Apart from a half-day of hiking in Muir Woods (highly recommended by the way) I’ve mostly remained in the city when visiting San Francisco. And as you’ll know if you’ve been, whilst it’s a great city, it can also get pretty intense. So this time around my friend and I decided to take a breather and escape north for the weekend, exploring a new region and enjoying good, great wine – and, surprisingly, some of the best pie we’ve ever had.
It’s early Saturday morning when we set off from Union Square in our newly picked up rental. Heading up the 101, we drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and quickly find ourselves surrounded by green farmland and blue sunny skies. Having been stuck in heavy traffic in California more times than I want to remember, it’s a pleasant surprise to be out of the city in less than 30 minutes. In fact, just over an hour after leaving San Francisco we find ourselves rolling into our first stop, the small town of Healdsburg.
Northern California has countless great destinations and Healdsburg is definitely one of them. The small town charm is obvious the moment you get here, encapsulated by beautiful scenery (rolling hills wherever you look) and great weather. Throw in five-star cuisine and world-acclaimed wine (the beer isn’t shabby either) and you’ve got yourself a pretty smashing place. For lunch, we eat a great burger (washed down with an even better glass of wine) at Kitchen 335, a classic farm-to-table joint, talking to the friendly Czech server for well over an hour. After a little stroll through Healdsburg Plaza we decide to go for coffee at Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, a small hipster hole in the wall that ends up serving us the best pie we’ve ever had. Seriously. Their own improved version of pecan pie swaps walnuts for the pecans and dark chocolate for the corn-syrup goop. It’s rich and chocolatey, yet somehow tastes fresh. The butter crust, which shatters delightfully, is made from a blend of heirloom wheats – bolero, farro and buckwheat – grown at nearby Front Porch Farms. It’s fair to say that we came for the wine but ended up staying for the pie. Full of pie, and very happy indeed, we decide it’s time to start moving towards our home for the night. After a short drive we arrive at Madrona Manor, an opulent 1881 estate nestled in the hills above Dry Creek Valley – just five minutes from central Healdsburg. Surrounded by eight acres of wooded and landscaped grounds, the mansion has been a destination for discerning guests seeking a stay in wine country for more than 30 years. After freshening up we take a quick walk around the gardens before settling down on the veranda, Negroni in hand, taking in the the gorgeous views. The restaurant here has a Michelin Star and does not disappoint, serving a classic “Smoked Egg” that you simply have to try, as well as truly mouth-watering Japanese Wagyu.
The following morning, de-stressed and determined to come back sooner rather than later, we linger as long as possible, enjoying a long breakfast and a (very) late check-out.
Luckily, our next stop is Joseph Swan, a small Russian River Valley winery that’s been around for 48 years. Its founder, Joe Swan, is an absolute legend around here and has been called the “Godfather” of great Pinot Noir wines in California. Although it’s slightly out of the way the vineyard is absolutely lovely, featuring world class Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. We do the tasting (great value) and buy a couple of bottles of wine to bring back home. With the sun out and the windows rolled down, it’s sadly time to head back towards San Francisco – but luckily we have a few planned stops on the way home. We do a quick visit at River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, which is quite possibly the best brewery in the US. We eat lunch at Nick’s Cove, a rustic Marshall fish house that’s been around since the 1930s, serving Highway 1 travelers beautiful view of Tomales Bay as well as fresh and comforting seafood (including some terrific barbecued oysters). Further down the road, we stop in Point Reyes to check out Cowgirl Creamery and take the mandatory Instagram shot of the beached shipwreck in Inverness. We wish we had time to stick around and properly hike the Lands End trail, but hey, there’s always next time. The final stretch of the drive is as scenic as it gets, reminding us of Big Sur’s winding turns, seaside cliffs and awesome views.
As we drive into the city again we’re baffled by how much we’ve seen and done in just 36 hours. We already loved San Francisco for being San Francisco but now we also love it for being surrounded by so many lovely places.