There is a destination that is probably not on most bikers bucket lists, but should be. Healdsburg California, smack dab in the middle of the Sonoma Valley Wine country (www.healdsburg.com)
For those of us raised on the East Coast, there’s something magical about northern California, with it’s towering forests of Redwood trees, rows up rows of grapevines and the unrivaled splendor that unfolds around every bend on the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway)
For me, this was the best case scenario. I received an invitation to tour the region as the guest of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce during the anniversary of my wife’s birth, so I was adroitly able to combine a bit of work, take my bride somewhere romantic for her birthday, andand be hosted by the generous folks in Healdsburg
I must have been a saint in a previous life!
Landing in San Fran, my wife and I were scooped up by a representative of Geiger and Assoc., who drove us to Dublin to pick up the Indian Chieftain, which would be our steed for the trip.
Since our travel plans had us arriving after hours at Arlen Ness Cycles, our tour guide had arranged to have the bike waiting for us in the parking lot, except it’s sitting 10 feet inside the securely locked front doors!
Hmm...this was inconvenient. But, after a few phone calls and texts, General Manager Malcom Taylor graciously sets aside his dinner and drove 45 minutes back to the dealership to save the day. Talk about awesome customer service!. But, it’s no surprise, since the founder, Arlen Ness has built his empire on providing outstanding customer service, and he surrounds himself with employees and managers who carry on that tradition.
So, after apologies and much appreciation, we’re heading to sleep off the jet lag and get ready for the following day’s of exploration and sightseeing in The Golden Gate City, before heading to Healdsburg and the official start of this tour.
For motorcycle travelers, especially those coming from the opposite coast, the idea of riding all the way to Northern California, cruising around wine country and then riding home is a pipe dream at best. Few of us have a job where we can take 3 weeks off at a stretch, even if we get that much vacation time.
So the next best thing is to “fly and ride.” Luckily, there are a number of options available. For the fly-and-ride motorcycle tourist, I recommend checking out Eagle Rider, Motoquest, and Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals.
So, let’s assume you fly into San Francisco. Choosing one of the three bike rental companies, pick up your bike as early as practical and head downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you get there early enough, (or if you stay at the Holiday Inn Express which is in the heart of the district) be sure to sample breakfast at the Hollywood Cafe.
There’s almost always a line that starts forming around 9 am, so early is better. When we arrived, we parked the bike right in front by the meter where we could keep an eye on it and watch the locals checking it out. Within 20 minutes we were seated at one of the outdoor tables (talk about luck.) While waiting on the meal to arrive, I noticed a man standing in line with what looked like a Rock and Roll Marathon runner’s bib pinned on his shirt.
Quickly I check online using my smart phone and sure enough, the San Francisco Rock and Roll Marathon was the same day! It appears this guy and his wife just ran 13.1 miles and decided to drop in for a leisurely brunch at the Hollywood Cafe! To say I was impressed would be an understatement, as the last time I ran a Half, (as we runners call it) I needed a shot of adrenaline and a two hour nap!
After consuming more food than a starving Roman at a wedding feast, I waddled over to the Dudley Perkins Harley-Davidson store for the obligatory tee shirt. For the uninformed, Dudley Perkins is the oldest HD dealership on the West Coast. Since 1913, the Perkins family has been promoting the biker lifestyle through the ups and downs of the industry. It’s a dynasty that shows no signs of slowing down.
After securing souvenirs, we head out to the “must see” locations.
Alcatraz Island is just visible to the right of that tree leaning out into the street
Riding past the offices of Mozilla and Firefox, and other online icons, we pass a huge sculpture of a bow and arrow. Sensing a unique photo opportunity with the Chieftain, I maneuver the bike into position for a publication worthy shot, but alas, the traffic is too heavy and I’m parked on a median that’s obviously not intended to be used as parking, so I vacate without a good shot for my efforts.
Then it’s on to AT & T park, the new home for the Giants, at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Gotta get a photo with the bike and Willie, but again, I’m forced to ride onto the sidewalk and the gathering crowd of gawking pedestrians draws the unwelcome curiosity of the occupants of passing police cruiser and we beat a hasty retreat before being asked to show our driving credentials.
A quick hop and jump over to Lombard St, known as the crookedest street in America. Riding behind and along side vintage open air street cars, I’m reminded of the Karl Mauldin crime drama, The Streets of San Francisco.
Before turning right off Hyde St. onto Lombard, pause and cast your gaze into the bay at the infamous “Rock” also known as Alcatraz prison island. The cold 58 degree murky water and strong current deters and make escape from the island all but impossible during its operation, although in 2006, 7 year old Braxton Bilbrey, from Glendale Arizona swam the 1.5 miles in 45 minutes, making him the youngest on record to swim the distance.
Admittedly, Lombard Street was a little disappointing since it’s one way and you can only ride it downhill and on your brakes the entire time. But it’s a been there, glad to say I’ve done it moment, crossing it off my list.
Then, with a few more hours to spare before we’re expected in Healdsburg, we set out to ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, only to take a wrong turn and have to double back 35 minutes and come in from the opposite side.
But, no worries, as it just means we rode over it north to south, and then turned around and rode over it again on our way north.
Other than the well worn descriptive adjectives used to describe this massive bridge, by writers with more talent than I, the one thing that stood out above everything else was the difference in temperature on the southern and northern sides of the bridge. The locals tell me the temps almost always range between 40 and 75 degrees on the bridge, no matter how hot it gets anywhere else in Northern California in the summer.
Then, with San Francisco in the rear view mirror, having left a few more items unchecked on the list, my bride and I are heading north on Highway 101 through the towns of Petaluma and Santa Rosa to Sonoma County and the small town of Healdsburg and our lodging host, the Best Western Dry Creek Inn. www.drycreekinn.com
Surrounded by Tuscan inspired architecture, the rooms at this property were lavish and well appointed. My wife and I both love everything about this style, from the amber hued marbled columns, tranquil fountains and spacious rooms with either a private patio or balcony, the Dry Creek Inn is the hidden gem of Healdsburg. I could not imagine a better location to spend a couple of days celebrating my wife’s annual trip around the sun.
That evening we were treated to dinner in downtown Healdsburg at Willi’s Seafood. (www.starkrestaurants.com)
Willi’s is one of those “small plate” restaurants and probably not a place I would have chosen on my own, but after sampling everything from oysters to Dungeness (all meat, no filler) crab cake, and Kobe Beef Crudo, Truffle Mayo & pickled shiitakes, my unsophisticated pallet was pleasantly surprised by the flavor and texture of dishes I couldn’t pronounce or whose contents I could not begin to describe or understand.
I wasn’t sure how my wife, who rarely samples beverages of the alcoholic variety would take to all the wine sampling we would be expected to participate in during this trip. If there was any doubt as to her willingness to take one for the team, it evaporated as quickly as the wine in her glass during her tour (and wine tasting) at the Dry Creek Olive Company.
While she was getting her drink on, I visited the local museum to learn a little about the history of Healdsburg. The Carnegie Library that houses the non-profit museum was, in itself a nice building to visit. While in the museum, we saw photos of the Eisenhower Tree, a massive redwood that in 1942 was struck by lightning. Local residents reported the fire blazed from the top like a “stovepipe” for almost an hour before rain from the same storm extinguished the blaze.
Reports are a 90 foot section of the top of the tree broke off and fell that day, and although the fire left it completely hollow through the crown, (one of only a few in the world) green branches covering large limbs sprout defiantly from its side, and beckon the visitor to enter into its core, and be awed at tenacity of this old tree.
After consuming delicious lunch sandwiches (made with their famous artisan bread) at Costeaux French Bakery, (www.Costeaux.com) I was anxious to ride south to visit the closest Redwood State Park,
Armstrong State Preserve is located 20 miles south of Healdsburg near the town of Guerneville. Instead of blasting down Hwy 101, I hopped on Westside Rd which runs parallel (but twisty and fun) and rode it until it merged with River Road before turning right in Guerneville.
Armstrong is one of those ride in, get off the bike and “enjoy the scenery” destinations. The local lore is the massive coast redwoods soak up so much carbon dioxide and release copious amounts of oxygen that the first time visitor is infused with a sense of euphoria, sort of an oxygen high! I don’t know if it was the oxygen, the solitude or the respite from the rat race that had us ready to stretch out and take a nap shrouded in the dense canopy of these ancient living sentinels. It’s easy to understand why some people get so passionate about saving the Redwoods.
The third and final day would be a long one, as I wanted to get in as much riding time as possible. Toss a rock in almost any direction and you’ll hit a road that seems almost purpose-built for motorcycle travel. Living by the “Road Less Traveled” mantra, we struck out north on Hwy 101 for a few miles through the towns of Geyserville and Cloverdale and turned left (west) on Oat Valley Rd (CA 126)
I picked CA 126 for two reasons. It’s as twisted as a strand of discarded Christmas lights, and it winds through the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, and I was determined to spend as much time in these primeval forests as possible before flying back to Georgia.
Hwy 128 did not disappoint and delivered everything the squiggly lines on the map promised. With sparse traffic and well maintained asphalt, I highly recommend this short stretch for the jaded who have grown weary of the well worn and more heavily traversed motorcycle routes in northern Cali.
No honey....I'm pretty sure that one won't fit in our suitcase...
Time did not permit us to linger in the Redwoods, although my bride insisted on stopping and pilfering a small piece of deadwood to carry back in our overstuffed luggage.
Hwy 128 ends near Elk California at the intersection with CA 1, or Shoreline Hwy as it’s known locally. Turning left and crossing the Navarro River, The highway snakes along for a couple of miles alternating between smaller pine trees on one side, cut into the side of the hillside with no view on the other.
You smell the ocean before you see it, and then only in brief flashes through the trees along the right side of the highway. Not knowing what to expect, my wife and I both let out a collective gasp when we rounded a curve and the ocean emerged 40 feet below us, stretching endlessly west until the blue sky melted into the water on the distant horizon.
As if to perfectly balance the color palette, Mother Nature sprinkled the shoreline with huge boulders, weathered gray from years of exposure, and splashed with a hint of green marine life clinging to the top and along the sides. These monolithic sentinels stand quietly as the ocean flings itself repeatedly against them, tossing up white foam and spray in a battle that has no beginning and no end.
It was almost as if my body wanted to consume as much of this air as possible, breathing deeply time and time again. For miles and miles, the scenery barely changed, but the highway crept closer and closer to the edge of the bluff, at times only 3-4 feet away from a 40 foot drop, with no guardrail. Exhilarating!
With a tight schedule, We needed to hurry back to Healdsburg to catch the shuttle to the Simi Winery for the farewell reception and meal. But, there was one more twisty road I wanted to explore.
Beginning at Stewarts Point on CA 1, Skaggs Springs Rd, runs 50+ miles in a generally east to west direction through the Kashia Tribe Reservation. Looking at the map, I could tell it was twisty, but I had no idea of the road conditions. Suffice it to say I’ve been on goat paths that were better maintained than this road (in spots.) For the next 30 + miles, we crept along a winding broken asphalt trail, through narrow canyons and forests so dense I swear you couldn’t spot the Bigfoot tribe if they were holding a family reunion and square dance 10 feet from the road!
I didn’t spot Bigfoot, but just as I rounded a bend near the Kashia Tribe Elementary School, I saw (what I thought was) a huge dog trotting up the road straight towards us. I slowed slightly and almost stopped before realizing the lumbering grey beast wasn’t a dog, but a wolf! Startled, I try to point so my wife will see it too, but she’s napping and missed the whole encounter. For the next few miles I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m riding an Indian Chieftain, alongside the Wolf River, on a 10 foot wide pig path that hasn’t seen a fresh patch of asphalt since it was laid 30 years ago, passing through a native American tribal reservation and almost ran headlong into a wild wolf!
I don’t know if that’s good medicine or bad medicine. All I know is I was happy when I finally reached blacktop maintained by the California DOT.
We barely made it back in time for me to clean out my underwear from the wolf encounter and catch the shuttle to the Simi Winery, Healdsburg oldest winery. We were treated to a tour of the production facility and feted with a meal and generous samplings of the different wines produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County.
As a wine neophyte with no taste or the slightest clue about wines I asked a lot of dumb questions, but our gracious host, Susan Lueker, the Director of Winemaking,and Master Vinter, was patient with me and did her best to educate me using small words and talking real slow.
I tried not to show my redneck side, but I’m not sure I pulled it off. I did get her to give me her best recommendations for whisky drinkers who want to find a wine that will closely suit their taste buds.
Her recommendations were; If you like brown whisky, such as Jack, or Makers, then try a pinot noir, if you like tequila, as in a margarita, then try a sauvignon blanc, and if you’re a pina colada kinda guy, then try a chardonnay.
I think there were more comparisons, but I can’t make out the rest of my notes.
Some time during the evening I scribbled in the margins, “This wine tasting ROCKS!” and “I’m ready to PARTY!”
Thankfully the driver of the shuttle politely refused my $20 bribe to carry me to the nearest karaoke bar, and instead deposited me at my hotel, since I had to be awake and clear headed at 4 am to make the 2 hour ride back to Arlen Ness Cycles in Dublin and still have time to get to the airport to board the 8:30 am flight back to Georgia.
My only concern were the bottles of chardonnay and olive oil my wife decided to smuggle home in our luggage. I explained transporting alcohol across state lines was a felony but she said it was her birthday and TSA would just have to “get over it.”
For a unique romantic motorcycle vacation, consider making Healdsburg in Sonoma County California your base camp. Fly into San Fran, rent a bike or two, spend a day seeing the sights in the big city and then head north into wine country. For the best experience, expect to spend a week riding some great motorcycle roads, finding adventure around every curve, and sampling some of the best vintages made from the grapes grown in the region, paired with food that will delight your taste buds with exciting combinations far outside and above the realm of workaday fast food and bland chain fare.
I’ve got to wrap this up now as it’s almost visiting hours at the women’s correctional facility where my wife is finishing up her 6 month sentence. The best part is she’s just about forgiven me for pointing at her when the smiling TSA agent asked “who does this wine belong to?”
Scott and Sylvia Cochran are the founders of USRiderNews and The Biker Nation. Married for 28 years, they have a blended family with 4 children, and 5 grandchildren and 1 more on the way. (and Sylvia did not really go to jail, although she's just lucky the TSA didn't check her luggage at the gate..!)
Scott has written a travel book, "Motorcycle Journey's Through The American South" and you can order it here