A quiet, down-home hamlet warmly recalls its past as it enjoys the present.
It's 6 p.m. in Occidental, a small Sonoma County town 60 miles north of San Francisco. At the Union Hotel, families sit around large tables covered with red-and-white-checked tablecloths. They eat bowls of minestrone served from communal pots.
"People come here because of the magic of the family style dining," says Margie Gonnella. "Like our minestrone soup, it's always warm, friendly."
In a five-block town, it seems unlikely that this Italian restaurant could be so packed. But since the Union is Occidental's oldest existing business (circa 1879), nearly everyone in Sonoma County has had time to develop a taste for its bruschetta, roast chicken, and homemade ravioli.
More recently, visitors from afar have found their way into the wood-paneled dining room. Occidental has progressed from a tiny hamlet people stumbled upon to a weekend destination with a luxurious inn, a Japanese-inspired spa, and several good restaurants. While the essential character of many wine country towns has changed, Occidental still charms visitors with its old-school ways. But remember: Occidental is small. Travelers in search of a relaxing, quiet weekend getaway may find that it's just the place they've been looking for.
Occidental is on the saddle between two redwood-studded hills. The Bohemian Highway, which wends its way through farmland and lush forest from Monte Rio to Freestone, runs through town.
Locals consider their cluster of Victorians lining Main Street a village. It probably would be familiar to Dutch Bill Howard, a sailor who started a squatters' camp here in 1876. The best way to explore the town and its history is with a copy of Amie Hill's chatty Walking Tour of Occidental, available at nearly any shop. While guiding you past antique buildings, like the 125-year-old steepled Community Church, Hill describes the town's surprisingly entertaining past.
"Writing this book was irresistible," says Hill, who in the late 1960s was one of Rolling Stone's first women feature writers and has lived in Occidental since 1978. "Occidental has more interesting stories per square foot than any other town of its size. The fact that the post office has been in 13 different locations will tell you something."
A few shops on and near Main Street hint at some of that history. Selling crystals, herbs, and handmade soaps, they seem not to have grown up since the town was popular among hippies in the 1960s. Other stores also offer unusual finds. Kids love Leapin' Lizards Fun Store with its mix of toys, from tiddledywinks to glow-in-the-dark Dracula fangs. Forget Me Not features those quality curios you wish you would find in your grandmother's attic. Howard's Café, an old-fashioned restaurant with bohemian influences, is a good place to go for a half-pound burger or tofu sandwich.
A mile from town, the Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery offers some of the most exotic flora in the United States. The region's Mediterranean climate allows this unusual plant collection to flourish. Marshall Olbrich and Lester Hawkins were pioneers in taking advantage of these conditions when they landscaped their country home with as many species from places like Chile and Australia as would grow. In the early 1970s, they created an adjoining nursery. Today, the original garden thrives and attracts horticulturists from all over the world. Maggie Wych, who inherited the property, says, "People come here asking for the most esoteric plant, and we just might have it."
Only 31/2 miles away in the even tinier town of Freestone is another garden paradise. At the Wishing Well Nursery, forget-me-nots carpet a rose garden, fuchsias are available in 100 varieties, chickens roam free, and statues adorn the garden. Don't miss the 8-foot goddesses designed by architect Bernard Maybeck.
In one of the dozen old Western buildings that front the Bohemian Highway in Freestone, Osmosis offers the only Japanese enzyme bath in the United States. For this heat treatment, you lie in a bath of finely milled cedar, rice bran, and more than 600 naturally derived plant enzymes. The mixture looks like a healthy breakfast cereal, feels like damp sawdust, and radiates heat. Imagine lying in a compost pile that smells wonderful.
Rather than leaving you feeling faint and sluggish, an enzyme bath both relaxes and energizes you. Follow your treatment with a massage or some quiet time in the new meditation garden, due to open in August.
Osmosis recommends that you visit the spa on a full stomach. Across the street at Wild Flour Bread, owner Jed Wallach sells hand-kneaded bread baked in a wood-fire brick oven. Appliances are not allowed inside this renovated barn. "It's good, honest bread made by people who love what they do," Wallach says. Sweet tooths will love the sticky bun bread.
After a leisurely day, the best place to bed down is the Inn at Occidental. The elegant, comfortable Victorian is Occidental's oldest surviving home. Owner Jack Bullard knows how to spoil guests with fireplaces, spa tubs, and the world's best homemade granola. He has a well developed talent for decorating and has mixed fabulous color, family heirlooms, Americana, and exotic antiques to create rooms that guests request year after year. The rooms in the main house are named after the antiques collections they house. The Tiffany Room, for example, has a collection of Tiffany silver. A newer addition made to look like a barn features themed rooms. In the Safari Room, for example, you sleep under mosquito netting next to a mural of Africa's Serengeti Plain.
Check in by 5 p.m. for the wine and cheese hour. A lively gathering takes over the front room, where a 65-piece collection of green majolica hangs on apricot-colored walls. Unless he's out hunting for more antiques or doing some research for a guidebook, Jack will be there. He'll treat you like a long-lost friend and gladly load you up with books and maps pointing you to the many activities available near Occidental. Among them are winetasting, hiking, and horseback riding. And Napa's only 45 minutes away. But Jack won't mind if you choose to spend a quiet day in Occidental instead.
By 6 p.m., it's time to walk down the hill for the family style Italian fare at the Union Hotel. The scent of roasting garlic and the hum of a cowboy tune on the jukebox lead the way. If you've yet to realize you're in a friendly, relaxing town, you will with your first mouthful of lovingly made minestrone.
Photography by Sean Arbabi
This article was first published in July 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.