each day to the famous Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino wineries in the spiffier regions. In fact, just a very short drive over the mountains from trendy - and often pricey - Sonoma and Napa Valleys, or a straight one-hour shot up Highway 101 from San Francisco's Golden Gate, the Russian River Valley Wine Country beckons with affordable accommodations, endless vistas of ripening grape vines, and dozens of "secret" wineries - all the ingredients to make an authentic California wine country vacation - without the usual high price tag.
Doubles here start as low as $45 a night for a charming rustic cabin in the Guerneville redwoods just minutes from the vines. Visit in low season, December through March, when wineries are still open, and you'll see hotel rates drop to as low as $40 a night. Travel midweek to save an extra $20 year-round, or make your base a short drive south in the suburbs of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, or Petaluma where Days Inn (800/325-2525), Budget Inn (707/584-4448), and Ramada Limited (800/272-6232) motels right off the highway offer doubles for as little as $36 a night midweek for walk-ins (advance reservations are slightly more).
Healdsburg is the hub
Old-fashioned Healdsburg Plaza is the heart of the Russian River region, with cafes, fine (but not expensive) dining, and grocery stores for picnic supplies all right on the town square. Here, you can relax and people-watch while leafing through the free California Visitor Review magazine available at the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce (217 Healdsburg Ave., 707/433-6935, healdsburg.org) and packed with local maps and discount coupons.
Most wine roads-as the country lanes here are called - radiate from Healdsburg, so no matter which way you point your car or bike, you'll be rolling past meadows and old barns within minutes of leaving town. On the way, you'll pass four budget lodging options clustered on Healdsburg's outskirts - dependable alternatives to the smattering of lacy B&B's that fill up months in advance.
The spruced-up L & M (19 rooms, 70 Healdsburg Ave., 707/433-6528) and Fairview (18 rooms, 74 Healdsburg Ave., 707/433-5548) motels start at $65 for pleasant doubles in low season, $80 high, and though they're near the highway, they're just blocks from the vines. The newer Best Western Dry Creek Inn (198 Dry Creek Rd., 707/433-0300) offers a few more amenities, such as an exercise room and a complimentary small bottle of house wine. Some of their 102 rooms sell for $69 in low season but run all the way to $165, high. Right next door, the Wine Country TraveLodge's (178 Dry Creek Rd., 707/433-0101; 800/499-0103) 23 guest rooms start from $65 midweek, off-season, to $109 high.
Healdsburg's vineyards range from tiny family-run wineries to large compounds built to accommodate (rarely seen) crowds. The best "secret" vineyards are a little harder to get to - but the payoff is in great views, nearly private picnic areas and hard-to-find wines. It is rare to come across a winery that charges for tastings, and you won't have to elbow your way in for space at the bar. Three are my own favorites: First, Alderbrook Winery (2306 Magnolia Dr.; 800/405-5987) with its airy, glass-walled tasting room. Try a few of their ever-changing varietals - ask for a crisp, dry Sauvignon Blanc-to enjoy with your picnic on the deck across from a sweep of vines.
Then, tiny Foppiano (12707 Old Redwood Hwy., 707/433-7272), one of the oldest family-owned vineyards, as cozy as your favorite aunt's porch. A unique self-guided tour takes you from the clapboard tasting room right into the vines to learn firsthand about the plants (don't wear white shoes!).
Hanna Winery's (9280 Hwy. 128, 800/854-3987) dramatic setting is one of the wine country's prettiest-the dainty building seems to teeter on a hill of vines. Inside, servers pour Merlots and Cabernets to sip on the wraparound porch overlooking a rolling carpet of green.
Try Geyserville, too
Just up Route 101 from Healdsburg, this tiny town of covered sidewalks is not so much a village as a strip of history set alongside charming Victorian homes, irrigation towers, and acres of grapes. It's known for vineyards and its boutique "sister" B&B's: The Hope-Merrill and Hope-Bosworth Houses, (21253 Geyserville Ave., 800/825-4233 or 707/ 857-3356) which, starting at $119 for two in a fully restored mansion with pool and complete gourmet breakfast, is a splurge, but one that some budget-minded guests think is warranted by extraordinary charm.
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