The Russian River is a cool, beautiful, nearby getaway

Sixth-graders from Foresthill Divide Middle School gather at the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve as part of a recent field trip to the Russian River.

Sixth-graders from Foresthill Divide Middle School gather at the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve as part of a recent field trip to the Russian River.

Photo By Amy Yannello

When you’ve had enough of the Sacramento sun, when it is so hot outside that even a trip down the Sacramento River seems like more effort than relief, give the Russian River region a try.

Whether you’re interested in communing with nature, pampering yourself or just looking for a little serenity to get your head straight after a long workweek, the Russian River has a little something for everyone.

Roughly two hours from Downtown Sacramento, the Russian River towns of Sebastopol, Guerneville, Jenner and Bodega Bay await, each with its own distinct flavor. Yet all of them share one common denominator: they’re cool and they’re green.

Whether you’ve got two days or two weeks to spend, I’d suggest making one of your first stops Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. Located in Guerneville, this park has some of the world’s most spectacular redwoods.

When former President Reagan made his infamously bizarre remark, “You see one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all,” he obviously wasn’t standing under Parson Jones, a 310-foot-tall redwood, thought to be 1,300 years old, with a trunk that measures 13.8 feet in diameter.

If there’s a more consistently green place in California, I’ve yet to see it. For a measly $2 per car, you can hike through some 25 miles of forest trails. Picnicking and camping are also available in the adjoining Austin Creek Recreation Center. [For more information, contact the Armstrong Redwoods Visitor’s Center, (707) 869-2958.]

Guerneville has also become synonymous with the blues and will once again play host to one of the most popular music festivals in the state, during the Sixth Annual Russian River Blues Festival, June 23-24. In recognition of the rich contribution women have made to blues music, the festival’s first day will honor divas both past and present with an all-female line-up that includes Etta James, Shemekia Copeland and Lady Bianca. With a sell-out crowd each year of about 8,000, it’s best to get your tickets early. [For information on tickets and accommodations, call (510) 655-9471.]

But what if your ideal getaway is more about being pampered? Guerneville offers that as well, at the River Village Resort & Spa. After arriving and looking at the large spa menu, I decided River Village’s total facial treatment would be just the thing to soothe away this city gal’s stress. Resident masseuse Bonnie Dwyer had her work cut out for her, frankly; but in her capable hands, I turned into Jell-O.

After changing into spa wear, I was first led to an old-fashioned foot tub, where I was instructed to place my feet in a mixture of water, lavender essential oils and wild flowers. Lovely. I was feeling pampered already.

Once I was lying on the table, Bonnie placed hot lavender-soaked towels on my face to open the pores. After applying an exfoliant and another towel soak (these soaks would follow each procedure), my face was covered with a honey-lavender-vitamin E-grapefruit seed extract cleanser, applied with the lightest, velvet-like touch from Bonnie. (Honey, I was told, is a natural astringent. And this particular honey, I was assured, came solely from bees that had feasted on organic lavender fields. Skeptic that I am, I wasn’t convinced that a couple of city bees couldn’t have crashed that party and contaminated the whole batch. But hey, who was I to argue such a minor point, especially when the stuff felt so damned good?)

The end of the session included a green tea mud mask, a hand and foot massage and mini scalp massage—all of which combined to send me into total relaxation mode.

After that, I was more than ready for a snooze in one of the resort’s many living units, but, alas, I couldn’t afford that much pampering. But if you decide to spring for the whole package, I doubt you’ll be disappointed. From studio units (which comfortably sleep two and run from $90 on weekdays to $115 per night on the weekend) to deluxe two-bedroom cottages (they run from $145 during the week to $175 per night on the weekend), all units feature private bathrooms and kitchenettes with microwaves, refrigerators and coffeemakers.

The cottages have an airy feel and all units face into a common courtyard, whose benches, tables and rock formations create the serene feel of an oasis away from the outside world. For more information, check out River Village’s Web site at

The nice thing about the Russian River region is the close proximity of the towns. One can easily transition from getting pampered at a local resort to taking in the ocean air from the town of Jenner, located up Highway 116, about 10 miles from Guerneville. Jenner is very much a tourist town, and on the day I was there most of the shops were closed because it was the off-season. Expect crowds by the end of May, as the whole of Russian River revs up to accommodate those who are looking for the cool of the ocean and the redwoods to soothe their summer swelter.

Yet I liked Jenner just as I found it—sleepy and quiet, with nary a person on the beach where the Russian River feeds into the ocean. Seals and their pups were out sunning themselves, even as fog drifted along overhead, looking like so many beached logs to the naked eye from the cliff above.

Food within the region ranges from the cheap (a lovely bowl of creamy garlic soup at Whole Foods in Sebastopol went for $2.69) to the expensive (a dinner for two at one of the local wineries can easily run over $150).

One jewel I found during my recent excursion was The Slice of Life in Sebastapol—a vegetarian restaurant where I was treated to one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. For $16, the three-quarter-sized pizza (you can choose between half, three-quarters or a whole) came loaded with chunks of fresh black and green olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and garlic. We’re talking huge, hearty slices; much too big for two people. The décor was simple, with wooden tables and chairs, hanging plants and soft jazz playing in the background. Two forks up!

At the other end of the spectrum was the dismal dining experience at Bodega Bay’s The Tides Wharf whose motto, I decided shortly afterward, had to be: “We got you with the view; why should we care if you enjoy the food?”

Yeah, this is the place where Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed and it was cool watching fishing boats chug past the window seats, but the romance was quickly marred when I found not one, but two, strands of hair on separate appetizers. Likewise, the entrées were mediocre at best and prices way too high to justify the poor service. Two forks way down.

If you want to get a handle on the vibe in Sebastopol, you’d be well served to stop at Coffee Catz —nestled inside the refurbished Gravenstein Railroad Station.

Sebastopol seems to be home to the same radical, revolutionary thinking that used to swirl through Berkeley in the ’60s. And many of these folks gather at all hours at Coffee Catz to share all manner of ideas and actions, including how the fourth wave of media is coming—the alternative to the alternatives, if you will—and the need for individuals to begin making their voices heard, à la pamphleteer Thomas Paine.

Sebastopol is also a great shopping town, with many unique finds. Two stores particularly worthy of checking out when you’re in the area: Milk & Honey and Copperfield’s Books and Music—both on North Main Street. Milk & Honey is all about nurturing your inner goddess and it doesn’t disappoint. Owner Jill Leslie has filled her space with journals, jewelry, books and music, candles and statues, all designed to support your more reflective self.

Across the street, Copperfield’s Books & Music beckoned me with three separate stores housing both new and used books, CDs and cassettes. Groovy specialty items, such as Celtic bookmarkers and hair barrettes, and raw silk tank tops, were also available, and both the new and used book sections offered myriad selections. No evil corporate culture here.

Of course, one article can’t begin to describe the multitude of experiences available to sample in this lush region. Then again, part of the fun of vacationing is discovering your own delights, isn’t it?