Guerneville and the Ramblin Russian River

Before we drive down the Big Sur coast, we take a tiny detour in Guerneville.  If you're in Napa or San Francisco and you have a few extra days, do yourself a favor, drive up here and book a room at the Boon Hotel + Spa. All you need is a full day to let the river loose and the funkiness take over. This is my 3rd visit and it's still just as special.

It's no surprise that I first heard about Guerneville from my sister Margaret.  Those Brown County Indiana roots fit right in up here. Between the primeval 2000 year old Armstrong redwoods and sequoias, it's boutique art community and galleries, new imaginative restaurant spaces dishing out food straight from the garden, mom and pop businesses opening up left and right, the wine region that thrives off the fertile Russian River, the Pinot Noirs here, the barefoot townies, freewheeling hippies, and gay retreaters, it's something to be experienced. Trust me on this.

Margaret, back when she was new to the bay area, met a few people including this brilliant town revitalizer named Crista Luedtke (I'll get to her in a second) whom Margaret began working for as a masseuse at Crista’s Boon Hotel + Spa here.  Much like how Margaret plugged herself into the San Fran art community, she's aquatinted herself quite nicely here in 'stumptown'. 

Part of its charm, aside from the faces that everyone seems to know around here, like a little Mayberry meets Brooklyn meets the Old West, lies in the simple fact that these new fresh faces setting up shop (often coming from the San Fran area) are capitalizing on affordable properties and proximity to the bay area, are just polishing off what’s already been done and revitalizing old structures of a western town. We have the old structures and a fresh new coat feel, selling goods and foods that reflect and celebrate what the Russian River is and who its predecessors were. If you've ever been to Decatur, GA outside Atlanta, you'll know what I mean.

By the time our foreheads are getting a shade of grapefruit in the back of Pops convertible (he wouldn't ever think of putting up the top or using AC), the touristy Napa traffic slows to nothing and we're buzzing along Hwy 12 toward Santa Rosa and then Sebastopol.  I wanted to see where Tom Waits hung out but we had to stick to schedule. Just as our tans are turning color in the sun, the dry valley heat goes away and immediately one damp Douglas Fir turns into hundreds and we're driving under canopies of ancient redwoods and it starts to feel more like happy lumberjacks in coastal California. I see a big poster for the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival with Gary Clark Jr and I'm feeling the good vibes.

Shade, water, and food are in order after the drive so we grab sandwiches and head to The Guerneville Lodge. While working up at the rivah, Margaret met Alvin (The Guerneville Lodge owner), they hit it off great, and since then she has organized elaborate camping excursions on Alvin’s 5 acres of grass that look like a wavy green chessboard into the river. So we find a good spot to set up a picnic, we pull up our canoes, drop them into the water and enjoy the day.

After a few more tube races with Lucy across the river, we sit and soak up the warm sun on this lazy afternoon. Sometimes being around family and the people I love most dearly I'm reminded how great it is to be a tiny part of my MASSIVE family and I'm eternally grateful for that. Margy and Lucy start painting nails in dayglow colors and Alicia and I take the canoe down the river as pop dreams up lattes and snores away on his beach chair.

The afternoons had us and we're about to pack up as we notice a party gathering at the lodge across the yard for what looks like a wedding? Margy, being Alvin’s friend, has certain privileges on the grounds when its not rented out. However, this was not one of those times. We're starting to pack up as two of the guys from the porch came down to see who these strange visitors were and what we could be doing at their private party. They decided it was time to mark their territory and hoping we'd pick up the hint, they inform us of a ceremony on the lawn happening soon. So naturally, Margy and I start to devise a plan to crash the wedding. Here's what we'll do... She pulls up, I jump out of the car, do a full streak through the wedding, get back in and we bolt!  

Later in the day we come back prepared and ready for our big moment and we notice the guy from earlier walking to our car like he knows we're up to no good. We give it another serious thought and decide it's too risky getting caught and start to laugh off the amazing possibilities.  I realized again in that moment that most siblings might not have such a ballsy outspoken approach towards certain things like streaking weddings. So, we abort the plan and head to the tree-house and say happy trails to Pop and Lucy!

The tree-house is the part time home of Margaret’s friend Trevor.  Alicia and I notice a gray cotton blanket by this company called Coyuchi based out of Point Reyes, just on the other side of here at the foot of Big Sur.  It was just a simple blanket and it's hard to explain without sounding too corny but after you experience the way the fibrous texture feels against your skin (aside from the fact that its fair trade, local, good for the earth yada yada), when it's not there, you miss it. It's just a blanket but that’s how good it feels! Check them out - they're a great company. Alicia was clever and ordered me one this year for Christmas. Thank you my love.

We head to Main Street on the Guerneville strip. A line forms over at Crista’s Boon Eat & Drink so we saddle up next door at Dick Blomster's Korean Diner and try the Korean Fried Chicken (the other KFC) covered in sticky soy ginger glaze and black sesame seeds, Udon noodles, pho broth with bok choy and soft boiled egg, and the Bibimbap (rice bowl) with egg, veg, and seaweed. The awesome looking menu held up (mostly) to what they brought to the table. Our full bellies roll out and prepare for tomorrow.

The next day we head to grab some homemade biscuits + jam and egg sandwiches at Big Bottom Market. This morning its the 'The Hangover' biscuit sandwich with ham, hard boiled egg and a side of biscuits with honey butter and jam. There's a massive wall of local wine from all over Guerneville plus other products to support the locals...good products, from lotions to preserves to pickles to wine. 

The Russian River Valley wines here are stellar.  Margaret claims, and I agree, Pinot Noirs in particular, are superior to that of their valley neighbors (sorry, Pop). If you're visiting, places to keep in mind are Lynmar Estate and Moshin Vineyards.

We catch Crista in a booth against the window mid-conversation, on the phone working out the kinks of her new Mexican Inspired El Barrio bar down the street. She described it as a mezcal bar with tacos and after seeing what she did here at the Big Bottom, pull my arm please - I'm sold!

Let's rewind for a second. Guerneville since the late 19th century has always attracted the bay area tourists for its beauty and its rustic rough edges charm. Throw in generations of floods, the gay Renaissance of the 70s, some brilliant minds, entrepreneurs deciding to take what they were doing so well in San Fran and bring it up here, set up shop, start to revitalize Main Street and beyond, keeping its 'straight friendly' charm and originality, get the word out and BOOM you have an exciting town.

Now comes Crista Luedtke. After the Boon Hotel she opened Big Bottom Market with her partner, because she couldn't settle for just one. Places you hear of where the chef is also the owner, it's very much the case here, as with all her places.  Crista, just by meeting her and hearing her explain in one breath what she's working on that day, has a fire underneath her. After Big Bottom she opened Boon Eat & Drink and now her top shelf mezcal bar El Barrio. Margaret describes Crista as having a sustainable appetite not so much for success but more for bringing like minded people together under the principles of keeping it local and funky and fresh. She seems to showcase all that she loves and cares about and lets everyone in on it. Maybe it’s that feeling of enjoyment and the feeding off of that enjoyment that her appetite seems to crave for more. Either way, I'm having a lot of fun benefiting from it!

On our way to Armstrong Woods, Margaret pulls off into the shabby-chic glamour trailer park sensation that is The Boon Hotel + Spa (Crista’s first place). It's a little retreat tucked into a location that once housed coal miners and was rebuilt as a hotel in the woods and it's awesome. It's a place, much like Cristas other spots she thinks up, that matches the integrity of its landscape and retains its original roots but has clean lines and a simple design giving her style a unique personality in the way an inviting space does.  Float in the solar heated salt pool, have a drink, ride the orange boon bikes into town, feed the chickens, or go glamping like us. Crista also keeps her garden and a chicken coop here to stock her 2 restaurants and Big Bottom Market in town. 

Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve

This patch of sequoia forest houses the tallest living things on earth, some trees over 2,000 years old and lived well before anyone but the Native Americans, is considered a 'temperate rainforest' which means it needs both wet and mild climates to survive. Armstrong is just a small scope onto what all of Guerneville, aka ‘stumptown’, was before the 19th century. Before loggers came in and cleared the town of these bad boys. So now we're left with this temple, this ancient place that is a true testament to the natural world.

It's difficult but we say goodbye to this beautiful place and head south. Sometimes the most sacred places are right under our noses. This was one of them. Keep an eye out for the Big Sur blog. Deetjens and Esalan and the Campbell bunny man are in our path and we dig deep into the roots of the central coast, one of the most beautiful places on earth.


As always, thanks for being my river gal Ms Monica.