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Bohemian Highway – Californian Road Trip Detour

Cheese, sourdough and giant redwoods delight Neil Sowerby

Written by . Published on January 28th 2014.

Bohemian Highway – Californian Road Trip Detour

HIGHWAY One is THE way to drive north from San Francisco. It’s the scenic, switchback coastal road we took en route to Mendocino via Bodega Bay – an unforgettable trip.

'In one Grove ceremony, covertly filmed a decade ago, members wore costumes and cremated a coffin effigy before a 40ft-owl'

But it would be a shame to miss a parallel inland route through the forests – fascinatingly called the Bohemian Highway. It only runs for 10 miles. Charmed by the name, we went there on a whim after visiting wineries in the westernmost Sonoma Valley. We booked a room via Airbnb in a place called Guerneville up on the Russian River and stepped on the hire car gas. 

Our motto: every road-trip needs a detour.

So we took Highway 12 from workaday Sebastopol west to Freestone. Its official population is a mere 50, but food lovers come from miles around to buy bread from its Wildflour Bakery and recently arrived Freestone Artisan Cheese store up the road. Understandably. We did.

Bread At Wild FlourSourdough is the big deal at Wild Flour; below, in goes a batch of loaves

Sordough Goes InWildflour boasts a wood-fired brick oven, lit each afternoon with a wheelbarrow of eucalyptus kindling. Scones and all kinds of delights are produced (a gaggle of schoolgirls were munching them in the sunflower and veg patch as we pulled in), but it is the Organic Sourdough that rules supreme here. Thick of crust and yet airy-light inside (even the rye variety), this was the best bread I’ve ever tasted. There’s fine pinot noir to be bought at the neigbouring Joseph Phelps vineyard tasting room and to complete the picnic drive two minutes up the Bohemian Highway to the new venture by cheese affineur Omar Muller.

At his Artisan Cheese (check website for odd opening times) he sells locally pressed olive oil, almonds and walnuts and a range of bijou cheese-related artefacts, but the glory is the cheese, of course. With wonderful names like Bleeting Heart sheep’s cheese, Pugs Leap goat. Mostly sourced locally or from the omnipresent Californian quality producer, Cowgirl Creamery.

Omar And His CheesesOmar and his array of artisanal cheeses

Cheese is almost as big as wine these days. There’s a new California Cheese Trail app, available for iPhone users from itunes.com.

Next stop along the Highway is Occidental. Originally the last stop west for the North Coast Pacific Railroad, today it is a charming, determinedly folksy settlement among towering redwoods.

Main Street In OccidentalMain Street in Occidental – capital of laidback cool

A lovely – yes, bohemian – place to hang loose, on Friday it hosts a farmer’s market. The forests protect the whole corridor from the Marine fogs and storms that hit the coast and it’s pastoral idyll all the way to the route’s end at Monte Rio on busy Highway 116 along the Russian River. 


Johnson's Beach GuernevilleJohnson's Beach along the Russian River

Monte Rio is home to one of California’s most bizarre phenomena (and that’s saying something). Bohemian Grove, is a secret retreat where the world's powerful men (presidents, oil barons, business moguls and the like) meet. Former US President Bill Clinton once told a heckler, “The Bohemian club! Did you say Bohemian club? That’s where all those rich Republicans go up and stand naked against redwood trees, right? I’ve never been to the Bohemian club, but you oughta go. It’d be good for you. You’d get some fresh air.”

In 1942, planning for the Manhattan Project took place at the Grove, leading to the creation of the atom bomb, it is said. The Bush family are reputed to be long-standing supporters. In one Grove ceremony, covertly filmed a decade ago, members wore costumes and cremated a coffin effigy before a 40ft-owl, in deference to the surrounding Redwood trees.

A visit was never going to be on our itinerary.

Guerneville Main StreetGuerneville Main Street – perfect road trip stop-off; below its best deli

Guerneville's Best DeliGuerneville's best deliGo left now and you’ll hit the coast and Jenner with its fine beach. We turned right for Guerneville, a bridging point on the Russian River. It’s a fine walk along the original, superseded, iron bridge. You soon reach Johnson’s Beach, popular for boating. Back in town, which is basically one long main street there’s a decent bookshop, two breweries,  Stumptown and Russian River; a range of eateries, the best of which is tiny Boon and its allied deli, the Big Bottom Market (I didn’t ask). The owners, incomers, also run an a hotel and spa outside town.

Guerneville's Historic BridgeGuerneville's historic Bridge across the Russian River

But we had again chosen to find a homestay through Airbnb (see Factfile). Our lovely, welcoming B&B host Pamela Sinclair was puzzled at our off-the-beaten-track choice of final stop-off before returning to San Francisco 75 miles away. “We just wanted to see the redwoods again,” we told her.

Big, Old Tree In The Armstrong WoodsBig, old tree in the amazing  Armstrong Woods

Gnarled Face In A SequoiaWhich we did the next morning, up the dead-end valley from her hilltop home. Armstrong Redwoods Park is one of the most atmospheric places in all California to gawp at the ancient sequoias in their mind-blowing immensity. The tallest redwood here is the Parson Jones Tree measuring more than 310ft in height. It’s an easy five minute walk from the park entrance. Half a mile further is the magnificent Colonel Armstrong Tree, the oldest tree estimated to be over 1,400 years old. It is named after a lumberman who chose to preserve this portion of the park in the 1870s.

Fire At GuernvilleFire and poetry at our Guernville Airbnb pad – oh, and a cool beer or two

Great Beer Meets Great FirePamela is part of the local volunteer team maintaining the 7,000 acre park (including neighbouring Austin Creek), as State funding ebbs away.
Our host, going out for the evening and the temperature dropping, had happily lit a fire pit on her decking and allowed us to spread out our Freestone picnic there, overlooking the big trees. By firelight we drank Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA, gorged on Pugs Leap and overdosed on sourdough. Through the distant redwoods a full moon beamed.

California dreaming. If only all detours could be this good. 

Also by travel editor Neil Sowerby: Houseboat Heaven In Sausalito and Ten Great Trip Tips For San Francisco.

Fact file

Bohemian Highway
Wildflour Bread www.wildflourbread.com
Freestone Artisan Cheese www.freestoneartisan.com
Taste wine at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Freestone: www.josephphelps.com/visit-us-sonoma-coast/

Barley and Hops Tavern, 3688 Bohemian Highway, Occidental. Good range of craft beer. http://barleyandhops.happytables.com

Guerneville Tourism: www.guerneville-online.com
Boon, 16248 Main Street, Guerneville www.eatatboon.com

Virgin from Manchester:
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Manchester to San Francisco, via Heathrow, and is offering return Economy fares from £689.74 per person. For further information contact this link or call 0844 2092 770. This fare is available for selected departures during 2013 and 2014. Prices given are correct as of today and are subject to change.

Airbnb, which sprang out of San Francisco, is perhaps the highest profile of the online private accommodation booking agency. We found it a fascinating way to travel on a budget and meet locals. Hoteliers are not so enamoured. In New York they are trying to get this consumer-friendly service banned.

Manchester Airport parking:

Neil Sowerby left his car park in T3 Long Stay. Here are all the options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.

Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.

Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link

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