Dis­cover red­woods coun­try

Where can you get red­wood forests, grapevines, tim­ber work­ers and wine­mak­ers? has the an­swer. At Dry Creek Vine­yard, there’s not a red­wood or a lum­ber­jack in sight – just rows of grapevines speck­led by lateafter­noon yel­low­ing light.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

It’s noon in Guerneville and pick-up trucks are parked at the lo­cal hall on the edge of the iconic Rus­sian River. Veter­ans, dressed in checked shirts and low-slung jeans, salute the Amer­i­can flag flap­ping in the breeze, be­fore saun­ter­ing back to their trucks at a pace so slow you can hear ev­ery leaf crunch. A few blocks away, the main street is lined with chic cafes serv­ing or­ganic flat whites and dishes fea­tur­ing pro­duce sourced from the sur­round­ing val­ley.

The vets pos­si­bly once worked in the lo­cal tim­ber mills that made the town fa­mous and earned Guerneville its first name, Stump­town, which is still its nick­name to­day.

A few cen­turies ago, the area was filled with so many red­wood trees that lo­cal In­di­ans called it ‘‘Ce­ola’’ or shady place, when the area had the great­est biomass den­sity on the planet.

I’ve jogged on some stun­ning tracks in New Zealand and else­where, but I will never for­get my one-hour run in the Arm­strong Red­woods State Nat­u­ral Re­serve be­neath 300ft-tall an­cient red­woods, some of which are more than 1000 years old. When I head in, the fog that smoth­ered Guerneville when we woke has fi­nally lifted. I run be­neath the old­est in the grove, the 1400-year-old Colonel Arm­strong Tree, named af­ter a log worker who chose to pre­serve this part of the park in the 1880s. I trot past a few vis­i­tors stand­ing be­neath the Par­sons Jones tree – the tallest there, at 310ft.

As I dodge tree roots, I think of Ge­orge Guerne, the Swiss im­mi­grant who ar­rived and set up the town’s first log­mill in the 1880s. The strik­ing trees were felled, leav­ing just this state park, and the town was named af­ter him.

Given this is Guerneville’s main at­trac­tion, I’m sur­prised the tracks are so empty. I have a ter­ri­ble sense of di­rec­tion at the best of times, and I can’t spot any land­marks apart from red­woods, which all look the same. I feel like Hansel and Gre­tel look­ing for a glint­ing peb­ble sig­nalling where I should turn, un­til I bump into a park ranger, who hap­pily points me to­wards the exit.

‘‘A cou­ple of hun­dred feet down there,’’ he drawls, shuf­fling his feet.

The red­wood for­est is on the other side of town from our digs for the night. In a grove of re­planted red­woods just up from the river, a high wooden gate opens slowly to re­veal rows of airstream car­a­vans gleam­ing in the bright sun­light. Our airstream is decked out in mid-cen­tury-in­spired fur­nish­ings, with a few logs we can pop into our own camp­fire along with a bag of jumbo marsh­mal­lows.

The last time I prop­erly camped was five years ago in Hawke’s Bay, when my tent was soaked through af­ter a week of solid rain. No such drama at Au­to­camp where, along with 30 airstreams, the camp­site is dot­ted with lux­ury tents, each with a queen-sized bed with soft mat­tress.

Au­to­camp is another wel­come sur­prise, just like Guerneville it­self. Un­til now, I hadn’t thought there was much to this re­gion be­yond San Fran­cisco. When we de­cided to ex­plore the city’s sur­rounds, my part­ner sug­gested we could ven­ture 100 kilo­me­tres north of the Golden Gate bridge to di­ver­sify our trip.

We knew we had ar­rived in Guerneville when we drove past a sign at the town’s en­trance that de­clared the town ‘‘a hate-free com­mu­nity’’, re­flect­ing the ten­sions that flared up a decade ago be­tween two ex­treme com­mu­ni­ties in the town of 4000 res­i­dents – the lum­ber­jacks and the lib­eral hip­sters who be­gan trav­el­ling here from San Fran­cisco in the 1970s, es­pe­cially the gay com­mu­nity who fell in love with the place.

One of the lat­ter is the hote­lier, Crista Luedtke, who left San Fran­cisco more than a decade ago dur­ing the gay wave.

It’s thanks to Luedtke that tourists can now eat food that ri­vals that served in San Fran­cisco, and stay in stylish digs without the big price tag. Her 14-room Boon Ho­tel is close to the Red­wood State Parks area. On a balmy sum­mer evening, we dine at her restau­rant, Boon Eat+Drink, de­vour­ing dishes sourced lo­cally from nearby farms, and sip­ping Rus­sian River wines.

It’s thanks to her and other busi­ness own­ers that the ‘‘hate-free’’ sign is at the town’s en­trance, along with ‘‘hate­free’’ stick­ers they first placed on shop win­dows a decade ago when lo­cals lashed out at gay hol­i­day-mak­ers.

Guerneville is over the hill from the Sonoma val­ley, a re­gion criss-crossed with grapevines, which ri­vals nearby Napa Val­ley an hour west and is home to more than 60,000 acres of vine­yards and 425 winer­ies.

Rus­sian set­tlers are be­lieved to have planted the first grapes here in the 1830s. They came to the coast to hunt seals in the early 1800s, leav­ing their mark on the re­gion and giv­ing rise to the name Rus­sian River Val­ley.

I’ve seen the Hawke’s Bay winer­ies from a bike seat so I’m keen to do the same in Cal­i­for­nia. We drive 30km south from Guerneville to Santa Rosa, where Randy John­son meets us at his bike shop, Get­away Ad­ven­tures. Our guide has this idea that we should go ‘‘off the beaten track’’ to ‘‘se­cret spots’’. Min­utes later, we’re ped­alling along a bike lane be­side a high­way. The keen cy­clist has told us to head for Forestville, which he de­scribes as the next Guerneville wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

We cy­cle on a for­mer rail­way track where trains ran un­til 1984, when the rail­road was dis­banded and the land was even­tu­ally bought by the state and turned into a cy­cle trail.

PHO­TOS: SONOMA COUNTY TOURISM

Vine­yards have taken over Sonoma County, ri­valling nearby Napa Val­ley as an im­por­tant wine-mak­ing dis­trict.

Trav­el­ling along the nar­row lanes of Dry Creek Val­ley, you might think you’re in France or the back roads of Cen­tral Otago or even Hawke’s Bay.

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