harvest honey moon
You don't have to go when you're already there (From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)
One of the compelling advantages of a Wine Country wedding that, if you're planning a honeymoon immediately after the ceremony and reception, you don't have to go anywhere: You're already there.
Unless you have a budget for Bali, or a Galapagos getaway, can you think of a more romantic escape?
Vineyards and beaches, mountains and rivers, wineries and restaurants, less than an hour from one of the world's great cities.
It's like, duh!
So once you've made the decision to stay here, all that's left is deciding where to stay.
And that's the hard part: so many choices.
Let's start with the Gaige House in Glen Ellen. The unassuming exterior doesn't really broadcast what lies within and if you're zipping down Arnold Drive too fast you might even miss it. That would be a mistake.
From the rounded granite bathtubs to the in-room atriums and the bottle of champagne that greets each guest, the Gaige House does it right at every level. And that explains why it is recommended by Michelin, was named one of the Top 10 Romantic Getaways in the World by A&E travel guide, and why it made the Readers Choice list of Top 100 hotels in Condé Nast Traveler.
Gaige House is designed with Asian elements, including shoji screens and water features in each room and garden. The Zen-like ambiance is heightened by the absence of children - they're not allowed - so your peace won't be splashed while you're meditating on a lounge chair by the pool. As the morning light trickles through the fine silk strand curtains onto your down comforter, there will be a gourmet breakfast waiting with chocolate croissants and cinnamon buns, along with an array of savory meats, cheeses and peppered heirloom tomatoes in the dining room upstairs. For further pampering, spa services are available in your private Japanese garden. Without leaving your suite you can have a hot-stone, side-by-side couple's massage, set to the soft trickling sounds of Calabazas Creek running just feet away.
For the adventurers
If your dream honeymoon is an African safari but your budget won't get you to Namibia, you can still spend a romantic interlude surrounded by monkeys and giraffes and rhinos (oh my!) in an environment slightly tamer than the Serengeti.
Safari West, outside Santa Rosa, offers couples a taste of Africa with 80 species, 700 animals but without the 14-hour plane ride. With more than 400 acres of land, the refuge is more than a wildlife preserve, it's a unique place to vacation.
You'll spend your nights in an authentic, canvas safari tent with hardwood floors, fully functional bathrooms and plush king beds, while guinea hens run under the floor and the call of the wild literally floats through your dreams. From the deck of your veranda you'll view the giraffe paddock where a dozen of the towering creatures run free in a swarm of hoofed animals.
And if you opt for the Romance Package, you'll be greeted with a bottle of wine and a box of delectable Wine Country Chocolate truffles before embarking on your private safari tour, one-on-one with a knowledgeable guide who provides up-close animal encounters with cheetahs and giraffes, zebras and cape buffalo, monkeys and lemurs, elands and impalas - to name a few - all followed by a bottle of wine and a cheese plate as the sun sets. Later, a side-by-side couples massage will melt away the evening. Without the distraction of television or telephones the only noise you'll hear is the yips, chirps and gurgles of exotic creatures.
Safari West is also a memorable place to be married, or to pitch that forever-after proposal amidst the din of mating warthogs.
For the busybees
If you can't imagine planning the after part of your wedding between office meetings, business calls, e-mail marathons and dinners at your desk, here's the one word to remember: concierge. In other words, Ricardo Chavarria.
Ricardo is concierge at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, an island of serene luxury with a staff fully capable of satisfying your every need, even if that means planning all the details of your honeymoon.
"I've had couples come out and have us plan every single day for them," Ricardo says with the confidence of someone who has spent four years planning an uncountable number of dream honeymoons.
"We can do everything from chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne to bubbles in the hot tub when they arrive. I've even had couples send in their wedding song so it's playing in the room when they get in."
Say you're zany for zinfandel; Chavarria will set you up with a tasting and tour of Ravenswood Winery, which is ground zero for big zins. Want a bird's eye view of Sonoma and the entire Bay Area? Ricardo will connect you with a helicopter tour.
And for those days you just want to relax, there's no need to leave the campus. They have the word "spa" in their name for a reason. You begin with a bathing ritual in the warming pool, where you can look up at the delicately painted mural of the sun melting into the moon and stars. The hot tub, steam room and sauna finish off Phase One. After that you're ready for your "treatment" of which there are dozens, ranging from a shiatsu massage to a "Hungarian Moor Mud Kur" - OK, a mud bath. Most massages can be done side by side for couples, and many can even be done in your own room, which are equipped with oversized bathtubs and giant plush beds.
But that's not all. Fairmont staff can arrange pretty much whatever your heart desires, from a chauffeured Bentley to explore the vineyards to a romantic picnic hike, complete with hidden love notes along the way.
The famed Sonoma Golf Course is part of the Fairmont family and tee-times can be arranged by your concierge, just be sure to double check the dress code.
If wine is your passion and you want to get hands-on with your honey and a vat of grapes, the Fairmont's Michelle Heston has a unique experience up her elegant sleeve. Heston says she sends true wine fanatics to Château St. Jean or Ravenswood Winery for a full education in winemaking.
"We've had couples come and say, 'We want to do something completely over the top,' so we send them to blend their own wines." She says the process provides both good wine and a fun keepsake for couples to share on their first anniversary.
But if you do nothing else, you must dine at Fairmont's Santé, the only Sonoma Valley restaurant to receive a coveted Michelin Star under Executive Chef Bruno Tison and Chef de Cuisine Andrew Cain.
For the culinary couple
If food is much more than a necessity, if it's a passion, your path through life, then there's only one choice for foodie fanatics. Pack your garlic press, your mushroom brush and your kitchen tongs because you're heading to Ramekins, Sonoma's only culinary school, event center and inn. Stay in one of just six rooms for a truly intimate experience, surrounded by soft colors and fine linens just blocks from the Plaza - the heart of Sonoma's culinary scene. Every morning the inn chefs prepare a continental breakfast and, at a culinary school, you know its got to be good.
During the day, you can select from a variety of hands-on cooking classes taught by in-house chefs as well as specialty classes frequently offered by dozens of visiting chefs. Some classes take place in a group setting, such as chocolate for beginners, Christmas in Paris or hors d'oeuvres and cocktails for entertaining. But you can also arrange for your own private culinary class. Guests of the inn receive discounts on classes, so check out the catalog, see which ones pique your interest and plan your time accordingly.
But it's not just the food that sets Ramekins apart from the crowd. The stunningly renovated exterior courtyard is an open but intimate environment for conducting the wedding ceremony itself. From its matrimonial arch, to the massive outdoor fireplace and the Spanish colonial décor, the Ramekins courtyard is a kind of all-in-one venue that can carry a wedding from "I do" to "hoopdie-doo."
You could, if you wanted, both marry and honeymoon in one spot, while probing the boundaries of culinary creativity.
What to do:
And finally, you can't take a tour of Sonoma without tripping over the trail of real estate wizard Suzanne Brangham who has brilliantly transformed historic properties in San Francisco and Sonoma with gusto, style and philanthropic generosity.
Brangham has the eye, the touch and the panache to make brilliance from the banal, and one of her signature projects is MacArthur Place, a collection of cottages expertly decorated with rustic elegance, including luxurious linens, massive soaking tubs and wine barrel end tables.
I can say from experience that, on your honeymoon, you should upgrade to the garden spa suites for one of the best rooms you'll find in Sonoma. The suite includes a private patio with an outdoor shower and teak soaking tub that looks out on your own waterfall. The enclosed structure is outfitted with lights and heaters, meaning year-round you can build your own bubble kingdom while sipping sparkling with your sweetie.
The on-site Saddles Steakhouse offers lunch and dinner with some of the best steaks in the county, along with a continental breakfast. The in-house spa provides patrons with an assortment of treatments with Wine Country flair, from the Red Wine Grapeseed Massage to the Chardonnay Sugar Scrub.
(From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)