Category: California

A vintage trip to California’s famous wine region: Sonoma County

You’ve finally booked that once-in-a-lifetime trip to San Francisco so, naturally, you’re already imagining cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge or smelling the salt water as you sail across to Alcatraz.

There are so many things to see and do in the city but did you know that you can explore even more of California’s natural beauty in the same break?

Well, you’re just 45 minutes away from giant Redwood trees, whale watching and a world-famous wine region, so why not add a visit to Sonoma County to your itinerary?

Think of our video below as the ‘tasting session’ before you choose which vintage experiences you want to savour.

Sonoma County in three days

Here’s the itinerary for the trip you saw in our video.

We packed too much into three days so we will definitely spread it out over a couple more days when we go again.

This is just a snapshot of our trip so you won’t be surprised to find out that there are many more hotels, wineries and towns to visit, simply head to for more options and inspiration.

Day 1 – Winery

Unsurprisingly, the Francis Ford Coppola Winery is owned by the world-famous film director, but he places a focus on family, which is one of the reasons he installed a pool for children and adults to relax in.

We’d never been to a wine tasting before so made the most of asking as many questions to our friendly sommelier, Ron, who didn’t seem to judge us for our lack of knowledge!! Check out our uncut interview with him below.

The winery has a museum packed with props, costumes and artefacts from Coppola’s famous movies.

There are more than 425 wineries in Sonoma County alone, ranging from posh palaces to laidback locations in a rustic setting.

We were travelling with our three kids but – as we’d never been to a vineyard before – we still wanted to have a taste of a classic Californian winery.

With a pool pass, you could easily spend a whole day here – plan which one of you is going to drink or whether you’re going to take an Uber back to your hotel!

For more information, or to book at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, visit:

Day 2 – Whale Watching, Redwoods and Russian River

We probably packed too much into this day!

Sonoma County boasts 55 miles of coastline which on the famous Highway One road so all views of the ocean are epic.

Bodega Bay is a cute fishing town with loads of restaurants which are certain to have fresh seafood caught from the water that morning.

Whale Watching at Bodega Head

On the other side of the natural harbour is Bodega Head, which is the best place to go whale watching in the area.

We went in August so didn’t think we’d get to see anything but some locals told us that there is pod which lives off the coast of Bodega Head all year round.

This website has some great tips for what you should be able to see – and when:

Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve

You will never forget the first time you see or touch a giant Redwood tree, there’s something special about being in their company.

We travelled three hours to the Drive-Thru tree in Leggett but Sonoma’s Armstrong Redwood Park was just as good and so much closer to San Francisco.

You can drive through the reserve for a fee but if you park next to the visitor’s centre, on the right, it’s free and you can walk around the forest instead.

It’s not the longest or hardest hike in the world – it was all stroller accessible and our three kids found it a breeze – in fact, they wanted to keep going and it was adults who wanted to stop and get some food!

Capture the kids’ imagination by going to the visitor centre and getting a ‘Treasure Map’ which includes some fun clues for children to hunt, while also guiding you around the park.

There are more challenging hikes, if you normally like to hit the trails, so there is something for everyone here.

For more information:

The Russian River

We had never heard about a Russian River in California before!! It’s 110 miles long and winds its way out to see at Bodega Bay.

It got its name from when the region was owned by Russian explorers who settled at Fort Ross between 1812 and 1842.

The river begins to twist and turn at Guerneville, which is the town next to Armstrong Redwood Reserve, so the gentle current and wide banks are perfect for those who want to paddle.

Kayaking is a popular form of transport on the water but lazing with a beer on an inflatable is number one!

Johnson's Beach on the Russian River at Guerneville, California
Johnson’s Beach on the Russian River at Guerneville, California

Johnson’s Beach at Guerneville has a fully stocked bar and grill, plus a boathouse where you can hire anything from canoes to pedal boats.

Two other tips for food here: the Taco Truck in the Safeway car park has some of the best burritos around, plus Guerneville Bank Club is home to an amazing ice cream parlour and artisan bakery.

You could easily spend half a day on the water and the other half in the forest, so for more ideas for Guerneville, check out:

Russian River Brewing Company

Sonoma isn’t just famous for its wine, it’s also well known for its craft beers, including one of the most decorated breweries in the world: Russian River Brewing.

In 1997, the owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville decided to hire someone to brew some beer and he ended up making some of the first double IPA’s which the country is now famous for.

Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, California
Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, California

In 2003, Korbel decided to leave the beer industry and transferred all beers and rights to the Russian River Brewing Company, who have a microbrewery in Santa Rosa and a huge resort-style brewery and gardens in Windsor.

We didn’t find out just how big its beers were until we were back in Southern California and we were told off by our friends, so make sure YOU try Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig IPA when you’re there!

More info:

Day 3 – Safari West

Looking for something different to do while you’re in California?

Why not go on an African safari and sleep next to the animals in a tent imported from Botswana?!

On safari in Sonoma County, California.
On safari in Sonoma County, California.

Safari West is a 400-acre enclosure, which is home to 90 species of animals, including rhinos, giraffes and many more.

Peter Lang bought the land as cattle ranch in the 1980s but quickly turned it into a breeding and conservation facility.

Safari West in Sonoma County, California
Safari West in Sonoma County, California

After several years operating behind closed doors, he opened to the public on 4 July 1993 and has been offering trips into the Sonoma Serengeti ever since.

There are several tours a day – be warned that children under four aren’t allowed on the main tour. There is a walking tour available but it’s quite expensive for what it is.

Authentic meals and luxury accommodation is available in the form of glamping style tents which include a double bed, bathroom and running water.

Book your visit:

Flamingo Hotel

We stayed at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa for another authentic experience.

In its 1950s heyday they used to say, “it was the only place to stay north of the Bay.”

Flamingo Hotel, Santa Rosa, California
Flamingo Hotel, Santa Rosa, California

Movie stars like Jane Mansfield were often found sunning themselves by the pool so it became a society hot spot during the golden age of Hollywood.

The pool is still the centrepiece and has great drinks service.

Next door the spa, with its pool, tennis courts and gym, feels more like a country club than part of the hotel.

The hotel was named a historic landmark in 1996 so the upcoming renovations will be sure to keep the same charm that made the Flamingo famous.

More information:

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California’s mountains are ready for fun in the winter AND summer

California is one of the only places in the world where you can spend the morning surfing in the ocean and finish the day carving down a mountain on your snowboard. (Hang on – let me quickly add that to my bucket list!)

Traditionally, we’ve always hit the mountains in the winter and stuck to the beaches during the summer months but this year that’s ALL going to change!

We’re heading to the Sierra Mountains in August which are, believe it or not, more popular during the summer than the winter!

A view of Lake Tahoe during the winter with someone’s face in the way!

How does that work, eh?

Well, all of the cabin rentals in Lake Tahoe, for example, change with the seasons and transform from winter wonderlands to summer stopovers, complete with barbecues ready to smoke that fish you caught on the crystal clear water just hours before.

Back in the day, my favourite part about snowboarding was taking my battered and bruised body (yep, I’m that good on the slopes) into the hot tub and having a beer. When I saw people jump into the freezing cold swimming pool, I thought it was only there for dares and weirdos – I didn’t even think it might be used by normal people during the  summer.

Before kids, we usually avoided California during the high season to snag cheaper plane tickets so, the rare times we were there for the summer, we’d stay and play where the sights and sounds were the opposite to England.


Surely beach life is the Life of Reilly?

It’s a bit like an American coming to England for the summer – they wouldn’t choose to go camping in the New Forest if they haven’t been to London or experienced Stonehenge before. It’s nice, but it’s not for your first trip, unlike Hull on a warm day?!! No contest!!!

Why head to the mountains during the summer?

Now Dylan’s in school we have to take holidays during the summer, or face a very public battle with the UK government. So, after our big trip in 2015 when we went to Disneyland and enjoyed beach days in Southern California, we feel ready to start looking for new experiences.

My new appreciation of rural American culture is great for Alicia, who’s really looking forward to this trip because she’ll get to go back in time to an all-American vacation that’ll remind her of going on holiday as a kid.

So, what will we be looking forward to? Well, the lakes around Tahoe, Mammoth and Yosemite are some of the most beautiful in the world.

Lake Tahoe during the summer. Photo: Erin Toomey

Travelling across the Atlantic Ocean for some ‘nice walks’ would be a snore-fest for anyone under 10 (probably 25, really) but these aren’t normal stretches of water: the shores around American lakes are filled with beach-ready families playing in the sun, while the water is packed with wake-boarders, water-skiers and swimmers.

One of our neighbours in England grew up near Sacramento in California, which is slap-bang in the middle between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Tahoe. Her family always chose the inland trip.

Erin explains: “A day at the lake feels more relaxed to me. You don’t have to worry about sharks or an undertow and, most importantly, the trees and mountains make for a beautiful backdrop to the day.”

A day at the lake is similar to a day at the beach, but with even better views! Photo: Erin Toomey

One of Alicia’s best friends, Jessica, lives in hot – but oh so cool – San Diego. She and her gorgeous family book a week off every summer to head to the mountains.

The Carlson family enjoying Mammoth Mouuntain in the summer!

They say they enjoy it just as much when the snow’s melted as when they’re wrapped up wearing gloves and goggles.

For years, I thought it was the annual Beer Festival that they drove six hours for, but there’s more to it than that, apparently!

“We love it because it is so beautiful and there are so many things to do. We love the outdoors, and it just feels like we are getting away from it all and escaping everyday life,” said Jessica.

“We are spoiled in Southern California and can go to the beaches all the time, so the mountains are a different experience for us with real weather changes, seasons, and different activities offered there that we cannot do at home.”

Jessica and her children visit Mammoth Mountain in the summer and the winter!

What about ski resorts during the summer?

The ski resorts are all open for business and have their gondolas turned on to take mountain bikers to the summits ahead of a high-octane descent.

They also have all of the food and drink that you’d want/expect after a day hiking, plus loads of cool activities for everyone: young and young at heart!

At Northstar there’s miniature golf, pottery and candle-making, plus a guided Wine Walk through the forest. While at Heavenly, you can free-fall down the mountain at 50mph on their 3,300ft zip-line or take a 4×4 tour of the Sierras before tucking into a BBQ buffet back at the lodge!

The Blue Streak at Heavenly includes a 50mph zipline!! Photo:

To get an authentic feel for your trip, you can hire a log cabin, during a winter or summer getaway. We loved having our own place – and big space – to unwind when we were there in the snow a few years ago – it’s much better than being cooped up in a hotel room.

There are cabins available for every budget, even as far as $2,000 a night lake-front estates via Luxury Retreats – just remember to book early to save yourself some money!

This is Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, which was the venue of the 1990 Winter Olympics. Photo credit: Life of Reilly

We can’t wait to see a completely different side (and climate) to the places that we’ve already visited in California.

This summer, we’ll finally get to experience the might and magic of Yosemite, reach the peaks of the mountains we’ve only conquered when they were white with snow, and get that all-American experience at the lakes.

Read all about our summer trip to the Californian – with our two mini people in tow – very soon!


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