Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sonoma, California

Wine country may seem like an unlikely place to bring your kids, but we saw it more as a spot with good food and plenty of wide open space to frolic. And when we got to Sonoma, that was exactly what we found. Yes, there's plenty of wine (and vineyards, so many beautiful vineyards), but there's also plenty of tasty grape juice for the kids to drink  in other words, something for everyone!

What to Do

Our first stop in Sonoma was Cornerstone Gardens, a super kid-friendy and beautifully manicured garden that had my kids exclaiming at every turn. We loved everything, from the field of pinwheels to the "white cloud" hanging over the prickly pear garden. There was so much open lawn space for the kids to chase each other and do cartwheels on. And after you've had your fill of the garden, there are about a dozen small shops, eateries and tasting rooms to explore on the premises.

Sonoma Plaza is definitely a draw for tourists, but it's got a charming, neighborhood-y feel to it as well. My kids loved playing in the park at the center of the plaza, especially on the playground and by the duck pond, where we spotted several ducklings. I loved the sculptures of deer scattered in one corner of the park. (There's a public restroom there, as well, which came in handy!) Surrounding the park are many charming restaurants and stores, including Sweet Scoops, the homemade ice cream shop that's definitely worth a stop.

Our favorite activity of the weekend turned out to be a one-and-a-half hour, family-friendly bike ride through Sonoma's adorable neighborhoods and vineyard-lined roads. We rented bikes from Sonoma Valley Bike Tours (there are kid-size ones, plus tag-alongs and trailers), then took off from the shop, through quaint residential blocks and past picturesque vineyard parcels. The shop attendant provided us with a map of several scenic route options, and we customized it to our kids' riding abilities.

In Sonoma there's also a small, train-themed amusement park called TrainTown, but its target audience is smaller children (probably no older than 6) and die-hard train enthusiasts, so we ended up skipping it.

And, of course, it's hard to visit Sonoma without considering a winery tour; Sonoma Magazine has some suggestions for kid-friendly ones. Realistically, though, winery tours are just not all that interesting to kids. We took the tram tour at Benziger Family Winery, which might've been lovely and informative, but we were too distracted by our complaining children. Maybe we'll return when they're older and more interested in wining than whining!

Where to Eat

The first restaurant we ate at near town square was The Red Grape, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's pure Sonoma, from the tranquil outdoor space to the cups of 100 percent grape juice that come with the kids' menu. My husband's pizza looked delish, and my handmade capellini was amazing. We could've just sat out under the string of patio lights all evening.

We also had a tasty brunch at the Sunflower Caffe, featuring another gorgeous and Sonoma-esque patio in the back, and Taste of the Himalayas, a tiny eatery tucked into one of the alleys that beckon off the square. Himalayan food (very similar to Indian food) was a nice respite from all the sourdough sandwiches and mesclun salads.

What's Nearby

About 45 minutes north of Sonoma, in Santa Rosa, is Safari West, a truly wonderful animal sanctuary that's open to visitors by reservation only. The 400-acre preserve offers a two-hour safari tour that takes you through the gates of the animal habitats and right up to several species of African wildlife, from giraffes to rhinos to zebra. Our guide, Jessica, was super knowledgeable and affable, answering all our questions and giving everyone on board a turn at the coveted seats on the top of her retrofitted 1950s truck. After the tour, we stayed for the buffet barbecue lunch, which was absolutely delicious. Just go!

And about 45 minutes east of Sonoma, in Fairfield, is the Jelly Belly Factory, a fantastic factory tour that offers free admission. (Of course, we ended up spending way more than we should've on candy after the tour because we felt like we were getting in for free anyway!) This is one of the better factory tours that I've been on, showing you the whole operation floor and featuring cute, informative games along the way. On the way out, they offer a free bag of jelly beans. And if that weren't enough, you can try unlimited flavors at the sampling station. We were all pretty happy with the experience.

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