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Fire-weary Sonoma Eager for Tourists' Return

by Ed Walsh

Boon Eat and Drink hosted a dinner at its hotel for volunteers, firefighters, and first responders during the North Bay fires. Photo: Sara Little
Boon Eat and Drink hosted a dinner at its hotel for volunteers, firefighters, and first responders during the North Bay fires. Photo: Sara Little  (Source:Sara Little)

Michael Volpatt fought back tears last week as he told the Bay Area Reporter about two school kids, brothers Sage and Wilder Bell-Bross, who came into his shop, the Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, to donate $150 that they had been saving for a vacation. The money went into the market's Pennies from Heaven fundraiser to help the North Bay firestorm victims. The funds will be distributed by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, known for their tireless charitable work in the Russian River area. Volpatt owns the market along with fellow Guerneville LGBT entrepreneur Crista Luedtke. He noted the outpouring of support for the first responders as well as those who have lost homes and jobs because of the fires.

Fortunately, the fires never threatened Guerneville and the town was able to support evacuees, firefighters, and other first responders. Volpatt noted that one of the best ways to support fire victims is to visit Sonoma County and support local businesses and their employees. The businessman is also one of the owners of one of Guerneville's newest ventures, Equality Vines (https://equalityvines.com/). He is paying displaced winery workers $400 to do four to five hour shifts in his tasting room as a way to help those workers get back on their feet.

Sara Little, the marketing manager for Luedtke's business, Boon Eat and Drink and Boon Hotel and Spa, echoed Volpatt on the important role visitors play in supporting Sonoma County businesses and workers. Little noted that two of Boon's employees lost homes in the fires. The business is spearheading efforts to help those employees and other local residents hard hit by the fires. More information on how to help can be found on its website, http://boonhotels.com/ .

Gay businesses in Guerneville are banding together to host a three-day fundraiser next month over the Veterans Day weekend. It begins Thursday, November 9, at the Rainbow Cattle Company with "Thursday Give Back," a dinner and raffle starting at 6 p.m. Friday, November 10, the r3 resort will present a silent auction, raffle, and entertainment starting at 7 p.m. The trifecta fundraiser will be topped off Saturday, November 11, at the Timberline Restaurant with a "Fire Aid Festival" featuring comedy, music, and drag starting at 6 p.m.

If people can travel to Guerneville this time of year, beyond being of help to Sonoma County's recovery, they will be treated to more of a sense of the unique quiet and dark beauty that became legendary for its first human inhabitants, the Pomo Indians. The Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is just two miles from downtown Guerneville and gives visitors a glimpse of what the region looked like before the loggers took over. The park is 850 acres, 250 acres larger than Muir Woods. While just 90 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Armstrong Woods feels like a world away from the city.


Becoming an LGBT favorite

Guerneville used to be called Stumptown, because of all the redwood tree stumps loggers left behind. The name was changed to Guerneville in honor of George Guerne, who owned the town's timber mill. Guerneville eventually became a popular summer vacation spot for San Franciscans, but fell out of favor in the 1960s, and by the late 1970s, was full of run-down resorts. Philadelphian Peter Pender took advantage of the cheap real estate and opened the town's first gay resort, Fife's, in 1978. Other LGBT businesses followed and today Guerneville (pop. 4,500) has one of the largest gay populations per capita of any town or city in the U.S.

LGBTs remain a major force in the revitalization of Guerneville that continues today. Two of the latest additions to the scene are the aforementioned and fabulous Equality Vines tasting room, which opened just last month, and Timberline, which opened in August.

Equality Vines is among four upscale businesses that have opened at the corner of Main Street (River Road) and Armstrong Woods Road, in place of the old Mercantile variety store. Equality Vines offers wine tastings with the best people-watching perch on Main Street.

Timberline moved in to the space where Buck's used to be on Fourth Street, between the hotels r3 and The Woods. The restaurant and bar feature gourmet comfort foods at down-to-earth prices. The expansive space hosts live entertainment. It will host stand-up comedy performances from Alison Arngrim, who played the bratty Nellie Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" over the Parade of Lights weekend. The parade is a holiday tradition in early December as Christmas-themed floats take over Main Street. This year it will be on December 9 at 7 p.m. Drag performances will be a regular part of Timberline's entertainment repertoire and in keeping with that, Timberline will be hosting a Nellie drag lookalike contest, where Arngrim herself can help judge who becomes her most.

While Timberline is the newest edition to Guerneville's LGBT nightlife scene, the town's oldest and arguably the gayest bar is the Rainbow Cattle Company (http://www.queersteer.com/), on Main Street in the heart of downtown. The bar has been going strong since 1979 and deservedly has a reputation for giving back to the LGBT community. Its famous Give Back Tuesdays combines a meal with entertainment and raffles, all to benefit local causes.

The r3 (http://ther3hotel.com/), formerly the Triple R, combines a resort with a fabulous bar and restaurant. It does a good business with people who are up for the day and is the place to be if you want to be part of the crowd. While mostly gay, the resort is not exclusively gay.

The Highlands Resort (https://www.highlandsresort.com/) is the gayest of the accommodations choices on the Russian River. The hotel estimates that although all-welcoming, about 98 percent of its guests are gay or lesbian. It includes comfortable rustic cabins that give you a sense of why the Russian River became such a popular getaway for people escaping city life. The resort is perfectly situated in a redwood grove on a hill just above downtown. It has the best of both worlds, being close to downtown but on a hill surrounded by redwood trees where it never floods.

The fabulous Woods resort (http://www.russianriverhotel.com/) was named after the famous Woods resort on Armstrong Woods Road, which closed in 1991. It is owned by a gay man, Michael Preaseau, and his mother, Verna, who live on site. They and their staff are constantly working to renovate and keep this property in pristine condition. While not exclusively gay, it has predominantly gay clientele.

One of the most upscale resorts in the Russian River area is the aforementioned Boon Hotel and Spa on Armstrong Woods Road, about halfway between downtown Guerneville and the Armstrong Woods. The property was one of many LGBT businesses that hosted firefighters and it served up a dinner over the weekend after the fires first broke out. The property includes a pool, hot tub, and bicycles that guests can use for free.

Autocamp (https://autocamp.com/) is the newest and one of the most unique options for staying in Guerneville, it is just west of downtown and is a cluster of upscale silver Airstream trailers centered around a sleek modern lounge. You can sit by your own campfire or sit around a common campfire.

A gay San Francisco couple, Nick Moore and Dan Poirier, took over Guerneville's popular Johnson's Beach Resort (http://johnsonsbeach.com/) a couple of years ago, drawing high praise for improvements made to the resort's cabin rooms and expansive campsite. The Johnson's Beach concession includes a snack bar and kayak rentals.

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