Natural Instinct: A Slow Travel Guide to California Wine Country

Go with the flow in a canoe along the Russian River in Sonoma wine country
Go with the flow in a canoe along the Russian River in Sonoma wine country | © Dorling Kindersley ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Doug ONeill
8 September 2021

Take calming cedar baths and canoe down the Russian River with this gentle guide to drinking in the best of northern California‘s vineyard-trailed hinterland.

For sure, the northern part of California, just up from San Francisco and the Bay Area, is synonymous with wine – Napa Valley alone has 400 wineries and counting. But take a leisurely drive, walk or cycle through the area and you’ll also be met with dramatic coastlines, salty ocean air, ancient forests, snaking river bends, giant redwood forests and wilderness parks aplenty, making it a great place to reconnect with nature, too. After all that mindful exploration, what better way to power down than with a glass of the area’s finest?

Milliken Creek Inn & Spa

Milliken Inn Creek & Spa, Napa Valley, California
Courtesy of Milliken Inn Creek and Spa /
Tucked along the winery-laced Silverado Trail, Milliken Creek Inn has been welcoming guests since it was a stagecoach stop in the mid-1850s. Back then, guests were just glad to have a good meal and a clean bed. Today, guests are more apt to enjoy a massage on the riverside terrace overlooking the slow-moving Napa River. The 11-room inn was designed for relaxing, so the most energetic activity you might get up to is a game of croquet on the lawn – but only if the mood strikes you.

Timber Cove

Courtesy of Timber Cove Resort / Expedia

Timber Cove Resort is quintessential Sonoma: dramatic views from bluffs overlooking the Pacific, 55mi (90km) of switchback coastline to explore and towering redwoods, as well as good food and comfy rooms back at base. Indeed, the lodge was specifically built in 1963 as a place of meditation and tranquility by architect and original owner Richard Clements Jr., and later visited by artsy friends, including sculptor Beniamino Bufano and photographer Ansel Adams, who came to capture the natural beauty here. Today, you too can get out and explore via hotel-organized rafting, hiking and kayaking trips, along the Russian River and Goat Rock State Beach.

Petrified Forest

Forest, Park
An informative sign at the Petrified Forest in Calistoga, California.
© Gina Kelly / Alamy Stock Photo
Few things can compel a human to stop and stand still in total silence like 3.4-million-year-old fossilized redwood trees in the petrified forests of Sonoma County. The trees, long buried under volcanic ash, were discovered in the mid-1800s and can be reached via a network of short trails. The Meadow Trail winds its way through small meadows and ends with a view of Mt. Saint Helena, the location of the volcano that caused the petrification of the forest in the first place.

Bothe-Napa Valley State Park

Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, in Napa Valley, offers you myriad ways to kick back and enjoy nature. Hike through ancient runways of redwoods in the 1,900-acre (770ha) park between Calistoga and St. Helena. Stroll along Ritchey Canyon to see delicate ferns. Enjoy a wine-and-cheese picnic under a towering Douglas fir. Swim rocky creekbeds or make a beeline for the park’s swimming pool. Overnighters can book one of the furnished yurts.

Skyline Wilderness Park

Skyline Wilderness Park is popular with hikers who want the reward of a good view, which is exactly what you get on the park’s network of 25mi (40km) of trails. Hike up 1,650ft (500m) to Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point in the park, and you’ll get great views of Napa Valley, San Francisco Bay, Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tamalpais. In addition to hiking, there’s also biking, horseback riding, fishing and archery to get you out exploring.

Russian River with Burke’s Canoes

Sports Center
Beautiful Russian River flowing in Guerneville, Sonoma County, California
© Norm Lane / Getty Images

Of course, you could test your mettle in a solo kayak by paddling up the Russian River. Who doesn’t like a challenge? Then again, you could simply rent a kayak or canoe from Burke’s Canoes and do a DIY float downriver – with the current behind you – towards the ocean, where you can be picked up by a prearranged car shuttle. No paddling back up against the current afterward, so a perfectly hassle-free outing.

Osmosis Spa

Health Spa
Meditation at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California.
© Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Osmosis Spa’s cedar-bath treatment starts with you being immersed in a wooden tub filled with a warm, fragrant blend of finely ground evergreens and rice bran, a combination that is said to improve circulation, relieve joint and muscle pain, and deliver all-around health benefits. Team it with a 75-minute massage to rid yourself of any residual stress.

MacArthur Place Spa

MacArthur Place
Courtesy of MacArthur Place / Expedia

The spa at this former estate turned elegant Sonoma resort offers a selection of massage, body and facial treatments that use flowers, herbs and other plants plucked from the gardens at MacArthur Place. You get access to seven indoor treatment rooms, a relaxation lounge, steam room and fitness studio equipped with Peloton bikes, and can also sign up for vinyasa yoga classes and late-night stargazing.

Di Rosa Centre for Contemporary Art

Museum, Art Gallery
Robert Hudson, Running Through the Woods, 1975 (foreground), with William Wiley, Collaboration or Lack of It, 1993 (background)
Robert Hudson, 'Running Through the Woods', 1975 (foreground), with William Wiley, 'Collaboration or Lack of It', 1993 (background) | Courtesy of di Rosa, Napa
The di Rosa Centre for Contemporary Art in Napa Valley focuses on the connection between art and nature. One way to dial into this connection is to join the Outdoor Sculpture Tour. It’s a 0.3mi (500m) loop that takes you to a variety of outdoor spaces, including the Sculpture Meadow where you’ll find large-scale outdoor sculptures. Alternatively, there are the low-key but stimulating “Cocktail with the Curator” evenings.

Looking for the full package? You can now travel with Culture Trip through the Golden State, ticking off Yosemite hikes, Napa Valley wine tasting and boutique retreats with eco spas and outdoor pools.

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