Via magazine
Via magazine - Your AAA Magazine

Occidental, California

A quiet, down-home hamlet warmly recalls its past as it enjoys the present.

the Post Office in Occidental, California, image
Photo credit
Photo: Sean Arbabi
Photo caption
Occidental, on the Bohemian Highway, boasts an old-fashioned-looking post office.

It's 6 p.m. in Occidental, California, 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 and glowing candles. They eat bowls of hearty 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 the history. Selling crystals, herbs, and handmade soaps, they are reminders of the town's popularity among hippies in the 1960s. There are also a number of newer businesses like Boho Bungalow, a delightful emporium of home design with beaded chandeliers hanging from the ceilings and colorful pillows on the shelves. In Hand Goods, you'll find items made by local jewelry makers, potters, painters, carpenters, weavers, and more. And after an hour of browsing shops, Barley and Hops Tavern is a good place to go for a beer, fish and chips, and live blues. 

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."

Another hamlet worth exploring is just 3-1/2 miles down the road. Freestone was the center for harvesting and milling redwoods in the 1800s, and it grew around a stop on the North Pacific Coast Railroad that transported the lumber to Sausalito and on to San Francisco by ferry. 

In one of the dozen old Western buildings that front the Bohemian Highway in Freestone, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary 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, the enzyme bath both relaxes and energizes you. Follow your treatment with a massage or some quiet time in the meditation garden.

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.

Down the street at Freestone Artisan Cheese, you'll find accompaniments for your bread, from hand-crafted cheeses and cured meats to raw honey and small-batch jams. 

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. Owners Jerry and Tina Wolsburn know how to spoil guests with fireplaces, spa tubs, and the world's best homemade granola. The Wolsburns make a point of greeting all their guests when they check in and again at breakfast. They've decorated the rooms with 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 displayed in shadow boxes. Outside, in an addition made to look like a barn, you'll find one of the most requested rooms. In the Safari Room, you sleep under mosquito netting next to a mural of Africa's Serengeti Plain.

Check in by 5 p.m. to join the other guests for the wine hour in the front room, where a 65-piece collection of green majolica hangs on apricot-colored walls. The friendly innkeeper and manager Marilyn Nelson is usually on hand and will gladly load you up with books and maps pointing you to the many activities available near Occidental. Among them are wine tasting, hiking, horseback riding, a day trip to the coast, and zip lining through the redwoods. Napa's only 45 minutes away, but you'll find some 100 wineries within half an hour of the inn, and your stay comes with a special pass that offers you free tastings and discounts. 

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.

This article was first published in July 2001 and was updated in February 2018. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.