Where the heck is Gualala, and why should you care? Because Gualala is not just a great place to enjoy the North Coast of Sonoma County, but because it’s home to St. Orres, an amazing Russian-inspired hotel that offers some of the best gourmet cuisine imaginable and an ambiance that’s second to none.
I had passed by St. Orres on my way to the better-known territory of Mendocino for years, thinking “Oh, what a marvelous building that is!” as I passed its onion-shaped domes. I thought maybe it was a monastary, or perhaps a fanciful house of some rich person. But one day, I decided to stop in Gualala, simply because my mother had spoken of living near there, when she was a young woman. The first thing I noticed was that there were kayaks for rent, which boded well for outdoor recreation. Then curiousity got the better of me, and I stopped to find out more about St. Orres.
One is immediately arrested by the woodwork. The craftsmanship is evident everywhere, and you are immediately aware that this entire structure is not just welcoming, but a labor of love that is obvious, everywhere you look. A spiral staircase climbs to the second floor on the north end of the hotel, while an airy beam-ceiling dining room welcomes you to the south. I picked up a copy of their menu, and was immediately taken with how fresh local ingredients seemed to be featured. Seeing as I was camping with a friend, at the time, I didn’t manage to wheedle him away from meals prepared in his motor home, but I did manage to at least consent to a glass of wine from their bar by the entry. And I swore to be back to explore the hotel and its food, as soon as I could manage it.
I’ve been back many times since then. Besides the main hotel, which features yet more amazing woodwork in its rooms, which are arranged European-style along a hall, with separate communal bathrooms, there are also cabins arrayed through the woods surrounding the main building. Some of these cabins are very rustic, and are reworks of fisherman’s cabins and cabins from a former lumber camp that adjoined what became St. Orres. I rather like the funky outdoors-y ambiance of some of these, but there are also upscale accommodations for couples or groups, built specially for the hotel. But at St. Orres really appeals to me is the upstairs of the main hotel. My all time favorite room is one with a landscape with a moon above, all executed in different colors of woods. Yes, the bathrooms are down the hall, but I’ve stayed in European hotels with the same setup, so it’s no big thing. Just bring a robe. There is the men’s bathroom, the women’s bathroom, and the couples’ bathroom. Wait, couples bathroom?! Yes, that’’ right, couples’ bathroom. It even features an oversized shower with two nozzles, so you can shower together. Just the thing for a romantic weekend getaway, if you both like unique experiences that are out of the ordinary.
And the food! Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, you owe it to yourself to have dinner at St. Orres and sample Rosemary Campiformio’s amazing cuisine. She is dedicated to creating meals featuring fresh local ingredients in a form that she calls “North Coast Cuisine.” It might be fresh salmon, or a plate of amazing wild mushrooms, or a platter of mussels with saffron fettucini. If I close my eyes and envision the perfect meal in heaven, it tastes a lot like their fresh-caught wild salmon with zucchini cakes. And the first time I tasted the garlic flan appetizer, I was hooked for all time! This delicate savory flan is almost etherial in texture, melting on the tongue but leaving a heavenly aura of garlic in its wake. And the locally-foraged black chanterelles on the side will make you swoon! The only restaurant that I can truly compare its cuisine to is Maison de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, which is about the highest praise I can think of. And at $45 for dinner (dessert and appetizers extra), it’s SO much more affordable! In the past, I’ve also had a glass of wine in the Solarium, which looks out on the gardens at the rear of the main hotel. It makes for a relaxing experience, where you feel distinctly pampered.
But aside from St. Orres, why Gualala? Gualala itself has its Arts Center, and hosts various events throughout the year, including an arts festival in the summer called “Art in the Redwoods.” There are also great scenic hikes, including through Gualala Point Regional Park. There is a small and private beach nearly across the river from the hotel, great for simply wave-watching. And the Gualala River is a great place for kayaking or canoeing, particularly if you’re a bit timid and want something calm and easy to paddle in. You can also go down the coast to the south to visit Salt Point State Park, or the Kruse Rhododendron Preserve, or even Fort Ross State Historic Park, the farthest outpost of Russian colonization in the contiguous States. If you head north, the recently-restored Point Arena Lighthouse welcomes visitors. Be aware that many of the State Parks in the area have limited hours or closed restrooms in the winter months, when the visitor traffic is very low. But should you decide to visit in the winter, that’s an experience of coziness indoors amid dramatic weather, and a chance to have the North Coast mostly to yourself. There is also a possibility of being isolated by water on the roads. However, I’ve had several magical experiences out on the coast in the months of December and January, so don’t rule it out entirely. Just be aware that your options are more limited, and you could be having more adventure than you counted on. (I drove through flooding on the road, one New Year’s weekend that would have been pretty serious if I didn’t have a high clearance vehicle.)
Whatever the time of the year, though, Gualala is a special place. And St. Orres makes it doubly special.
St.Orres Inn & Dining Room
P.O. Box 523
Gualala CA 95462
Gualala Arts Center
Gualala Arts, Inc.
46501 Gualala Road
PO Box 244
Gualala, CA 95445