Russian River Valley

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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.

Otherwise, opt for one of the most unusual (and cheapest) places to stay. Isis Oasis (20889 Geyserville Ave., 707/857-4747) can accommodate large groups who don't mind sharing bathroom facilities, or just two people in their own yurt (a Tibetan tent) on a hill. This compound is legendary for its New Age touches, laid-back surroundings, and 1960's summer camp feel. You can't miss the lilac obelisk off Geyserville Avenue and the colorful Egyptian shrine to the left. Facilities include a pool, hot tub, petting zoo, and an aviary full of exotic pheasants and emus. The dormlike lodge ($75 a night, including hot breakfast and all taxes) is just up the hill from the wood-paneled dining room where a fire blazes on cool days. The very best deals here are reserved for adventurers: the modern yurt, dome, or wine barrel - each a cozy room set on a lawn near the swan pond - starts at $75 a night for two; the teepee and pyramid start at $50).

Down the road, drive into historic Trentadue Winery (19170 Geyserville Ave., 707/433-3104) past the "Old Patch" - an acre and a half of dark, thick, 120-year-old vines. Try some of their yield, or sample newer varieties in a tasting room overlooking a large garden, fountains, and vine-covered arbors so pretty they're often used for weddings late on weekend afternoons.

Finally, consider Guerneville

A convenient base for families and outdoor enthusiasts (Armstrong Redwoods State Park is two miles up the road), this shady riverside town sits halfway between the vineyards and the rugged Sonoma Coast about half an hour's drive west. Vacationers have flocked here from San Francisco since the 1800s, and many vintage cabins still stand. The main street is lined with reasonably priced, family-friendly restaurants and there are plenty of boating, kayaking, and bathing activities to keep little ones entertained.

A block off the main drag, the 1920s riverside attached cottages at Johnson's Beach Resort (16241 First St., 707/869-2022) are the Russian River Valley's cheapest lodging option. From April through October, for $35 to $40, two people can share one of ten rustic cabins on stilts. For greater amenities, head across the bridge to Creekside Inn and Resort (16180 Neeley Rd., 800/776-6586) set under the shade of mighty redwoods, and book one of the $63-$85 B&B rooms or a charming, family-friendly cottage, $79-$132 for up to four guests. Some cottages have fireplaces for winter. In summer months, swim at a watersports center just down the road.

Riverlane Resort (16320 First St., 707/869-2323) boasts the most convenient location - one block from the town's main street and right on a river beach. Low-season rates start at $40 for the smallest of 13 spacious cottages; larger cabins at $60 can accommodate four. High-season prices jump: $50-$110.

Most of the aptly named Fern Grove Cottages' (16650 Hwy. 116, 707/869-8105) 21 basic 1920s cabins are tucked under 200-foot-tall redwoods and have wood-burning fireplaces, original knotty pine interiors, and decks. The $69 rate for a studio, or $129 for a cottage for four, includes continental breakfast.

The top attraction hereabouts? That's Korbel Champagne Cellars (13250 River Rd., 707/824-7000) less than five minutes down the road. Generous tastings include more than six kinds of bubbly from Brut and Blanc de Blanc to rare Chardonnay champagne. Beer lovers (and hungry travelers) can hop over to the glassed-in deli for gourmet sandwiches ($5.95, big enough for two), pasta salads ($1.50-$3), and four-ounce ales that cost only $1 a taste. and decks. The $69 rate for a studio, or $129 for a cottage for four, includes continental breakfast.

The top attraction hereabouts? That's Korbel Champagne Cellars (13250 River Rd., 707/824-7000) less than five minutes down the road. Generous tastings include more than six kinds of bubbly from Brut and Blanc de Blanc to rare Chardonnay champagne.

For further Wine Country information: contact Sonoma County Tourism Program, 520 Mendocino Ave., Suite 210, Santa Rosa 95401, 707/565-5383, sonomacounty.com...Mendocino County Promotional Alliance, 525 S. Main St., Suite E, Ukiah 95482, 707/462-7417, mcpa@saber.net; mendocinoalliance.com...Marin County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1013 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur 94939, 415/499-3252, marincvb@marin.org; visitmarin.org. And remember that everywhere during the off-season (typically after Labor Day or from October through April), rates drop by about a third. For the best chance of additional savings the rest of the year, always inquire at the visitor bureaus or local chambers of commerce to see what special rates may be posted there.

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