There are three reasons you might not want to read this. Some will whine that it is sacrilege to visit Sonoma County without dropping by any of the 400 wineries (second in the nation only to neighboring Napa), but neither of us indulges. Second, we do indulge in a whole foods vegetarian diet and foodies would find that unfulfilling, so we don’t report dining experiences. Finally, shopaholics will feel shortchanged because we don’t waste precious time in stores, preferring to explore the unique art and historical aspects of destinations.
Here is why you might want to continue to read this: in two crammed days in October 2019, we discovered that the area is an underrated sober destination.
And we now appreciate why it is rated as the happiest place in California and one of the happiest in the entire U.S. (not entirely attributable to the ubiquitous wine).
The House That Art Built
We started with a slight detour just over the border into Napa. We had never heard of world-class muralist Carlo Marchiori or his villa, Ca’ Toga in Calistoga www.catoga.com, when we started planning the trip. After reading reviews, we designed the entire itinerary to be able to join the last tour of the season. The Venetian artist built it as a showcase for clients, whether hotels like the Bellagio in Las Vegas or Silicon Valley executives, who can’t find anyone else trained or talented enough to fulfill their vision. He specializes in neo-classical, Baroque, and Renaissance trompe l’oeil frescos, giving the illusion of three-dimensionality to contemporary environments that have a large dash of whimsy. Our jaws were dropped for the entire 90 minutes. The Ca’ Toga Gallery in town offers smaller examples of his work.
On the way to the villa, we passed by a prime example of art by Nature, the Petrified Forest, www.petrifiedforest.org. A walk through it takes the visitor back 3.4 million years, when giant redwoods were knocked down by a volcanic blast that buried them in ash, gradually transforming them into stone (cuts in the store show how colorful each is inside). Rediscovered in 1870, it is now a historic landmark that has drawn visitors from around the world.
Animated By Visual Arts
There are hundreds of galleries in every nook of the region but in our limited time, we confined ourselves to the one-stop variety available at Fulton Crossing in a Santa Rosa suburb www.fultoncrossing.com, a group of studios featuring a couple of dozen artists deploying every kind of style and medium. Anyone can find something they like, helping to support the artist community.
The Museum of Sonoma County https://museumsc.org in Santa Rosa is a two-part facility, one devoted to local artists and the other primarily to area history, but also featuring art. The mostly changing exhibits mean one will have a different experience from ours, but we were impressed with the spectacular Day of the Dead display and the kaleidoscopic acrylics of Maria de Los Angeles.
The Charles M. Schulz Museum www.schulzmuseum.org celebrates the work of Santa Rosa’s most famous resident of all time, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strips, with their gentle philosophy of life and quirky, heart-warming characters like Charlie Brown, which appeared in newspapers in 75 countries (not to mention 300 books and on TV). There are examples of his nearly 18,000 strips, all of which he drew himself, working seven days a week. A special exhibit showed how his love of magic and illusion influenced his panels, another was on the summer camp theme, and one on Snoopy’s sidekick, Woodstock. It’s an ideal place for children of every age to wander.
The Art of Living
Two amazing individuals, who have had enduring global influence, were the subjects of museums. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa www.lutherburbank.org are on 1.6 acres of the original four where he conducted his experiments in plant-breeding that led to 800 new varieties of plants 1878-1929. One of these was the Burbank Russet potato, a version of which, the Idaho, is the most cultivated on the planet, and others remain popular, such as his Satsuma plum, elephant garlic, the July Elberta peach, and Shasta daisy. A spineless cactus for cattle in desert regions provided his biggest sale. Visitors from all over the world came to see his creations, including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Helen Keller. Jane Smith, in The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, wrote, “One of the many things that would make Burbank so original and successful was his complete indifference to cautions, obstacles and distinctions, and he would stretch the boundaries.”
The Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen on his ranch www.jacklondonpark.com has his home, a cottage where he wrote, the gravesite, and the museum that tells the story of a life so adventurous that it exceeds any of his fiction. After a brutal childhood, he sailed to Japan, returning to ride the trains as a hobo. Best-known for the vivid and innovative The Call of the Wildand White Fang, based on experiences during Alaska’s Klondike gold rush in 1897 at 21. He became the most famous American magazine writer of the early 20th century and the first to earn $1 million, authoring 20 books, 19 short story collections, five volumes of essays and travel tales, three plays, and two memoirs. While in Hawaii, he discovered surfing and wrote about it, making it an international sensation. During Japan’s war with Russia in 1904, he was in Korea as a reporter when he was captured by the Japanese army and only released after intervention by President Teddy Roosevelt. He died at 40 from uremia, dysentery, and alcohol poisoning, after suffering from diseases picked up from a trip through the South Pacific.
Music to Our Ears
Finally, we went to the opening concert for the fall-spring season of the Santa Rosa Symphony www.santarosasymphony.org, under its new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong. Weill Hall at the Green Center, opened in 2012, is acoustically one of the best in the country and the orchestra has an international reputation. However, the aging audience for classical music is not being replaced fast enough by generations that did not hear it growing up, so it was inspiring to see a conductor who knows how to attract a broad audience. This means not fashionably appealing to those who love dissonant music, nor boring everyone with “war horses,” masterpieces that get played too often.
This concert opened with “Masquerade” by Anne Clynne. You can listen to anything on youtube, but we hadn’t gotten around to it and this turned out to be the biggest pleasant surprise of the evening, beautifully drawing on every instrument. Next was Garrick Ohlsson playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, plus an encore by Chopin, to standing ovations. The program’s commissioned piece, “How the Solar System Was One,” was introduced by composer Matt Browne, who said it was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it was fascinating to hear the xylophone play a central role. Finally, the orchestra began Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” which famously closes “2001.” Everyone was gripped by the opening bass chords that seemed to shake our seats, the horns announced the primeval sunrise in Strauss’s sonic story of man’s evolution. We had never heard the entire composition before and it held us spellbound until the end. We have been to concerts all over the world, but this was our best experience ever and the resulting buzz assures the symphony’s future.
Other Things To Do
On a second visit we would include, among other things, the California Indian Museum in Santa Rosa, a stroll through the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods near Guerneville, and a walking tour of Petaluma’s Victorian homes and historic downtown with costumed guides. Of course, most readers would like to know about local wine, food, and shops and there are lots of resources to explore everything from film festivals to botanical gardens.