Located in the lush heart of Sonoma wine country and home to a burgeoning craft-beverage scene, myriad acclaimed farm-to-table restaurants and a slew of culinary events, Santa Rosa makes an enticing destination. When you factor in the friendly city’s location — the stunning Pacific coast is just 30 minutes west, the towering redwoods 30 minutes northwest and buzzing San Francisco a mere 100 kilometres south, this city of 170,000 is near irresistible.
As a gay destination, Sonoma County’s largest city is more rustic than raucous. Recreation and food and wine top the bill, making it a great spot for families, couples or solo travellers. Rightly acclaimed as an excellent base for outdoor activities, Santa Rosa has the ocean and the gorgeous Russian River right in its back yard. On top of this, kilometres of famed cycling trails lace the vine-dotted countryside and Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is just 30 minutes’ drive northwest, just outside the woodsy, gay-friendly town of Guerneville.
While the Russian River area gets a good bit of the gay press for this region, Santa Rosa is officially gayer: in fact it’s the second gayest city in America after San Francisco, according to a study done at UCLA, based on the percentage of cohabiting same-sex couples. And the city has a growing gay nightlife scene to match, plus a clutch of active groups, including Out and About Santa Rosa, which organizes events in Santa Rosa and throughout the county; social group Santa Rosa Gaydar; and Sonoma Boys Night Out, which promotes various San Fran North Bay activities. Positive Images watches out for the young people, while, at the other end of the age spectrum, groundbreaking retirement home Fountaingrove Lodge offers fine dining and independent living for LGBT elders.
While such organizations make life better for locals and regular visitors, first-timers coming to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County can take the guesswork out of a trip by contacting tour and event company Out in the Vineyard, which promotes the best of Sonoma County to LGBT visitors. The company also puts on some fun annual events, including October’s Big Gay Grape Stomp and June’s Gay Wine weekend. Other dates travellers might want to coincide with include September’s Humboldt Pride and the jubilant Sonoma County Pride parade and celebration, held each June.
Santa Rosa is a friendly, feel-good kind of place, and its bars reflect that sensibility. The retro Space XXV is a chic cocktail bar with a calendar that features everything from viewing parties for staple gay television shows to drag bingo nights. Family Night at Chrome Lotus is a popular mixed club night. Another venue with a companionably mixed gay/straight crowd is Belvedere, where locals and visitors can be found mingling around the jukebox, by the air-hockey tables and over local wines and beers on the patio outside. Meanwhile, for a more concentrated dose of gay nightlife, Guerneville is just 30 minutes from downtown Santa Rosa. Beer fans shouldn’t miss local brews from Russian River Brewing, BJ’s and Third Street Aleworks. Nearby, Bear Republic has its own liquid wares on tap in a brewpub in Healdsburg, 15 minutes north of Santa Rosa.
The contemporary, 155-room Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa has a fine pool and outdoor hot tub, sculpture garden and 24-hour gym in central Santa Rosa. Hilton Sonoma Wine Country is set on 13 acres with views of the Santa Rosa Valley and within easy reach of more than 330 Sonoma County wineries. The elegant Fountaingrove Inn offers roomy accommodations with Tuscan hues, an outdoor pool and a central Santa Rosa location. Nearby, Flamingo Resort and Spa has been operating since 1957 and was once the hangout of Hollywood starlet Jayne Mansfield. Today this historic landmark is a sleek, modern, 170-room boutique hotel that offers use of its 8,000-square-foot health club (and its tennis courts, yoga classes, cardio room, steam, sauna, jacuzzi and pool) for a small daily fee.