Westward Expansion

Experience Sonoma, off the beaten path

Most travelers to Sonoma County only make it as far as Healdsburg or Guerneville before bedding down for a weekend of wine tasting, maybe, or tubing down the lazy Russian River. We like to head farther west, to the part of the county where country meets sea.

1. Book at room at Valley Ford Hotel and you'll be centrally located for exploring. The cute roadside hotel, built in 1865, has comfortable rooms with queen-size beds and soft linens, and if you need an excuse to stay longer, note that the hotel has a two-night minimum for weekends during the high season. Valley Ford Hotel, 14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford; 707-876-1983 or vfordhotel.com

2. The most compelling reason for booking at the hotel is the on-site restaurant, Rocker Oysterfeller's, a kind of Southern-meets-Sonoma roadhouse. At brunch, that means locally-raised fried chicken and cornmeal waffles ($18); dinner might be a gumbo made with local seafood ($8 small, $12 large). We like to eat brunch on the patio, but dinner at the bar, where there's live music several nights a week. Rocker's Oysterfeller, 14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford; 707-876-1983 or rockeroysterfellers.com

3. Next door to the hotel, in the former Dairymen's Bank, is the Sonoma Coast Fish Bank. Stop here to buy sustainably-caught local fish to cook yourself, or for lunch (to eat on-site or take to the beach): a giant Louie salad, piled high with freshly picked crab ($14), or the landlubber's special, a Media Noche sandwich loaded with roasted pork, ham, cheese and pickles ($12). Sonoma Coast Fish Bank, 14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford; 707-876-3474 or sonomacoastfishbank.com

4. Freestone is a sleepy town midway between Occidental and Valley Ford, and the big draw here is Wild Flour Bread, where Jed Wallach and his crew have been baking organic sourdough loaves in a wood-fired brick oven for the last 12 years. Grab a cranberry-almond-apricot scone and a cappuccino to eat while exploring the bakery garden, but don't leave without some bread to take home. We're partial to the five-seed, a sturdy loaf with a mild sweetness. Wild Flour Bread, 140 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone; 707-874-2938 or wildflourbread.com. Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

5. The scone and coffee should give you enough fuel for the short (and breathtaking) drive to Marshall, in neighboring Marin County, where you'll spend the afternoon gorging on oysters and sunshine. Two outfits do it right: Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Hog Island Oyster Company. At the latter you can make reservations in advance, but both will supply shucking knives and endless oysters. Bring additional picnic supplies and a bottle of Sancerre. Tomales Bay Oyster Company, 15479 Highway 1, Marshall; 415-663-1242 or tomalesbayoysters.com. Hog Island Oyster Farm, 20215 Highway 1, Marshall; 415-663-9218 or hogislandoysters.com