Glen Ellen, California, is reclaiming its status as a great Bay Area escape with fresh spots to wine, dine, and relax in Sonoma Valley. The hamlet is 50 miles—and an easy drive—north of San Francisco. Here, from writer Kristina Malsberger, are five ways to have a perfect day there.
1. A new-look hotelIn the early 1900s, Glen Ellen was a prime getaway for San Franciscans wanting to unwind from city life. Today, the Olea Hotel (5131 Warm Springs Rd., from $225) carries on the tradition, luring overworked urbanites with its mix of rural tranquility and modern luxury. "We took it down to the studs," says owner Ashish Patel of the 2012 makeover that transformed the old-style B&B into a boutique hideaway. Curl up in a hillside room or private garden cottage, or make conversation around the firepit and flagstone patio, shaded by centuries-old oaks. Come morning, executive chef Khambay Porterkhamsy unveils artfully plated eggs and seasonal fruit, paired with house granola and homemade chai.
2. Where foreign beauties blossomFind flora beyond the grapevine at Quarryhill Botanical Garden, a 25-acre sanctuary for exotic and endangered plants from Asia ($10; 12841 Sonoma Hwy./State 12). Wonders include Himalayan crabapple, flowering dogwood from China's Sichuan province, and an impressive collection of magnolias, maples, and roses. Executive director Bill McNamara has braved treacherous rivers and bloodsucking leeches on seed gathering expeditions. Appreciate his efforts along paths leading to lily ponds, picnic spots, and redwood sculptures by artist Bruce Johnson.
3. Reds and whites go greenWinemakers in Glen Ellen don't just embrace eco-friendly practices; they bear-hug them. "Instead of pesticides, we might use a bird or a butterfly or a beetle," explains Mike Benziger, general manager at Benziger Family Winery (tasting from $15; 1883 London Ranch Rd.), home to certified biodynamic vineyards and an insectary garden buzzing with life. Beehives and owl boxes also dot the property at Lasseter Family Winery (by appointment only; 1 Vintage Lane), where Pixar animation legend John Lasseter and his wife, Nancy, create balanced Old World–style blends using 100 percent organic farming practices. The couple's commitment to sustainability is serious, but their new tasting lounge (a shiny fermentation tank outfitted with shag carpet and lava lamps) is all Toy Story–style playfulness.
4. Wheel of good fortuneWith popular restaurants in San Francisco and Hollywood, chef Adolfo Veronese and his brother Gian-Paolo were seeking a perfect third location for their Aventine brand. Their pick: Glen Ellen, population 784. "Glen Ellen is evolving into a mecca for foodies. It's slowly growing into a little Yountville," says Veronese. Aventine Glen Ellen ($$; 14301 Arnold Dr.) opened last summer in an old grist mill, drawing crowds with a working 40-foot waterwheel and hearty Italian menu peppered with the chef's childhood favorites, including scottadito lamb chops grilled on the bone. "Scottadito literally means "burn your fingers,"" says Veronese. "As kids, we ate them like lollipops."
5. A park with passionAccording to Jack London's credo, "the function of man is to live, not to exist." Visit his ranch and final resting place at Jack London State Historic Park ($10/vehicle; 2400 London Ranch Rd.) and discover just how much breakneck, boozy living The Call of the Wild author packed into 40 short years. War reporter, gold prospector, socialist agitator, and world-famous novelist, London came to Glen Ellen to write and practice sustainable farming. Tour the tidy cottage where he and his wife, Charmian, lived and worked, then follow trails to historic farm buildings, a lakeside bathhouse, and the House of Happy Walls Museum, filled with treasures from the couple's South Seas sojourns. Save time for a half-mile walk to the ruins of Wolf House, or continue up Sonoma Mountain for vistas that might inspire the next great American novel.