At the base of the Bohemian Highway, within a stone’s throw of California’s best coastal vineyards, is the tiny town of Freestone, tucked between the redwoods and the ocean. Blink your eyes and you’ll miss it—but consider it a destination for deep relaxation. Osmosis Day Spa & Sanctuary, founded by Michael Stusser in 1985, is a Zen meditation retreat here, at the center of which is a cedar enzyme bath experience.
A day at Osmosis begins with a welcoming cup of hot tea and a walk through the Kyoto-style meditation garden, whose labyrinthine paths are designed to bring you into the present moment. Based on the Zen parable of The Ox and the Herder, a metaphor for the experience of enlightenment, the ten-stage journey carries you through various elements of earth and water with opportunities to stop and reflect for as long as you’d like.
Zen Garden meditation space at Osmosis Day Spa. Photo by Kim Westerman
Designed by British horticulturist Robert Ketchell and built by the late Steve Stucky, once the Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, the garden is lovingly tended by unobtrusive staff who will come find you if you lose track of time. After all, that’s the point.
The lovingly tended rock garden at Osmosis Day Spa. Photo by Kim Westerman
When it’s time, you’ll be led back to the main building for a tea service in a private room overlooking a beautiful tea garden that you’re also welcome to stroll in. The tea is infused with enzymes designed to aid digestion and mirror the experience your skin will have in the forthcoming cedar enzyme bath.
Next, we had massages in the couples room, a quiet space where two therapists work in harmony on your respective sore muscles, tailoring the treatment to your specific needs. There are also outdoor pagodas available for massage therapy, a good option on warmer days. Our massage therapists were especially attuned not only to what we reported our bodies needed, but also what they sensed through their own intuitive assessment.
After the deeply relaxing massage, we took a break for lunch, which was a generous salad of local greens and an egg, served at a picnic table by the creek.
Lunch by the creek at Osmosis Day Spa. Photo by Kim Westerman
At last, the main event: the cedar enzyme bath, a therapeutic treatment from Japan that is the only one of its kind in North America. Wooden boxes hold the deeply aromatic mixture of ground cedar and rice bran, infused with enzymes created by a biological catalyst imported from Japan that triggers fermentation, hence the steam rising from the “bath,” which is, actually, not wet, but rather humid from perpetual fermentation. And warm. Perfectly, relaxingly warm.
The cedar enzyme bath is the only one of its kind in North America. Photo by Kim Westerman
The cedar enzyme bath takes about 30 minutes, all told, and an attendant walks you through the process, coming in periodically to wipe your face with a cool cloth and give you a sip of water (as your hands are buried in the mixture). Then, she brushes your skin off with a little broom—yes, a broom!—before leading you into the adjacent shower.
So relaxing was our time at Osmosis that it seemed like a crime to get in the car and drive back to reality. But it’s a comfort to know that this sanctuary is always there.
Aesthetic pruning is a living art form combining the skill of the pruner, the science of horticulture, and the essence of a tree. While the emphasis is on beauty, maintaining the vitality of the tree is just as important; aesthetic pruners make the right cuts for the right reasons. For Master Pruner Michael Alliger, this art is a balance between the present and the future.
In the 1980s, Alliger was eager for change from a career in retail; he felt an inner calling to work outside. “I thought you had to be a gardener to do that,” he explained, so he enrolled in a plant identification class at Merritt College in Oakland. “I found I had a facility for it. My passion just exploded! I had never been happier.”
He had grown up in the suburbs, surrounded by lawns. “I hated mowing the lawn, so it was such a surprise to me. I found a whole new world to walk into. Suddenly the streets of Oakland came alive as I got to know the plants—the world went from two dimensions to three dimensions, from black and white to color.”
In 1986, while studying horticulture at Merritt, Alliger met Dennis Makishima, a Japanese-American student from El Cerrito. Wanting to connect with his Japanese heritage, Makishima went to bonsai clubs to learn that art, and realized that he could take elements of bonsai and apply them to landscape pruning. One day, Alliger watched Makishima prune a Japanese maple. “I was transfixed. I knew that was what I wanted to do. It felt like home. I asked if I could follow him around and watch him work.” Their relationship evolved into a formal apprenticeship.
“Dennis is brilliant,” Alliger said. “He’s a visionary, a brilliant organizer and strategist and leader.” Makishima suggested to Merritt College that they offer classes in aesthetic pruning and asked Alliger if he would like to teach. “I taught an Introduction to Aesthetic Pruning for a half-day each month, and Dennis unfurled this whole series of classes.” The classes that Makishima organized and taught explored plant material, pruning for the focal point, pruning for the big picture, Japanese maples, pines and conifers, flowering trees, pruning as a career, and finding the essence of the tree. A year later, Makishima offered those classes to Alliger, who would teach most of them for the next 20 years.
The two men organized an informal pruning club that continues to this day at Merritt. “People could drop in or drop out any time. We would volunteer at schools, churches or parks. It was mutually beneficial. The students would get experience and the trees were cared for,” Alliger said.
Makishima also envisioned a professional organization for aesthetic pruning, similar to the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA); and he and Alliger were among the founders of the Aesthetic Pruners Association (APA), a non-profit that promotes the craft of aesthetic pruning and supports professional pruners in their work. This group sets the standards for aesthetic pruning.
Alliger explained the focus of the APA. “Our school of pruning is in the lineage of Japanese garden pruning, which is distinct from European pruning. Principles of the Japanese lineage are pruning to the human scale, size control and containment. The artistic model is based on nature as you see it, nature in essence. We seek both containment and natural expression. The overarching factor is garden design: to have the tree or shrub fit the garden design and still honor the natural form. Our approach works on fruit trees, too, but it’s different from pruning skyline trees, like redwoods and oaks.
“Unlike most animals, plants and trees have the ability to regenerate lost parts. Follow-up pruning requires consistency and has the potential to give the tree longer life. In order for pruning to be structurally sound, it needs to be continually applied—you can’t just do it once.” Some bonsai trees in Japan are 500 to 600 years old. Because these trees outlive human beings, their care has been handed down from generation to generation. For Alliger, “It’s all about love and all about care.
“While the school of thought comes from Japanese pruning, we are not pruning Japanese gardens—we are pruning California gardens, American gardens. But the principles are universally applied,” said Alliger, who is exploring working with native materials to find their potential. The idea of containment and structural pruning has not happened before with our native woody plants.
“I’m experimenting at home with buckeye—how old do they have to be before they flower? How small can they be and still flower? It’s so exciting to think about! The Japanese have been working with landscape plant material in their gardens for 1,100 years. Here, we’ve been doing it for only 75 years, and we’re in the baby stage of realizing the possibilities and finding out which ones are going to be functional in gardens from the point of view of beauty and containment. The more we use our own plant material, the more comfortable we feel. That sense of context is salubrious.”
A powerful part of Alliger’s exploration is in joining the stream of people who have been doing this work for centuries; now he is able to pass it forward. After moving to Sebastopol in 1992, he took on the aesthetic pruning of the Japanese-style gardens at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. While he continues to maintain those trees, most of his work is done in private gardens around Sonoma County. Retiring from teaching at Merritt in 2011, he currently offers an annual one-day, hands-on class in Aesthetic Pruning for the Master Gardeners of Marin County. He also writes a garden blog for the Osmosis Newsletter which you can sign up for here.
It might seem counterintuitive to do anything in Napa and Sonoma Valleys beyond drinking wine all day long. However, whether you simply need a break from constant imbibing, are a teetotaler, or have already visited all the wineries on your checklist, here are nine worthy pursuits beyond the famous wine scene.
Unwind at a Spa
In terms of the number of leisure options, spas may come in second after wineries. One of the highest concentrations can be found in Calistoga on the Napa side, thanks to natural hot springs and volcanic mud. A-listers and those with deep pockets head toCalistoga Ranch, a 157-acre property that offers organic spa treatments and outdoor soaking pools. Other area standouts include the 40,000-square-foot spa at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, and The Meritage Resort and Spa, a cavernous space located 40 feet underground. The carriage house spa at the rustic Farmhouse Inn provides a more intimate vibe, and it’s not limited to overnight guests. (Although there’s no reason why you shouldn’t stay here.) Osmosis Day Spa is another day spa option, and the only spa in the country to offer a cedar enzyme bath. This unconventional treatment involves being buried up to your chin in a fermented mixture of cedar, rice bran and enzymes, which claims to aid everything from muscle pain to circulation. Finally, for the ultimate getaway, all the superlatives have been used to describe Meadowood Napa Valley, and the spa is no exception. Each treatment room functions as a private suite, eliminating the need for locker rooms—or any guest interaction for that matter.
Explore Small Towns
Napa is considered the jumping-off point into the region, and it’s worth a stop for theOxbow Public Market, where you can taste the area’s best oysters, chocolate, cheese and more under one roof. Part restaurant, part upscale goods, General Store Napacombines the best of everything. Head further north to St. Helena for its attractive Main Street; pick up grapefruit mimosa soap at Napa Soap Company, stylish walking shoes at Flats Napa Valley, and designer threads at Pearl Wonderful Clothing. Don’t leave before savoring a meal at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Over in Sonoma, Healdsburg represents small-town living at its best (complete with a bona fide town square and gazebo), and its walkable downtown is filled with enough charming boutiques to occupy an afternoon. Eat and shop at the architecturally stunning Shed, browse through books at Levin & Company, and pop into One World Fair Trade for artisan clothes and crafts. Further south, Santa Rosa tempts with blocks and blocks of coffeshops, independent stores and restaurants along historic Fourth Street.Whistlestop Antiques, Treehorn Books and Kindred Fair Trade Handcrafts are among the finds. Less than an hour from San Francisco, downtown Petaluma is another historic area with cobblestone streets and Victorian homes. Thrift for vintage and consignment threads at local fave Ooh La Loft. Petaluma Seed Bank is a must for gardening fanatics, who will lose it over the variety of tools, books and more than 1,800 types of heirloom seeds. For a change of pace from wine, beer lovers will appreciate Lagunitas Brewing Company’s taproom.
Visit Art Galleries and Museums
Wine country is overflowing with museums and galleries. In fact, there are about two-dozen art galleries in Healdsburg alone. Erickson Fine Arts Gallery is among the oldest, and its imposing gated entrance leads to three airy floors filled with contemporary paintings, sculptures and more. Meanwhile, Paul Mahder Gallery (pictured), showcases contemporary art in 8,500 square feet, making it the largest (single floor) gallery in the state. Elsewhere in the region, Jessel Gallery is the place for quintessential wine country paintings. If you prefer more of a museum experience, head to di Rosa to contemplate about 2,000 pieces from 800 local artists. The indoor and outdoor galleries overlook a lake and vineyards, making it just as hard to take your eyes off the setting as the art. Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz is arguably the most famous local artist. He spent the last decades of his life in Santa Rosa, where you can visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum to enjoy the largest collection of the beloved Peanuts cartoon. The museum also features a re-creation of his studio and rotating exhibits, like the current presidential-themed one. Don’t leave wine country before visiting The Hess Collection, an acclaimed private collection housed in its namesake winery. More than a quarter of the contemporary art is on display at museums around the world, but the home collection still includes preeminent artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz and Anselm Kiefer. Even better? You can visit these world-class works for free.
Partake in Festivals
Although wine festivals dominate, they’re not the only ones worth visiting. Oktoberfest activities are held throughout October in the Napa Valley, while the Napa Valley Film Festival in November will screen more than 100 independent films. Dev Patel, Viggo Mortensen and Chloe Grace Moretz are among this year’s honorees. Now in its 20th year, the Sonoma International Film Festival takes place March 29-April 2, and will show more than 90 movies. Past attendees have included Bruce Willis and Susan Sarandon. For a taste of Norman Rockwell living, the 71st annual Sebastopol Apple Blossom Festival(pictured) from April 22-23 is a highlight in this apple-growing region, complete with a parade that goes up Main Street. The end of April heralds the Petaluma Butter & Egg Days Parade & Festival, another annual tradition that attracts as many as 30,000 people.
Grey and blue whales can be spotted year-round off the Sonoma Coast, with peak whale watching occurring during migration periods in the fall and spring. Head to Bodega Head within Sonoma Coast State Park for prime viewing; it helps if you have binoculars and warm clothing. Weekends bring volunteers who can answer all of your whale questions. If you want to get even closer, a number of companies offer whale-watching tours, such as Miss Anita Fishing Charters and Bodega Bay Sportfishing.
Catch a Performance
The intimate Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, just outside of Santa Rosa, attracts big-name talent. Upcoming tours include 19-time Grammy winner Tony Bennett, and Monty Python founders John Cleese and Eric Idle. The space also hosts orchestras, plays, acrobatic troupes and more. Head to Green Music Center (pictured) at Sonoma State University to hear the world-famous Itzhak Perlman and the Vienna Boys Choir perform. The lineup at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater truly offers something for everyone, whether it’s Indian drumming, a tango orchestra or The Nutcracker ballet. It’s also where the Napa Valley Film Festival is held. For a taste of regional theater, the current 6th Street Playhouse season includes musical theater favorite TheRocky Horror Picture Show.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
A hot air balloon ride is the best way to get a full overview of bucolic wine valley terrain, from rolling hills to endless rows of vineyards. Flights usually lift off in the (very) early morning and float for about an hour, depending on the company. Sonoma options encompass Up & Away Ballooning, which includes a post-flight breakfast at cool concept space Shed in Healdsburg, and Sonoma Valley Balloons, which concludes with a champagne toast. In Napa, Balloons Above the Valley provides pastries at sunrise and a champagne brunch afterward. Napa Valley Aloft can arrange a private flight, while Napa Valley Balloons wraps with breakfast at Chandon Winery.
Be Awed by a Redwood Forest
Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, and can grow as high as 350 feet and survive for upwards of 2,000 years. The majority of California’s redwoods were chopped down during the gold rush period, but luckily pockets of these majestic trees have been preserved, including 805 acres at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve (pictured) in Sonoma County. Enjoy a picnic area, nature trails (from easy to advanced), and a visitor center to learn more about the nature reserve. For example, the Parson Jones tree is Armstrong’s tallest at more than 310 feet, while the 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong tree holds the title of oldest. Since this park doesn’t attract the same tourist hordes as Muir Woods, you get to soak in these facts in silence.
While most people flock to Sonoma County for its world-class wines, low-key vibes, and exquisite natural backdrop – it encompasses more than 1,600 square miles, with seemingly endless lush, rolling hills and stretches of clear sky – there’s more to chilling out in wine country than, well, wine.
Plan in advance to score a reservation (especially during weekends) at this sparkling, 3,600 square-foot swimming pool, located at one of Sonoma’s most celebrated wineries. Why? For starters, it’s among the few truly family-friendly spots in the area. Plus, the European-inspired Cabines – there’s 28 available – offer private changing rooms and showers, towels, shaded lounge chairs, and 4 complimentary Sofia Mini singles. If you’re in the mood to burn some calories, try your hand at bocce ball at one of the adjacent regulation-sized courts. And when the pool closes in the evening, beeline to RUSTIC, Francis’s Favorites for dinner. The winery’s bustling restaurant features the celebrated director’s favorite dishes, including Habit-Forming Ribs, Marrakesh Lamb, and Mrs. Scorsese’s Lemon Chicken. If you can snag a table outdoors when the weather’s fine, you’ll be rewarded with some pretty breathtaking views, too.
This storied Sonoma property is practically faultless on all counts, and its spa and neighboring golf club are no exception. The Willow Stream is a spacious and airy oasis offering an extensive list of specialty treatments, which fall into three categories: relieve,restore, and results. No matter what you select, though, arrive at least an hour early to take advantage of the signature bathing ritual, which includes use of an exfoliating shower, mineral water soaking pools, herbal steam, dry sauna, and cool down showers. In a more active mood? Set up a tee time at the Sonoma Golf Club. The scenic course is lush and immaculately maintained, very walkable, offers water – so you don’t have to lug around your own bottle – at each hole, and plays fast. (It’s mostly local players who know the course well).
Understated yet luxurious, this spa is totally one of a kind. The space has a rustic design – think whitewashed wood, paintings of horses by artist Tina Wainwright, and sliding barn doors. Naturally, the treatments also draw inspiration from the farm, and many of the ingredients used are sourced from the inn’s gardens and neighboring purveyors. Seeking a custom-tailored experience? Try The Personal Apothecary, so you can select your favorite blend of oils for a wrap, scrub, or massage. I opted for the house best seller, Catherine’s Favorite. It’s a blissful duo combining a lavender-orange hair and scalp treatment with a lavender-tangerine body massage and foot treatment. I was lulled into such a deep state of relaxation, I snoozed off mid-session more than once.
Founded by Michael Stusser in 1985, Osmosis is so much more than a spa. Over the years, it’s evolved into a true haven of well-being, complete with meditation gardens, a Japanese tea garden, Field of Hammocks, and even pagodas – where you can experience bodywork in true privacy and peace. But Osmosis’ claim to fame is the Japanese-inspired Cedar Enzyme Bath Experience. Exclusive to the spa, it involves being submerged in a tub filled with a finely ground mixture of fermented evergreens and rice bran. An attendant periodically checks in with cool water and towels for your forehead – the fermentation process naturally creates heat, so you’ll start sweating quickly. After 20 minutes, you shower off and can continue with a massage, sound therapy (music intended to lower brain wave activity for a calming effect), or a light, healthful lunch.
They aren’t the first to pioneer the farm-to-spa movement, but the spa at Hotel Healdsburg is certainly raising the bar when it comes to using the natural bounty of Sonoma – like wine grapes, meyer lemon, lavender, and honey – to nourish your skin and soothe your soul. In the Meyer Lemon Massage, for example, your therapist works out even the toughest, most stubborn knots with a whipped, lightly fragranced body cream – as opposed to oil, which can leave you feeling uncomfortably slick. While the facilities themselves are fairly fuss-free and standard, the care and technique delivered is top notch. And when the weather’s warm, retreat to the charming courtyard to unwind even further post-treatment, or take a dip in the pool and jacuzzi.