Friday, March 12, 2010

Springtime Sunday Drives

Spring is nearly here, the clocks will be set ahead this weekend and, with all the rain we've had in northern California, it's finally time to get out into the poppy-flocked green hills and soak up some sun.
Remember old-fashioned Sunday drives? It's time to bring them back. And, it doesn't have to be a Sunday for a Sunday drive. Any day of the week will do. It's a matter of pace (slow) and time (you've got to have full day's worth).
I played hooky, taking advantage of a sunny, balmy break between storms last month and, with a friend, headed north from San Francisco. We didn't have any firm plans except for a vague idea of heading to western Sonoma county. That's how we discovered Coleman Valley Road, which turns out to be a spectacular drive.
From US 101 at Cotati take the Highway 116 (Gravenstein Highway) exit towards Sebastopol. Continue west through the countryside making your way to Sebastopol (if you want to stop for some of the best croissants this side of Paris, try Patisserie Angelica in the town center near the Whole Foods) and head north on 116 to the hamlet of Graton. Make a left from Highway 116 onto Graton Road. Here you can stop for brunch or lunch at the rustic Willow Wood Market Cafe, which has a homey selection of "piping hot" polenta dishes (one with spinach and roasted tomatoes is a favorite) or grilled sandwiches (pork tenderloin is lovely). It's a pleasant, convivial cafe-style restaurant with a patio in the back for warm days.
Continue on Graton Road and follow the signs to Occidental. This old logging town known for years for its old-fashioned Italian-American restaurants is a good place to stop (if you haven't yet) to grab a bite: Howard Station Cafe serves up big breakfasts and burgers and the historic Union Hotel offers a couple of very different choices: multi-course Italian feasts or quick lunches (in the cafe).
In the middle of the small town look for the sign on the right side of the highway for Coleman Valley Road. That's where you embark on a curvy, eight-mile journey through lovely and varied scenery: a pastoral valley, redwood forests, weather-beaten barns and a 19th century wooden schoolhouse and, finally, the top of a wind-swept ridge with wonderful views of the Sonoma Coast. You'll see hawks and seagulls, perhaps a stray cow or two. At the end, the road drops you onto Highway 1 a couple miles north of Bodega Bay. You're at Salmon Creek Beach, a gorgeous stretch of white-sand lined with dunes and dotted with driftwood, perfect for strolling, picnicking and an afternoon nap.
From there, it's south on Highway 1 through Bodega Bay, turning onto Valley Ford Road past a procession of dairies, farms and meadows that eventually leads to Petaluma and US 101 which you take south back to San Francisco. I'd say allow about six hours for the trip, allowing for an hour or so for lunch and an hour or so at the beach, all, remember, at a Sunday-drive pace.
Do you have a favorite Sunday drive in the Bay Area? I'd love to hear about it.

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