Healdsburg Gets Family Love
By Kathy Chin Leong
As we reset our clocks to fall back, and the landscape dons its crisp, autumn coat, in Healdsburg pumpkins saturate the fields, and harvest dinners blanket restaurant menus. Dubbed by its own marketeers as “our world class small town,” the Sonoma County gem captures the essence of the season for travelers seeking fall beauty, farm-to-table comfort food, rich wine bounty, and cozy sleeping habitats.
“It’s amazing,” observes John Mastrianni, owner of Wine Country Bicycles. “All of a sudden everything turns orange, yellow, and red, and the vineyards that were previously leafy green have all agreed to change colors.”
There’s craft and care and pride found in this 11,000-plus member community which was originally home to the Pomo Indians. In the mid-1800s, the Gold Rush brought thousands to the West, and among them was Harmon Heald, the founder of Healdsburg who laid out a town plan and sold parcels for $15 a piece.
The quiet backroads through the vineyards around Healdsburg is perfect for family cycling and hiking. The mountains, the waterways, the family-friendly eateries in the vicinity forces one to dial things way down and appreciate nature’s pleasures.
When it comes to food in Healdsburg, choices are dizzying. And in the fall, you can bet that top restaurants will be simmering and stewing pumpkins, squashes, and making hearty bowls of autumn comfort food. One favorite is Pizzando. The place is casual and affordable with creative pizza pies topped withseasonal fruit or just-picked veggies. Thin-crust pizzas feature just the right amount of blister.
Steps away is Dry Creek Kitchen that recently renovated its dining room. Guests can enjoy the floor-to-ceiling-window ambiance with California-style meals that rely on Sonoma County farms. The $79 tasting menu comes with five courses featuring Sonoma corn soup, diver scallops, a wild arugula salad, lamb T-bone chop, and dessert. But changes are inevitable as new seasons bring forth new harvests.
There’s quite the stir at Michelin-preferred Valette, the brainchild of two brothers, Dustin Valette and Aaron Garzin. The restaurant sends a trendy vibe with high, exposed wood beam ceilings, cement walls, and mid-century modern spherical chandeliers. A tasting menu with a minimum of five $15 dishes will star as your food memory for the month, and if you choose Trust the Chef menu, expect an evening of Oohs and Aahs. For every dish, servers march out artistically-designed entrees on unique platters and bowls.
At Chalkboard Restaurant, diners can share plates, tapas-style, under the watchful direction of Chef Shane McAnelly, who had the honor of making dinner at the elite foodie haven, the James Beard House in New York. The Chalkboard dishes dial in just right on seasonal fare with local ingredients. Many of the fruits, herbs, and veggies are plucked from the nearby 4.5-acre Chalk Hill Farm at the Chalk Hill Winery. Smile over the fresh flavors of Little Gem lettuce, housemade pasta, bavette steak, fried chicken thighs, and more.
For the sheer fun of it, rent a bike for everyone and embark upon one of the most exquisite bicycle trail rides in the country. Healdsburg’s winery roads are listed among the Seven Greatest Rides on Earth, according to Bicycling Magazine. Wine Country Bikes provide guided tours as well as traditional bike and electric bike rentals.
On another day, adventurers can ply the Russian River. River’s Edge Kayak and Canoe rents both types of vessels. The easy trip on the northern portion of the Russian River takes anywhere from three to five hours, depending on the guest.
The best hiking around Healdsburg can be found at the Healdsburg Open Space Reserve. This is a 155-acre park north of downtown. With just three miles of trails for easy walking, you will meander through grassland and chaparral as you nab views of Fitch Mountain, the Mayacama Mountains, and the Russian River.
Get horsey with a trail ride with The Ranch at Lake Sonoma. The outfitters make it fun for all levels and for kids ages 12 and up. Giddyup on flat trails or challenge yourself with a steep group ride up a mountain to absorb lake views at the top.
DOING and MAKING
When you want to learn something new and work with your hands, take a class that can be held in a sublime environment, be it on a flower farm, a personal home, art studio, or in a winery. Makers in Healdsburg up the ante on memorable experiences so classes are escalated to a whole new level in creativity and environment.
If in town on a Saturday, wander the Healdsburg Certified Farmers’ Market to gather staples for an organic picnic and stay for a cooking demo and live music. The region is laden with farms, so you will be picking from the freshest of the fresh. In addition to fruits and veggies, purveyors offer: flowers, cheeses, honey, olive oil, bread, wild fish, meat, fresh eggs, cooked food, packaged food product and hand-made craft items.
This fall be on the lookout for the market’s own pumpkin festival carving contest. Grab a farm trail map on Farmtrails.org to see where you can pick pumpkins, apples, and other fall bounty. For the month of November, the Saturday Farmer’s Market will be featuring booths with arts and crafts, so you can get a jump on your holiday shopping.
Indulge the senses at Dragonfly Floral Farm which splinters off a country road. This organic farm features picnic tables, flower gardens, and space for classes that can be tailored for celebrations. And, like the culinary classes, these workshops are decidedly different. The one-hour Floral Decompression class is an opportunity to unwind and “play with flowers.” Participants bring their own vases and create their own arrangements under the encouragement and guidance of an instructor. The catalogue indicates: “Please bring wine if you wish to sip and design.”
At the Healdsburg Center for the Arts, you can take a painting, watercolor journaling, clay class and more. You can ask for the Art Anytime class which lets you customize your own art class at a time of your choosing. These courses will be unique. The Landscape and Memory class takes students outside to paint while the instructor dialogues with students on the pros and cons of painting off a photo versus painting outside.
When you are ready to call it a day, an abundance of sleep options are at your disposal for different types of travel. The town boasts an array of 27 properties in Healdsburg, and 14 right outside city limits.
For families up to six, the new Two-Thirty-Five Luxury Suites is ideal for families or girlfriend getaways. Four upscale apartment-style residences in 1,200 to 1,400-square feet configurations have three large bedrooms. Prices for each residence range from $525 to $1250 per night. Three couples can enjoy a weekend under one roof. Each room features a California king, built-in TV that rises out of a cabinet, and bathroom with its own shower or tub. What makes it an ideal retreat setting is the fully-stocked kitchen that comes with full-sized refrigerator, pots and pans, Bosch dishwasher, and gas range and oven.
The open-concept living room and dining room makes it easy to spread out and share a movie night together with homemade popcorn. The fact that it is located in the heart of the downtown makes it convenient. And the fact that all four suites are sequestered on the second level takes you away from any noises that may keep folks up at night.
Ten minutes outside the downtown core is the family-friendly Dry Creek Inn where you can visit Tuscany without a passport. Think sculptured grape clusters, rows of ornate columns, and mustard-colored walls and archways. The Italian-inspired property brims with bubbling fountains as fire pits blaze come sunset.
Rates run $150-$500 for each of its 163 rooms and suites which have been recently upgraded. A contemporary gray and white palette replaces outdated orange and red hues from past lives. The latest in high-tech gizmos bring convenience, namely high speed Wi-Fi and nightstands with multiple USB outlets. Gorgeous are the revamped bathrooms that gleam with white countertops, patterned tile floors and matching tile in wide showers.
Bring the kids to one of the two pools to burn off energy or give yourself a dip in the hot tub. In the morning, dive into a hearty complimentary breakfast of pastries, beverages, make-your-own waffles, and two hot entrees.
Hankering for urban glam in a romantic setting? The new Harmon Guesthouse is the ticket. Perched in downtown Healdsburg, the eco-friendly hotel features the town’s only outdoor rooftop lounge. It features 39 rooms with simple furnishings, many made of repurposed materials. A king guestroom comes with blonde-brown wood floors, a bed with white linens, a side table with recycled strips of painted wood, gray couch and flat screen TV. A Nespresso maker brews morning java to go along with your free cookies and nuts. But make sure you save room for your complimentary breakfast.
Pure bathroom delights include a Japanese-style steeping bathtub so high you need a step to climb in. Next to the tub is the shower minus shower doors. (That’s in many of the rooms, but not all of them). Yep, you are in Zen heaven. Room costs per night starting at $339.
Fall in Healdsburg will make every sojourner fall in love with posh hotels, culinary creations, wine rooms, and maker’s classes. This petite village that sold for $15 a plot leaves a priceless imprint on the heart.
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