Occidental - The 71Miles Travel Guide

11:27PM December 6, 2007 37 Comments »

At a Glance: John’s Favorites

Introduction

Everyone complains about winter, but it ain’t going away. Instead of brooding, shift your perspective and get into it. The colors are glorious. The hills are turning green again, and the sky is magnificent with giant, puffy cumulous clouds. Head to the forest and hear the drip-drop of rain falling from giant redwoods onto spiky green ferns below. I can’t think of a moodier nearby place to submit to winter than Occidental.

You have to know where you’re going to find Occidental, an Old West lumber town hidden in the Sonoma County woods. Tourists whiz right past the turnoff, never knowing that there’s a picture-perfect village just up the road. Unlike most towns in Sonoma, Occidental is surrounded not by vineyards, but by redwood forests (including some old-growth stands) and Christmas-tree farms. To the west rolling, grassy hills unfurl ten miles to the Pacific coast—like a plein air painting come to life.

Occidental and its itty-bitty neighbor Freestone are classic NorCal small towns, populated by old-line ranching families and counterculturalists who bought in before the land boom of the mid-1990s sent prices through the roof. Lately you can see hints of change in some of the new shops and galleries springing up, but the old guard remains firmly ensconced, right down to the occasional acid-addled, aged hippie hanging out along the aptly named Bohemian Highway, town’s main drag. (On a recent visit a smiling, glassy-eyed old-timer with shoulder-length white hair approached me on the sidewalk and boomed, ‘Welcome to Occidental, the west pole of the planet!’ then ambled away. That’s what I call local color.)

The business district is tiny, only a few blocks long, and you can see the whole thing in an afternoon. If you’re not content to while away the remainder of the day with a book, plan to winery-hop, hike the woods, or take a scenic drive to the beach, only 20 minutes away.

Why Go?

  • Explore a picture-perfect town tourists don’t know about.
  • Rejuvenate in a Japanese enzyme bath.
  • Meander Sonoma County’s winding back roads.
  • Fall asleep to chirping crickets and ribbiting tree frogs.

How Far?

  • 75 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Drawbacks?

  • Nothing to do after dark; bring Yahtzee and backgammon.
  • No gas stations; fuel up in Sebastopol.

See & Do in Occidental

Occidental has some surprisingly cool shops. My favorite is Renga Arts, a fab collection of functional art objects made entirely of reclaimed or recycled materials. There’s also an esoteric, smart assortment of books. Laurence Glassworks has a small, but exceptional collection of hand-blown glass and jewelry. Dig the one-of-a-kind art lamps and home furnishings at Verdigris—they’re gorgeous. Across the street, Aubergine imports men’s and women’s vintage European clothing by the bale (you read that right). The designs are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere—fitted and tight (the stuff for big people goes fast; there’s lots in small and medium)—and prices are remarkably inexpensive.

The only spa of its kind this side of Japan, Osmosis Enzyme Bath is famous for its enzymatic spa treatments — redwood tubs filled with detoxifying hot cedar mulch. Fragrant ground-up cedar and evergreen, along with 600 hundred plant enzymes, ferment together and generate heat. The deeper you burrow, the higher the temperature – as high as 140 degrees at the bottom of the tub. Once you get past the singular experience of lying in hot wood pulp, the floating sensation is delicious. But it’s not for everyone. If you get squeamish about plunging your body into anything but water, opt for a facial or an outdoor massage in a Japanese-style pagoda. After your treatment, empty your mind of thought in the Zen-like calm of the tea and meditation gardens.

In the wooded hills above Occidental, Western Hills Nursery is a must-visit for any self-respecting gardener. Founded in the late 1950s by two budding horticulturalists who traveled the world in search of seeds, Western Hills grew over the years into an exotic oasis, drawing elite gardeners from around the world. Get this: ten years ago the Chinese government came here to propagate a species of Chinese pine that had grown extinct in its native land, but was thriving at Western Hills. The founders died 20 years ago, and the garden was passed down to a devoted friend who cared for it until last December, then sold it to new owners who just reopened the nursery last May as a public botanical garden. Oh, and if you wait to visit Occidental till spring, do a drive-by in April to see the huge wisteria vine growing around the trunk of a towering redwood, right outside the nursery’s main gate, off Coleman Valley Rd. It’s spectacular.

The US Supreme Court ordered the preservation of the Grove of the Old Trees, a 28-acre stand of old-growth redwoods—including seven ancient trees—just west of town. Several easy, sun-dappled walking trails meander beneath the canopy of these mighty giants. Take Coleman Valley Rd to Joy Rd; turn left, then 500 yards ahead, turn right onto Fitzpatrick Lane. Continue about 3 miles. Cross the cattle grate and go 0.3 miles to a small gravel parking lot on the right side (if you reach the vineyard, you’ve driven too far); look for the tiny sign above the trailhead.

One of Northern California’s outstanding scenic drives, Coleman Valley Road winds through pastoral valleys and atop high ridgelines on its twisting 10-mile course to the ocean. Along the way you’ll pass fragrant stands of bay laurel arcing over the roadway, and douglas firs dripping with sphagnum moss—a moody sight in the fog. But the money shots are up high on the ridges, where fantastic centuries-old gnarled oaks grow by the side of the road, enormous rock formations rise from the hills, and the vast blue Pacific unfurls below. Drive west, not east, so that you’re looking at the sea as you go, and make the trip in the morning or early afternoon to avoid being blinded by the setting sun. There’s no guard rail and lots of potholes on the one-lane road, so take it slow. The road dead ends at Sonoma Coast State Beach. Turn around and head back to town, or drive south on Hwy 1 to Bodega Bay.

Occidental is close to Russian River Valley wineries, which are known for their cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay. Within a short distance, along pretty little back roads, are three of my favorites. Take in jaw-dropping views from Iron Horse Vineyards, which sits high atop a hill. Famous for its pinot and sparkling wines (which the White House often pours), Iron Horse’s barn and outdoor tasting room is great for nervous amateurs and first-time winery visitors because it’s so casual: when your done with your glass, you dump it onto the grass!

Hartford Family Winery sits in one of West County’s prettiest valleys, surrounded by rolling hills dotted with redwood stands. The tasting room is a bit formal for West County, but you’ll hardly care what you’re wearing after a few sips of single-vineyard pinot, chard, or old-vine zin, the latter a richly complex wine with intense color. Outside are picnic tables with umbrellas, a lovely spot to unpack your lunch (b.y.o.). Marimar Torres is West County’s new important label, known for its earthy wines made with organic fruit. But it’s pricy—a tasting will set you back $10, an outlandish fee for around here, even if it is refundable with a purchase.

For more Sonoma County wineries, read our Healdsburg Wineries page. For more ideas on what to do along the Bohemian Highway, check out the excellent Bohemian Connection, a guide to activities between Occidental and Monte Rio.

Occidental Restaurants: Cheap Eats

Howard’s Bakery and Café ($) is the place for breakfast and lunch in Occidental. Inside an old Victorian with a big front porch, Howard’s makes good scrambles and omelettes, pancakes and waffles, crunchy salads, hand-cut fries, and a killer BLT with applewood-smoked bacon. Most ingredients are organic, the juice is freshly squeezed, and the bread home-baked. Lots for vegetarians too. Oh, and there’s Wi-Fi, a rarity around here (but come before closing time, 2:30pm).

Don’t let looks deceive you: El Mariachi Café ($) makes homemade tamales as good as your Mexican grandmother’s. The café has zero atmosphere (it’s essentially a trailer), but the food—simple, fresh, and cheap—is terrific, especially for this price point. Sit outside on plastic patio furniture and munch on salsa and still-warm tortilla chips while you wait for your meal. At breakfast there’s also good huevos rancheros.

Occidental is known for its two Italian restaurants, the Union Hotel ($$) and Negri’s ($$). Each serves six-course family-style Italian-American meals at tables with red-and-white-checked tablecloths; neither is particularly good – unless you don’t care if your pasta is overcooked. Though some readers have challenged me on this, I remain firm in my opinion. But the Union Hotel Saloon ($) has town’s best lunch deal: a whole pizza, salad, and soda for $8. Afterward peek into the Union’s retro-fabulous Bocce Ballroom.

Restaurant Prices

  • $ = entrées under $10
  • $$ = $10 to $15
  • $$$ = $16 to $22
  • $$$$ = $22 and up

Occidental & Graton Restaurants: Our Favorites

Occidental’s year-old Bistro des Copains ($$–$$$) is firmly rooted in provincial French cooking, but not the fussy kind, the soul-warming kind served in bistros in France. Dishes include grilled hangar steak with red-wine sauce and french fries, and leg of lamb with potatoes gratin. There’s also a wood-fired oven for roasted meats and pissaladière, a French pizza (order it the classic way: with anchovies). The owners are so devoted to their craft that they took the entire staff to France for two weeks to taste wine and bone up on their culinary knowledge.

Alas, Pignoli recently closed its doors. Too bad. I loved that place.

Five miles east of Occidental, in the blink-and-miss-it town of Graton, are two unexpectedly good restaurants. The Cal-American menu at Willow Wood Market lists favorites like a juicy-delicious roasted chicken, and pan-roasted salmon, perfectly prepared with few ingredients, allowing the foods’ natural flavors to sparkle on the palate. The restaurant doubles as a general store, with wooden tables placed between shelves of unusual gifts and foodstuffs. Snag a table in the garden, if you can.

Across the street, the more fancy Underwood Bar & Bistro is the only place anywhere near Occidental with an urban vibe and full bar. The Mediterranean-inspired menu tends toward brasserie fare like steak-frites and fish stew, but there’s also a good small-plates menu if you’d rather sample a variety of dishes while swilling cocktails at the always-fun bar.

The new big name on the western Sonoma County culinary scene is West County Grill ($$$–$$$$). Read a complete review in one of my previous weekly posts.

Occidental & Freestone Bakeries and Markets

It’s hard not to love Wild Flour Bakery and its hearty brick-oven all-organic bread. Some connoisseurs find it a tad heavy, but such is the style here—and it’s delicious, with varieties chock full of nuts and fruits. And how marvelous to find still-warm crusty loaves in the middle of nowhere! Though the bakery also sells biscotti, scones, and coffee, Wild Flour is a bakery, not a café, so plan to buy a loaf then head elsewhere for lunch.

At last you can buy real groceries in Occidental. The Bohemian Market carries organic produce and has a small, but wonderful selection of meats and seafood, including cuts by Niman Ranch. Find fresh-from-the-ground produce at Occidental’s weekly farmers market on Friday afternoons, 4pm to dusk, June through October. If you need to do a big shop, head to Sebastopol; Fiesta Market is better than Whole Foods – and it’s local.

Occidental Hotels and House Rentals: Budget to Top End

The best-value accommodations are at the plain-jane Occidental Hotel ($) which is actually a single-story motel. The rooms are nothing to look at, but they’re clean. Some have kitchens. Down the road in Freestone, the four-room Green Apple Inn ($) has simple B&B rooms in an old farmhouse. It’s not fancy, but it’s a good alternative to a motel, and you can’t beat the price – about $85.

One of Sonoma County’s loveliest B&Bs, the Inn at Occidental ($$$–$$$$) occupies a beautifully restored 1876 Victorian farmhouse with a big wraparound porch, perfect for curling up with a book. The inn is chockablock full of collectible antiques and Americana folk art. Some rooms fell a bit small and cluttered, but if your idea of a fun Saturday is antiquing in small towns, you’ll love the decor. Breakfasts are lavish, well worth waking up for. Once a month, the inn hosts an excellent winemaker dinner, with a local celeb chef and vintner, worth planning your trip around.

Hotel Prices

  • $ = standard double under $100
  • $$ = $100 to $200
  • $$$ = $200 to $300
  • $$$$ = $300 & up