As most San Franciscans know, summer tends to be foggy and chilly (oh, please, not the Mark Twain quote about how the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco). It’s the combination of cold ocean water and warm land– fortunately, it doesn’t extend outside the City. If you’re ready to escape to summer, and have heard the wine country around Sonoma and Napa is hard to get to and crowded, try this alternative: Davis and Yolo County. Less than two hours east of San Francisco, you may not even need to rent a car.
Following every gray winter, Yolo County swells and bursts into blossom-heavy, bountiful farmland with a plentitude that reaches far beyond Northern California. Farms cover more than 90 percent of this flat and golden land punctuated by undulating hills in shades of emerald and olive. Yolo encompasses the tip of California’s vast Central Valley that forms and feeds the belly of the state from Bakersfield north. The populated areas are made up of small towns and villages, and two cities: Woodland, in the center of the county, and Davis, grown around UC Davis, California’s celebrated agricultural school. Established in 1908, UC Davis is also famed for its Viticulture and Enology program, turning out professional vintners who practice the art and science of winemaking the world over. As you might expect, there are some wonderful wines grown and produced here and a number of places to taste and enjoy wine and food. There’s even an 18-stop wine county tour: pick up a map for this tour and information on surrounding villages, farms and tours outside town at the Yolo County Visitors Bureau in Davis.
Davis is a walking town–everything is very close. It’s easy to catch BART out of San Francisco, transfer to Amtrak in Richmond, and take the train up to the old Spanish-style Southern Pacific Depot (built in 1913) in town. Davis is also a biking town; in fact, the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame is here. You won’t need a car if you plan to stay in town for your entire trip–and you’ll find plenty to do, starting with food.
If you prefer to choose your own ingredients, the Davis Farmer’s Market is a must-do. If you miss the market, try the Davis Coop –they have an exceptional deli there. Davis, being a college town, offers plenty of cheap eats on every block in the downtown in addition to some swankier eateries. A couple of places to savor the bounty of the county in Davis: Seasons Restaurant and bar in the Hallmark Inn, and Monticello Seasonal Cuisine.
Art abounds–you’ll find it in galleries and on literally every street corner thanks to the Art in Public Places Program that dedicates 1% of the town’s Capital Improvement Funds for enhancing “the quality of the Davis Environment.” There’s also a stealth movement that places sculpture and murals on private properties throughout town–you can see it on the Transmedia Sculpture Walking Tour; much of the new art will be microchipped so that smartphones can access information on the piece and the artist, and will be interactive, so viewers can leave their own messages. One of the prime movers in the art scene is John Natsoulas, owner of an excellent multi-floor gallery that bears his name. The Pence Gallery (212 D St.) and Artery (207 G St.) are also worth checking out.
Downtown accommodations are convenient but basic, though a few offer bicycles to rent. The closest hotel to the train station is the pleasant family-owned Hallmark Inn. It features a small pool, outdoor seating area for the comfortable dark-wood bar, and, best of all, lets guests use its bikes to get around town at no charge. Trains do pass nearby, but the double-paned windows keep it pretty quiet. There’s a Best Western within easy walking distance from the train station. Best Western Palm Court is clean and basic as hotels go, though the work-out room was up-to-date, the free parking was priceless, and the location was super-convenient.
If you have transportation beyond Shank’s mare (that’s what grandpa calls your legs, dearie), you can enjoy Yolo Country farther afield, so to speak. Woodland, to the north, is a bastion of history. Once the richest town in the valley, it now offers historic architecture and fantastically well-kept homes from the Victorian era to the present. Don’t forget to buzz Reiff’s (52 Jefferson St., call 530-666-1758 for a tour), a hymn to the collecting talents and general obsession with old stuff of Mark Reiff. You can’t miss it–it’s the place with the car crashed through the garage door. There’s also a First Friday art walk that takes in Dead Cat Alley, Woodland’s original street. One of my favorite places in Woodland is the Heidrick Ag History Center and Tractor & Truck Museum. While in Woodland, stop for lunch at Mojo’s Kitchen428.
Down the “Blossom Trail” (so named because of the delirium of blossoming trees around the second Sunday in March), also known as Highway 16, visitors can stop in at Capay Organic, home of Farm Fresh to You, one of the most popular CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) farms in Northern California.
Circle around to the compact and hip little town of Winters to enjoy wine tasting at any or all of the town’s specialized shops such as Turkovich Family Wines and Winters Cheese Company. Plan on dinner at Putah Creek Café, and visit the Palms Playhouse if there’s a band rocking out.
Whether you stay in Davis to enjoy the sweet college atmosphere only found in mid-western towns or venture beyond the academic fold into the serene (and very warm) countryside, you will indeed find summer here.