“Petaluma” sounds like it might mean “luminous petal,” but the name derives from a Coast Miwok Indian phrase that translates to “backside of the hill,” probably referring to its position in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain.
The city of 57,000 – approximately 75 miles northwest of Los Altos – also lies under the shadow of Sonoma County wine country and Napa Valley to the northeast, making this a good stop on the way to the vineyards. With its thriving arts community, shops, bird watching and farm tours, however, it doesn’t take a backseat to wine-country activities.
In the 1840s, Spanish land grants established the area along the sloughs from San Pablo Bay. Settlers used the rich agriculture to feed San Francisco’s growing demands, shipping meat and produce down the river, and by 1852, Petaluma’s boomtown supported four hotels.
It used to be known for its eggs. Once called “the world’s egg basket,” according to the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, the city prospered at the turn of the century because of its chicken farms. The public clamored for fresh Petaluma eggs. The town still takes its eggs seriously, sponsoring an annual Butter and Eggs Day – the next one is scheduled April 28.
Ideal day trip
Start with the Petaluma Visitors’ Center, 210 Lakeville St. These centers often just distribute brochures, but here we found real information – a sheet listing farm tours, galleries, docent-led historical walking tours – as well as downtown association members who made good recommendations.
For an art fix, stop by Gallery One or Calabi Gallery, which displays works inspired by Hispanic Heritage Month.
With its rich architectural heritage, Petaluma offers a treasure trove of Victorian homes, many located in the six-block A Street Historic District. Look for Gothic, Spanish Revival and Queen Anne style homes.
Alternatively, you can take a 2-mile nature walk through the recreational trails at Shollenberger Park, which the Madrone Audubon Society warns is not “a lawn and tree kind of park” but a protected wetland. The viewing stations explain local birds, the history of the Petaluma River, indigenous animals and the geology of the 165-acre marsh.
The downtown association manager alerted us to two new stores and a seasonal exhibition on pirates at the Petaluma Historical Museum, 20 Fourth St., running through Nov. 28.
The Petaluma Seed Bank heirloom seed store, 199 Petaluma Blvd., seems to be a perfect fit – for the area and for the building, a historical former Sonoma National Bank site with soaring ceilings and vintage touches. Owner Jeremiah Gettle attracted local attention when he imported an Amish carpentry crew wearing overalls and straw hats to set up the store.
Customers like the 1,400 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Unusual gardening books, homemade items and tools sold here would make good gifts for green thumbs.
Just across the street, a new store opened last month. Old Shanghai Decor sells stylish Asian antiques and luxuries housed in a 10,400-square-foot former Goodwill store. The owners have a similar store in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
We had a late lunch at Della Fattoria, 141 Petaluma Blvd. This was a good place to eat, with just the right blend of European atmosphere and nourishing food. The bakery sells artisan breads to fine San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma restaurants.
Next trip, though, we’re stopping by Luma, 500 First St., which serves fig and blue-cheese pizzas. And with a name like Satan’s Kiss pizza, which contains roasted cherry peppers, sausage, Mozzarella and ricotta, how can you not be tempted? The restaurant also serves Sonoma Valley Portworks (see sidebar, below).
From river cruises to kayaking
We just missed a two-hour sunset wine and cheese eco-cruise down the Petaluma River, through Friends of the Petaluma River. Dolphin Charters runs three-hour and full-day tours leaving Cavanagh Landing at Turning Basin. Bring your binoculars or camera to get great shots of the marsh waterfowl. Approximately 200 species of birds fly in the 500 wetland acres, including the Great and Snowy egrets and the Great Blue Heron.
For the intrepid, Clavey Paddlesports, 409 Petaluma Blvd., rents kayaks and rafts and provides guided tours starting at $65.
With a little more time, we would have taken the Cowgirl Creamery, 419 First St., guided tour and cheesemaking demonstration. The hourlong tours cost $30 per person, including cheese sampler. The company stops touring for the winter, but if you’re interested in the spring, visit cowgirlcreamery.com.
Both Tara Firma Farm, 3796 I St., and Chileno Valley Ranch, 5102 Chileno Valley Road, offer tours. Chileno Valley also features a “u-pick” to harvest your own organic apples, pears and tomatoes. Both places have grass-fed beef tours.
For more information, visit www.visitpetaluma.com.