Not far north of San Francisco, Healdsburg is the heart of Sonoma wine country, and Charlie Palmer’s warm and modern Healdsburg Hotel is at the heart of the town in its turn. Its restaurant, the Dry Creek Kitchen, is a destination in itself, thanks to its tastebud-teasing Californian fusion food, and its wine cellar – as you’d expect in this vine-covered corner of America – holds a staggering range of tasty tipples.
Double rooms from £291.95 ($382), including tax at 16 per cent.
Rates include buffet breakfast of fruits, pastries, porridge, cooked-to-order eggs, fluffy waffles and breakfast sandwiches.
If you’re lucky enough to be staying in March, you can attend Charlie Palmer’s annual ‘Pigs and Pinot’ event, a celebration of fine wine and quality pork raising money for child hunger (ending it, that is).
At the hotel
Spa with six treatment rooms and a Jacuzzi, gym, free DVD library, free WiFi throughout, free valet parking. In rooms: flatscreen TV, DVD/CD player, iPod dock, 500-thread-count Frette linen, bespoke organic toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
Although the hotel’s suites are, of course, larger and have added sitting rooms, for the price, we’re still more than happy with the Standard King rooms – these all feature six-foot bath tubs, similarly generous beds, French doors opening onto private balconies and oak floors covered with Tibetan rugs.
The hotel’s secluded garden pool is lined with extra-comfy loungers and surrounded by olive trees.
Pack the shades – it’s blindingly bright round here – but leave the perfume/aftershave at home – artificial scents hijack your palate when sampling wines. No lipstick either – it’s a nightmare to scrub off the tasting glasses.
There’s a two-night minimum stay during weekends between March and October.
Kids stay free, and extra beds can be provided for children 15 and older or extra adults for US$50 a night. The hotel can recommend babysitting services (about US$15 an hour) and its restaurant can prepare dishes for younger palates on request.
At lunchtime, you’ll want to secure a spot outside to watch Healdsburg society drift by. In the evening, settle down on the banquette in the far corner of the restaurant for extra-plush comfort.
Light, glassy, airy, Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen is renowned for its progressive Californian fusion dishes, accompanied exclusively by Sonoma wines.
A relaxed woody nook of a fireside drinking den, Healdsburg’s lobby bar is an easygoing jazz-soundtracked joint. Its cocktails – all made with local, seasonal ingredients – are almost as impressive as the wine selection.
Dinner is served until 9.30pm during the week, and 10pm at weekends. The bar’s open until 11.30pm – occasionally later if the guests.
The Dry Creek Kitchen’s dishes can all be served in room during restaurant opening hours.
Sonoma County Airport is 12 miles from the hotel. In terms of major airports, head for San Francisco International and Oakland, which are about 80 miles away.
Follow the Redwood Highway all the way along, exiting at Mill Street before picking up Healdsburg Avenue. There's free valet parking for guests, and a large parking lot near the hotel for self-parking, but the latter can fill up very quickly.
Worth getting out of bed for
Get a farm-to-spa treatment infused with locally grown herbs and fruits (including grapes, naturally), then bubble away in the Jacuzzi. Beyond its use in a healing body wrap, wine is the big draw in these parts and hotel is ideally situated for exploring 60-odd wineries in the region. Make an appointment to visit Lancaster Estate or the Duchamp Estate Winery – both of which are well worth the short trip. Healdsburg's Hand Fan Museum has 300 years' worth of portable cooling solutions on display. Bike hire and horseback riding can easily be arranged and hotel staff will map out nearby hiking trails. Burke's Canoe Trips will launch you on a lazy self-guided safari through the redwoods, where you might spy otters, turtles and a menagerie's worth of birds; and you can work your core by paddleboarding along the Russian River.
The Farmhouse Inn, 15 minutes away in Forestville is a favourite of Healdsburg foodies for its fresh seasonal ingredients. Barndiva stay true to their 'eat the view' motto, using ingredients from neighbouring farmers, ranchers and artisans; their cocktails follow suit, using slugs of spirits infused with herbs, flowers and fruits from the owners' farm in Philo. Carb-enthusiasts should check out the seasonally shifting menu at pasta house the Brass Rabbit and give their Royale With Cheese cocktail a whirl: an intriguing mix of gin, vermouth and white-truffle tincture, garnished with a chevre-stuffed olive. Sister restaurant Chalkboard is also well-renowned for its small plates made using ingredients cultivated in a 4.5-acre garden.
The fertile terroir surrounding you ensures that your cup overflows until you leave; however, if wine's not really your thing, Bear Republic Brewery's craft ales are a refreshing alternative. Oenophiles, plan your tasting-room tours by valley: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Green Valley and Russian River Valley are all impressively fertile and scattered with wineries.
Some people go on holiday to make friends. These are the people I most studiously avoid whenever I go away. For me, a key part of luxury is solitude. Do Mrs Smith and I mind if you join us? Er, did you think the bags on both seats were paperweights?
So it says something for the Hotel Healdsburg, a gem of understated refinement on the corner of the plaza of one of Sonoma’s most sophisticated towns, that by the second day of our stay I was relaxed enough to engage in a discussion with another guest. He was up from San Francisco for a getaway with his wife – like him, a Hotel Healdsburg regular – and as we sat together in the hottest hot tub this side of Hades we talked about football. It may have been the supercilious delight in expostulating in the direction of an American on the finer points of the beautiful game, but I couldn’t have been more at ease. Hotel Healdsburg relaxed the moody old crab right out of me – it seems a world away now, but I do believe I was enjoying the company of others.
A curious thing happens when all of the architects, moneymen, chefs, busboys and suits who are required to run a hotel get it just about exactly right – it starts to feel like home. That is not to say that we have gossamer mattresses, dulcet towels or a wine list of exquisite Sonoman Pinots back at our London flat. Home means you put the things you want where you want them, discard the things you don’t and, as a result, when you get in from whatever you have had to do that day, you feel at ease.
Now some hotels, like some people, can be hugely impressive, but also slightly oppressive. The endless acres of white, the scuttling maids folding your hand-towels and the insistence on doing that thing with the end of the loo roll make you feel like you’re having dinner with an astrophysicist – memorable, stirring even, but really not that fun. Hotel Healdsburg, by contrast, is luxurious without being silly, stylish without being over-styled and well-served without grovelling lackeys offering up wet-wipes for your every sneeze. It’s the kind of place that just when you think, ‘I’m a little hot right now. I’d like a glass of water,’ you chance upon one of several urns of delicious fresh lemonade that are dotted about.
Lemonade, of course, is hardly a reason to get out the Amex, but add it to free internet access, a generous DVD library, a policy of allowing you to load up your own tray from the buffet breakfast and then take it back to bed with you (this is a million times better, and quicker, than room service and should be made mandatory in every hotel everywhere), and bucket-sized glasses of wine and apples, and you start to see that Hotel Healdsburg offers substance to go with style. The three storeys conceal atriums and small gardens, so that everyone can find their place for a read or a snooze. And where there is no need for frippery, they haven’t bothered – clean, spare design, lots of polished concrete, teak and spots of greenery make it modern but not stark. The same goes for the spa – we enjoyed a pedicure (there it is in print – I have had a pedicure) in their his ’n’ hers treatment room, which had a big tub and was another small oasis. Again, chic and ample, without being Celebrity Love Island.
Outside of the sanctuary of the hotel the town plaza offers a weekly farmers’ market and a mixture of antiques and 20th-century bric-a-brac… that we opted to strut through and ignore. Instead, we headed to the bike shop a couple of minutes’ walk away on Plaza Street and requested a tandem. The idea was to head to some of the 100 or so wineries along the Russian River Valley, get a little sozzled and then meander back. The tandem, I should say, was the suggestion of my American hot-tub buddy, his principle being that when legless, you need more legs.
It was a chocolate-box idea that was soon shot down by the bike shop owner: ‘Have you ever ridden one before?’ he said, in such a way that his meaning was clear (‘I would rather set fire to my own eyebrows than let you two sunburnt goons loose on a tandem.’) So we went solo, but still had a whale of a time. A day spent at the wineries, from the rarefied to the secluded to the screwball (ask the concierge for Kaz Winery) is bibulous bliss.
And because you’re deep in gastronome territory here, and because Californians know good produce and insist on service to match, the Healdsburg’s restaurant, the Dry Creek Kitchen, was the ideal coda. Run by celeb chef Charlie Palmer (us neither, but he’s a name round these parts), we ate handsomely, with the minimum of fuss and at a price that doesn’t hit your wallet like a duff prawn hits your stomach. It was a fitting adjunct to a pitch-perfect small hotel. Next time I may even look up my new friend.