I fell in love with The Madrona at first sight. Elegant with her soaring gables and wide swept porches, stunning in her Victorian details, she was every bit the sophisticated grande dame I’d hoped she’d be. And for just one night, she was (almost) all mine.
The historic 17-room, three-story Madrona was converted from a private residence to an inn back in 1981. Over the following decades she became one of Wine Country’s most desirable boutique stays, earning a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, and a Michelin star in 2008.
But her 2021 purchase and renovation by a group of investors led by St. Helena–based designer Jay Jeffers has ushered in a new era for the eight-acre estate. At 141 years old, The Madrona has never been more exquisite.
Just six weeks after reopening with $6 million worth of renovations under her eaves, our brief but spectacular tryst catches fire: me, a history-obsessed, travel fiend, she a stunning inn with a story to tell.
The interior of The Madrona in Healdsburg was completely redesigned by co-owner Jay Jeffers.(Matthew Millman)
Through her dramatic doorway, The Madrona is a study in the playful decadence inspired by the late-19th century Aesthetic Movement which severed art from the moral and didactic baggage of previous eras. Art’s value, aesthetics like Oscar Wilde believed, is in the beauty of the thing. The value of art is art itself, and at The Madrona it is everywhere (and much of it is for sale from San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery).
Around 250 pieces of the hotel’s pre-existing furniture and antiques, some of which date back to its original owners, the Paxton family, are carefully blended with elements installed by Jeffers: boldly patterned wallpapers, sculptural light fixtures, and bright bright colors. I giggle like a child at her bunny-eared chairs, and swoon like a proper Victorian lady at her portraits of Isabella Rossellini’s fancy chickens.
Exquisite details in the redesigned Madrona.(Matthew Millman)
Like in the downstairs parlors, all of the Madrona’s original architectural details have been preserved in eight guest rooms on the second and third floors, including beautifully tiled fireplaces. The only exception is the bathroom, which was gutted to make way for modern fixtures like a generous walk-in shower. Her heated tiled floors literally make me weak at the knees.
After checking in, I explore the estate at the heels of The Madrona’s food and beverage director, Ashley Luna. In the historic carriage house at the back of the property, where a horse-hair horse mural covers the walls of the foyer, are nine guest rooms. About half a dozen additional suites and bungalows dot the property, along with a pool and a gym stocked with Peloton bikes and a Tonal Smart Gym. A herd of electric bikes wait to be ridden downtown or to the many, many vineyards nearby.
But The Madrona wasn’t renovated just to appeal to those who can afford to stay here (rooms start at the eye-popping price of $795/night). “They built it as much for locals as for hotel guests,” says Luna, as he plucks a couple of plump pea pods from the vine for us to nibble on as we talk. Anyone can stop by for a drink or bite at Hannah’s Bar in the mansion and wander the paths through its gardens, no reservations needed.
A guest room in the mansion at the freshly redesigned The Madrona in Healdsburg.(Matthew Millman)
It’s there that I arrive promptly at 6:30pm for a pre-dinner cocktail. After much hemming and hawing, I go with the guava sour, a bright, delicious elixir made with St. George citrus vodka, guava nectar, lime, estate orange oleo, lillet, absinthe, and black sea salt. Soon, there will also be an option to try the vintage spirits kept in an antique breakfront in the back parlor; some have been waiting to escape their bottles for well over half a century. I take my drink out to the wrap-around porch, where I can admire the mansion’s lines and expansive Dry Creek Valley views as I sip.
Dinner is served on the Palm Terrace, a broad covered porch overlooking a deep green lawn and punctuated with two massive palm trees. The hotel’s 13-year, Michelin-starred veteran chef, Jesse Mallgren, continues his benevolent reign of The Madrona’s kitchens. His menus are a mix of past favorites — onion veloute, fried chicken, steak tartare — and new offerings, each made with local, seasonal ingredients, much of which comes from the estate garden.
The Madrona didn’t need to have excellent food to get my attention but that’s the kind of classy broad she is. Oysters on the half shell, salmon belly crudo with puffed rice and pickled daikon, asparagus with slow-cured duck egg and hazelnuts, and grilled local black cod with estate carrots, peas, and mussels in a lemon-thyme broth are heaped decadently before me. If I wasn’t head over heels before, I am now. Food is, after all, the quickest way to capture someone’s heart.
The Madrona's outdoor dining area, the Palm Terrace. (Matthew Millman)
Later, in the clear night air, I walk with my full belly and thundering infatuation past the burbling fountain and the hauntingly lit De Staebler statue to a pair of lounge chairs set in a quiet alcove beneath a string of cafe lights. I imagine the silence that would have enveloped the property in its early years, what the mansion looked like as an ingenue in that burgeoning valley of vineyards. How beautiful she must have been.
The next morning, I rise heavy with the looming expiration of my love affair. Through breakfast on the terrace, I feign a smile and pretend my heart is not crumbling in my chest. But check-out waits for no (wo)man.
When the time comes, I steel myself and walk out into the Sonoma sunlight without looking back. I’ve always believed it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
// 1001 Westside Rd (Healdsburg), themadronahotel.com