Fern Bar is among the many on-trend bars and eateries at The Barlow in Sebastopol. (Courtesy of @thebarlow707)

Modern Guide to West County: The Great Outdoors Meet Tranquil Stays, Trendy Dining + All the Wine

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Been-there-done that with popular wine regions like Napa, Sonoma, and Healdsburg? Meet West County, Wine Country's best kept secret.

Like the stepchild of Sonoma County, West County is a locally coined nickname for the collection of small towns along the Russian River—including Sebastopol, Guerneville, Forestville, Graton, and Occidental—which, if you look at a map, are not actually all that west.

The term instead affectionately refers to the local flavor. Adjectives like quirky, funky, and off-beat are often thrown around to describe these lovable communities, whose only crime is that they take Wine Country living less seriously and at a slower pace than their neighbors. Where do we sign up?


Where to Eat & Drink in West County

(Courtesy of El Barrio Bar)

Backyard

Open Friday-Monday, Backyard is a casual eatery that takes food seriously, making everything down to their hot sauce in-house and sourcing ingredients from their own organic farm, plus other local operations. Start with the bucket of donuts and a pickle board, an epic and colorful assortment of fermented and pickled veggies (think, pickled radish, fennel, and heirloom carrots). If you go for weekend brunch, arrive early and ask about the fried chicken benedict. It's a not-so-secret menu item that always goes quickly. // 6566 Front St. (Forestville), backyardforestville.com

Willow Wood Market

This roadside eatery is nothing fancy, yet full of charm and old-fashioned hospitality (notice the old school soda machine when you walk in). While they're open for all meals, breakfast and brunch are where it's at; Willow Wood serves up classic, comfort dishes like challah french toast, steak and eggs, and their signature "piping hot creamy polenta." You won't leave hungry, but should still peruse the general store section of the building and stock up on provisions for when you're out floating on the Russian River. // 9020 Graton Rd. (Graton), willowwoodgraton.com

Lowell's

Everything on the menu at Lowell's is local, organic, sustainably-grown, and downright delicious. The selection changes often, but Italian-inspired, farm-fresh dishes are usually stacked with ingredients like rabbit, fava beans, root veggies, quinoa, and lots of greens. The wine, too, is stellar highlighting unusual bottles made locally and abroad. A Sebastopol staple for more than 10 years, locals flock to Lowell's on the weekends (you'll want to make a reservation), and don't be surprised if you find Lowell himself busily busing tables, greeting customers, serving food, or acting as a somm and suggesting wine pairings. // 7385 Healdsburg Ave. (Sebastopol), lowellssebastopol.com

Handline

Casual and coastal is the name of the game at Handline, Lowell's newer, sister restaurant, which is funkily housed in an old Foster's Freeze; they've even got soft serve at a tribute to their roots. Fill up on raw and grilled oysters, beer-battered rockfish tacos, and two types of ceviche, all served counter-style. // 935 Gravenstein Hwy South (Sebastopol), handline.com

Fern Bar

The newest West County hot spot Fern Bar comes from the husband-and-wife team behind Sebastopol's Lowell's and Handline, in partnership with a few other talented locals. Located at The Barlow, Fern Bar focuses on "garden-to-glass" cocktails, like the Naughty Toddy (Kabocha squash, Griffo Stout barrel bourbon, mulled apple cider reduction, orange, lemon hot water, and honey) and small plates, like bone marrow and fry bread, sourcing much of the produce from Goble and Sheldon's Two Belly Acre farm, located only a few miles from the restaurant. There's also nightly live music. // 6780 Depot St., Suite 120 (Sebastopol), fernbar.com

El Barrio Bar

Dubbed a modern Mexican cocktail lounge, El Barrio might be a bit too cool for a dressed-down town like Guerneville—it's got the sort of swank you'd sooner expect to see out of a town like Healdsburg—but we're certainly not complaining. The bar's lineup of craft cocktails focuses on mezcal, tequila, and bourbon and can be sipped alongside small plates, like chips with salsa, guac, or queso, tacos, and a bowl of the house posole. Try the El Jardin, made with Vida Mezcal, Cointreau, cucumber, celery, cilantro, lime, jalapeño, agave, and served with a chili-salt rim. // 16230 Main St. (Guerneville), elbarriobar.com

The Farmhouse Inn Restaurant

Even if you're not splurging for a stay at the celebrity-favorite Farmhouse Inn, you can still get a Michelin Star meal at their restaurant, housed in a restored, 1873 farmhouse. Choose from a three, four, or five-course menu of seasonal, locally-sourced dishes like the Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit (featuring three different cuts of rabbit) and grilled octopus (edamame, mint puree, chermoula, grilled Japanese leek, and arugula). // 7871 River Rd. (Forestville), farmhouseinn.com

All the Wine in West County

(Courtesy of Gary Farrell Winery)

Freeman Winery

When proprietor Akiko Freeman started this winery with her husband Ken in 2001, she didn't know very much about making wine. But after seven years apprenticing under original winemaker Ed Kurtzman, she took over the winery operations and has been turning out premium, elegant pinot's with minimal oak treatment ever since, stating, "Oak to wine is cosmetics to girls. You just need little touch ups; there's no need to cover up." Make an appointment for an intimate tasting in the Freeman caves and ask Akiko about her real life romcom meeting Ken during a hurricane. // 1300 Montgomery Rd. (Sebastopol), freemanwinery.com

Russian River Vineyards

With a history as a working farm and winery that dates back to the 1890s, Russian River Vineyards has given its digs a modern makeover, while keeping it true to its humble roots with a casual, backyard feel that's representative of West County as a whole. They converted the old Hop Kiln winery into a cozy, indoor tasting lounge and built a magical Wine Garden amongst towering redwoods (complete with chickens). Book the food and wine pairing, featuring four wines with four chef-crafted bites. // 5700 Hwy 116 N. (Forestville), russianrivervineyards.com

Gary Farrell Winery

Located high up in Russian River Valley, Gary Farrell recently revamped their tasting room in order to better highlight their million-dollar, wine country view. The winery crafts 14 single-vineyard pinots, plus seven chardonnays, that rep the Russian River Valley and all its glory. We suggest booking the Inspiration Tasting ($75), featuring six, totally-diverse pinots paired with three gourmet bites, like a savory buttermilk muffin with gruyere, cream cheese, and pancetta. // 10701 Westside Rd. (Healdsburg), garyfarrellwinery.com

Balletto Vineyards

From vegetable farm to winery, Balletto is perhaps best known for two things: pinot noir and its Field of Dreams, a regulation-sized baseball field tucked within their vineyards (stop by on a Sunday and you might get to witness the bats cracking). But there's also a lot more to taste and discover at this family-focused estate, including chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and a killer sparkling brut rose. // 5700 Occidental Rd. (Santa Rosa), ballettovineyards.com

Dutton-Goldfield

Dutton-Goldfield had us at wine and sushi pairing ($40). This tasting room has a casual, urban feel, but don't be fooled: the wines are sourced from some super-serious vineyards. Consider it a real treat if you run into winemaker Dan Goldfield during your visit, an adrenaline-junkie and adventure enthusiast who went heliskiing for this last birthday—he's the epitome of West County culture. // 3100 Gravenstein Hwy North (Sebastopol), duttongoldfield.com

Horse & Plow

The husband-and-wife team at Horse & Plow is on double duty, crafting both wines and ciders. Their natural wines come in a wide range of varieties, including the hard-to-find carignan, while they work with more than 30 varieties of apples for their ciders. Unlike traditional wine tasting experiences, Horse & Plow's dog-friendly tasting barn oozes chill and beckons both locals and tourists with expansive picnic grounds upon two acres of gardens and orchards, roll-up doors, and a record player. // 1272 Gravenstein Hwy N. (Sebastopol), www.horseandplow.com

Iron Horse Vineyards

Iron Horse sparkling wines have been White House and bipartisan-approved for 30 years, so it's safe to say it's some really good stuff. Plus, the views from their outdoor tasting room are so stunning that on a clear day, you can actually see all the way to Mt. St. Helena (which, if you're not great at geography, is pretty damn far). Drop by on a Sunday in the summer for oysters and bubbly. // 9786 Ross Station Rd. (Sebastopol), ironhorsevineyards.com

Play: Hug Redwoods, Float the Russian River + More

Canoeing, kayaking, and tubing the Russian River are tops on the what-to-do list here.

(Courtesy of AutoCamp)

Johnson's Beach

Celebrating 100 years in 2018, this Russian River beach is a West County tradition. Whether you stick to the sand or hop in a kayak, Johnson's will take you back to simpler times and summer vacation vibes. Feeling especially nostalgic? Snag one of their campsites or vintage 1920's cabins. // 16217 First St. (Guerneville), johnsonsbeach.com

Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve

Be one with California's towering sequoias at Armstrong Woods, featuring redwoods older than 1,000 years and taller than 300 ft. Get your fix quick along the easy-going, mile-and-a-half Pioneer Nature Trail, or take a deeper dive into nature via the more strenuous East Ridge Trail. // 17000 Armstrong Woods Rd. (Guerneville)

Grove of the Old Trees

Another and likely less-crowded redwoods retreat can be found within Occidental's hidden Grove of Old Trees, a truly magical place that narrowly escaped logging, unlike the many trees that once surrounded it. These 28 acres of rare and old growth redwoods are uniquely situated far away from traffic on a ridge top, making your visit extra meditative. Just don't expect to get a big hike in here; the two loop trails only add up to about a mile. // 17400 Fitzpatrick Lane (Occidental)

The Barlow

The center of activity in Sebastopol is the Barlow, a 12-acre, outdoor pedestrian marketplace, featuring eateries, wine tasting rooms, breweries, boutique shops, art galleries, and more, all run by local Sonoma County artisans. We love sampling British-style cheese at W.M. Cofield Cheesemakers, sipping sours at Woodfour Brewing, and stocking up on super-nourishing, all-natural soaps and body products at Soap Caldron. // 6770 McKinley St. (Sebastopol), thebarlow.net

Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary

Forget mud baths, Osmosis' Cedar Enzyme Bath—a mixture of soft ground cedar and rice bran that's full of living enzymes—has been making Sonoma County locals and visitors totally zen for 30 years. Adapted from a 1940s Japanese tradition, this is the only place in the U.S. to offer this unique, revitalizing treatment. Choose one of the bath and massage packages and make sure you pay a visit to the Meditation Garden before you leave. // 209 Bohemian Hwy (Freestone), osmosis.com

Florence Avenue

Spend roughly half-an-hour strolling up and down Sebastopol's Florence Avenue, lined with life-size junk sculptures of everything from a mermaid to Godzilla to sports stars. The sculptures truly rep the vibe of West County, created by local couple Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent, who live on the street. He sculpts them out of scrap metal and found objects and then she paints them. // Florence Avenue (Sebastopol), patrickamiot.com

Float the Russian River

Rent a canoe, kayak or BYOF (bring your own float) and spend the better part of a day journeying down the Russian River. Check out companies like Burke's (just north of Forestville) for rentals and organized trips, or simply find a sandy spot and take off on your own (Steelhead Beach is a popular jumping off point). Whichever you choose, you'll definitely want to also BYOB for the ride.

Where to Stay in West County

(Courtesy of Farmhouse Inn)

The Farmhouse Inn

Owning the term laid-back luxury, The Farmhouse Inn is lodging goals. Begin your stay at the DIY body scrub and soap bar (the brown sugar scrub smells good enough to eat), which will come in handy later during a soak in your two-person tub. If you're staying here, you might as well go all out: indulge in the spa—the Personal Apothecary is an on-the-spot, customized treatment with an alchemist—relax by the 24-hour pool and jacuzzi, and dine at their Michelin-Starred restaurant. As a bonus, the inn offers complimentary visits and snuggles from the property's resident cats (yes, they will enter your room and jump on your bed if you let them). // Rates start at $545; 7871 River Rd. (Forestville), farmhouseinn.com

AutoCamp

Consider yourself lucky if you manage to snag one of the popular, luxury airstreams or tents at AutoCamp on the Russian River. It'll be tempting to stay put on the campground, complete with fire pits, lawn games, and sunny, quiet spaces, but the river, redwoods, and the funky downtown drag of Guerneville—complete with darling markets, antique shops, local eateries and bars—are all a short walk or bike ride away. // Rates start at $140 per night; 14120 Old Cazadero Rd. (Guerneville), autocamp.com

Boon Hotel + Spa

A relaxing, kids-free retreat among the redwoods awaits at Boon Hotel + Spa (Boon likes to emphasize that this is an adults-only environment). You'll have anything you could ever need here: a heated, saline pool and hot tub with chaise loungers, spa services, access to cruiser bikes, lawn games, a turntable in your room, and the Boon Eat + Drink restaurant right on site. They even have a vintage camper and glamping tent available if you want to pretend you're roughing it. Did we mention it's kids free? // Rates start at $175 per night; 14711 Armstrong Woods Rd (Guerneville), boonhotels.com

Vintners Inn

Equally convenient as it is charming, the serene Vintners Inn is right off the 101 and just 15 minutes from Sebastopol, making it the perfect jumping off point for a West County weekend. Though close to the highway, you'll feel miles away, thanks to tranquil gardens, fountains and far-reaching vineyard views. French country guest rooms are spacious, yet cozy (the top floors have balconies), and there's a killer restaurant and bar, John Ash & Co., right on site. In 2018, the hotel added on a 5,000-square foot spa with indoor and outdoor pools and a fitness center. // Rates start at $265 per night; 4350 Barnes Rd. (Santa Rosa), vintnersinn.com

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