Into the Woods: Russian River Valley
Most San Franciscans react to the idea of traveling outside the city as if they were just asked to join a friend for an impromptu dinner in Texas. Fog city may encapsulate all we need for an evening of dining, drinking and entertainment.
However, if you’re looking for a lazy weekend with some specks of city flavor, perhaps a car ride north to the Russian River Valley can give you the "R & R" you desire without feeling too far from your city roots.
Guerneville, nestled approximately 19 miles west off of Route 101, is a quaint, LGBT-friendly community of roughly 4,500 people, which swells considerably in the summer months. With a downtown Main Street that disappears into the stretch of forest just as quickly as it appeared, Guerneville marries the classic idea of country living with a few specks (but, just specks) of big city flair.
While many businesses have changed hands and names over the years, we find Guerneville rich with history and a community proud to be who and where they are. For a small town nestled in the woods, Guerneville is highly progressive and home to many LGBT-friendly businesses and vacationers.
The Rainbow Cattle Company is a local gay bar that has stood the test of time (16220 Main St. (707) 869-0206. www.queersteer.com). Rob Giljum is one of the current owners of the bar where the rustic interior paneling has soaked up over 30 years of spilled cocktails, laughter and heavy cruising. Rob is particularly enthusiastic about the bar’s ’Giveback Tuesdays.’
"We realize we are a member of this community, and try to give back to it as well," notes Giljum. "We hold functions every Tuesday where ten percent of our sales are donated to a charity." The bar is open 365 days a week, whether it be tourist season or not. "It’s a wonderfully open and accepting community up here," he adds. "Plus the setting on the River surrounded by the hills makes it picturesque."
Simone Campbell, a San Francisco based performer, enjoys the escape up North. "I love the Russian River area up in Guerneville," says Campbell. "And as someone who is not fond of hot weather and nature, that says a lot!"
While the weather is a draw for some, it’s specialty events and weekends that pull other vacationers to Guerneville. As a part of the popular annual Women’s Weekend, Simone hosted an event called "Dragstraveganza" at The River Theater -as well as judging a wet t-shirt contest- proof that the little community doesn’t shutter at sundown as small towns often do (16135 Main St. (707) 869-8022. www.russianrivertheater.com).
Simone calls the weekend the best mix of organized chaos she has ever experienced, and found herself enamored with The River Theatre, where some of those events took place.
"You can really feel the history in the space that is littered with stage design of shows and way-gay parties of years past."
The venue, now known as Jerry Knight’s Historic River Theater, was established in 1947 as a movie theater, but has enjoyed various historical uses such as burlesque, comedy and music through the years, even seeing appearances by The Jerry Garcia Band, Buddy Holly and a pregnant EmmyLou Harris.
Today the venue offers a variety of bands and parties and will host events for the annual Lazy Bear Weekend, August 1-6.
Yes, it’s back! The organizers of the popular weekend will host a whole herd of parties and events. Advance Bear Tags are $105. For info on the hirsute happenings, visit www.lazybearweekend.com
While that weekend will be joyfully crowded, and summer is always busy, you can find a place to stay in Guerneville or nearby Monte Rio. For accommodations, several options range from totally rustic (campground rentals for those who prefer the romantic intimacy of a tent) to luxury-rustic (rooms that include a view, a kitchen, even a fireplace). The Woods offers this entire range, from cozy cabins starting at $95 a night, to the spacious penthouse suite, which goes for $295-$335, with a four-night minimum.
The best part for guests? Perhaps it’s the convenient location to the river, and their clean big clothing-optional swimming pool, surrounded by colorful floral displays. If summer’s too busy for you, consider an autumn trip, where the local foliage transforms into a riot of warm colors. (16484 4th St., Guerneville. (877) 887-9218. www.rrwoods.com)
Just a block down from Main Street lies the revamped R3 Hotel, which many remember as the Russian River Resort or The Triple R. The resort has been a fixture of the community for years. Whether remembered for their outdoor patio and pool parties in the summer heat or for a questionable hot tub which might be better identified as Egg Drop Soup after a long evening of use, it remains a popular destination. (16390 4th St. (707) 869-8399. www.ther3hotel.com)
"I performed comedy there one time and afterward they let us use the facilities, including the hot tub," says comedienne Susan Maletta. "That hot tub apparently had seen a lot of action, because I woke up in the morning and I was pregnant!"
Clearly a joke (we hope), that is the legacy that lives on at R3, which has reopened after a few shuttered years. R3 is ready to party again and new weekly events include Shiny Disco Balls, a Saturday night dance party, as well as Hey, Gurl Hey on Thursdays, and Karaoke every Sunday. The resort still boasts a full bar, pool, sun deck, restaurant, piano bar and hotel as well.
If you think the R3 Hotel sounds like it could lead to an evening of debauchery, who knows what might happen at the Naughty Pines, a 15-acre private men’s retreat nestled in the hills above Guerneville. There are cabin and tent rentals available ($40-$75 a night) and who knows, maybe you will be plucked to be an extra in one of the many porn films that are often shot on their grounds. That could definitely be a most memorable experience! www.naughtypines.com
Nearby Monte Rio is equally scenic, and a little off the main drag. For another riverside view, the gay-owned Rio Villa offers all the conveniences of a hotel with the rustic flair of the area. It’s also secluded and surrounded by lush forests. Feeling especially romantic? They also cater weddings. 20292 Hwy 116. (877) 746-8455. www.riovilla.com
My biggest memory of the Russian River is from my very first weekend living in California in 2001. I was a newbie comedian at the time, and was pretty much booed off the stage at the Triple R, but not without being heckled first. A (drunken) man at the bar yelled, "What room are you in, boy? Because I am a chickenhawk!"
With nearby hiking trails, campgrounds, wineries and plenty of quaint restaurants with down-home menus, you can keep busy while relaxing. So, whether you’re a bear, bear-chaser, fair or fowl, you’ll find plenty of wildlife where the River runs.