Certain places draw me back again and again, and the wine country of Northern California ranks high among them. I still feel a thrill as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge, knowing that I will soon arrive in one of the world’s leading wine regions. Others may be more scenic than Napa and Sonoma — Chianti and South Africa’s Franschhoek Valley immediately spring to mind — but few have a comparable concentration of world-class resorts and restaurants. After last year’s wildfires, it would be understandable to imagine the entire area charred black. As devastating as the fires were, however, the valleys remain extremely beautiful, with sun-soaked vineyards backdropped by rounded mountains and threaded by winding allées. Hotels, restaurants and wineries are open once again, and most (as of this writing) are operating normally.
Napa Valley has long had a virtual monopoly on grand resorts, whereas the top properties in Sonoma County (a series of valleys) have tended to be smaller hideaways. The 130-room Montage Healdsburg, which opened in December 2020, is a major step toward correcting the imbalance. Although the resort is only a few minutes’ drive north of the town’s main square, it feels like a retreat deep in the countryside, set amid 258 hilly acres of vineyards and oak forest. The hotel sold for a reported $265 million earlier this year, but it remains under Montage management.
The lengthy driveway, which was still partially under construction at the time of our visit, curved past plots of spindly young grapevines and groves of mature trees to the main building. Inside the brown, low-rise, glass-walled structure, we discovered a large gas fireplace separating reception from a bar-lounge furnished with midcentury armchairs and sofas. A separate concierge desk — increasingly rare, nowadays — stood near the bar and reception, making it easy to walk up for advice about nearby restaurants.
Although the resort is only a few minutes’ drive north of the town’s main square, it feels like a retreat deep in the countryside set amid acres of vineyards and oak forest.
A group of 14 had arrived just before us, which could easily have resulted in a long delay to check in. But the front desk had called for backup, and we had to wait only a minute or two before our formalities were complete. Encouraged by this display of proactive good service, we boarded a golf cart that sped us to our room.
The first sight of the taupe-colored villas housing the accommodations was not inspiring. Although surrounded by oaks draped with Spanish moss, their uninvitingly boxy entrances faced the road surrounding the property. However, we found that our guest room, like the main building, was far more attractive inside than out. We had booked a Deluxe Mountain King Room, the highest category before the suites. “Mountain” accommodations have more expansive views of the Sonoma hills; those labeled “Forest” have terraces surrounded by trees, which provide privacy. And those classified as “Vineyard” overlook swaths of grapevines. Lodgings labeled “Deluxe” have the addition of an outdoor shower, an indulgence worth the extra expense. The largest accommodation is the three-bedroom Guest House, located at one of the property’s highest points, with multiple terraces, a kitchen and an outdoor hot tub. But for a couple, my first choice would be a junior suite-like Deluxe Mountain Studio.
Aside from the inclusion (or not) of an outdoor shower, king-bedded rooms all have similar layouts and décor. Each has a terrace that comes with a wide sofa, a two-person dining area and a gas fire pit. It was delightful to sit beside the fire on cool Sonoma mornings while enjoying (speedily delivered) room-service breakfasts. A tree blocked part of our view, but off to the side we could see for miles. Tall sliding glass doors led into the bedroom, done in olive-green and other earth tones, with expanses of natural wood. A small armchair faced a love seat at the foot of the bed, and a marble-topped sideboard contained the minibar and a clever bar cart that swung out from underneath. We found more ingenious design in the light and spacious bath. A hole cut out of the glass wall of the shower stall allowed us to reach the taps without having to stand beneath the head. The twisted vines mounted above the freestanding tub nodded to the nearby vineyards, and the marble-topped dual vanities had A-frame wooden supports, resembling an expensive workbench. A wood-paneled dressing area with two closets divided the bath from the rest of the space.
It was delightful to sit beside the fire on cool Sonoma mornings while enjoying (speedily delivered) room-service breakfasts.
Tempting though it was to remain on our terrace and drink the complimentary bottle of wine we had received, duty called. I phoned the front desk for a golf cart to take us to the pool, and it arrived just four minutes later. There are actually two outdoor pools, both surrounded with loungers shaded by dusty-pink umbrellas and bordered with cabanas. The oval family pool is ironically closer to the bar, but the wedge-shaped adult pool has the better view. We installed ourselves in loungers in a prime position, facing the trees and hills (and power lines) beyond. I couldn’t resist ordering some Robert Young Melon, as it takes a brave sommelier to put something as unfamiliar as a domestic Melon de Bourgogne (the grape used in Muscadet) on a pool bar’s by-the-glass menu. It took 30 minutes for the wine to arrive, but it was delicious and unusual.
Unfortunately, we had booked too late to reserve a treatment in the adjacent spa, and all appointments were taken during our stay. Nevertheless, I set aside an hour to take advantage of the large steam room and small relaxation lounge. And I liked that the fitness center opened to the pool terrace, permitting outdoor workouts.
Inevitably, I spent far more time in the restaurant and bar than the fitness center. Hazel Hill has a bright dining room with walls of windows on three sides. I gravitated to its large terrace, where we had a superb dinner at a table overlooking vineyards and distant Mount St. Helena. The shima aji crudo came exquisitely presented, with ripe pluot, pickled green walnuts and a streak of herbaceous basil oil. A Vermentino from Carneros paired marvelously. The staff disagreed on the best pairing for my main course of local duck. Our waitress and I settled on a fruity Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, which worked well with the tender breast, but the sommelier argued for an earthier Sangiovese. He brought over a complimentary half-glass, and indeed, it was a better pairing with the gamier duck sausage in the dish. I then succumbed to a refreshing Pavlova with blackberry and coconut sorbets, and his suggested accompaniment of Rockpile Winery’s “Independence” reminded me what a sublime pleasure Port-style wines can be. We retired to the adjacent terrace of the Scout Field Bar for a nightcap and watched as the peak of Mount St. Helena glowed pink in the setting sun.
Montage Healdsburg has an activities center, Compass Sports, which can arrange for archery, pickleball and bocce on-property. Pedal-assist bikes are available for rent. For most other pursuits, such as golf, kayaking and hiking, it is necessary to leave the resort. The concierge also has relationships with several nearby wine producers and can arrange for tours and tastings.
I enjoyed our time at the resort immensely, but Montage Healdsburg is not flawless. The views can be compromised; many of the staff members are inexperienced; service can be slow, notably at the pool; and the construction of Montage Residences adjacent to the resort results in noise starting at 8 a.m. (Rooms 561-564, 571-573 and 611-614 are closest to the building site.) In spite of these issues, some temporary and some not, the Montage Healdsburg is a wonderful addition to Sonoma County, and I suspect it will only improve with time.
The countryside setting convenient to downtown Healdsburg; the always cheerful staff; our thoughtfully designed room; the excellent restaurant.
The compromised views (power lines, awnings); the slow service at the pool; the construction noise; the high price.
Children can take advantage of the Paintbox kids’ club; vineyard-view accommodations tend to have less privacy than others; book spa services well in advance.
As delightful as it is to stay in the countryside, there is much to be said for accommodations within walking distance of winery tasting rooms. We have long recommended the 16-room Hotel Les Mars, located two minutes on foot from Healdsburg Plaza, and I looked forward to reevaluating the hotel in light of its new competition. The property’s more-limited services became apparent as soon as we pulled up to its front door, which was devoid of bellmen. The hotel has “temporarily suspended valet parking for health and safety reasons,” which meant that we were left to our own devices to find a spot on the street. (We parked right around the corner.) The property has no spa, nor is there an on-site fitness center. And the complimentary wine and cheese reception still listed on the hotel’s website has also been discontinued for the moment.
Even so, for those who prefer traditional décor and wish to stay in the heart of Healdsburg, the Hotel Les Mars remains the best choice. The building is modern, but the interior feels like a classic French mansion. In the entry hall, a crystal chandelier hangs over a large flower arrangement set on an imposing marble table. Beyond, the lobby-lounge has an Aubusson-style tapestry and a sweeping staircase with a wrought-iron banister. Adjacent to the entry hall is the only other public space aside from the restaurant, the library, a hushed lounge paneled in polished walnut and lined with ornate bookcases.
Absent bellmen aside, our check-in was gracious. The man behind the front desk took our luggage inside as we parked, and when we returned to reception, he had flutes of sparkling wine at the ready. We sipped them as he escorted us to our room, where he pointed out the complimentary nonalcoholic beverages in the minibar. It didn’t cost us much more to stay on the third floor, the most desirable level due to the rooms’ 20-foot beamed ceilings.
Our Grand King occupied a corner, and its furnishings were traditional to the point of being reactionary. Framed plates depicting 18th-century French soldiers adorned the walls, and a regal canopy bed was swathed in toile de Jouy emblazoned with grape-filled urns. It faced a wooden cabinet from which a television rose at the touch of a button. An antique writing desk and a round leather-topped table doubled as nightstands, and dove-gray barrel chairs flanked a gas fireplace surrounded by a faux-stone mantel. In lieu of a closet, a large antique wardrobe provided storage. In the bath, attractive blue granite topped a sideboard-like vanity and surrounded a jetted tub. A separate white-marble shower stall offered Bulgari toiletries.
Framed plates depicting 18th-century French soldiers adorned the walls, and a canopy bed was swathed in toile de Jouy emblazoned with grape-filled urns.
After a stroll around Healdsburg, we returned to dine in the hotel’s dinner-only restaurant, Chalkboard. It was packed, and I was glad we had requested a table on the back patio. The menu changes daily and exhibits a range of influences. In the mood for a lighter dinner, we started with an unfussy salad of perfectly ripe local tomatoes and basil. Our waitress’s recommended wine pairing, a minerally Prinsley Chardonnay, worked unexpectedly well with the dash of fish sauce in the slightly spicy Thai-style dressing. When I asked her thoughts about a wine to go with my main course, she said, “With the trout, definitely a red,” a phrase seldom uttered by sommeliers. But the Chalk Hill Pinot Noir, which had both earthiness and fruitiness, tasted delicious with the crispy-skinned local fish, served atop a dollop of thick creamed corn leavened with a side of pickled green beans.
Looking forward to staying at a resort with a more extensive list of services, we left the Hotel Les Mars and drove south. It is simple to breeze down the wide U.S. Highway 101, but I recommend turning east in Santa Rosa and taking state Route 12 instead; it’s much more scenic, flanked by hills and vineyards rather than big-box stores. We headed toward the historic town of Sonoma, where the short-lived California Republic was declared in 1846. The barracks that served as the insurgents’ headquarters still stand. Today, Sonoma feels like a lower-key Healdsburg, with a quieter downtown but no shortage of tasting rooms, galleries and restaurants.
The downtown Healdsburg location within walking distance to numerous restaurants and tasting rooms; the friendly welcome; the traditional décor.
The limited amenities; the lack of on-site parking.
Only room-service continental breakfast is available; the restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday.
On the southern edge of town, within a 10-minute walk of the plaza, is the recently overhauled MacArthur Place hotel. Though it has been in business since 1997, the renovations were extensive enough for a major travel magazine to name the property one of 2020’s best new hotels in the world. Its 64 rooms are spread over 6 acres of gardens and are contained within the estate’s original 19th-century residence (the Burris House) and 15 other cottagelike structures. We had reserved a Suite, to which we were escorted by a friendly bellman. It was on the second floor of the Magnolia building, which gave us more privacy than accommodations at ground level. Our terrace’s two cushioned chairs overlooked a garden courtyard, where a small wedding reception, accompanied by a string quartet, had been taking place when we arrived.
The recent renovations were extensive enough for a major travel magazine to name the property one of 2020’s best new hotels in the world.
Inside, the sunny Suite was open-plan and decorated in pleasing shades ranging from cream to chocolate. On the opposite side of the room from the king bed was a two-person dining area in an alcove, and an ivory linen sofa that faced a woodburning fireplace (we received a new Duraflame log each day). A sliding black barn door concealed the well-lit bath done in limestone, wood and appealing white tile. There was no tub, but the immense shower stall had two heads plus a hand-held wand in between. The two vessel sinks were less generous with space, however, and their faucets were set too low. Our room had a few other minor problems. The floor of our terrace was damaged where a mat had once rested; its wooden railing had painted-over rot in places; and we could sometimes hear traffic noise. (The Magnolia building is close to the service entrance and to Broadway, the main road leading into town.)
We walked through Mediterranean gardens of lavender, box hedges and shade trees to the main building, housing MacArthur Place’s three dining venues. After an aperitif in the stylish bar, which felt both clubby and contemporary, we headed next door to Layla, the main restaurant. The barnlike space has a striking design with light wood floors, whitewashed wicker-backed chairs and giant wicker basket chandeliers. Service was slow — like many hotels nowadays, MacArthur Place seemed to be understaffed — but the food was excellent. I started with a summery salad of apricot, Black Beauty plum and pluot tossed with olive oil and black pepper and topped with burrata. My Pacific halibut, accompanied by cauliflower purée and royal trumpet mushrooms, was a tad overcooked, but it had a delectable golden crust. A slightly buttery Hanzell “Sebella” Chardonnay was a fine pairing.
We returned to Layla each morning for a sit-down breakfast (there is also a coffee shop for simpler fare), and again, service was cheerful but very slow. It took a good 15 minutes to get butter, for example. Fortunately, we were in no great rush and could enjoy a leisurely meal on the shady patio.
It was at the pool, where no waitstaff appeared for more than a half-hour after our arrival, that I decided MacArthur Place just wasn’t going to make the cut. I don’t begrudge a bartender a break, but at a resort charging $950 a night (before taxes and fees), I expect service — even in these unprecedented times — to be better. An invigorating olive oil-eucalyptus scrub in the small spa next to the pool enhanced my mood but did not change my mind. Considering our room’s handful of small problems, the many accommodations that lack privacy, the traffic noise and the generally slow service, I can’t endorse MacArthur Place. Those wishing to explore the wineries and other attractions of southern Sonoma County will likely have a better stay at the Carneros Resort & Spa, a 15-minute drive outside of town.
The location convenient to Carneros wineries and downtown Sonoma; the pretty gardens with sculptures and fire pits; the quiet pool; the chic bar and restaurant; our Suite’s woodburning fireplace; the resort’s fine collection of original contemporary artworks.
Many accommodations lack privacy; the slow service in the restaurant and at the pool; the occasional traffic noise; the poor design of the sinks in our bath.
The Chef’s Cottage and accommodations on the second floor have the most privacy.