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In March, charm can be found in California

Elderhostel groups go separate ways, join up to share adventures over the evening meal

Editor’s note: Lee and Gail Forstie live in Oronoco.

By Lee Forstie

California was our destination of choice for a late-winter change of scenery, something different than brown grass protruding through the last of a March snowfall.

San Francisco was our point of entry. We drove from the airport, through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge headed north. About an hour later, we exited Highway 101 at Healdsburg. In our pretrip research, the word "charm" generally appeared in any description of the city of Healdsburg. The descriptions were apt. However, as up-scale hotels and restaurants are opening here, it remains to be seen if Healdsburg can avoid being transformed from charming to chic. As we enjoyed a late-afternoon deli lunch on the outdoor patio of Healdsburg's Oakville Grocery, we thought that charm will prevail.

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Healdsburg is in the heart of world-famous Sonoma County wine country. Radiating from the hub of Healdsburg are the valleys and vineyards of the Russian River and Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys. Sonoma County is blessed with the soil, terrain and weather necessary to produce wines "distinctive in personality."

Wine with a view

Sonoma County is more than just award-winning wine. The majestic Pacific coastline is the western border of the county. The Mayacamas Mountains on its eastern edge separate it from the somewhat more famous Napa County. Redwood forests, small farms among the valleys and the Russian River are all part of the amazingly diverse landscape in between.

My wife, Gail, and I went to Sonoma County for an Elderhostel program called "Hiking and Wine History in Northern California." We were quartered at The Bishop’s Ranch, an Episcopal Retreat Center five miles west of Healdsburg. The road to the ranch was narrow and winding. (It seemed that all roads around here were narrow and winding.) During the short drive, we observed many instances of colorful balloons fluttering from posts by driveways. This announced that the winery at the other end of the driveway was open for wine tasting. Sonoma County has 200 wineries.

We shared the ranch with another Elderhostel program entitled "A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Wine: A Taste of Provence." The ranch buildings occupied a hilltop on a 300-acre parcel in the Russian River Valley. The setting was beautiful.

Spring had already arrived here. The apple trees were in blossom; the grass was green; the birds were chirping; and the temperature was short-sleeve comfortable. Life was good.

We quickly established a routine. It began with an early morning cup of coffee outdoors as the rising sun started to bum off the fog in the valley below. Then we’d have breakfast in the rectory and pack our lunch for the day. Following this, we’d load our backpacks, mount a van and travel to the location of the day’s hike.

One of our favorite hikes was the Pomo Canyon Trail. Along some areas of the trail, we saw clusters of small yellow flowers, appropriately named Footsteps of Spring. Our first rest stop came with a picture-postcard view. We looked down on the Russian River as it approached the Pacific. We could see the fog creeping in from the ocean and following the meandering turns of the river. We continued the climb through brief open areas, past giant Douglas fir and into a patch of redwoods. Finally we reached the top of Pomo Canyon.

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The downhill hike and a short ride took us to Sonoma Coast State Beach and a lunch stop. The roar of the waves crashing onto the beach was constant. Nearby, the Russian River emptied into the ocean. The Pacific coastline was dotted with rocky spires jutting from the sea — an altogether scenic lunch site.

Another day of hiking took us into the major redwood forest in this part of the state, Armstrong Woods State Preserve. A steep hike up took us into the dense forest. The tall, clustered stands of redwoods allowed only occasional shafts of light to reach the carpeted floor where we stood. Looking up at the magnificent redwoods had us in awe. The redwoods are described as "the tallest living thing on the planet."

Daily hikes were followed by 4 p.m.-to-6 p.m. lectures on Wine Appreciation and History. Each of the lectures included wine tasting. Barry Lawrence, our lecturer, stated up front that the wines would be ABC — anything but Chardonnay or Cabernet. The wines presented were all zinfandels in a surprising variety, from a light red to a heavy port. The Russian River Valley produces exceptional zinfandels. Apparently one key is the large temperature swing between day and night (as much as 35 degrees) resulting from the morning fog and afternoon sun.

The Elderhostel groups shared evening meals. The food group shared some of what they’d learned during the day. Their lectures and demonstrations included cheese, mushrooms, garlic and olive oil. Gail would have liked to simultaneously attend both programs.

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