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Trip Report – Sonoma

Despite being haunted by one of the film's I saw at the Sonoma International Film Festival, I really did have a wonderful time in Sonoma.

It was my first trip to this idyllic town and I enjoyed it much more than it's rival sister in the wine valley, Napa. There are so many aspects of this city that make it a more ideal weekend location and I wanted to share my experiences.

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Sonoma is the first (and only) official CittaSlow in the United States. That's Slow City in Italian and it is a moniker that comes with a lot of hard work. Sonoma is environmentally conscious and lives within the slow city principles which include a whole list of requirements based on sustainable living, food and wine products as well as other community planning projects such as school and community vegetable gardens.

I also knew they had a unique downtown area which the festival was taking place in so I was looking forward to checking it all out.

I arrived in town on Thursday evening. I had worked the entire day and as I left the hustle and bustle of urban suburbia and moved towards the greener pastures of the valley I could feel the stress starting to dissipate. I realized I was able to see stars and smell pastures which are not daily occurrences where I live. (Digression, I miss the farm smells that I used to encounter on my daily commute to work in Switzerland!)

When I arrived at my hotel, MacArthur Place, and walked into the office, I knew it was going to be a nice weekend.

The property is really unique. The “estate is comprised of beautiful gardens, majestic old trees, and historic architecture. The two-story Victorian house which dominates the property, was built in the 1850s and is reported to be one of the oldest Victorian homes in Sonoma.” The grounds are amazing, read more here.

And running the joint? A cat. Yep. AJ, Chief Feline Officer, is not only the mascot, but the greeter. He is a lovely once-feral cat that makes MacArthur Place his home. He welcomes you to the property and may even show up for a petting while you are walking the grounds!

My room was incredibly comfortable and amazingly quiet. I live near railroad tracks in Berkeley and train horns are a constant part of the night noises every evening. That and my cat Jessica. Without those distractions and with country air and stillness, I slept amazingly well.

Friday morning I woke up bright and early to walk from the hotel to downtown in order to attend the student film program which I gushed about a bit already. It was a fifteen minute walk along a beautifully maintained street with homes and business in cute little bungalows. Everything was meticulously maintained in a very natural way, not forced or artificial. Some people were even quite whimsical with the front yards and the city has quite a few talented gardeners.

I am still amazed at the projects the students produced and I am thrilled to see that this art from is alive and well with a healthy future ahead. After the student program I visited other parts of the festival and then saw The Elephant in the Living Room.

I used the walk back from downtown to try to change my mind as I headed to meet my husband for dinner. He joined me for the rest of the weekend which was a bonus!

There are a number of restaurants in Sonoma. Being a CittaSlow they use locally grown and produced foods which I had the opportunity to try out a sampling of at the festival as well as frequenting three restaurants during the weekend.

The first restaurant was Saddles, which is part of MacArthur Place. I ate dinner there on Friday evening. It's a steak house, not our usual fare, but we were tired so we decided to go anyway. Eating in their covered atrium afforded us wonderful natural light and a partial view of some of the gardens.

The meal was quite good. We shared two appetizers: a fresh artichoke and then mussels cooked in champagne and pancetta. I rarely eat beef but decided to have a small filet mignon with some spinach on the side. It was cooked to perfection and my husband had an equally well-prepared ahi tuna with gnocchi. We ended the meal on a sweet note with a scoop of chocolate ice cream and house-made salted caramel sauce – yum.

After a wonderful night sleep (after that meal who wouldn't sleep well!), we got up early and headed into the hills to explore the Sonoman countryside. We had gorgeous weather and it was perfect for photos and dreaming of a slower life. We snuck over to our favorite winery, Preston of Dry Creek, in Healdsburg, about 45 minutes away to quickly pick up some organic wine and bread.

Upon our return we left the car at the hotel and walked downtown to try Lokal, a new restaurant for a late lunch. The owner calls his food European Soul Food and specializes in German and Hungarian offerings. I enjoyed a tasty chicken and apple braut with German potato salad and a local Sonoma beer. Belly happily filled I headed to the festival to work.

After a couple hours of work we headed off to dinner. I know. It seems all we do is eat, but really, that's not the case!

I had made reservations at the much talked about “the girl and the fig.' Their slogan is ‘country food with a French passion,' but unfortunately it does not live up to the hype. There is no doubt they have an excellent menu-writer, but the descriptions don't deliver once the plates arrive.

I love the idea of this place. Buying local, growing some things themselves for use in the restaurant, even creating their sparkling water from their own spring, but we did not have a good meal.

The one exception was my husband's starter which were mussels cooked in pastis and fennel. The goat cheese on my main entree was excellent as well, but that was all.

To top it off, service was horrible which really impacts the enjoyment. It could have been that they were extra busy due to the film festival which would have been forgivable if the food had been better. My husband and I are always cautious about places that people say are a “must-do” we often find that it usually is a “must-don't” for us.

No matter, the evening was saved by a nice stroll back to the hotel. On the way back we even discovered a locally made limoncello called HelloCello, which we bought a bottle of. I did not try it yet so can't report how good it is,  we are still working on a bottle we picked up in Florence!

Sunday morning we woke up and headed home refreshed from a wonderfully relaxed weekend in laid back, friendly and welcoming Sonoma. If you ever have the option to visit the San Francisco Bay Area and want to day trip it out to the wine country, think about selecting Sonoma over Napa, I think you will enjoy it.

I did not get to visit any local wineries but I did try several local wines during the course of the weekend. And they were all quite decent. I have to believe that with the warm and friendly environment and laid back attitude that wine tasting in Sonoma is far more relaxed and less snooty than you would find in Napa.

Anyone else share my opinion?

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  1. Totally love, love, love Sonoma…it’s feels so much more “homey” than Napa and it’s got a totally different “attitude.”

  2. I have never been there but it sounds lovely. I love that they focus on keeping it local and are eco-conscious.

  3. Wow, what a fantastic trip!!! I love that area of Cali. If I were you and your hubby though I would have finished half that bottle of limoncello back in your fabulous hotel room. 😉

  4. So sorry that you had such a terrible experience at my restaurant. It is disappointing to hear especially in a blog post. Not sure exactly what else you ate or what exactly was wrong with the service, but if you care to take the time, please email me at [email protected] as I would love to know what we can do to fix the problems that you speak of. Thanks in advance.

  5. Mmmmmmmm….limoncello! Plus, how can limoncello with a cool name like “HelloCello” be bad? 😉

    1. @Lyn, tried it last night, it was pretty good. I can’t say it beat the Italian version but it is a good substitute when I can’t a hold of the “real” stuff!

  6. Kyla Hickey says:

    Sonoma sounds like such a beautiful & relaxing place. I moved to L.A. a couple of years ago and really need to get up north for a trip to wine country. I’m definitely going to look into MacArthur Place since it seems like such a beautiful hotel!