Touring California’s North Coast wine country can be expensive. Napa Valley lodging, in particular, can put a big dent in one’s wine budget. But even the prices on the Sonoma County “side” can raise eyebrows, particularly during the busy summer months.
Over the years, savvy wine country travelers have found an affordable alternative in the town of Petaluma. Budget-challenged visitors to San Francisco have known about the southernmost town in Sonoma County, accessible from the “City by the Bay” via the Golden Gate Bridge, for years. Now, it’s also being embraced by people who spend their days visiting tasting rooms to the north.
Lodging options include the Metro Hotel, a restored 1870 mansion where the morning muffins are delicious (and free), and the usual array of “logo” motels (Motel 6, Best Western, Quality Inn, Sheraton, et al). Guests at the Della Fattoria Ranch Cottage will find a kitchen stocked with freshly baked bread, local butter, farm eggs, granola, coffee, tea and milk.
The holiday season is a great time to visit because Petaluma hosts an annual boat parade, with all the vessels decked out in sparkling lights. The 2012 parade is scheduled for December 8.
While Petaluma makes an affordable “home base” for a wine country expedition, it’s also worth exploring because residents have worked tirelessly for decades to preserve its local architecture. The downtown district has retained its small-town, mid-19th century charm, and the historic Mystic Theatre and Music Hall, adjacent to McNear’s Saloon and Dining House, offers a mix of local and national touring bands and singer/songwriters.
Chartered in 1858 along the banks of the Petaluma River, Petaluma is one of California’s oldest cities. During the Gold Rush, the river carried locally grown produce, poultry and dairy products to feed the exploding populations of San Francisco and Oakland.
It was spared much of the destruction of the 1906 earthquake, so Petaluma boasts buildings with foundations that were laid a century-and-a-half ago, and facades that are some of the best examples of iron-front architecture in the entire United States. Downtown Petaluma was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, and today is home to more than 600 businesses and 65 historical properties.
Restoration and preservation continues as dedicated volunteers work to bring the Petaluma Trolley back to life. Built in 1904 and originally known as the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad, plans for the restored Petaluma Trolley include connecting the Warehouse Waterfront District, Historic Downtown and the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets. Train enthusiasts can get a taste of what is to come at the Petaluma Trolley Living History Museum here.
Head to the Petaluma Historical Museum for docent-guided walking tours of the downtown area (seasonal), or download a map from the Petaluma Visitors Center website and explore the neighborhood on your own.
The Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park is open four days per week, providing a glimpse of cattle ranch life during the 1800s. For a totally laid-back experience, take a three-hour cruise on the Petaluma River. You’ll find Dolphin Charters’ guides both informative and entertaining.
Nature lovers will love breathing in the sweet scents at Garden Valley Ranch, where tours of the gardens are offered year-round, and more than a thousand varieties of roses can be viewed in the retail nursery. Want to take home a piece of Petaluma? Visit Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company’s Seed Bank, which sells some 1,300 types of heirloom seeds.
Petaluma enthusiastically celebrates its agricultural heritage via numerous fairs and festivals throughout the year. The premiere event is the annual Butter & Egg Days Parade, which honors the city’s turn-of-the-century moniker as the “Egg Basket of the World.” More than 3,000 residents either volunteer or participate in this quirky and community spirit-filled event.
The area also is a hub of milk and cheese making, and McClelland’s Dairy offers a 90-minute farm tour during which guests can try to milk a cow, and later sample organic artisan butter. Those who may not appreciate the “hands-on” experience can opt for a tour of the cheese-making facility at Spring Hill Cheese/Petaluma Creamery.
Some visitors become so enthralled with Petaluma that they never do work their way north to Sonoma County’s main wine districts. Fortunately, wine-tasting opportunities are available locally. One of the more eclectic tasting rooms is operated by Sonoma Valley Portworks, which focuses on Port-style wines, grappa and “after-dinner” wines.
It’s definitely a fun place for a wine lover to visit—and just one of many reasons that Petaluma makes a great place not only to sleep, but also to explore.