Spring is speeding towards summer here in the Bay Area, which inspires us to start dreaming about how we might spend some of those lazy summer days … when we get a chance to be lazy!
Beaches along the Russian River officially open on Memorial Day weekend. We really don’t have much time left to wait, but on a cool, cloudy day like today (definitely chilly for May!), we do feel anxious for the return of those hot days last summer when we cooled off with a nice, leisurely kayak trip on the river.
Of course, springtime in the North Bay has its own beauty, too, that we wouldn’t want to wish away. So for now, we’ll happily revisit last summer in photos and enjoy the late spring blooms and the feeling of possibility in the air.
One of us grew up in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and as is so often the case, it’s the places closer to home that you don’t really think about—until it comes time to show around out-of-town friends or family, or maybe a day trip reveals a different side that was just never on the radar before. And then, it’s fun to discover a new side of your home turf.
As to what made the Russian River … “Russian”? Never thought about it for so many years—beyond the fact that it’s not the pun some folks think it is (at least in our neck of the woods, this river could rarely be classified as “rushing”).
So “Russian” just happened to be the name of a river in the area.
We didn’t know why it had that name until we visited Fort Ross on a day trip from Ananda, making the trek up the coast last summer with a beloved aunt who loves history and photography. On that trip, we listened to docents at Fort Ross describe life at this historic coastal fort, where the Russian fur trade aimed to establish a foothold in the early 19th century. A community of Russian fur traders and Native Americans used to exist all around the fort.
The beautiful but stark seaside location and the restored fort buildings offered a sense of what life must’ve been like at this remote outpost. So we were excited to come back and learn more at the Fort Ross Harvest Festival held a couple months later, in mid-October. The 2016 edition of the festival takes place Oct. 15.
Along the Bay Area’s coastal areas, fall brings the best, sunniest, most gorgeous weather you’ll get all year, no question. So revisiting Fort Ross in October was a no-brainer.
Once we arrived at the festival, we saw that it had rained earlier in the morning and little wisps of fog hovered a foot or so above the fort grounds. The weather, at least in the morning, was a little gloomier than we had expected, but the festival still offered plenty to enjoy—a taste of what life might have been like for some of those who lived at the fort in its heyday.
A big, colorful mound of apples stood ready for visitors to try pressing them into cider using an old-fashioned press. In front of a building that re-creates the fort’s living quarters, volunteers in Russian period dress tended a cooking fire and labored over preparations for a meal, using traditional methods (the original “slow food”).
Various booths around the perimeter of the fort offered displays of contraptions like Victorian apple peelers, more hands-on old-timey activities like twisting lengths of hemp into rope (not so easy, actually!) as well as vendors selling handicrafts like felted wool trinkets.
Heritage apple trees at the fort
Apples ready for the cider press
Old-school apple peeler and slicer
Beneath the fort’s beautifully gnarled old apple trees, we watched a reenactment of a Russian wedding ceremony from the time. Even though we didn’t understand the words—the demonstration was in Russian—it was still clear how playful the pre-ceremony antics were. Plenty of trickery ensued, including several pranks meant to conceal the true identity of the bride from her groom.
After the ceremony, the wedding party and other volunteers in Russian dress took part in a folk dance, and invited visitors to join in. We learned later that we missed a performance of Native American dancing in the afternoon—a good reason to revisit the festival.
By this time, the weather had cleared, in a big way, and we checked out the food and drink vendors set up on an oceanside bluff outside the fort. The live music from local bands, the fresh-pressed juice, the borscht from Russian House all made for a relaxing meal in the warm October sunshine.
After our satisfying lunch, we took a walk to Sandy Cove beach below the fort and hiked to the fort’s cemetery on a nearby hill, which offered beautiful views looking back at Fort Ross—and more fascinating history to explore.
Looking back on Fort Ross from the fort’s cemetery.
The short hike to the fort cemetery.
Sandy Cove beach.
The ruins of a (much newer than early 19th-century) barn stand near the fort.
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.
We love to go exploring all around the Russian River area, but sometimes we end up going farther afield. And sometimes it’s especially fun to just go somewhere on a whim. One weekend earlier this summer, we spent the morning in Sonoma visiting with relatives and then, on an impulse, decided to swing through Santa Rosa and wander around the downtown.
Even though it’s only a little more than half an hour away from Ananda—just about 20 miles—we don’t get to Santa Rosa very often, and this visit reminded us why we should head east more.
After meandering around the tree-lined streets of the cute older neighborhoods, we parked on the outskirts of Santa Rosa’s downtown and decided to do the rest of our self-guided tour (actually more of a self-guided wander) on foot.
In need of some mid-afternoon fuel to keep the energy going, first we dropped by Brew, an independent café serving some really great coffee—and also some really great-looking beer. And we’ll be honest, those taps were so tempting, but the rich aroma of the coffee won out. In addition to a bright, colorful interior with natural light streaming in from plenty of windows, Brew also offers a shaded front patio that looks like a good low-key beer garden to us, both right in the center of things, but also a little removed. So we’ll definitely be back.
From Brew, we wandered through a neighborhood full of beautiful Victorian houses, crossed under Highway 101 and into Railroad Square, which is probably the best known of Santa Rosa’s many historic districts. There’s an abundance of cool old brick or stone buildings in Railroad Square, including the train depot for which the area is named. A small park in front of the depot (it’s named “Depot Park,” go figure) features a variety of sculptures, including a bronze statue of Charlie Brown (Peanuts creator Charles Schulz lived in the North Bay, chiefly Santa Rosa, for many years.)
Restaurants, cafes and a hotel line the area around Depot Park. Since we had recently caffeinated, we didn’t visit either one of the coffee places that flank the train station, but on several occasions we’ve gotten beans roasted by one of these cafes—Flying Goat Coffee—and really liked them.
Cool vintage storefront in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square.
Delicious coffee and a cool-looking cafe, too.
Stone buildings like this hotel give Railroad Square an old-timey feel.
For about an hour, we walked around, looking at buildings, popping into shops and just taking in the atmosphere.
We wanted to grab dinner before we left Santa Rosa, and a friend had recommended Jackson’s Bar and Oven, on the edge of the Railroad Square neighborhood. So we dropped by for an early bite. The space is modern and spacious but still cozy thanks to dark, warm woods, indirect lighting and an interior that makes the most of the restaurant’s location in a vintage building: high windows along most of the space, with light filtering in from the larger windows at the corner storefront.
Jackson’s serves a thoughtful selection of local and regional beers, local wines and a small selection of artisan cocktails.
Because it was early still—and the family fed us a little too well earlier in the day—we wanted something light, so we split a salad of farro, pea shoots, fresh peas, arugula and toasted almonds. It was very fresh and just what we wanted (and about those fresh peas—we made this visit earlier this summer. Jackson’s menu does follow the seasons.)
We followed that wonderful farro and pea salad with a summer vegetable pizza, which we also split. Some might say it’s heresy to put so many vegetables on a dish more often used as a vehicle for pepperoni, but we loved the crisp, clean flavors of this white pizza. Delicate, creamy ricotta made a perfect base for zucchini, tomato and roasted corn, allowing them to truly complement each other. A light hand with the cilantro pesto (full disclosure: we love cilantro) meant that this love-it-or-hate-it herb helped round out the flavors, rather than dominating them.
We were a little too full from the day’s family gathering to get dessert, but we would definitely give it a try on a return visit to Jackson’s.
After dinner, we wanted to enjoy more of Santa Rosa’s downtown and took a little time to walk around before heading to the car. Crossing back under Highway 101, we did some more exploring.
An industrial building turned art gallery in Railroad Square.
And a lovely Victorian home in a quiet downtown neighborhood.
As we began to see more and more folks within just a few blocks carrying away their hoards of Pliny the Elder, we knew we were close to the Russian River Brewing Co. We dropped by but didn’t really expect to get in quickly, and sure enough: the line was long enough outside that we decided to save it for our next visit.
But for those who are making a beer pilgrimage, we know there’s enough to enjoy in downtown Santa Rosa even beyond the beloved Pliny that it’s well worth making a day of it.
Every time we’ve gone kayaking on the Russian River has offered a different adventure—always fun, but always its very own special kind of experience.
Sometimes the river is full of other happy vacationers splashing and floating around, and there are plenty of cheery waves and hellos to other folks paddling by, and we can hear the laughter and conversation of picnickers enjoying a leisurely lunch on a beach or a sandbar. Sometimes it’s a serene paddle on a stretch of river so quiet that the water’s surface almost looks like glass.
But even during the area’s busiest times, there are peaceful moments at some quiet bend in the river where it seems like we have the whole place to ourselves.
Whether the river is bustling or calm, the scent of the surrounding redwoods always seems to drift down to the water, and the hotter the day, the more refreshing the light splashes from the paddles dipping into the water.
It was a quieter time at the end of last September when we went out for one last kayak trip of the summer, before Monte Rio Parks and Recreation’s beach rentals closed up shop for the season.
We rented a double kayak, left Monte Rio Beach and headed upriver towards Guerneville—the current isn’t very strong in the summers, especially the past couple years when the river has been so low.
Not long after we left, we realized we had some company on the river. We were so excited to see a beautiful blue heron just hanging out on a dock along the river, watching us in the kayak. It was a thrill to see this big, beautiful bird. We stopped paddling, and after a few minutes of observing the heron, and the heron observing us, we zoomed in the cameraphone as far as it would go—we didn’t want to disturb this beautiful bird (and so this shot is not as close to the heron as it might seem. We’d never want to get too close: it’s important to us to admire, but not to disrupt the local wildlife in any way).
We passed the heron and continued our trip upriver for a couple miles before we turned around and brought the kayak back to Monte Rio Beach. We were a little sore the next day (and a little sunburned—sunblock works better if you don’t just forget it in your bag!), but so glad we went for one last paddle of the season. It’s always worth it, and now we’re looking forward to another amazing summer of kayaking on the Russian River.
To plan your own kayak trip:
Monte Rio Parks & Rec’s rentals will reopen on Memorial Day weekend—simply head to the building at Monte Rio Beach to rent canoes, double or single kayaks, as well as inner-tubes and beach chairs.
There are also a number of other rental companies and kayak/canoe tour operators in the Russian River area, including King’s Sport & Tackle in Guerneville and Burke’s Canoes near Forestville.
Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—Jubilant
We love the redwood forests around the Russian River—and all around Northern California—but sometimes when we see something a lot, it can start to become part of the scenery. It’s scenery that we love, of course, but not something that we always notice as much as we used to, when we were first coming to the area. Or so we thought.
Sorting through some of our photos the other day, we realized how many shots we’ve taken over the past two years of the redwood trees around the house, Monte Rio, and just the Russian River area in general. So apparently we’re still enjoying the local landscape, even when we’re not consciously doing so.
But our surprisingly large cache of redwood forest photos offered us a good reminder to just slow down more often and really think about the beauty of these trees all around us: the shaggy fibrousness of rust-colored bark, the almost primeval look of the simple, frond-like leaves, the gentle sway of the towering trunks as they flex, ever so slightly, with the wind, and the glow of the sunlight filtering through the leaves.
So the next time we’re out on a walk, or even driving on the Bohemian Highway or Hwy 116, we’ll try to notice all that our cameras have seen, and really appreciate the forest—and the trees.
This shot was taken on a day that ultimately turned out to be sunny, with temps in the high 70s. That day seemed like it went through all the seasons in 12 hours, from rainy winter in the morning, warming up to spring by noon, and hot, sunny summer in the afternoon. By evening, a little chill in the air returned and it felt like fall—which it actually was. Dressing in layers (or just bringing extra layers) is the best way to hedge all bets if you’re headed to the Sonoma Coast.
We were out for a drive north of Jenner on Highway 1, just to see the sights. It had rained most of the morning and a heavy mist settled on the coast, which made for quite an atmospheric drive, if not exactly the scenic one we were after. Fog swirled across the highway, which did limit visibility a little. It was the kind of weather that made us long to be back at the house, sitting by the fireplace with a nice steaming mug of tea, but at the same time, we really enjoyed the beauty of the mist, and it was a fun drive, even if it wasn’t the one we had planned on.
An ongoing highway construction project has created a one-lane stretch of road for about a mile along Highway 1, not far from Fort Ross, with temporary traffic lights set up on either end of the construction zone. It’s usually about a five-minute wait at these traffic lights—and on a clear day, the view makes for a great distraction during the wait. We got this shot when we stopped at the southern end of the construction area.
The glow of the red light through the fog seemed a little dramatic, highlighting the starkness of the misty landscape, and making the warm car seem that much cozier. Visibility wasn’t great, but nowhere near as bad as this suggests—it’s just that the camera focused on the raindrops on the windshield, and we liked the way that looked.
When we stopped at this spot, we could have probably turned around, headed back to the fireplace and hot tea, but we decided to keep driving. And we’re glad we did. The rain cleared around noon and the day turned out sunny, clear and beautiful.
Part of WordPress’ weekly photo challenge—Abstract
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 the things that makes exploring the North Bay and Sonoma so much fun is how many unique small towns we’ve discovered just in driving around. Each town has something that makes it special—beyond location, that is, which is always pretty scenic.
On one of our first visits to the area, driving to Goat Rock Beach, we happened upon the town of Duncans Mills, and now we stop there often on trips to the coast—it’s pretty close to home and a fun place to stop (just through the woods and over the river we go).
Even though Duncans Mills is small—the population is 175—there’s still enough to do there that we haven’t seen it all yet. Next on our list to check out: the Depot Museum, which hearkens back to the hamlet’s origins as a lumber town.
The museum features a restored depot and train cars, including a passenger car and caboose. Across the street from the museum are rodeo grounds. Duncans Mills also hosts the Russian River Rodeo each summer—the 50th anniversary rodeo will be held June 25-26, 2016.
It’s not just the rail museum and the rodeo—the town has an Old West vibe through and through, thanks to a shopping district that combines historic buildings and newer structures built in an old style. Adding an extra vintage touch are wooden boardwalks in place of sidewalks.
And it only makes sense that many of the shops sell antiques. One of our favorites specializes in a combination of American midcentury housewares, as well as much older furnishings from Europe and Asia, but the store also sells handmade soaps. Other merchants in Duncans Mills include restaurants, jewelry and clothing shops, stores that offer multicultural goods, a tea shop, a kitchen store and a wine tasting shop.
Sonoma County has long been known for its agriculture, but at the turn of the previous century, the area wasn’t known for wine, but for apples. We don’t have a road in these parts called the Gravenstein Highway for nothing, after all.
Vineyards are everywhere now, but plenty of sweet remnants of the apple’s heyday in the area remain: certainly Sonoma County is still home to apple orchards, including places where you can pick your own fruit in the fall, and there are also apple trees in many a yard, probably a combination of volunteer trees and those that were planted by homeowners.
The old apple tree in our yard must be of hardy stock—with our location in the redwood forest, the tree doesn’t get the hours of full sun that most fruit trees need to really produce. There aren’t many orchards in the forest.
Nevertheless, our tree keeps soldiering on—it gave us a little more than two dozen apples last fall. And it looks like we’ll have apples again come September, because the tree is blooming right now. Of course, we always look forward to the apples, (even though they’re small and a little sour, they’re homegrown), but right now we’re just enjoying the beautiful blossoms and watching the bare branches of winter come alive again with snowy flowers and bright green leaves.