"I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairytales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!"
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Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Eccentric Historian
Hoppy Hopkins, a card-carrying "old timer" and Petaluma native, knows more about the history of Sonoma County than almost anyone around. He is the preeminent authority, a walking, talking library of historical facts, figures, dates, names, and weird, wild stories. Ever hear about the time in 1861 when a trained grisly bear and a big old bull fought a duel in downtown Petaluma? Hopkins has, and he'll gladly tell you about it, all part of his unofficial job as the go-to source of information about the sprawling river town's earliest origins. He's got a sense of humor too. Every year, just before Halloween, he conducts his annual Cemetery Walk, a popular oral history tour through the various graveyards of Petaluma. Alternately known as the Tombstone Stomp, the walking tour is presented by Petaluma's Heritage Homes organization. Word is, even the dead stop to listen when Hoppy stops by to tell his tales. One thing's for certain, they never interrupt when he talks. Neither do the living.--D.T.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Place to While Away the Hours
A long time before the world rediscovered modernist writer Virginia Woolf through the acclaimed film The Hours, her provocative works helped to inspire a special place dedicated to people interested in books by, about, and of interest to women. The Sitting Room, a lending library with more than 6,000 titles, was based on the principles outlined in Woolf's 1929 feminist essay A Room of One's Own, in which the modernist writer pondered whether a woman could produce high art. Actually, in a very real way, art served as the midwife to this diminutive cultural center located in a Cotati storefront. The Sitting Room was started by Sonoma State University English professor J. J. Wilson and Santa Rosa Junior College librarian Karen Petersen, who had enjoyed unexpected success from their book, Women's Art, and decided to give something back to the local literary community. Twenty-two years later, the Sitting Room is the perfect place to while away the hours. (Shown: Ronnie Gayle (left) and Barbara Lesch-McCaffry.) 170 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati. 707.795.9028.--G.C.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Place to Finally Find the Used Book You've Been Hunting For
John Ammirati of Lakeside Village Bookstore must be a wizard of some sort, because no matter how dated or obscure the book I'm looking for, he always seems to have it. The shop is crammed full of books of all sorts, and it's always fun to prowl around, discovering titles I'd never even heard of. Ammirati, an avid reader, has not only heard of just about everything, but there's a good chance he's read it and he can tell you who wrote it, what else he wrote, when, and what was going on in his life at the time. For good measure, he'll also pull out a few other books for you (presumably out of his magic hat) that are somehow linked with your new find. But remember, this is a store created by a book lover for others of his ilk. So don't show up expecting to find adorable little gifts or expensive chocolates. Is he going to sell you a CD? Can you order a latte? Hell, no! It's books, books, books, and a few places to sit and read. The way it should be. 4275 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.538.0579.--M.W.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Detour for Your Graphing Calculator
Longtime West County residents assuredly chuckle a dry "Try that!" at their own adept maneuvering of their many befuddling lanes. Those of us new to the area prefer to simply close eyes and point the car downhill. One is bound to eventually reach a recognizable landmark. And so it was that the car chose Florence Avenue one fateful day and slowed down of its own accord in sheer amazement at the full-street salute to funk sculptor Patrick Amiot. Amiot, a Canadian artist who found his Sebastopol home during an aimless mid-travel picnic five years ago, has over the last two years convinced almost half of his neighbors to either purchase or simply allow their lawns to host his maniacal trash-borne sculptures. They're fantastical and funny, the kind of art that we all think that we can make until it's actually time to weld that TV to that oil barrel. A recent early morning walk down Florence revealed a new twist, however: A full third of the homes boasting Amiot's sculpture on lawns also still had Christmas wreathes fading upon doors. One-eighth of those factored continued to sport uncut Halloween pumpkins on porches. And a full one-sixteenth of those, divided by pi to the 32nd factor, additionally had Valentine's hearts plus holiday porch lights glistening and lit. What does it mean? Absolutely nothing that we can figure. Can you? Florence Avenue, between Healdsburg and Bodega avenues, Sebastopol. --G.G.
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Best Examples of Bizarre Public Art
To some, they are a pair of weird melting spoons. To others, they resemble Siamese-twin egrets or the amputated claws of enormous concrete lobsters. Some have even surmised that they are two slabs of bacon having animal sex right there in front of God and everybody. Whatever they are, they stand nearly 20 feet tall, surrounded by a thick pad of ice plants on a tiny hill overlooking the Petaluma River turning basin, next door to the former River House restaurant (recently reopened as the Girl & the Fig). Made of wood, plaster, and chicken wire, the mostly hollow sculpture--two wavy thingamajigs with split-end heads? mutant tadpoles bumping and grinding?--is as boldly mysterious as it is blatantly funny. It is hard to say whether people love it or hate it, as so few even know what it represents. The safe bet is a flirtatious couple of dancing lovers, arms waving above them as they move. Whatever, no one at the city hall, Petaluma Historical Museum, Visitor's Bureau, or the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department could even name the sculptor responsible or recite the date they/it were/was installed. So there. Like the artistic impulse itself, it must be a mystery--whatever it is.--D.T.
Best Holographic Water Fountains
It takes a mighty fine water fountain to upstage a brand-new, multimillion-dollar museum, but for simpletons who, like magpies, are drawn to the shiny-sparkly-glittery things in the world, this is by far the coolest pair of water fountains ever. Get to the museum, make a beeline to the courtyard, and stake out one of the two clear Lucite water fountains. Some kind of holographic thing in the basin makes the water ripple and reflect in all kinds of kaleidoscopic ways. Stare. Wonder. And don't be a fountain hog, unless no one is waiting behind you. Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa. 707.579.4452.--S.B.
Best Place to Meet a Poet
Poetry has become a force to be reckoned with. When First Lady Laura Bush nixed a Feb. 12 White House poetry reading of works by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and others after invited poet Sam Hamill sought to use the event to deliver a literary antiwar message, the general public learned a valuable lesson: Not only do poets have the power of their conviction (Dana Gioia, are you listening?), they have the ability to shine the searing light of truth deep into the dark halls of power. In the North Bay, the Marin Poetry Center has championed these wordsmiths, from established writers to new poets, since 1981. Founded by College of Marin teachers and students, the center with its extensive library is housed in the Falkirk Cultural Center, an 1888 Queen Anne Victorian in downtown San Rafael. The mission is a simple one: Through sponsored readings, workshops, poetry contests, and related events, the center provides a place for poets to meet and speak. As Sam Hamill has proved, the fruits of those labors can be mighty indeed. 1408 Mission Ave. at E Street, San Rafael. www.marinpoetrycenter.com. --G.C.
Best Place to Ask Embarrassing Questions About State-Sanctioned Genocide
During tours at the Mission San Francisco de Solano, on the square in downtown Sonoma, the well-studied docents are occasionally surprised--and perhaps a bit flustered--whenever some precocious kid asks them to explain the thousands of Native Americans who died of smallpox and overwork during the days of the great decades-long Spanish mission expansion. As that precocious kid could tell you, the rustic Sonoma edifice, built in the early 1800s, was among the last such religious intrusions to be foisted upon the original locals, nearly all of whom perished within years of the mission's founding. In spite of this--and the rumor that many of those people are buried beneath the mission soil--it's a piece of the story that gets very little play during educational presentations. It's almost as if someone was ashamed of something. East Spain Street and First Street East, Sonoma. 707.938.1519.--D.T.
Best Place to Become a Big Fan of Fans
Lots of us are fans of art, to be sure, but few of us stop to consider that sometimes fans are art. At the recently established Hand Fan Museum of Healdsburg, fans of all sorts of fans--from the hand-painted Japanese kind made of paper and wood to those emblazoned with the logos of fancy five-star hotels--can view rotating exhibitions of fans from around the world. There are, it turns out, few societies on this planet that have not employed fans of some type, which have been used, according to the museum's literature, "in fashion, religion, battle, and ceremony." Located alongside the sparkling new Hotel Healdsburg, the Hand Fan Museum--the only hand fan-museum in the United States, by the way--is a great place to pick up useful hand-fan jargon with which to baffle and amaze your friends and family. 327-A Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. 707.431.2500 or www.handfanmuseum.com. --D.T.
Best Place to Shutter Yer Bug
The so-called gallery experience can be an intimidating one. You amble in, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, and a young woman icily inquires if she can help you. Gulp and, "Nope, we're just here to look." "Oh." Which is why the Barry Singer Gallery in Petaluma is such a rich blast of great relief. Photography is a relatively inexpensive medium to collect; people in jeans and sweatshirts evidently do it all the time. And while Barry and his wife Gretchen are actually in business to make money--they operate a high-end print business to that end--they don't mind if you look and then come back to look and go ahead and bring friends to look and stop by just to look again. One of the most elegantly appointed galleries in the North Bay, the Singer Gallery is also one of the friendliest, in that one is left nicely alone to become absorbed in the mostly black-and-white images on the walls. Currently on show are Robert Mayne's London street scenes and Grace Robertson's "A Sympathetic Eye," one that looks fondly on skirt-lifting church ladies of the 1940s. 7 Western Ave., Petaluma. 707.781.3200. --G.G.
Best Museum-Type Experience in a Non-Museum
It's possible to tour artist Carlo Marchiori's exquisite Calistoga estate. But that requires planning in advance, something that not all of us excel at. For those of you who are just sort of rolling through town, it's by far easier to cruise into Marchiori's amazing gallery. With a frescoed ceiling, architectural details galore, and an assortment of works that range in price from $5 to $5,000, Ca'Toga Galleria D'Arte is like walking into some kind of magical opera set come to life. (Note: good place to take visiting parents and relatives!) 1206 Cedar St., Calistoga. 707.942.3900.--S.B.
Best Celebrity Hobnobbing
It's not like we live in New York or Los Angeles, where a celebrity sighting is as everyday ho-hum as your morning coffee. But the lure of wine country is strong, and there are a few events every year that bring out the big guns (and allow them to mingle with the very little guns, i.e., you and me). Cinema Epicuria is just one of those events, and though it's not likely that Catherine Zeta-Jones will show up, some of the lesser (and therefore cooler) stars of film and screen often make appearances to support their films--and they're approachable! Last year, for example, the screening of Finder's Fee--a great little film that hasn't yet hit the mainstream--found director (and Survivor superhost) Jeff Probst milling about at the Sebastiani Theatre with Matthew Lillard of Scooby-Doo and Scream semifame, plus character actor (and Jackie Brown star) Robert Forster. This year's festival, taking place April 9-13, promises more star sightings to write home about. www.sonomafilmfest.org. --D.B.
Best Reason to Take an Arts Deduction in '04
In that perfect world we know you ceaselessly strive toward, you, your neighbor, your son, daughter, husband, wife, secret lover, dog, cat, and parakeet should all belong with lusty abandon to every arts center in Marin, Napa, and Sonoma counties. And that's because, you'll wearily nod, the arts and humanities are significantly important in our lives, and that, you'll also certainly and even more wearily nod, is with a period. Full stop. But enough polemics. Here's the straight stuff: Take your deduction this year to definitively support the Sonoma County Museum, among others, because it will bring to you in exchange the rough, angular beauty of cowboy firmament poet James Turrell this June 21, and again at a special lecture this coming September in an exhibit titled "James Turrell: Light and Land." Turrell, whose grading of the Roden Crater in Arizona opens to the public next year, is perhaps the sole maverick in the odd art of making the very heavens even more perfect to our imperfect eyes through carefully constructed "sky spaces" that frame the light and the movement of the stratosphere into perfectly considered forms. His 1969 full-room installation Raemar will be featured as will an overview of the 30 years that he's spent ceaselessly working the red Arizona earth. And so it is that we strive to the divine. 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. 707.579.1500. --G.G.
It's so big and bold it's almost scary: the enormous, spray-painted graffiti portrait of an anime-esque elf maiden--her gleaming, lemon-shaped eyes as big as two tractor tires--splashed across an otherwise plain wooden fence on McDowell Boulevard, right across from Starbucks in Petaluma. The work of Fernando Ocampo, it stands as a conspicuous testament to the offbeat artistry and eccentricity of the North Bay. Or hell, maybe it's just some really cool graffiti.--D.T.
Best Place to Drink Wine in the Presence of Former Television Child Star
There's more than good vino at Imagery Estates Winery in Glen Ellen. While the 20-acre grounds are certainly beautiful, and the Imagery Art Gallery--featuring over 125 original artworks, painted for the winery's labels by numerous brilliant contemporary artists--features the world's largest collection of wine-label art, there is an extra surprise waiting for any TV trivia fans who happen to be visiting Imagery's spacious tasting room: The counter is frequently manned by none other than Brian Forster, the still-boyish actor who once played diminutive drummer Chris on The Partridge Family. Technically, he's the second Chris, since--as you Partridge Family fanatics surely know--the character made a Darren Stevens-like metamorphosis part-way through the show. Forster, who still acts now and then (was that him onstage as the Theater Manager in Santa Rosa Players' recent production of Gypsy?), keeps busy chatting up visitors, encouraging them to c'mon, get happy, while pouring some of the tastiest specialty wines in the whole groovy state. 14335 Hwy. 12, Glen Ellen.--D.T.
Best Place to Be Surrounded by Live Pythons and Dead Lions
The Petaluma Wildlife Natural Science Museum, located on the edge of the Petaluma High School campus, is the largest student-run museum in America (and possibly the world). Filled with animals from around the globe--both the living and the dead-and-stuffed varieties--the remarkable world-class museum is open to the public (the first Saturday of each month) and is a regular host to classes of students from around the Bay Area. Well-trained Petaluma High students act as tour guides, while others handle such chores as tending the tanks, cleaning the cages, and feeding the various animals--everything from chinchillas and geckos and fish of all kinds, to a vast, wriggling bundle of beautiful snakes, including three Burmese pythons named Apocalypse, Belladonna, and Monty. The bulk of the museum is filled with stuffed and posed beasts from all corners of the earth--including lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my! 201 Fair St., Petaluma. 707.778.4787.--D.T.
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