Relax along northern California's woodsy byways and enjoy a cool dip in the river.
The Russian River's label as a vacation wonderland originated in the early 1900s, when well-to-do San Franciscans escaping the fog summered in cottages along its banks, went on hayrides down the main street of Guerneville, and set off fireworks from Johnson's Beach. In the '60s, the area reinvented itself as a hippie haven; in the '70s and '80s as a gay retreat; and in the last decade, it has morphed into something of a year-round hybrid of all three.
The river, the unifying force, starts small and swift in the mountains north of Ukiah, cuts a serpentine swath through cow towns, lush vineyards, apple orchards, and well-groomed wine country hamlets such as Healdsburg, then flattens out to its widest and most gracious around the time-warped villages of Guerneville and Monte Rio. Pockets of pebbly beaches dot the shoreline here, making it a recreational hub: Vendors do a brisk business in canoes, inner tubes, Super Soakers, and giant floaties.
Southeast along the river in Forestville, where the redwoods rise to meet the vineyards, an 1872 home on River Road that was once a disco-bathhouse has been transformed into the sunny, sumptuous Farmhouse Inn. Just a stone's skip from both Steelhead Beach and the homespun wineries of Westside Road, the Farmhouse has eight lovingly renovated cottages (each with a sauna) and an acclaimed restaurant whose menu delves deeply into the local bounty: duck from Petaluma; fish from Bodega Bay; heirloom tomatoes from Healdsburg; and cheese from Santa Rosa's Andante Dairy.
In Monte Rio, the old-fashioned heart of the Russian River area, visitors are rediscovering the Village Inn, a 1906 property that appeared in the 1942 classic film Holiday Inn. Three years ago, San Francisco hotelman Mark Belhumeur and partner Philip Hampton moved in. They brought with them not just VCRs and new carpeting but a sense of simple hospitality that's evident in everything from the loaner rack of reading glasses behind the front desk to the expansive deck overlooking the river. For a dip, most folks head to Monte Rio Beach just down the lane, a place still firmly rooted in old-time Americana, where kids puddle around in the shallows and dogs lap up fallen ice cream cones.
Farther west, Duncans Mills is a happy marriage of river revelers past and present: An oldfangled wooden boardwalk leads to a tidy warren of modern artisan shops and galleries. A 116-year-old general store stands across from a genuine working rodeo arena. The wonderful Cape Fear Cafe faces a railroad museum and a tavern with a plaque commemorating the area where lyrical stagecoach robber Black Bart purportedly penned his first poem. And just beyond that the river, unfazed by the whims of season and fashion, rolls on to the sea.
Photography by France Ruffenach
This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.