Sonoma County's Gay Playground

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OUT Traveler

  • May 4, 2008

Three Gay Days: Russian River

"The River," as San Franciscans call it, is a more rustic summer retreat than other more popular gay-resort destinations. The emphasis at the Russian River is on the great outdoors, with river beaches and towering redwoods as the primary attraction. But the area is close to the heart of California's urbane and stylish wine country, which increases its appeal for those who are less at ease with nature.

Just as life on Fire Island is defined by the New Yorkers who use it as a regular weekend escape, life on the river is defined by the San Franciscans, who overwhelmingly dominate the summer population here. Unlike most other summer destinations, San Franciscans come here to escape the foggy, chilly weather of the city and to bask in the warming Sonoma sun.

Although it's never fair to generalize, compared to other resorts the crowds at the Russian River tend to be more laid-back, relaxed and not as intent on impressing one another. It's an easy, comfortable retreat spot that offers just the right mix of country charm to travelers who have spent a few days in San Francisco's high-energy gay neighborhoods.

For maximum crowds the best time to visit the area is during the big summer holidays or during the numerous, well-attended festival weekends. Highlights include the Sonoma County Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade and Celebration ( and the Russian River Women's Weekend (, a riotous weekend among the redwoods with pool parties, speed dating, Truth or Dare, a kissing booth, and kayaking. Women also have a slew of events to choose from courtesy of River Gals ( and men of the furry-friendly variety flock to the annual Lazy Bear Weekend (

The Russian River is an easy 90-minute drive north of San Francisco. The most direct route is to take Highway 101 North to the River Road exit and then go west for approximately 18 miles to the Russian River towns of Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio. If you choose to fly, the closest airports are Sonoma County, Oakland and San Francisco.

(All accommodations are in Guerneville unless noted) Russian River Resort or "Triple R" (16390 Fourth St; 707-869-0691 or 800-417-3767;; from $65) is by far the most popular lodging option, with 24 rooms featuring private baths and color TV. The property, which received a major facelift in 2006, features a heated pool, hot tub and the Triple R Bar and Grill restaurant, as well as the Promenade Pool Bar and BBQ. The Triple R hosts special events during the big weekends and retreats throughout the summer. Live comedy on Saturdays, karaoke on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and a piano bar on weekends (in the upper dining room) liven up the otherwise casual and relaxed property. The clientele is mostly gay men.

Dawn Ranch Lodge (16467 River Rd; 707-869-0656 or 800-734-3371;; from $149), offers 55 cottages and cabins on more than 15 acres of beautiful, wooded grounds. In addition to a heated pool, amenities include a bar, TV lounge, private beach, full-service gym, and an elegant restaurant, Roadhouse. It's gay-popular, but is also a hit with the straight crowd.

Applewood Inn & Restaurant (13555 Highway 116; 707-869-9093 or 800-555-8509;; from $195) is an upscale bed and breakfast inn located on six lovely acres with landscaped gardens and redwoods. Located just one quarter of a mile from Guerneville, the 19-room inn consists of four buildings including a restaurant (see below), wine bar, and wine cellar. The grounds include a swimming pool and hot tub. Room décor tastefully blends contemporary furnishings with hand-picked antiques. The best (and priciest) rooms have fireplaces, private balconies and Jacuzzi tubs or two-person showers. Rates include full breakfast.

The pet-friendly 5 Seasons Resort & Spa (formerly River Village Resort & Spa, 14880 River Rd; 707-869-8139 or 888-342-2624;; from $120) has 17 intimate, eco-friendly cottages and a full-service spa offering aromatherapy or wet salt massage, mud wrap and facials on a four-acre site that offers hiking and biking trails. Amenities include: a pool, Jacuzzi, sumptuous robes and towels, fireplace, cable TV, DVD, CD player, complimentary breakfast and kitchenette. The straight-owned but very gay-friendly compound is set in lush gardens.

The rustic and friendly Highlands Resort (14000 Woodland Drive; 707-869-0333;; from $60) sits amid three acres of redwoods, and serves a predominately gay and lesbian clientele with 15 guest rooms, some cabins with fireplaces, and a clothing-optional pool and hot tub (day use $3-$10). Resort accommodations don't include TVs or telephones, and thus it caters to a quieter clientele seeking to "get away from it all." Continental breakfast is served daily. Pets are accepted in some cabins.

Your first stop has to be the River. Many resorts offer river access. If yours doesn't, you can pay a day-use fee at another resort, or use public or secluded beaches. The beach in Guerneville is mostly straight but gay-friendly, and it's popular with families with children. Take a break from sunning and splashing and saunter to Main Street Station Ristorante & Cabaret (16280 Main St; 707-869-0501;; $8-20), for a sandwich or salad.

Once suitably satiated, it's time to get out on the water. Burke's Canoe Trips (8600 River Rd, Forestville; 707-887-1222; offers a full-day rental for $58/canoe, including paddles and life vests. Reservations during summer months are a must.

Reservations are also essential for dinner at Applewood Inn & Restaurant (see above;; $20-32), where very good Wine Country and Italian cuisine star on an à la carte menu that changes every three weeks. Gay-friendly, this restaurant attracts more straight clients than gay clients, in an approximate ratio of 80 percent to 20 percent.

While taking a moonlight stroll through the woods followed by a soothing hot tub under a starry sky is the primary nightlife round these parts, there are some other options. At the cruise bar Rainbow Cattle Company (16220 Main St; 707-869-0206; you'll find a mix of gay women and men enjoying pinball, pool, and music ranging from rock to country & western.

Rise to new heights with a morning champagne brunch hot air balloon flight with Aerostat Adventures (800-579-0183 or 707-433-3777; Private charters are available. Talk about the highlights of your trip so far as you savor the pastas and pizzas on the patio at Andorno's Pizza (16205 First St; 707-869-0651; $8-$24).

It really is all about The River, so if you're not staying at one of the bigger resorts, such as the Triple R (see above), ask the staff at your resort for directions to Wohler Bridge. It's popular with gay and lesbian visitors and locals.

Follow the river to its delicious conclusion at restaurant River's End (11048 Highway 1, Jenner; 707-865-2484;; $17-$43), around 10 miles away from Guerneville. Its wonderful ocean views, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, are worth the drive. A strong local wine list adds to its attraction. Once back in Guerneville, opt for a romantic stroll or the more rambunctious option of the Triple R resort's remodeled Piano Bar (16390 Fourth St.; 707-869-0691).

Start the day off with The Roadhouse Restaurant's (at Dawn Ranch Lodge, 16467 River Rd.; 707-869-0656 or 800-734-3371;; $9-$21) popular weekend brunch, before picking up some vital supplies. The sunny Russian River area, around Guerneville, Monte Rio, Jenner, Forestville, Graton and Duncan Mills, boasts renowned artisan cheesemakers and a vital farming community, while fresh seafood is whisked from the ocean along the stunning coastline. Very much San Francisco's larder, Sonoma County provides Bay Area chefs with meat, produce and other delicious tools of their trade. Get a taste for the area with a picnic, including cheese from gay-owned and operated Sophie's Cellars (20293 Highway 116, Monte Rio; 707-865-1122;

Hit the trails through Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve (enter at end of Armstrong Woods Rd; 707-869-2015, 707-865-2391 or 877-444-6777; and work off brunch hiking among spectacular old-growth redwoods, just five minutes from downtown Guerneville. Once you've worked up an appetite again, tuck into your picnic among the impressive, towering trees.

If you don't feel ready to come out of the woods, call Armstrong Woods Pack Station (17000 Armstrong Woods Rd.; 707-887-2939;, a privately owned horseback-riding stable, which operates out of the state reserve. Laura and Jonathan Ayers grew up on the property and are dedicated naturalists, well versed in the history of the area. They offer a variety of rides, from two-hour ambles to overnights. You must make reservations by phone.

If you've done enough time in the trees, there are a few nice stores in town offering everything from clothing to books and crystals. River Wolf (14016 Armstrong Woods Rd.; 707-869-3449) offers unique gifts for animals and animal lovers. Russian River Floral Company (16222 Main St.; 707-869-3343 or 800-260-7009) can meet any floral need. The Guerneville 5 & 10 (16252 Main St.; 707869-3404; is one of the last five & dimes in California and serves as a kind of general store to the area. Et cetera Et cetera (16270 Main St; 707-869-5808; features a great selection of unique gifts and accessories.

Grab a latte at Coffee Bazaar (14045 Armstrong Woods Rd.; 707-869-9706), the local gay coffeehouse, before sauntering along to the Triple R Bar and Grill (at the Russian River Resort; 16390 Fourth St.; 707-869-0672;; $9-22) for dinner. A women-popular option is Wild Jane's (16440 4th St.; 707-869-3600;; $9-$22), with an adults-only upstairs lounge with a wood-burning stove, perfect for a cocktail or full dinner. Concerts and events often take place in their main events room.

Finish off the visit with a few brews at the mixed gay/straight sports bar McT's Bull Pen (16246 First St; 707-869-3377;