Picture the whole area as a long, uppercase U in which the two top tongs are pinched together around a light mountain range. On the “left,” or western, tong of the U is widespread Sonoma County, where the principal north-south road, U.S. 101, goes straight to the Golden Gate. In Napa County, the eastern half, it’s the more congested route 29, which, especially around rush hour, can be slow going.
At the bottom of the U, the town of Sonoma is connected to the town of Napa, 30 minutes east, by a long stretch of rural Highway 121/12. A little south of there, Highway 37 links Napa County to Highway 101 and I-80; either road can take you back to the city, although the 101 is probably faster.
North from Napa, the principal towns (which gradually grow smaller and quainter), are Yountville, Oakville, St. Helena (all adorable), and finally the Main Street town of Calistoga (known for hot springs). Not far north from that, 29 turns into 128 and links up with Geyserville, at the tippy top of the Sonoma wine region.
From there, heading south on Highway 101 through Sonoma County, you hopscotch between populous towns and quiet hamlets. First is Healdsburg (a swanky-sweet weekenders’ town square good for strolling), and Santa Rosa (bigger and with cheaper motels, but no wineries to speak of within it, though there is an airport here). From there, Route 12, also known as Sonoma Highway, branches off to the east through Kenwood, the charming town of Glen Ellen, and finally Sonoma, the county’s historic seat. West and southwest of Santa Rosa, along Route 116, the towns of Sebastopol and Forestville, and finally, Guerneville—where the thick redwood forests begin—are in what’s called the Russian River Valley. The vibe here is more laid-back, and in summer the big pastimes are canoeing and swimming. Guerneville is also a well-known gay resort town, particularly in summer, although you won’t find it raging often with parties; the visitors tend to be a bit more middle-aged and settled. (For a resource on gay-friendly resorts and restaurants, go to http://www.russianrivertravel.com/gay.)
The character of the two counties varies slightly. While Napa is mostly verdant farmland and some small towns, Sonoma has a few larger communities (Santa Rosa) and its topography is much more varied, from rolling hills and farms in the east, to deliciously damp redwood forests in the middle west, to wild and undeveloped seashore. (Remember Hitchcock’s The Birds? It was shot in Bodega Bay, on the Sonoma Coast. It’s still just as rustic now, although it’s a 30-minute drive through forests from what we consider wine country.)
It really doesn’t matter which area you make your base—they’re all spectacular. But Sonoma and Napa combined cover a heck of a lot of real estate, so you’d be wise to select just one area to explore—either Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, or Northern Sonoma. To do them all justice, you’d need at least 2 weeks!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.