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USA Today - Wellness in Wine Country? Why sober travelers should make Sonoma their next nature escape.

by Kathleen Wong | January 4, 2024

With rolling hills and a Mediterranean-like climate, there’s a reason Sonoma County has earned itself the reputation of Wine Country. 

The county’s rich viticultural heritage dates back to the early 1800s, when Russian, German and Italian winemakers brought their craft to the area. Since then, travelers have flocked to Sonoma, hoping to uncork a bottle of inviting pinot noir or chardonnay from the more than 425 wineries residing in the picturesque valleys. 

But Sonoma offers way more than just a delicious glass of wine. With its array of unspoiled natural landscapes to explore and mocktail menus galore, Sonoma boasts the ultimate wellness getaway. Sonoma is especially attractive as more travelers prioritize vacations to recharge and improve their mental and physical well-being, according to a 2023 American Express survey

Nearly 7 in 10 people want to do this by immersing themselves in a natural escape, the survey said, and the Northern California region has much to explore – from seaside cliffs to ancient redwoods – all within a short drive.

"I think it's crucial for our physical mental health to get away and enjoy the awe in nature," Jenny Harrow-Keeler, a Sonoma County-based certified nature and forest therapy guide, told USA TODAY. "Nature is such a powerful space for people to have that 'wow' experience. Sonoma County is just perfect for it."

Exploring nature’s playground

From a dramatic coastline to the wild forests, Sonoma’s scenic landscape just begs travelers to get out in nature and away from the hustle and bustle. Rent a bike, go horseback riding or just take it all in. Spending undisturbed time immersed in nature is a Japanese mindfulness practice called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, that can help people slow down and recuperate from life's stressors − no hiking or meditation necessary.

"What I love about forest bathing for people on vacation is it's a really great way for people to get present," Harrow-Keeler said. "We’re all connected to our devices nonstop ... (but forest bathing means) 'I’m here in this beautiful place. I want to make the most of my vacation.'" 

Harrow-Keeler takes guests around Sonoma County for her two- to three-hour-long private forest bathing sessions for $85 to $150 per person, depending on group size.

Despite the name, forest bathing doesn't have to be among trees. It's all about having a sensory experience in nature, like simply listening to the ocean for 20 minutes, Harrow-Keeler said. Thankfully, Sonoma offers all that and more.

"When they go ‘Wow!’ at a giant redwood or beautiful hawk or falcon flying above, or something small like a beautiful wildflower or seeing the way light is going through the forest, our body gets flooded with feel-good hormones," she said. Research shows spending time in nature can help reduce anxiety and stress.

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