Occidental offers comfort food, scenic views and zip lining adventures

Cafes and curio shops line the town's main street.|

In the late 19th century, the last stop west on the narrow-gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad was the village of Occidental, isolated high in dense redwood forests.

In its logging heyday, lumber from six sawmills was trundled down the rails to Sausalito and ferried across the bay to San Francisco. Vacationers rode the train back up to the Russian River resorts and Occidental to bask in the sunshine and relax in small hotels, away from the city's summer fogs.

An 1890s account described Occidental as a “well-built” town with “a neat depot, two shoemaker shops, four hotels, a winery, warehouses and … commodious dwellings.”

Today, its two-block main street is lined with original and recreated buildings from that era, housing Italian restaurants and cafes, art galleries and curio shops.

Site of the old train depot, Howard Station Cafe is where locals and tourists chow down on comfort food like biscuits and gravy, and ice cream parlor treats, along with sophisticated choices like grilled portobellos and tempeh Reubens. The cafe also offers a Fido-friendly menu, too, and a walk-up, takeout window.

Two pasta palaces continue to draw families to Occidental for bountiful Italian dinners, as they have for many decades. The Union Hotel Restaurant and Cafe served as a boarding house and saloon for railroad workers in the 1880s but now holds forth as a traditional Italian eatery, bakery cafe, watering hole and pizzeria, complete with red-checkered tablecloths and a wisteria-draped garden patio.

Made from scratch with family recipes passed down to four generations, legendary Nonni's ravioli and pollo alla cacciatore are on the voluminous menu at Negri's Italian Dinners & Joe's Bar. A generous bar menu offers bruschetta, charcuterie, pizza, and more trattoria-style favorites.

Arts alive in Occidental

A thriving colony of artists and craftspeople is headquartered at Occidental Center for the Arts, a gallery and performance venue where changing exhibitions and more than forty musical events and festivals are held each year. Each April, it sponsors the annual Fool's Day Parade, a chance for Occidental denizens to dress up, act silly and carouse through town to the center for music, food and high jinks.

On July 27 and 28, the center hosts the Prasada Festival, celebrating “kirtan” classical Indian dance and traditional bhakti arts.

A half-mile south on Main Street, local artists are well represented at Hand Goods, a rambling emporium and gallery of art and crafts from pottery, jewelry and sculptures to textiles, prints, toys and clothing, most locally made. Shoppers also can discover along the street an herb shop, a luminous glassworks gallery and the Boho Bungalow, full of treasures from estate sales and local creators.

Occidental area wineries

Sponsored by the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, the annual West of West Festival will showcase on Aug. 17 at the Occidental Center for the Arts the legendary cool-climate varietals for which the region is famous, in particular, pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah. Oenophiles in the know purchase VIP tickets to arrive an hour early for tasting of library wines, before the crowd arrives at 4 p.m.

Although vineyards surround Occidental, few tasting rooms are nearby.

Winemaker and owner of Bohème Wines, Kurt Beitler operates the only tasting room in town, the Cellar Door on Main Street.

“I'm especially proud that we grow all our own grapes and handcraft our wines ourselves, from start to finish. Our pinots, chardonnays and syrahs are all single vineyard designated, because every one of our vineyards is entirely unique as to weather, soil and topography,” Beitler said. “The grapes for our Taylor Ridge Pinot, for instance, grow in sandy loam at 915 feet just 5 miles from the ocean, where cool fog from Tomales and Bodega Bays creates a slow-growing environment producing fruit redolent of clove, citrus rind, cinnamon and spices.”

Specializing in dry-farmed pinot noir, rose and zinfandel, and less than five minutes from town on Stoetz Lane, Square Peg Winery opens its doors by appointment. At more than 800 feet in elevation, views through lofty windows show a dramatic scene of dark forest and vineyards dropping into the distance. Visitors can sip wine and browse a gallery of bronze sculptures and paintings by winery co-owner, Alanna Roth. She's well-known for her life-sized bronzes, including one dedicated to Bodega Bay fisherman lost at sea; police memorials; and a 10-foot-high sculpture of firefighters in Whittier near Los Angeles.

Sideroads and byways

Mountain bikers, car clubs, and motorcyclists love the scenic Bohemian Highway that runs right through town past redwood groves, pastures and vineyards. Coleman Valley Road branches off Bohemian Highway, leading visitors west to the coast through valleys and along a ridgeline with stunning views.

Thrill-seekers come to the area for zip lining in a redwood forest.

At Sonoma Canopy Tours, the fearless get a birds eye view of the landscape 200 feet above the forest floor (maybe not too scary, as 10-year-olds are often seen flying from treetop to treetop). The zip lining adventure involves a steep staircase, swaying suspension bridges, and a three-story rappel back down to mother earth. This is a busy place every day of the year, even in the rainy season when mists and raindrops float through the redwoods.

A few minutes away, on the 33-acre Grove of Old Trees on Fitzpatrick Lane, some easy walking trails and a picnic grove beneath old-growth redwoods and fir trees are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.

About 2 miles to the east, Western Hills Garden on the Bohemian Highway has been a landmark for garden fanciers and horticultural societies around the world for more than 60 years.

Chris and Tim Szybalski, who left their Bay Area engineering careers, over the past decade have revived the garden, where footpaths meander through a lush world of trees from around the world. Waterlily-strewn ponds, rustic footbridges, and oceans of rhododendrons, Himalayan dogwoods, and endangered Chinese maples, among hundreds more species, are laid out in garden “rooms.”

According to Tim Szybalski, their rare, fern-like Wollemi pines, discovered in Australia in 1994, were the “botanical find of the 20th century,” formerly known only as fossils. By appointment, you can wander on your own or take a guided tour, purchase plants and bring a picnic to enjoy under a shady glen.


Here are some spots to eat and sleep in Occidental.


Union Hotel: A restaurant and cafe, it has offered traditional Italian fare for over a century. Dine under the umbrellas on the garden patio or in the cozy dining room. 3731 Main St., 707-874-3555, www.unionhoteloccidental.com.

Negri's Italian Dinners & Joe's Bar: Since 1943, families have flocked here for pasta, pizza, locally sourced meats, poultry and fish, famous apple fritters, and inventive cocktails. 3700 Bohemian Highway, 707-823-5301, www.negrisrestaurant.com.

Barley and Hops Tavern: Enjoy house-brewed beers, German-style pretzels, big burgers, and live music on weekends. 3688 Bohemian Highway, 707-874-9037, www.barleyandhops.net.

Restaurant Hazel: Located in a vintage cottage, this fine-dining restaurant offers pizza, roasted meats and sourdough bread from wood-fired ovens, and a Mediterranean-inspired menu sourced from local farms, fishermen and wineries. 3782 Bohemian Highway, 707-874-6003, www.restauranthazel.com.


Inn at Occidental: World travelers and hotel veterans, the Wolsborns chose Occidental to open their romantic bed-and-breakfast. Their B&B features white wicker on the porch, rampant gardens, big breakfasts, 16 luxurious rooms and a large cottage. 3657 Church St., 707-874-1047, www.innatoccidental.com.

Occidental Lodge: Owned by the Negri restaurant family, the 28-room, 1970s-era motor lodge is kid- and pet-friendly and features a pool. 3610 Bohemian Highway, 707-874-3623, www.occidentallodge.com.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.