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Inn Season : Nostalgia and good food lure a visitor back to the Russian River. : Destination: California & Massachusetts

August 27, 1995|HEIDI HAUGHY CUSICK | Cusick is a free-lance writer based in Mendocino. and

GUERNEVILLE — Lured by redwood forests, fog-tempered summers and sandy swimming holes, vacationers have been coming to the Russian River since the turn of the century. Once known as San Francisco's Riviera, the Russian River resort area was a day trip by ferry and train.

Travelers stayed in rough cabins or in scores of resorts and camps along the railroad tracks that, until 1935, extended north from Sausalito to Monte Rio and Guerneville. When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the railroad was gone but my family of 10 car-camped or stayed at friends' cabins near the river.

I recently made a trip to see how the area is doing. During last winter's floods, when the river rose high above its banks, many dwellings and businesses were ravaged and access was cut off for several days. Now, the natural beauty seems unaffected and business is back to normal. The only flood reminders are a handful of boarded up buildings.

Sonoma County's celebrated wineries and food have widened the area's appeal, especially in the fall when the fog retreats, warm temperatures remain and the vineyards blaze with colors of harvest gold and burgundy. For those who didn't inherit one of the rustic family cabins that still cling to the river's steep banks, a number of bed and breakfast inns serving dinner can provide a complete romantic getaway.

Each of the five inns I dined at appealed to me for different reasons. One inn is a nostalgic gambol into the past with the funk-amid-natural-beauty for which the Russian River is known. Three others--converted from a farmhouse, a family estate and a manor house--provide casual-to-formal settings for breakfast and dinner. The fifth is highlighted by a five-star dining experience.

All are convenient bases from which to experience the Russian River Valley and its canoeing, hiking, swimming, bicycling and wine tasting.

From the turnoff on U.S. 101, 60 miles from San Francisco and just five miles north of Santa Rosa, River Road heads west into the Russian River resort area. At the junction is Vintners Inn. Its setting among the vineyards, its sun-colored walls, arched doorways and peaked tile roofs give it the appearance of a country hotel in Provence.

The spacious rooms have vineyard or courtyard views and are decorated in antique pine and European prints. Some rooms have fireplaces; the fireplace tiles have a grape leaf motif. Delicious breakfasts of fresh fruit and pastries are served in a cozy dining room adjacent to the lobby and library.

But the main draw is the restaurant, John Ash & Co. The chef is now Jeffrey Madura, but John Ash comes back once a month to prepare and host winemaker's dinners, bringing with him baskets of organic produce grown at Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Winery, where he is the culinary director.

The food here is California-style with Asian accents. The menu changes monthly with an eye toward seasonal specialties. For those who take dietary restrictions on vacation, a low-fat menu is offered a la carte or three courses for a fixed price ($19.95).

The cafe, which includes the bar and adjacent outside patio, serves appetizers, pizza, pasta and sandwiches. Oysters on the half shell at $1.50 each and rosemary flat bread with sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant and hard Asiago cheese ($7.95) make perfect appetizers to go with a glass of Fume Blanc and a sunset. Other choices include two crispy thick crab cakes on a bed of wilted greens with a dollop of serrano chile mayonnaise ($8.95) or fried calamari rings to dip in a sweet-hot Thai-basil sauce ($8.95).

The high-ceiling dining room is divided by horizontal oak trellises. Pale yellow and mint green walls contrast with the highly glossed terra-cotta floor. A soup appetizer of black bean chowder flecked with corn and pepper jack cheese ($5.95) is a great prelude to an entree of grilled pork tenderloin with a tart raspberry vinegar sauce laden with shallots and shiitake mushrooms ($12.95 or $17.95, depending on portion size). Desserts ($4.95 each) range from classic bread pudding and strawberry shortcake to an original macadamia nut, caramel and chocolate tart.

*

Beyond Vintners Inn, River Road passes produce stands, market gardens, dairy cows and vineyards. After eight miles, redwoods begin to replace valley oaks and willow trees. On the left, surrounded by oaks and the first redwoods, sits the yellow Farmhouse Inn.

This country inn is 5 years old. The rooms, in what were once farm workers' cabins, are done in English cottage-style with suite-like sitting areas and fireplaces. Three rooms have their own saunas and Jacuzzi-tubs and two suites offer separate living rooms and accommodate children. It's comfortable and casual, without the European feel of Vintners Inn.

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