Driving through rural California, you’ve got your pick of sweet little towns like Sonora. You can breeze by or maybe do a quick “driver reviver” but wouldn’t it be more fun to stay a few nights and get a feel for the place?
The historic town of Sonora, California sits close to Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest. It’s smack in the middle of some beautiful country and some great places to meander.
Mr M and I were there last weekend for a particularly lovely wedding – fancy frocks and cowboy hats, a bevvy of bridesmaids and groomsmen, and a happy couple who are beautiful inside and out.
It was a perfect excuse for a road trip, and at just three hours drive from San Francisco, Sonora’s close enough to make a weekend jaunt possible.
1. Bradford Place Inn & Gardens
Mr M had never stayed in a B&B before and I tend to avoid them when I’m travelling, for some unknown reason. After staying at the Bradford Place Inn & Gardens though, we’ll be changing that.
Affordable and adorable, the Inn has gorgeous rooms with beautiful antique furniture that make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. We stayed in the Tuolumne Room and Mr M’s parents nabbed the spacious Bradford Suite, so we had a good sticky beak at all the finishing touches.
Of course the real stars are owners Gail and Jeff Pedrick, who seem to really enjoy working together. They were both formidable chefs as well as being a pleasure to chat to. Do yourself a favour and try the Creme Brulee French toast. If you’ve got room for more there also seems to be an endless supply of cookies and pastries in the dining room.
2. Cider and spirits
Sonora is best known as wine and gold country, so you might think that the cider wouldn’t quite be up to par. And you’d be wrong. So very wrong.
We visited Indigeny Reserve cider works and distillery on Gail and Jeff’s recommendation. The tasting rooms and cidery (where they make the cider) sit in the middle of 160-acres of orchards, surrounded by a picnic area, antique farm equipment and hiking trails.
They don’t just do apple cider either, this place makes an array of cider flavours plus apple brandy and a bunch of fruit-infused vodkas as well. Because nothing is wasted here, even the apple pulp is mulched back into the orchards or sent to livestock farms.
We were lucky enough to get a tour of the facility by owner Jay Watson and the cidery cat. There’s lots of technical bits and bobs and interesting tidbits on the tour, which I won’t spoil for you. The overall feeling though, is that these guys really know their stuff and it shows in their product.
Their limited addition apricot cider has come in second place two years in a row at San Francisco’s cider summit.
3. Stroll down Sonora’s vintage main street
I’m not particularly into shopping, especially when it’s the non-internet kind, but Sonora’s South Washington Street isn’t that annoying kind of shopping.
The street is filled with quaint little shops that you wouldn’t see at the local strip mall – it really is a bit of a blast from the past. There’s Rick’s Cobbler Shop, antique shops that stretch back and sell everything from plates and cups to books and vintage hats, art galleries, boutique clothing stores and a plethora of eateries and saloons to choose from.
My favourites were easy to pinpoint though. Who can walk past an old-fashioned lolly shop (candy store) and not go in? The Candy Vault actually has a vault, where I’m hoping that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays on loop. At least it was when we visited – you also can’t not sing along with the Oompa Loompas.
While I was stocking up on Salt Water Taffy for the sister-in-law, Mr M’s dad found some old fashioned Horehound candy. I’ve since found out that Horehound is a plant used in cough drops to soothe sore throats.
Then it was on to Legends Books & Antiques, Old Fashion Soda Fountain – talk about crow barring quality into one attraction. The underground portion, which now houses rare secondhand hardcover books, used to be a mine shaft. If you love the musty smell of old books, get yourself here.
4. Gold rush ghost town
History is my thing, and the historic gold rush town of Columbia brings it to life. Just a few minutes drive north of Sonora, Columbia was founded in 1850 after the Hildreth brothers (George and Thaddeus) found gold in the area.
Today the town is more than four blocks of nineteenth century sights, smells and sounds. Main street is lined with stores purveying everything from candy to mining equipment.
The local blacksmith forge is still flaming and turning out tools, mailboxes, horseshoes and other trinkets. You can watch candy being pulled, twisted, shaped and cooled before going next door to get yourself some sugary treats.
With gold panning, stagecoach rides, old-fashioned bowling and town tours, there’s plenty to keep kids and adults occupied. Don’t miss the tiny jail tucked behind the fire station or the school house further up the street.
When you get hungry there’s saloons, restaurants, ice cream parlors and tea houses to choose from.
5. Fine Food
After sitting in traffic for three hours on Friday afternoon, we were hungry. Luckily for us, Mr M’s parents had already scouted the local restaurants and were advised to book a table at Talulah’s Restaurant.
There’s so much to say that I don’t quite know where to start. While it’s described as “fine dining”, Talulah’s is so far away from having a stuffy vibe. The decor is warm, inviting and relaxed – three traits that are well reflected in the serving staff.
We were lucky enough to be waited on by Dom, who I’m pretty sure has dibs on the coolest guy in Sonora title (it’s not a low bar, there are some characters). Quick-witted, attentive and accommodating, he would have been the star of the evening if it weren’t for the food.
I don’t know what was in the salad dressing, but I can confirm that it’s tasty and I wanted more salad. Except I had shrimp linguine waiting for me – to say the pasta servings are generous would be an understatement. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t finish their plate.
We topped it all off with a brownie for dessert, and even though I didn’t have room for more pasta, there was a space in my dessert stomach.
A road trip wouldn’t be a proper road trip without a couple of stops along the way. You need a stretch, a drink,some goats to pat and koi fish to feed.
That’s where Oakdale Cheese and Specialties comes in. Look for the signs on State Highway 120 in Oakdale and you’ll stumble across a gem. Putting the animals aside for a second, this is where award-winning cheese is made!
These guys know their cheese – their aged gouda was given first place in the “Dutch-style” cheese category and their cumin gouda won best flavoured gouda at the United States Championship Cheese contest.
Apart from gorging on delicious cheese and ogling their cheese-making floor and drying racks, you can have a picnic outside under the trees. With the company of a pond full of koi, some curious goats, a lama and some chickens.
Sonora is about a three hour drive from San Francisco, or 130 miles (209 kilometres) away.