A visit to overlooked Petaluma

When you drive north across Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito to San Rafael seems like one long stretch of city. Farther north, Rohnert Park/Santa Rosa/Healdsburg is basically one long clump of metro. In the middle sits Petaluma.

This geographic separation might have something to do with how Petalumans see themselves: a distinct tribe of denizens, and proudly so, undiluted by other towns encroaching on their border and free of divided loyalties to greener pastures.* It’s a tad too far to be a popular bedroom community for SF commuters, and too pedestrian and middle class for the well-heeled or disenchanted to want to escape to. The hippies didn’t come here in the 60s/70s, and the tech-rich haven’t come here now, at least not in great numbers.

Scenery is part of that too. 2,400-foot Sonoma Mountain sits within ogling distance, but otherwise Petaluma is mostly pool-table flat, without much notable topography (it’s tallest structure is a grain silo). It’s not a treeless delta, but it feels like one at times, with the lazy Petaluma River that flows through it and south to San Francisco Bay. Combine that with its location south of the county’s main winery areas, and tourists are mostly driving through on their way to Healdsburg or quaint country inns to the northwest, while anyone with means is buying property in the hills of Marin.

Too bad, because Petaluma is worth a visit. There’s a reason so many movies, from American Graffiti to Pleasantville, have been filmed here. The beautifully preserved downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, with century-old Victorians and Queen Anne-style homes and iron-front buildings. (Petaluma was spared the devastation of the 1906 earthquake due to its bedrock foundation.) And the riverfront has been turned into a lovely attraction.

It’s inviting to park and stroll along the main drag of Petaluma Blvd, past casual restaurants, brewpubs, coffee shops, bakeries and quaint shops, some that sit along the riverfront. The Great Petaluma Mill, dating from the late 1800s, houses a number of shops and eateries, including the notable Wild Goat Bistro and nearby Central Market. The cute Italian spot, Risibisi, is another restaurant with foodie aspirations housed in historic digs.

Hotels are limited here. The Sheraton Petaluma is the only four-star, and quite eye-catching as you drive into town on the 101 with a boat-filled marina out its back door. Otherwise it’s a choice between a Best Western, Hampton Inn and some interesting old boutique properties downtown, notably the historic Hotel Petaluma and the colorfully funky Metro Hotel.

The best time to come to Petaluma is during a festival, and it didn’t get any bigger this year than the 100th annual Butter & Egg Days at the end of April (there’s always next year). You can still sign on for the Art & Garden Festival in July, or the Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival and the Fall Antique Faire in September. Summer can get hot here once the morning fog burns off, since the town doesn’t get much bay effect and is in a bit of a valley between two mountain ranges. Which of course can be a plus if you’re coming from the fog-bound Outer Sunset. So plan accordingly, and consider Petaluma on your next Sonoma adventure.


*They’ve also had something tangible on which to attach their civic pride, as in actual industry and an economy that doesn’t rely on tourism and bedroom commuters. For a time Petaluma was known as the ‘egg capital of the world’ and still has a substantial poultry industry. With its water access to the bay, it was also a major freighting point for all the county’s substantial dairy and farm products. More recently, it’s the home of Clover Stornetta Farms and one of the most successful craft breweries in the country, Lagunitas.


A getaway to Santa Cruz

For someone who’s never been to California, the city of Santa Cruz is most likely what they imagine. Endless sunshine, miles of sandy coastline, surfers, hippies, old VW vans, legal weed, grungies and skateboard/street punks. More than any other Bay Area city or exurb, Santa Cruz embodies that classic California vibe – something like chilled-out surfer or stoned-out hippie – but mostly a contented attitude that comes when living within biking distance of the ocean is all that matters. It’s a beach town first, college town second, with blue-collar roots and hippie/yoga aspirations, the kind of place Cheech and Chong might retire to, or Jeff Spicoli would flunk out of if he ever got in.

Continue reading A getaway to Santa Cruz

A weekend in Pacific Grove

When Bay Area locals talk about getting away for a weekend in Monterey, they’re usually referring to the Monterey Peninsula and its sister cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. Visitors to the area typically bounce between one highlight to the next (mostly in Monterey), and may not pay much attention to differences. But believe it or not, each of these bordering towns has a distinct character about them. Monterey is the big sister with the most activity and biggest attractions, while Carmel is the old-money sophisticate with rows of high-end shops, galleries and wine bars on its leafy main drag.

Continue reading A weekend in Pacific Grove

A weekend in Healdsburg (and a bit of foodie history)

If you’re looking to spend a weekend exploring Sonoma wine country, consider making Healdsburg your base of operations. It’s easy to get to (minus any traffic woes) just off Hwy 101 about 10 miles north of Santa Rosa, so just enough removed from the small city sprawl, car dealerships and office parks of that area. Yet it still has all the conveniences and amenities you might need, and enough small town charm to make it feel like a proper country getaway from the city.

The biggest reason of all: it’s located at the intersection of three wine regions – the Russian River AVA, Dry Creek AVA and Alexander Valley AVA.

Continue reading A weekend in Healdsburg (and a bit of foodie history)

Roaring Camp & big trees

I’m not a train person, per se. I don’t show up to train events in an engineer’s hat and overalls draped with pins and patches of past train glories. But I do appreciate the romanticism of old steam engines and the bygone eras they represent. Plus, those old engines are something of a marvel, the way their parts have to work together just so or the whole thing doesn’t move, or worse, explodes.

Continue reading Roaring Camp & big trees

What to do in the Bay Area this weekend

SF Giants FanFest
Roam the outfield like Hunter Pence or meet all-star new edition Andrew McCutchen at the Giants FanFest at AT&T Park. The all-day event features a Q&A, autograph session and kids zone. You can also tour the stadium press box and clubhouse, and maybe sprinkle a little magic pixie dust to erase all memory of last year’s disastrous season. Saturday, 2/10, 10am-3pm.

Chinese New Year Mini Parade
The actual Chinese New Year is not for another week (2/16), but you can get a jump on the festivities, and avoid the massive crowds, at this kick-off mini-procession for the Year of the Dog. Lion dancers, stilt walkers, drummers, walking puppets and local politicians are part of the procession that starts at St. Mary’s Square, rolls through Chinatown down Grant Ave, and ends up at the Flower Fair on Washington. Saturday, 2/10, 10:15am.

SF Beer Week Battle of the Bands
Beer, live music, food trucks, outdoors on a (partly) sunny day. Say no more. This kick-off event to SF Beer Week, and sponsored by Anchor Brewing, features a variety of beers from long-time SF brewery, including limited releases and latest creations. Meet the brewmeisters, choose from over 10 food trucks and rock out to local music at SoMa StrEat Food Park. Saturday, 2/10, noon-4pm.

Randall Museum Grand Reopening
High atop the hill in Corona Heights Park between the Castro and Haight, the often overlooked Randall Museum has gone through a major $9 million renovation and is finally ready for its grand reopening. The museum has always been about free hands-on nature and science for kids. And now you can explore the high-tech STEM lab, geology/seismology exhibit and live animal enclosures with natural habitats. The celebration also features live entertainment, and a model train exhibit. Sunday, 2/11, 10am-3pm.

Ski Bus to Tahoe
Great idea, Sports Basement! Everyone loves hitting the slopes in Tahoe, but no one likes the long boring drive. Enter the sports outfitter with a $75 roundtrip bus that picks you up at its store on Bryant St., or in Sunnyvale, and whisks you off on its luxury liner to Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows. Take a nap, wake up for included breakfast, snacks or drinks, and enjoy a solid 5 hours of skiing or snowboarding. Saturday or Sunday, 2/10-11, 6:30am-8pm.

5 Things to do in the Bay Area this weekend

stARTup Art Fair
One of the cooler art events in the city (though that’s something of a tallest pygmy contest with the dearth of art culture in SF), the fair is now in its third year at Hotel Del Sol on Webster St. in the Marina. Over 50 artists participate in the take-over of individual rooms and the courtyard pool area of the hotel, with artists conversations and a seminar on women in art. 4/28-30, Fri 7-10pm, Sat noon-9pm, Sun noon-7pm.

King’s Day Celebration
There’s a Dutch community in San Francisco, apparently. Because each year at this time they gather round the Murphy Windmill in Golden Gate Park to celebrate King’s Day, the biggest event of the year for Nederlanders. Flea market, music, beer garden, food trucks, kid’s games are all part of the fun, as well as typically nice weather this time of year. 4/29, Saturday, noon-5pm.

Dancing in the Park
The 10-day event that is Bay Area Dance Week culminates this weekend with various workshops and free performances. Dancing in the Park is one of the highlights, with some 30 top Bay Area dance troupes and schools performing in the band shell next to the de Young Museum. 4/29, Saturday, noon-4:30pm.

Caesar Chavez Day Parade
The largest event honoring the late labor and rights activist, the parade begins at 11am and makes its way from Dolores Park and ends at a street fair at 24th between Treat Ave. and Bryant St., which features a car show and plenty of food. 4/29, Saturday, 11am-6pm.

“Summer of Love” Block Party
It’s been 50 years since San Francisco became famous for hippies, tie-dye and psychedelic drugs during its famous summer of love in 1967. The festivities for what promises to be a summer of events kick off with a block party on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley with free concerts from 60s cover bands, food, crafts and kid’s games. 4/29, Saturday, noon-5pm.

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