Grapes in the vineyard, ready for the harvest, in Sonoma wine country.
A virtually unknown piece of California history, but one that assured the final end of Mexican dominance began in the then small town of Sonoma in 1846 with the capture of General Mariano Vallejo and his vast Mexican land grant. Beginning with that seminal moment, Sonoma started its growth as an important part of California’s national importance. For Northern Californians today, it remains one of the most seductive destination offering; not only as a living history but a thriving sybaritic environment with an extensive list of destination venues, writes our travel editor Al Auger. (#Travel, #Siliconeer, @Siliconeer, #Sonoma, #SwissHotel, #California, #CaliforniaWineCountry)
Along with its neighbor, the Sonoma valley is a gentle giant in world-class, award-winning wines. In the soft beauty of fall, the surrounding rolling green hills are blanketed with vast acreage of grape vines ready to be plucked. Over 400 wineries await your visit and tasting pleasures.
No one should miss the picture postcard burg of Glen Ellen and the memorable Jack London State historical Park (see Siliconeer, May 2013). One of the truly rustic stops of Sonoma County is Occidental where lies the family dining treat Union Hotel (see Siliconeer, March 2013). Begin with Italian-inspired antipasto, bowl of fragrant minestrone followed with mountainous plates of cracklin’ chicken, The drive up the Gravenstein Highway alone is worth the trip and detours to the rustic towns of Freestone and Valley Ford. Russian River, one of California’s most famous river destinations, stands out with an overwhelming menu of pleasures from frolicking sandy beaches, cruising the river in every style available except powered transportation, fine dining and lodgings.
Sonoma County proudly, and rightfully so, brags about one of the most historic LGBT gathering places in the U.S. at Guerneville nestled in the towering redwoods alongside the slow, rolling river. According to the official Sonoma County Visitor’s Guide, the large number of gay households is only second to San Francisco in the country.
Lodgings and spas are another important ingredient to a memorable time in a surprisingly vast arena of people-oriented gifts throughout the county. Because of its proximity to weekenders, most center their activities on the plaza in the center of the village. Restaurants, both ethnic and classic, boutiques, the Mission San Francisco Solano and the Sonoma Barracks site of the historic raising of the California Republic Bear flag, surround the pastoral greenery of Sonoma Plaza all make this corner of California an engaging and fulfilling way station.
Our Quicky tour has left your reporter a bit worn down, so let’s head to the Swiss Hotel on the Sonoma Plaza.
Think back to 1963 when the San Francisco Bay Area was a virtual gold mine, if you will, for the worshippers of Sybaris. Restaurants offered fine and remarkable dining for all budgets; jazz, blues and folk music, nature at its loveliest and the wine country, both of the north and south bay, was finding its worldwide niche. A time of discovery and wonderment for all this and more.
On that tone and year, my partner and I would begin our discovery of Sonoma and its points of interest. Central to our meanderings was the historic Sonoma Plaza as the touchstone to its beginning. This was how we discovered the Swiss Hotel that became a regular part of our gypsy attitude. The vagaries of time were left unaltered. In 1835 General Vallejo laid out the streets that would surround the nascent Plaza. In 1836 the General’s brother, Don Salvadore Vallejo built his home of adobe on the north side of the square.
A stagecoach stop and hotel in 1870, it was purchased by the Toroni family who called it the Ticino Hotel. The hotel served the railroad passengers who needed an overnight stop. When the original Swiss Hotel, on the west side burned to the ground, the Toroni family renamed its hotel after the destroyed competitor. Thus it was until 1923 when the current Marioni family became owners and turned it into a gathering place for rustic Italian food and locals to greet friends and gossip.
For this gypsy duo, the attraction was to lose ourselves in a functioning era 100-years-old with viable community of history-laden hotels, each with their version of Mediterranean dining. So little had been changed except to bring up the service of food and lodgings to modern needs and safety. Today, the Swiss Hotel is the only survivor. At the restaurant there would always be a Marioni family member to greet us. On our final visit in the 1980s a senior matriarch of the Marioni clan led us to our table. Some thirty years later I made a memory-awakening return to the dichotomous new-old Swiss hotel.
The descriptive word “lovingly” has been attached to restoration projects ad nauseum. But, it certainly fits what the new Marioni generation took on in 1945. The work took nearly two years and what you see as you cross the street from the Plaza is a handsome edifice that steps right out from the world of Don Vallejo. The entrance finds you in a funky bar practically unchanged from its beginning over 100 years ago still populated by gregarious locals and a friendly smile and welcoming behind the bar.
Stop for a moment to enjoy a cool beverage to compensate for the heat of day outside. Listen to the chat around you from neighbors and gather up news about those missing thirty years since your last visit. At the restaurant entry you’re met by Hank Marioni, the fourth generation to run the legendary hostelry, now California historic Landmark No. 496. Before us, past the intimate interior dining area, was the revelation of the great changes made since our lost years. Upstairs are a number of modern, yet still soaked in the deep history of Sonoma, refurbished rooms for an overnight or weekend stay (see sidebar).
Passing through the intimate dining room, we found one of the most charming patio dining areas we have experienced in all the restaurants visited around the world. It was old Italy with sheltering lattice above dripping with colorful flora. Brilliant potted flowers filled the open areas around the tables. Along with the traditional Italian menu are offerings of a number of lighter dishes, such as salads featuring local farm produce and local flavorsome wines. That partners with the warm afternoon brilliance filtering through the lattice. Naturally, there are listed a range of Pizza. Dining at the Swiss Hotel is affordable and, at both lunch and dinner, an ambiance of serene pleasures.
It was a radiant fall afternoon, so I began with a baked baby brie of roasted garlic and fresh baked flat bread starter to share followed by a butter beet salad, delightfully built of arugula, orange segments, red onion, crumpled goat cheese crostini and citrus vinaigrette. My partner chose a small mixed greens salad to assuage an ongoing feminine fear (unnecessary) of weight gain. As we were finishing our glasses of a local vintage Sauvignon Blanc, the waiter was at my elbow asking if another glass was needed. The professional staff were attentive and jovial, obviously enjoying their rapport with the guests.
When traversing the township of Sonoma and its prolific atmosphere of tastes, smells and sights, a stop at the Swiss Hotel, for spirit and gastric refreshment, is certainly a must.
When You are There
The Swiss Hotel
Reservations: (707) 938-2884
18 West Spain Street
Sonoma, CA 95476
Lunch – 11:30-2:30
Dinner – from 5 p.m. nightly
Lodgings with Continental Breakfast & Priority Reservations
Summer rates: Mid-week – $150-$170; Weekends – $200-$240
Winter rates: Mid-week – $110-$130; Weekend – $150-$180
Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau
453 First Street East
Sonoma, CA 95476
Toll Free: 1-866-996-1090