If you marry me, in 10 years we'll find the most beautiful spot in America and move there," master chef Charlie Palmer told his future wife, Lisa. So when the time came, the couple—with their four sons—migrated from Manhattan to Healdsburg, California. Just 70 miles north of San Francisco, this sophisticated farm town has become one of Sonoma County's most enticing stopovers, a Mayberry with world-class food markets and restaurants, including Palmer's own, serving up the area's freshest ingredients. You can romp in the grass at Healdsburg's central plaza or browse the local design shops. There are more than 100 vineyards and pick-your-own enterprises within striking distance, plus easy access to hiking, biking, and fishing. Go in the fall and you'll catch crush—the wine harvest—without encountering the mobs you would in neighboring Napa. Tell everyone Charlie sent you.
Your Base of Operations
Hotel Healdsburg has 55 rooms, most with balconies and oversize soaking tubs. The atmosphere is decidedly grown-up, but inviting: young guests receive pinwheels on arrival, and everyone sips lemonade on the porch and plays croquet. At Charlie Palmer's adjacent Dry Creek Kitchen, Wednesday is family barbecue night, when platters of Painted Hills flank steak, heirloom-potato salad, and peach pie are delivered to tables in the courtyard. On the wine list: 150 whites and 350 reds, all bottled locally.
Hotel Healdsburg: 25 Matheson St.; 707/431-2800; hotelhealds burg.com; doubles from $340. Dry Creek Kitchen: 707/431-0330; Wednesday barbecue $35 adults, $20 kids 12 and under.
A Vineyard to Visit with the Kids
Situated on 300 acres with a view across the Russian River Valley to the double peaks of Mount Saint Helena, Iron Horse Vineyards has an open-air tasting room where no one is left out: while adults try sparkling wines served by the White House, kids can sample fresh grape juice during crush and pick 32 varieties of apples. For a list of the area's farms, vineyards, and cheese makers that are open to visitors, see farmtrails.org and wineroad.com—but call wineries ahead to find out if they offer any perks for kids.
9786 Ross Station Rd., Sebastopol; 707/887-1507; ironhorsevineyards.com.
A Splendid Place to Picnic
Minutes from downtown Healdsburg, Lake Sonoma is a nine-mile expanse where you can rent a rowboat or canoe and go bass fishing. Trails in the surrounding coastal foothills are just right for hiking and lolling.
3333 Skaggs Spring Rd., Geyserville; 707/433-9483; corpslakes.us/sonoma.
The Coolest General Store
Part deli, part inspired five- and-dime, the Jimtown Store is the essential stop for souvenirs (pinhole cameras, sock monkeys, Mexican oilcloth) and box lunches (grilled eggplant–and-provolone sandwich, anyone?). Everyone will want to stay put, so consider renting the Jimtown House (800/454-6674; sonoma countyvacations.com, from $417 per night, three-night minimum in fall), a three- bedroom cottage with a private garden and vineyard views.
6706 State Hwy. 128, Healdsburg; 707/433-1212; jimtown.com.
These Trees Are Tall!
At Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, an easy 1.7-mile path leads through an ancient grove. The Parson Jones Tree soars 310 feet, and the Colonel Armstrong Tree is 1,400 years old. If you spot redwoods growing in a circle, you've discovered a "fairy ring"—need we mention that it's magical here?
170000 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville; 707/869-2015; parks.ca.gov.