California Wine Country Road Trip: Sonoma to Santa Barbara

The ultimate two-week California wine country honeymoon road trip.

Exchanging vows on a bluff overlooking Mendocino’s Little River Bay. Touring famously opulent Hearst Castle after dark. Scampering along Santa Barbara’s spectacular Butterfly Beach at sunset. Trekking through a grove of towering redwoods in the Russian River. These are just a few of the activities that await you on a honeymoon adventure through California’s most acclaimed wine regions—and we haven’t even uncorked a bottle of bubbly.

Whether you’re headed to this stunning swath of Central and Northern California to stage your dream destination wedding, or you’re planning the ultimate wine lovers’ honeymoon, this itinerary serves as a blueprint for pulling off this magical trip in two weeks. We recommend starting in the north and first exploring Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties, then driving south down the coast through Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties the second week. 

When it comes to wine, Napa and Sonoma have the greatest name recognition, but each of these regions abounds with stellar winemakers, along with romantic farm-to-table restaurants, dreamy country inns and seaside resorts, and myriad outdoor diversions.

You can easily customize this plan and focus on just a few or even one of these stunning wine hubs. Whatever your approach, if you’re also planning to tie the knot on your trip, book venues 12–18 months in advance, especially during the busiest months, from late spring through early autumn. To gain a more in-depth knowledge of each region’s wineries and the varietals they specialize in, check out the detailed listings and maps at the California Wine Institute website.

Days 1 and 2
Sonoma Valley
Sonoma’s rolling hills – photo courtesy Shutterstock/Candia Baxter

With more than 420 wineries and spanning some 1,750 square miles, Sonoma County is arguably the state’s most picturesque and eclectic wine region. Start in the eastern side of the county, around the historic town of Sonoma, which was founded in 1823 as the northernmost site of the Spanish Empire’s California missions. Visit the original Mission San Francisco Solano complex, which today is part of Sonoma State Historic Park. This food-blessed town enjoys considerable cachet among LGBT visitors—there’s even an annual Out in the Vineyard event, Gay Wine Weekend in Sonoma, held each summer; it’s a must for gay wine aficionados. The dates this year are July 14–16, 2017. If time allows, spend a day driving north through Glen Ellen and Kenwood, then up into tony Healdsburg—these areas are all rife with wineries and noteworthy restaurants.

Stroll around historic Sonoma Plaza, which is home to numerous tasting rooms, plus cheese shops, wine bars, restaurants (Tasca Tasca Portuguese tapas restaurant and the Girl & the Fig for outstanding contemporary American fare are both standouts), and the original Williams-Sonoma. Don’t miss gay-owned Corner 103, where winemaker Lloyd Davis offers highly personalized tastings complete with food pairings designed to educate your palate.

Out in the nearby countryside, must-see wineries include Scribe, which is set on a verdant bluff and is run by charismatic young brothers Adam and Andrew Mariani, and Buena Vista Winery, where Count Agoston Haraszthy established operations in 1857, sealing California’s fate as a winemaking mecca. Following a swanky makeover, Buena Vista’s historic sparkling-wine cellars now contain several distinctive event spaces, including the champagne-themed Bubble Room lounge, a wildly campy spot that’s perfect for small receptions.

Buena Vista Winery – photo Scott Chebegia

Overnight Splurge
The refined 64-room MacArthur Place hotel and spa contains one of the state’s most celebrated carnivore-centric restaurants, Saddles Steakhouse.

Luxury Value
Just steps from Sonoma Plaza, the Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn has a secluded all-suites wing with a garden courtyard that’s also ideal for small weddings.

Days 3 and 4
Calistoga and Napa County

Esteemed for its full-bodied, age-worthy cabernet sauvignons and some of the grandest wineries in the world, Napa also boasts a slew of iconic restaurants, including the ultimate destination for a special-occasion dinner, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. At the northern end of the county, in laid-back Calistoga, you’ll find several superb wineries, many with beautiful tasting rooms—among them Castello di Amorosa, which is modeled after a 13th-century Tuscan chateau, and the contemporary Clos Pegase Winery, designed by champion of postmodern architecture Michael Graves.

This quirky town with about 5,200 residents is also famous for its spas offering mud baths and curative hot springs soaks. The longest-running springs getaway in the state, Indian Springs Resort is a favorite with traditionalists, while fans of a more contemporary vibe should check out Solage Calistoga, a plush compound with 89 overnight cottages, a 130-foot-long mineral pool, and a chic eco-conscious spa.

Overnight Splurge
A secluded, ultra-exclusive resort in the foothills, Calistoga Ranch is a go-to among A-list actors and rock stars—service is spot-on, dining is sublime, the freestanding guest bungalows epitomize low-key elegance, and the several gorgeous wedding venues each feel special and distinct, from a wildflower-strewn lakeside meadow to an intimate wine cave.

Luxury Value
Five-room, gay-owned Chateau de Vie overlooks acres of vineyards and offers gracious accommodations, including a honeymoon-worthy Carriage House Suite with fireplace, jacuzzi tub, and a private terrace.

Days 5 and 6
Mendocino and Anderson Valley

It’s hard to beat Mendocino County when it comes to seclusion and stunning coastal scenery. Sea captains from New England built the village of Mendocino’s many picturesque clapboard houses. Spend a couple of hours touring 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (a lovely spot for exchanging nuptials), and dine at one or two of the outstanding farm-to-table restaurants in town, such as Trillium Cafe (which also has three comfy and affordable bed-and-breakfast rooms upstairs) or 955 Ukiah.

It’s a 40-minute drive inland, through groves of soaring redwoods, to visit one of the state’s best-kept winemaking secrets, Anderson Valley. Goldeneye Winery hosts small weddings and has an enchanting terrace that’s perfect for tasting their acclaimed pinot noir. Enjoy a picnic lunch of cheese, fruit, and charcuterie while you gaze at the fields of lavender, flower beds, and grape vineyards. At Roederer Estate, the esteemed producer of méthode champenoise–style sparkling wine, fascinating tours provide a glimpse into the painstaking process of producing this special wine.

Goldeneye Winery

Overnight Splurge
A posh eco-resort close to downtown Mendocino but with a secluded setting overlooking the ocean and the Big River, Stanford Inn by the Sea comprises 38 stylish rooms with decks and wood-burning fireplaces.

Luxury Value
Overlooking a rugged patch of Pacific shoreline, the historic Little River Inn has waterfront rooms and suites, an excellent restaurant, and a small spa. There are also several dramatic wedding sites, including a grassy bluff beneath two cypress trees with forever views of the sea. 

Day 7
Russian River and Coastal Sonoma

The drive down Highway 1 to coastal Sonoma County offers one knockout view after another, along with numerous places to hop out of your car and stretch your legs: Point Arena Lighthouse, Sea Ranch Chapel, and Fort Ross State Park. In tiny and inviting Jenner, stop for a riverfront lunch of Dungeness crab sandwiches and artisan coffee at Café Aquatica, and then turn inland 12 miles to reach the Russian River, long a popular gay vacation getaway and an excellent destination for canoeing and hiking. Weddings are permitted at Armstrong Redwood State Preserve, where you might tie the knot beneath an ancient 300-foot-tall tree.

In Guerneville, check out the trendy, discerning dining scene, including Chef Patrick’s and Revival Restaurantat the elegant Applewood Inn, for fancy dinners, and the cheeky Big Bottom Market for gourmet picnic supplies—they can also cater your small reception. For a delightful outing, visit La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard, a pastoral 200-acre farm in the Russian River Valley that offers thoroughly engaging tours, tastings of La Crema’s exceptional pinot noirs and chardonnays, and delicious wine-and-cheese pairings.

Overnight Splurge
Just over the border in Marin County, Nick’s Cove is a magical spot for an overnight stay, with cottages on stilts overlooking Tomales Bay and Hog Island, where the oysters served in the outstanding restaurant are harvested.

Nick’s Cove – photo Val Atkinson

Luxury Value
In Guerneville, the hip, mid-century-modern–inspired Boon Hotel + Spa has 14 rooms set around a pool and a terrific little spa; small weddings are also held at this LGBT-owned hideaway.

Day 8
Half Moon Bay, Saratoga, and the Santa Cruz Mountains

As you drive south through San Francisco, stick with coastal Highway 1 and follow it to scenic Half Moon Bay, a perfect stopover en route to Central California. Check out the downtown of boutiques and galleries, and if you’re looking for a splendid, LGBT-popular wedding venue overlooking the sea—or a platter of beer-battered fish and chips—head for convivial Sam’s Chowder House.

About 35 miles south and inland you’ll find a lesser-known but outstanding little wine region, the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is anchored by charming Saratoga. Although it’s close to heavily developed Silicon Valley, this hilltop hamlet feels tranquil and is home to Japanese-inspired Hakone Gardens, which has hosted many same-sex weddings.

Go wine-tasting at friendly and picturesque Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards, which turns out fantastic pinot noirs and cabernet francs. Downtown Saratoga contains dozens of cafés and eateries, including Plumed Horse, a sleek, contemporary restaurant that showcases the masterful molecular gastronomy of Peter Armellino. Saratoga and Half Moon Bay are handy if you want a destination wedding close to San Francisco but free from traffic and crowds.

Overnight Splurge
The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay overlooks the sea and has a first-rate spa—it’s a fabulous place for a wedding or a romantic overnight.

Luxury Value
Book a spacious Treehouse Bungalow at Saratoga Oaks Lodge, on a quiet, charming downtown street.

Days 9 and 10
Monterey and Carmel

The first stretch of Central California’s acclaimed wine regions that you’ll reach as you drive down the coast is Monterey County, long famous for the golf courses at Pebble Beach and the bustling—albeit touristy—attractions of Cannery Row in Monterey. Brave the crowds to visit the exceptional Monterey Bay Aquarium; lunch on sustainable—and delicious—seafood in the aquarium at Cindy’s Waterfront.

To the south, intimate and low-key Carmel is a wonderland of English-style fairytale-esque cottages, many containing art galleries, boutiques, and tasting rooms. Don’t miss Wrath, a star producer of the well-balanced pinot noirs and chardonnays for which the Monterey wine region is revered.

Among the many terrific restaurants, Porta Bella serves deftly executed modern California fare, such as a decadent pan-seared foie gras with a huckleberry-port reduction, and has a solarium-style private room that’s ideal for small wedding feasts or rehearsal dinners. In the late afternoon, visit the historic Carmel Mission Basilica Museum and walk along aptly named Scenic Road as the sun falls over the ocean. It’s a short drive west to Carmel Valley, where a slew of prestigious wineries await, including Folktale Winery & Vineyards, with its artful tasting room, gorgeous terrace, and handsome barrel and cellar rooms, which both host weddings.

Folktale Winery – photo Scott Campbell

Overnight Splurge
The tony Carmel Valley Ranch spa resort has smartly designed contemporary suites, many of them high on a hill overlooking the valley. The resort’s Adventure Garden is a favorite spot for exchanging nuptials.

Luxury Value
Built in 1889 amid clusters of tall conifers, the Pine Inn is set along Carmel’s main drag and is a short walk from the beach.

Days 11 and 12
Big Sur and San Luis Obispo County

One of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful coastal drives, the 85-mile Big Sur stretch of Highway 1 begins just south of Carmel and ends in San Luis Obispo County, by legendary Hearst Castle, one of the region’s true iconic attractions. A tip: the evening castle tours, conducted by docents in swanky period attire, are especially fun. Also, you can get married here (you just have to book around scheduled tours). Near the entrance to the castle at Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room, sample stellar tempranillo, petite sirah, and chardonnay.

From the coast, turn inland—after first stopping in Cayucos to stock up on melt-in-your-mouth sweets at Brown Butter Cookie Company—and head for the small cities of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, both of which have developed over the past 15 years into highly respected winemaking centers. Paso Robles has more than 200 wineries, plus a clutch of hip, farm-to-table restaurants—including Thomas Hill Organics and the Hatch Rotisserie & Bar. Most of the top eateries in town lie within a short walk of the downtown plaza.

Justin Vineyards and Tablas Creek are among the top vintners. And now for something different: enjoy a thrill or two with the zip-lining and wine tasting experience at Margarita Adventures, just north of San Luis Obispo (check out our “real wedding” story set at Santa Margarita Ranch). You’ll zoom along eight zip lines, including a hair-raising 1,800-foot stretch directly over a vineyard, before tasting the superb zinfandel and sauvignon blanc at Ancient Peaks Winery. Nervous about heights? You’re welcome to schedule your wine tasting before the zip-lining.

Overnight Splurge
Add a little eccentric romance to your vacation by staying in one of the over-the-top suites at the retro-kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. All 110 rooms have colorful and kooky themes—the lime green Bridal Falls suite with natural-stone accents and a not-to-be-missed waterfall shower is a standout.

Luxury Value
The historic and centrally located Paso Robles Inn has attractive, reasonably priced rooms themed after local wineries, and many have outdoor hot springs mineral tubs.

Days 13 and 14
Santa Barbara County

In 2004, the movie Sideways instantly elevated Santa Barbara County into one of the world’s most talked-about pinot noir destinations. In fact, the diverse microclimates and varied terrain of this impossibly beautiful patch of undulating hillsides and picturesque small towns produce a wide range of outstanding wines, from racy sauvignon blancs to spicy, full-bodied Rhône blends.

Set amid the rolling hills, the hamlets of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos burst with terrific restaurants and noteworthy tasting rooms—Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi have a home in the area. Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard offers a picturesque setting for a tasting, or for picnicking amid the fragrant gardens. Nearby Solvang is known for its Danish-inspired architecture and restaurants specializing in æbleskiver (Scandinavian-style pancake “puffs”) and Danish meatballs.

At the southern end of the county, the Spanish Colonial–inspired city of Santa Barbara makes for a wonderfully romantic getaway, with its idyllic setting. Fringing a sunny south-facing stretch of the Pacific Ocean, the city gives way to the foothills and then the vertiginous terrain of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Additionally, it offers fans of history and art a wealth of impressive attractions, including Mission Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

If at this point in your wine country adventure you feel a little overfed and wine-soaked, loosen your belt a notch—you’re ending your trip in one of the top food cities in California. Great bets include Olio e Limone Ristorante for contemporary regional Italian fare, the Black Sheep for locally sourced California cuisine, and casual La Super-Rica Taqueria—a favorite of the late resident Julia Child—for down-home Mexican food. And be sure to spend a few hours exploring the Funk Zone, an urban wine district with some up-and-coming tasting rooms.

Overnight Splurge
Celebs and dignitaries regularly holiday—and sometimes get married—at the gorgeous Spanish Mission–style Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Montecito, which overlooks Butterfly Beach and is home to a sybaritic spa offering honey-grapefruit-ginger body scrubs and rosehip-olive body wraps.

Luxury Value
Operated by the gay-popular Kimpton brand, downtown’s Canary Hotel has artful Moorish-inspired rooms and a convenient central setting. Check out the rooftop pool area, which contains a sensational spot for drinks, or for a wedding. Also be sure to see our “real wedding” story set at the Kimpton Canary Hotel.