Chill Out in Healdsburg

The perfect summer getaway is closer than you think.

Every summer from second to sixth grade, my mom loaded me and my sister into the back of her Isuzu I-Mark for a girls' getaway to the Russian River. The little house she rented came complete with a tin rowboat tied up to the riverbank below. Every morning we would make up a plate of food — hard-boiled eggs, cold ham, pickles, and brown bread with butter — and row across the glassy water to a boulder in the middle of the river. After anchoring the boat to a knobby part of the rock, we'd eat our breakfast and watch the river wake up.

As the morning mist lifted, snapping turtles began craning their tiny necks from the marshy banks; snowy egrets glided past; and by the time we rowed home, the local kids were playing Tarzan, bellowing while cannoning into the water from mossy rope-swings. Some days we'd trek into town, stopping by the quaint central plaza to listen to a band before buying fresh cream to pour over the wild blackberries we would pick on the walk home. It's still my all-time favorite summer vacation memory.

As a kid, the drive out to Healdsburg seemed eternal, but in reality it's only one episode of This American Life away from the city. There may be more tourists here now, but Healdsburg is still quieter and more affordable than other wine-country spots. This classic town pairs progressive ideals (good design, community-mindedness, and support for independent business) with abundant natural charms, making it the perfect summer getaway.

The Great Outdoors
It's a crime to experience Healdsburg's serene river and giant-redwood-studded hills in a car. The best sightseeing is done while waterborne. Several companies lead kayak and canoe excursions, including Somewhere on a River (20 Healdsburg at South University, 707-433-5599, www.soar1.com), which rents inflatable kayaks and even welcomes dogs. To stay closer to land, hit Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach (13839 Healdsburg at Bailhache, 707-433-1625) for swimming, sunning, and picnicking.

The area is also a favorite for cyclists, thanks to its scenic, lightly trafficked byways. Whether you want to attack a mountain road Lance Armstrong–style, or just explore the downtown flats on a cute cruiser, the staff at Spoke Folk Cyclery (201 Center at Mill, 707-433-7171, www.spokefolk.com) will get you sorted. For hiking, head to Fitch Mountain, where wooded trails lead to a sweet summit view. Park at Villa Chanticleer (at 1248 North Fitch Mountain, 707-431-3303) to access a trail.

Eating and Drinking
Healdsburg's numerous wineries and Michelin-starred restaurants focus on the local bounty. It's hard to find a bad meal in this town, even on a budget.

Flying Goat Coffee (324 Center at Plaza, 707-433-3599, www.flyinggoatcoffee.com) is the place to go for your morning French press, while Downtown Bakery and Creamery (308 Center at Plaza, 707-431-2719, www.downtownbakery.net) is rumored to have the best sticky buns in the universe.

For daytime tasting, set out via car or bike to one of more than 100 nearby wineries. Leading southwest from town, Westside Road takes you past 11 of them, which grow some two dozen varietals; Hop Kiln Winery's Pinot Noir has drawn a rating of 91 from Wine Spectator (6050 Westside at Sweetwater Spur, 707-433-6491, www.hopkilnwinery.com). You can also taste the local zin at a number of in-town tasting rooms, like Rosenblum Cellars (250 Center at Matheson, 707-431-1169, www.rosenblumcellars.com).

For lunch, I like Bovolo (106 Matheson at Healdsburg, 707-431-2962, www.bovolorestaurant.com), in the back of Copperfield's Books. The lunch counter's unpretentious looks belie its Slow Food pedigree, and the tender pork-cheek sandwich with red peppers and pesto on focaccia is to die for — and affordable. Sun-dappled afternoons are best spent sipping a pint of Racer 5 IPA at Bear Republic Brewing Company (345 Healdsburg at Plaza, 707-433-2337, www.bearrepublic.com) or an Aperol cocktail at Barndiva (231 Center at Matheson, 707-431-0100, www.barndiva.com), housed in a spectacular barn structure.

The small, candlelit dining room at Ravenous Cafe and Lounge (420 Center at North, 707-431-1302, www.theravenous.com) fills up fast, especially on weekends, but dishes like fork-tender Niman Ranch short ribs over buttery mashed potatoes are worth waiting for. The menu at this lively spot changes daily. Other choice dinnertime destinations include Zin (344 Center at North, 707-473-0946, www.zinrestaurant.com) and Restaurant Charcuterie (330 Healdsburg at North, 707-431-7213).

Even if the $130 eight-course tasting menu at Michelin-starred Cyrus (421 Healdsburg at North, 707-433-3311, www.cyrusrestaurant.com) is out of reach, there's always the option of dessert and a nightcap at the elegant, mellow bar. A recent selection — passionfruit sorbet with white miso custard in a pool of chilled white peach soup, topped with a drop of olive oil and accompanied by a sesame cracker — was a three-bite wonder totally worth its $10 price tag.

Retail Therapy
Healdsburg bills itself as a haven for antique hunters, with its popular annual Antique Fair and dealers like Healdsburg Classics (226 Healdsburg at Matheson, 707-433-4315). But don't overlook more modern retail spots like 14feet (325 Center at Plaza, 707-433-3391, www.14feet.net), with mid-20th-century furniture, vintage industrial pieces, and cheeky touches like the grandma-style antique china with delicately painted words like HUSSY and MOTHERFUCKER.

On the plaza are upmarket spots such as luxury bath-and-body emporium La Farmacista (155 Plaza at Center, 707-473-0382, www.healdsburgfarmacista.com), run by a fourth-generation Healdsburgian; and Rainsong Shoes (117 Plaza at Center, 707-433-8058, www.rainsongshoes.com), with a great collection of shoes and boots from brands like Cydwoq, Tsubo, and Pikolinos. You'll also find chic giftables and kitchen-and-home accessories at the Hotel Healdsburg's in-house Lime Stone (315 Healdsburg at Matheson, 707-433-3080, www.limestonehealdsburg.com), owned by famed chef Charlie Palmer and his wife, Lisa. Venturing just a bit off the plaza yields fun finds like The Red Paprika (377 Healdsburg at Plaza, 433-6087, www.theredpaprika.com), a Hungarian gourmet import shop that carries German mustards and Swiss chocolates in addition to its wide array of goulash spice pastes.

Arts and Culture
Brush up on local history at the Healdsburg Museum (221 Matheson at East, 707-431-3325, www.healdsburgmuseum.org) or check out Hotel Healdsburg's onsite Hand Fan Museum (327A Healdsburg at Matheson, 707-431-2500, www.handfanmuseum.com), which cares for a collection of more than 3,000 items. When the hotel opens its new green property, h2, this summer, the museum will move into bigger digs.

The village is home to several galleries, including the quirky-cool id: art. design. (126 Plaza at Center, 707-473-0200), where visitors are invited to peck out messages on vintage typewriters and scribble thoughts on chalkboards. You can also catch summer productions at the historic Raven Performing Arts Theater (115 North at Center, 707-433-6335, www.raventheater.org), or a "Hollywood and Wine" screening at the nearby Raven Film Center (415 Center at North, 707-522-0330, www.northbaymovies.com/raven.html), where cinephiles over the age of 21 can imbibe during the movie from the comfort of a high-backed leather armchair.

IF YOU GO: Directions, rental properties and hotels.

Read more articles from Summer Guide 2010:

Dressed to Chill: S.F. summer fashion is a piece of layer cake.

Chill on the Hills — and in the Bay: Find summer adventures on land, at sea, or in the air.

Ambience as Chill as the Drinks: Peaceful little bars offer sweet summer relaxation.

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