We spent last Memorial Day weekend in Monte Rio with a good friend and his little dog.
The weekend was just hot enough that the slightly chilly river water felt good—a nice little shock to the system after a long winter out of the water. We took our friend to many of our favorite outdoor spots, including, of course, Monte Rio Beach. We loved watching his dog run around as she enjoyed the beach and greeting other dogs there.
This is a favorite moment that we happened to capture that weekend. It was late afternoon after a nice long day of relaxing at the beach. We had packed up our towels and chairs, heading to the car, and looked back at the beach as we walked away.
Weekend and vacation days always seem to go so fast, and although we didn’t want to see the day end, this was also a wonderful moment of looking ahead. This particular day might be coming to a close, but there was a feeling of potential, knowing that the whole wonderful, warm summer was yet to come.
Part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge—Evanescent
Every good independent cafe has something special that distinguishes it: the cafe adjoins a bookstore, it boasts a collection of cool local art, or it just has exceptional atmosphere—and great coffee, of course.
At first glance, it would be easy to think that the “something special” at Cafe Aquatica is simply about location, location, location. And of course, that’s certainly part of its allure. The cafe occupies a plum spot along Highway 1, welcoming visitors to the hamlet of Jenner by the Sea, with a patio that overlooks the mouth of Russian River, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Foggy and sunny days alike, the dramatic views are hard to beat.
But it’s not just the prime river- and sea-side vistas that keep bringing us back to the cafe. Sure, the views are amazing, but that only goes so far. It’s the friendliness of the staff—and the pretty important fact that we simply like the food and drink, too—that draws us back. It’s a perfect package.
We made our first visit to Cafe Aquatica back in February, dropping by for a bite on our way back from a bracing walk on the beach, and it was just warm enough to enjoy the patio. That day, we had originally planned to pick up some sandwiches at Cafe Aquatica to bring for a picnic to Russian Gulch Beach, but the day was windy enough, we decided against it.
It was a wise move all around: though it was a sunny day, it was still February, and we avoided wind-blown al fresco dining at the beach—plus we ended up giving ourselves a chance to really sit down and get a good introduction to a cafe that’s become one of our go-to spots.
Pick-up window on the patio
The cozy, welcoming interior of Cafe Aquatica has many essential ingredients you might expect at an independent cafe: the community bulletin board, the stacks of flyers for local events, the mismatched armchairs for lingering over a good read—and cool local photos and postcards for sale. But like all the best independent cafes, it has its own character. This place is definitely not resting on its location laurels, even though it could.
Once you start to look around, there are little quirky, fun details everywhere: inspiring words playfully sprinkled here and there on the walls: “community” “thrive” “wisdom” (on every visit we spot a new one) and painted shapes peeking out from the woodwork—the outline of a junk ship decorates the counter (the ship also seems to serve as the cafe’s logo). A compass rose adorns the worn floorboards near the entrance.
A compass rose points the way
Good spot for a read or a game
Plants and shells on the patio
The whole package—interior, patio, general atmosphere—is so appealing that it took us several visits to Cafe Aquatica to decide to finally have that beach picnic we had been planning on. We ordered some sandwiches to go and brought them to nearby Blind Beach for a Memorial Day picnic.
The cafe’s menu is small—about a half-dozen sandwiches or less at any given time—but we’ve loved everything we’ve tried. Probably our favorite is the Veggie Fantastico: its heaps of greens, shredded carrots, crunchy cucumbers, tomatoes and hummus offer a fresh, healthy complement to the fluffy, rich housemade foccacia, which is loaded with herbs.
We’ve also enjoyed breakfast at Cafe Aquatica: poached eggs with veggies on that same beautiful foccacia. And the cafe’s assortment of freshly baked goods—muffins, cookies and pastries goes well with their coffee, which they roast themselves—there’s a roaster tucked in the corner behind the counter. You may catch it in action some morning.
Their spicy chai also really warms us up on those days when we *have* to sit on the patio, when maybe we should really sit inside … but we’re not going to.
The cafe also offers live music sometimes. A couple months ago, we enjoyed a sunny autumn breakfast out on the patio, accompanied by the music of a solo Flamenco guitarist.
So although it is true that pretty much everything goes well with the view at Cafe Aquatica, as we learned on our first visit, that beautiful view is just one of many reasons this place keeps us coming back.
If you go:
Cafe Aquatica is located on Highway 1 in the town of Jenner. The cafe is cash-only, but does have an ATM inside.
The unofficial end of summer may be upon us, but we still have a few weeks until it’s officially fall—and about a month before rentals at Russian River beaches close for the season. We’re going to make the most of that time whenever we get a chance.
But when we can’t get to the river, we’re going to reminisce about a trip earlier this summer to Monte Rio Beach with friends that found us lazing around the beach, swimming and tubing in the Russian River.
We brought a picnic (splitting a couple big sandwiches from Big Bottom Market) and made a day of it, swimming, lounging in our beach chairs and taking turns going for a float in the large, colorful inner tube we bought last summer at the Guerneville 5 & 10.
Wading into the river, inner tube in tow, and unceremoniously plopping down into the middle of the inner tube, the brisk river water immediately cooling but not chilly … it was the perfect summer day’s combination of silliness and relaxation.
What we all enjoyed perhaps as much as the actual floating was the big, clumsy production when one of us tried to get out of the tube. There doesn’t seem to be a graceful way to get out of a floating inner tube, and that can be pretty entertaining for friends to watch. There’s a lot of splashing, maybe a little bit of struggling … maybe once there was even a flipped-over inner tube … but always a lot of laughter.
It’s those somewhat less-than-expert moments that are sometimes the very best at the river. It’s why the river is so special, because everyone can participate—and be a little silly.
That same day at the beach, we saw a canoe with three elementary school-aged girls seated in the middle and two beleaguered—but amused—dads repeatedly trying to launch the canoe. Every time the fathers tried to push the canoe off from the shore, as the craft would hit the water, it would list a little, threatening, just ever so slightly, to tip, and the girls would giggle and joyfully shriek like mad. They’d shriek so much, in fact, that the dads would bring the canoe back to shore, wait a couple minutes and try again. Same result.
We don’t know how far they did eventually get from shore—or if they did ever launch that canoe—but it was obvious that the whole party was having fun trying.
Another day, while we were out kayaking, we paddled past a couple on an inflatable raft laughing loudly as they paddled in a circle and jovially bickered about what side they should paddle on in order to make their raft go to the left.
There are plenty of those expertly piloting their watercraft—that’s not really us, though we do love it—but something we especially appreciate about Monte Rio Beach and other Russian River beaches like it is that, in these areas, the river is wide and gentle enough to accommodate both the knowledgeable and the first timers.
We know that both our artless tubing and our semi-decent kayaking skills fit right in. Even if we look a little silly—and sometimes get a little soaked—doing it.
Because whether they are giggling and splashing and not getting very far, or gliding through the water on a peaceful kayak journey, everyone we see is having a good time. They are making memories at the beach and out on the water—as we are, too—and it’s fun to be part of that.
The night was the hottest so far of the year; so hot for spring that we definitely weren’t going to cook that night, and anyway, we’d been thinking a lot about the food at Hazel, a new restaurant we’d tried last fall, a short drive south on the Bohemian Highway, about 15 minutes from Ananda.
Hazel opened last summer in a small place on the outskirts of the town of Occidental, taking over the location from a popular eatery known as Bistro des Copains (that we never got a chance to try). “Copains,” as far as our French goes, means something like “close friends” (another translation is “boyfriend or girlfriend”) … and like we said, the place is small.
The Bistro is gone, but Hazel still seems like the spot for close friends—yes, because it’s slightly close quarters—but much more so because some of the fare is pretty perfect for sharing, especially the selection of about half a dozen wood-fired pizzas (more on that in a bit). And the welcoming, stripped-down rustic atmosphere, punctuated with colorful art and warm lighting, invites conversation.
Even the parking lot has a scenic view
When we visited Hazel in October, diners had packed the place everywhere but the small patio, where it was too cold to sit. That time, we ate at the bar, enjoying the people-watching that sitting near the front door afforded. Just the kind of cozy evening that makes autumn such a well-loved season.
On this most recent visit, we did longingly consider the patio, but evening temperatures can drop pretty quickly this time of year, and we knew the heat would disappear when the sun did. But with all the windows open, the restaurant offered a welcome taste of summer in April. We’ll just have to save the patio for next time.
A wood-fired pizza oven, visible from the dining room, turns out a centerpiece of Hazel’s menu: a range of thin-crust pizzas, with more familiar choices like the margherita or pepperoni (spiced up with jalapeño), as well as more unusual pairings, some of which change with the seasons: sausage with egg; butternut squash with pine nuts and crème fraîche; or caramelized onions and Gorgonzola cheese with toasted walnuts.
We started with a roasted asparagus appetizer and then shared the Gorgonzola pizza and a red quinoa bowl with sautéed kale, asparagus and maitake mushrooms.
The pizza was rich, dominated by the strong flavor of melted Gorgonzola, but with sweet undertones from the caramelized onions and a welcome crunch of walnuts—it’s so creamy and rich, it’s definitely a good choice to split. The clean flavors and wholesomeness of the quinoa bowl balanced nicely with the decadent pizza.
The quinoa bowl is one of about five or six main dishes that highlight a variety of proteins, including seafood, poultry and steak. From starters all the way to desserts, the menu features lots of local ingredients, from the cheese on the pizzas and starters (showcasing some of the North Bay’s many awesome creameries—always a great thing), to locally grown produce.
We finished off dinner with a perfectly not-too-sweet apple crumble a la mode. During dessert, we ended up googling what a “fruit crumble” was not only because we didn’t really know the difference between “apple crisp” and “apple crumble,” but mostly because all that brown sugar—and a good amount of butter?—in the lightly crunchy topping made us want to learn how to make our own, even if it won’t live up to Hazel’s version. It’s good stuff. (And unfortunately, we were so eager to tuck in that we didn’t take a photo.)
About halfway through dinner, we were surprised by a loud siren that seemed to echo in the streets. Especially since most of the other diners didn’t bat an eye, we were so curious that we had to ask our server what the siren was all about. She told us that the local volunteer fire department was being summoned to a call, adding with a smile, “That’s small town life.”
Occidental is small—we hate to use the “q-word” but we’re going to—because Occidental is quaint in the best possible way. And this location actually makes Hazel seem that much cozier. So even though it’s not officially the spot for “copains” anymore, it’s still a perfect spot to bring close friends—or have a romantic dinner.
Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—Dinnertime
One of our favorite things about Monte Rio Beach that makes it unique is that it’s spanned by a historic bridge. The Russian River runs through the middle of Monte Rio and this truss bridge, built in 1934, connects the two sides of town. It also connects Highway 116 and the Bohemian Highway, two of the main roads in Western Sonoma County.
The bridge, along with other historic architecture nearby, gives the town a sort of vintage vibe and a timeless quality all at the same time, so a black & white filter for these pictures seemed like a fun way to play up the bridge’s historic character.
Right now, the river is still running fairly high, but in the summer, when the shot below was taken, the river recedes, exposing the wide flat banks that make up Monte Rio Beach. Hanging out under the bridge can offer a little bit of a shady respite on a really hot day.
It must all be a matter of ocean currents shaping the landscape: some of the beaches on the Sonoma Coast are covered in soft, fine sand, while other beaches are made up of rocks, big and small. And some, like Sandy Cove—despite its name—have a mix of gravel and sand. At the rockier beaches, most of the stones and pebbles are in shades of grey, white or brown.
But this smooth, red pebble stood out among them for its brighter color. On the day we visited Sandy Cove, we saw about a dozen or so of these red rocks scattered among the other stones around the beach. When we picked one of them up, it was much lighter than expected, and slightly porous in texture—and it had faint traces of a man-made pattern on it.
We realized that these “rocks” were pieces of bricks. In the same way that the ocean, over time, shapes sharp pieces of broken glass into smooth, translucent stones, it had transformed what had been a rough chunk of red clay into a small, colorful pebble that’s now just another a beautiful part of the beach.
Armstrong Redwoods in Guerneville has become one of our favorite places to bring friends and family. The park has plenty of hiking trails, including one that leads to a secluded pottery studio in the hills of the adjoining Austin Creek State Recreation Area.
It’s also a place that offers the chance to really take in the redwoods. An easy, mile-long nature trail loops around the forest floor, through a grove of redwoods, and past some of the park’s real highlights, including the Parson Jones tree, the tallest tree in the grove—taller than a football field is long—as well as the Colonel Armstrong tree, which at 1,400 years old, is the oldest tree in the park. And of course, the Colonel Armstrong tree is no shorty, either.
On numerous visits, we’ve tried to capture the scale of these beautiful giants—and this is one of the rare situations where the extra wide-angle shots taken by our phones actually helps rather than hinders—but, still, it’s hard to do them justice.
The Russian River flows through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, running through towns and countryside, connecting it all along a 110-mile path. But here, at the mouth, is where the Russian River makes its ultimate connection: flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
Low water sometimes breaks this key connection by causing a sandbar to build up and stop the river from reaching the sea, turning the Russian River Estuary into a lagoon. Even though the connection is temporarily lost, there’s a benefit. The lagoon attracts seals and sea lions, who raise their pups on the nearby beach, protected from the wide-open ocean.
Sometimes seals even swim up the river, in search of fish, and show up in the river a dozen miles or more from the ocean, near Monte Rio or Guerneville.
The overlook off Highway 1, near Jenner, where these shots were taken, is one of our favorite spots in the area to visit. It’s always fun to think about all the miles and all the places that this river has passed on its way to this spot.
Everything about Fort Ross seems a little solitary. This redwood fort was built on a rugged spot along the Sonoma Coast in 1812 by Russian fur-traders.
It’s only 16 miles (about a 45-minute drive) from Monte Rio, and is easily accessed by Highway 1, but still seems a remote spot, like we’ve really arrived at a faraway place—maybe far-off in time more so than distance.
The fort regularly comes alive with events: docent talks and tours, and seasonal festivals. And there’s a visitor center a short walk away that has steady attendance at its gift shop and exhibits about the Russians and Native Americans who used to make their lives here.
Imagining what life must have been like at this outpost in its heyday, it has always seemed like it must have been full of challenges—and certainly isolated. But maybe that’s just how it strikes us now. A village used to adjoin the fort, but today Fort Ross stands alone, perched atop a windswept hill, facing the ocean. The fort overlooks Sandy Cove beach, where we went for a walk after visiting the Fall Harvest Festival and took this shot looking back up at the solitary fort.
Maybe it’s the rain that’s falling here today, but what seems especially blissful right now is the memory of a walk we took on a summer day at Armstrong Redwoods in Guerneville last June—the wonderful warm day when this photo was taken. We were with our friends and their toddler daughter, who was just getting steady enough on her feet to occasionally speed ahead of us on the nature trail that winds through the redwoods. She toddled up and greeted a few families we met along the path—she’s outgoing and always makes friends—but she was especially taken with an older girl, about 8 or 9, and we all stopped and had a nice chat with the girl’s family.
This park always offers a nice, cool getaway in the warm months. All those big redwood trees provide a lot of shade, but there’s usually still plenty of sunlight filtering through the trees. And in a few places, even the tall redwoods can’t stop a sunbeam determined to reach the forest floor, as this one was.
The plants that grow in the shade of these huge trees often seem to have a lacy or delicate quality that somehow makes their massive companions seem even greater. Struck by that determined sunbeam, the leaves of this little tree cast a shadow we couldn’t resist.