Suggestions for California wine country in March?
February 3, 2012 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I've booked tickets to San Francisco for a 4-day trip in mid-March. I am looking for advice on: (1) what Northern California area would be best to visit for a good mix of interesting activities and romantic/luxurious atmosphere (wine country? coast? city?); (2) good places to stay in $200-500 per night range; and (3) interesting things to do or places to visit.

My 30th birthday is coming up in March and based on a recommendation from my sister in law, I decided that a visit to California wine country would be the perfect mix of interesting activities for that time of year (wineries, biking, hiking/visiting redwoods), plus expensive/luxury enough that doing it for my 30th birthday felt like a treat. I booked the flight to SanFran and--based on many previous Mefi threads--was just about to drop a chunk of change on a very nice hotel in Healdsburg in the Russian River Valley area. Then, to my horror, I discovered that March 9-11 is wine barrel tasting weekend in the Russian River, Alexander, and Dry Creek valleys--for $30, you get a glass and wristband and can visit dozens of wineries to drink for free. Yelp seems to confirm that this turns the area into a madhouse of drunk fun-seekers in bachelorette limos--the exact opposite atmosphere from what I was so attracted to before.

So. Tickets are non-refundable, so I will be going *somewhere* in Northern California from March 7th through 11th. I'm looking for recommendations of where that should be. I've budgeted about $3,500 for two people for the weekend (after plane tix) so I'm feeling like I should be able to plan something awesome--I just don't know what! Can you help me figure out:

1. Where should we go? Am I right in thinking that the Russian River Valley area is going to be a cluster*#$ during this weekend? Is Sonoma or Napa a better bet? Or some other area entirely? I really want to avoid the mass-crowd tour-bus feeling for whatever we do. I'm also open to heading further north (Mendocino?), or to the coast (Carmel?), or somewhere else entirely.

2. Good recommendations for places to stay? I'm not going to turn my nose up at an AMAZING place to stay for $100, but I'm assuming the sort of nice hotel I'd like for a special vacation is going to run more like $200-500 per night. More than that might be a stretch if I want to rent a car and eat every day! I'm not opposed to b&bs but don't love fussy Victorian decorating and the sort of place where you can hear every bed creak. (Ahem.)

3. What sort of things should we do? If you were putting together an awesome set of activities for a couple in their early 30s who were only going to be visiting Northern California once in their lives, what would be on that list? (Keep in mind it's March!) I love adventurous outdoorsy things, great scenery, good food, good booze (craft beer, good wine and especially interesting cocktails), and cultural stuff. Festivals and big crowds are less my thing.
posted by iminurmefi to Travel & Transportation around California (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I LOVE Carmel Valley Ranch.
posted by AlliKat75 at 11:24 AM on February 3, 2012

I *loved* Mendocino, but it's been 15 years, and I have no idea what prices were like (thanks sugar momma of the time). It was a good length car trip up Highway 1, made longer by my car sickness twice.
posted by DigDoug at 11:39 AM on February 3, 2012

Monterey/Carmel, for sure, with a side trip to Big Sur. My favorite hotel in Monterey is the Hotel Pacific, and it's in your price range.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:39 AM on February 3, 2012

Big sur.
posted by yarly at 11:48 AM on February 3, 2012

Response by poster: AlliKat and mudpuppie, can you say a little bit about what is so great about Monterey/Carmel? I know it's a place people go for vacation a lot but I'm having a hard time getting a sense of what it is like or what the attraction is. Cute town? Fun stuff to do?

Sorry to sound like an idiot, I just have literally no mental picture of what that area is like to make me excited!
posted by iminurmefi at 11:49 AM on February 3, 2012

You don't sound like an idiot... I guess I would describe Monterey/Carmel as cute, small town fun. When I was there, I did a lot of is just beautiful. The aquarium is awesome. The town is full of great restaurants and bars. All the people I encountered were just super nice. I can't say a bad thing about my experience, except that it had to come to an end. At Carmel Valley Ranch, my partner and I indulged in great spa days and spent A LOT of time in the infinity hot tub. We played golf and just generally relaxed. Plus, if you have a car, you can drive to San Francisco to enjoy a day there - the drive itself is gorgeous, and you can't go wrong in SF. If you can spend the night in SF, you will be able to imbibe amazing cocktails (oh you crazy San Francisco mixologists), AND you can plan trips to any number of breweries (don't forget the East Bay!!). Added bonus - tour the Hangar One distillery. AAAAGGGGHHH!!!!! There's so much!
posted by AlliKat75 at 12:06 PM on February 3, 2012

Of course -- sorry. I love it so much, I just assume everyone knows all the wonderful things about it.

The coastline around the Monterey Bay is gorgeous. Rocky, beautiful beaches with neat tidepools. Monterey itself was settled by Spanish missionaries and was originally part of Mexico, so a lot of the architecture (and history) is really interesting. There's kitschy tourist stuff -- Cannery Row and Fisherman's Wharf -- but there's also a really fabulous coastal trail that runs from the town of Seaside (about 3 miles away) through Monterey and all the way down to Asilomar state beach. (The Asilomar Conference Center there was designed by Julia Morgan, architect of Hearst Castle.)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is world class and sits in a beautiful setting -- an old Cannery Building right on the bay. (Pro tip: If you buy aquarium tickets from a major hotel, they cost the same, but they're good for two consecutive days' admission. You can leave if it gets too crowded and return the next morning.)

There are a lot of wineries in the area, especially in Carmel Valley.

The town of Carmel is about 10 minutes away, unless you take the scenic 17-Mile Drive (there's a toll) that winds down the coast, through the mansions, and past Pebble Beach Golf Course. If you want a swanky location, you can sit in the lounge at Pebble Beach and have a drink overlooking the links and the ocean. They'll refund the entrance to 17-Mile Drive if you make a minimum purchase. Carmel is full of little shops and galleries, along with lots of quaint little restaurants. It's a shopper's town. If you're not into shopping, you might not love it, but it's still fun to wander around.

Another 10 minutes down the coast is the fabulous, fabulous Point Lobos State Park. Gorgeous views, beach walks, tide pools, and hiking.

Another 30 minutes or so down the coast and you're in glorious Big Sur and its redwood forests. There are a few more great state parks there, so you can get your hiking fix.

There are too many well-regarded restaurants in Monterey and Carmel to list here. You'd have some decisions to make.

To sum up, you can go swanky (spas, shopping, wine tasting) or touristy (Cannery Row) or natural (state parks and lots of other hiking), or funky (take a 45-minute drive up to Santa Cruz for an equally gorgeous setting but a completely different atmosphere). It's all beautiful.

And I have intentionally neglected to mention sea otters up until now because, come on, FUCKING SEA OTTERS! (Sea lions and harbor seals, too. Lots of them.) Best sea otter viewing is in the little fishing town of Moss Landing, 20 or 25 minutes north of Monterey. MeMail me if you want to know where to find them.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:35 PM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm going to disagree completely on Monterey and Carmel, only because if this is a once in a lifetime thing (or if you're treating it that way) you really should spend your time in and around San Francisco. Napa and Sonoma are an hour away from San Francisco, where Monterey and Carmel are 2.5 hours or more. Monterey and Carmel are charming, generally less crowded and and annoying-touristy than Napa, but there are plenty of small wineries in the Napa area if you don't want the tour bus crowd. Napa is arguably prettier, and you can bike in Napa and see redwoods (with lots of other folks) in Muir Woods, which is between Napa and San Francisco. Napa Valley is going to be better for luxury hotels and wineries than Monterey/Carmel, and San Francisco has much more to do than those towns. Four days may not be enough, but I would recommend seeing Yosemite if you can fit it in. Save Monterey and Carmel for your second trip.
posted by cnc at 1:01 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's all dependent, I think, on personal taste. If my first trip to California had been to Napa or Sonoma, I'd have enjoyed it, but I wouldn't have been overwhelmed at all. Had my first trip been to the Monterey Bay area, I would have done everything I could to move there ASAP. It's all just about what floats your particular boat. They're very different places.

(And don't even try Yosemite or Mendocino if you only have four days. Your entire trip will be spent in the car.)
posted by mudpuppie at 1:04 PM on February 3, 2012

Well, if you want laid back, luxurious, and wine, then yes, stick around san Francisco and napa. But if you want the most amazing coastline and views in the country, base yourself in Monterey and go hiking in big sur.
posted by yarly at 1:05 PM on February 3, 2012

Barrel tasting weekend does definitely bring in the crowds and more of a party, vineyard-hopping vibe at the wineries themselves. I haven't actually participated but I have been in the area during, and it didn't seem particularly insane, though couldn't say for sure what it would be like trying to see attractions, etc. I have friend who love the barrel tasting scene. It's too bad, because I think the Russian River Valley is a really amazing and beautiful area, and also less ritzy/snobby than Sonoma and Napa in many ways. If you do decide to give it a try I would recommend staying in Occidental or Freestone, they are near eachother, little hippy/wine country towns with a history, right smack in the middle of Redwoods. Tom Waits lives here, haha. I've stayed at the Negri's Occidental Hotel and it was standard but well-appointed and nice. I'm guessing there are other more boutique type places around. I've heard the the Boon Spa Resort in nearby Guerneville is quite nice, Guerneville is just a little bigger and a little funkier. If you decide to do the Russian River route, send me a message because I could go on and on with suggestions for things to do in the area at large, hikes, bars, restaurants, etc. It's so beautiful! (as are all the other places you're considering ;) )

Also, you should DEFINITELY consider looking for a reasonably priced condo on, no matter where you go. My family and I spent Thanksgiving at this place in Duncans Mills (Russian River, closer to the coast, also an awesome choice) and I cannot speak highly enough. It is a beautifully renovated barn space, very private, on the river, wood burning stove, very nice outdoor hot tub, kayaks and river access. I bet you could find a could deal low season, definitely makesLots of places like this out there.

I also really like the Sonoma area but have spent less time there. I think the town of Sonoma is quite cute but all I've done there is drink a beer at one of the more hole-in-the-wall type bars on the little plaza in town. If going to this area, I would consider staying in Glen Ellen. You've got the Jack London State Park which is lovely. I stayed at Jack London Lodge which was very nice but not super high end, they have an outdoor pool and hot tub. Next door is a great bar, the Jack London Saloon, with local beers and I'm sure wines as well, which I guess is affiliated with the lodge? I didn't realize that. Up the road toward the state park was one of the favorite wineries I visited in the area: Benzinger Estates. They are certified biodynamic and the vineyards are beautiful. Nice tour and tasting available.

Finally, I also love Big Sur and Monterey. It is a little further afield but super super beautiful. Someone mentioned Asilomar up above, the conferense center is also a great place to stay! They rent individual rooms, I believe there are options of newer more luxury suites and more rustic historic rooms, can't quite remember. It's kind of fun and different, on a big complex that was originally a Girl Scout camp? You get breakfast served communally, kind of like being at camp, and there are a variety of lodge spaces with fireplaces and games for hanging out in. And the beach is right there and beautiful. It's technically in Pacific Grove. In Big Sur, I've stayed at Glen Oaks hotel and loved it, but it looks like they've renovated and raised the prices since then, though I'm sure it's still quite nice.

Oh, one more suggestion no has mentioned yet if you decide to stay closer to San Francisco: There is a hostel run by Hostelling International in the Marin Headlands (beautiful public lands with beach and trails right across the Golden Gate bridge from San Fran yet feel distant from the city.) The lodging is in converted Officers quarters because there were several different military installations here. There's the Point Bonita lighthouse, awesome defunct missile silos to check out, rugged headland cliffs, foggy views of the Golden Gate. I would recommend cooking in the kitchens here because it is a SLIGHT jaunt to get back to San Francisco or over to Sausalito for fine dining options, but not impossible. It's nice and quiet in the evenings.

Maybe this doesn't really help you narrow it down, but the good news is, you can't really go wrong!! These places are all awesome. Again feel free to message me for more detail, this answer is already too long!
posted by dahliachewswell at 3:08 PM on February 3, 2012

Oi, apologies for all the typos in that. Enthusiasm got the best of me.
posted by dahliachewswell at 3:11 PM on February 3, 2012

I really enjoyed staying in Point Arena, on the Mendocino Coast. You can stay in a lighthouse-keeper's cabin, if that is your thing, and you will be close enough to the Anderson Valley to do some tasting. You get dramatic coastline, fog, the kind of thing the northern coast is known for. Hiking, beauty, vengeful pirate zombies

If you do decide to brave the barrel tasting, I've been in the Alexander Valley area for those weekends, and it was not terrible. You need to be selective about where you go, for sure. But some wineries do not participate, and some even have policies against tasting buses, limos, etc.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:27 PM on February 3, 2012

@mudpuppie is probably right about Yosemite. It's a LONG day trip. I've done it, but I didn't have anything to do the next day.
posted by cnc at 5:44 PM on February 3, 2012

Yosemite is a 4-5 hour drive from SF. NOT a day trip. Its completely amazing, but not worth it for a day trip or even 1 night.

You might look into the town of Sonoma. Everyone talks Napa for wine country but Sonoma has fantastic wineries (Gundlach Bundschu, Ravenswood, Adobe Road to name a few), great restaurants, and plenty of places to stay. Healdsburg is fantastic and you could day trip up there. The Coppola winery is gorgeous (wines mediocre), the town of Healdsburg is lots of fun, and there is always Bear Republic brewery if you love beer. I'll also note Russian River brewing co. in Santa Rosa if you love beer (home of Pliny the Elder). Driving Hwy 12 from Sonoma to Santa Rosa offers a lot of wineries.
posted by Chuck Cheeze at 12:14 AM on February 4, 2012

I LOVE barrel tasting weekend! My roommate works at a hotel in Healdsburg and reports that they don't get any boost in the number of guests for barrel tasting, and my past experience tells me that it's a mostly locals tradition.

Only the largest wineries in Sonoma County even allow limos, and most of the smaller ones really frown on large limo type parties, so while wineries are busier during barrel tasting, it's generally not a ton of sloshed bachelorette types. The best thing is actually that the winemakers and wine owners are out on the floor for the whole weekend, so it's a great time to meet winemakers and ask any and every question you've ever had about wine.

Lots of wineries do extra tours, and have food or local bands playing music. My parents and I go barrel tasting every year. It's one of my favorite Sonoma County traditions.

I'm happy to give you suggestions on some great wineries to check out during barrel tasting. Memail me if you have any questions!
posted by nerdcore at 10:45 AM on February 4, 2012

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