By Maria Gaura
This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle
Geyserville, CA (July 2007) -- About 20 years ago, during a weeklong Wine Country bike trip, my husband and I stumbled across a strange little inn with a private zoo, where we slept in a room dedicated to an Egyptian goddess, skinny-dipped in the pool and ate French toast in the skylit dining hall before getting back on our bikes and pedaling away.
Encountering this pagan idyll in Geyserville -- in the middle of dusty nowhere -- was like stepping into a mirage. I have wondered, over the years, whether the Isis Oasis Sanctuary had survived, or been turned into another boutique winery.
It wasn't until this year that I stopped in Geyserville again. While grapevines have replaced the area's fruit orchards, and the historic main street is getting a face lift, the Isis Oasis is going strong. Spirituality and winemaking still coexist in rural Sonoma County, as they have for more than 100 years.
Some of the fun in visiting Geyserville is being able to toggle back and forth between the old and the new. The Temple of Isis is a short stroll from Geyserville's turn-of-the-20th century downtown, which houses an old-school general store as well as haute Italian cuisine, wine tasting and gourmet coffee (but no Starbucks).
The Isis Oasis revels in the really, really old. Now a nonprofit organization dedicated to the Goddess Isis, the retreat center hosts theater, poetry readings and spiritual events aimed at bridging the gap between the modern world and ancient Egypt.
Visitors can meditate in the Isis Temple, arrange a tour of past lives, or walk the recommended seven times around an ankh-shaped meditation maze. There is a Tomb Room where the non-claustrophobic can recline in a reproduction sarcophagus, with or without the lid on, while "brain balancing" music is piped into the box.
Owner Loreon Vigné presides at the sanctuary's Sunday ritual, which is followed by lemonade and cookies on the lawn. Vigné, who just turned 75, greets visitors in head-to-toe animal print clothing, with elaborately kohled eyes and an ocelot skin padding the grip of her walking stick.
She moved to Geyserville 30 years ago after San Francisco outlawed the breeding of wild cats within city limits. Today Vigné's menagerie includes 16 ocelots, bobcats and serval cats, and scores of exotic birds. Tours of the zoo take place daily.
Despite her love of ancient things, Vigné is also a regular at Chamber of Commerce dinners and welcomes the redevelopment of historic Geyservillle.
"Geyserville is reinventing itself," Vigné said. "This will bring more artists to town."
It's a five-minute stroll from ancient Egypt to central Geyserville, which offers a blend of frontier architecture and seriously trendy wine-country cuisine.
Harry Bosworth presides behind the counter of Bosworth & Son General Store, built by his great-grandmother in 1902. The building was used as a buggy parts shop and a tin smithy before the Bosworths opened the store in 1911.
Bosworth remembers when the Isis Oasis site was a summer school run by the Bahai church, complete with dorms and a theater. The school, donated to the church in 1927 by winemaker John Bosch, frequently hosted lively community gatherings.
"It used to be quite the social gathering place," Boswell recalls.
Across the street from Bosworth & Son, the artisan Italian fare and wine list at Santi Restaurant is aimed at the gourmet vacationer. A good alternative for families is the Hoffman House, about a mile north of the historic downtown. Lunch on the flagstone patio is relaxing, and the food is excellent. There is lots of wine hereabouts, and if you can't find a place to taste some, you are hopeless.
The ancient geothermal fields that gave Geyserville its name are, unfortunately, currently closed to visitors. But we could see plumes of steam escaping from the hilltop power plant that has produced clean energy for the region for the past 50 years.
For travelers pursuing the theme of history and renewal, don't skip a visit to the Salvation Army's sprawling campus just 4 miles south of downtown Geyserville, on Lytton Springs Road. Founded as an orphanage in 1904, the site now provides a rehabilitation center for adults and a godsend for vintage shoppers.
There are five secondhand stores here, a snack bar and a used car lot. A caravan of trucks unloads a constant flow of donated goods, which are rapidly shelved and resold.
"It is the Mother and Father of all Salvation Army stores," says Vigné, a devoted regular. "I guarantee that everyone walking in the door will find a total treasure."
I left with a $5 desk chair, my daughter scored a pair of fuzzy slippers and her friend found a perfect hat. And what could be better than spending the money you saved on a nice glass of wine and a snack?
On the way back to Geyserville, switch your toggle from "old" to "new" and pop in to Francis Ford Coppola's bright new Rosso & Bianco winery (formerly Chateau Souverain). Tastes of Rosso & Bianco wines are free, and the cafe menu is reasonably priced. The cafe closes at 5 p.m. every day except Friday, when the winery hosts a local farmers' market and serves food until 8 p.m.
Browse the handmade soap and chocolates, or take a bottle of wine back to sip by the pool. Isis, meet Bacchus. I'm sure the Goddess would approve.
IF YOU GO
All locations are in Geyserville unless noted.
Geyserville is 75 miles north of San Francisco via Highway 101.
WHERE TO STAY
Geyserville Inn, 21714 Geyserville Ave. (707) 857-4343, (877) 857-4343, www.geyservilleinn.com. Modern, clean, nothing fancy but in a lovely setting, with pool and spa. Doubles, $139 weekdays through mid-August, then $149 through October. Weekends, $179 through mid-August, then $189.
Isis Oasis Sanctuary, 20889 Geyserville Ave. (707) 857-4747, (800) 679-7387, www.isisoasis.org. Lodge rooms with shared bath, $100, including breakfast. Dorm and retreat rooms available; for details, see Under Covers in 96 Hours this Thursday.
WHERE TO EAT
Hoffman House, 21714 Geyserville Ave., adjacent to Geyserville Inn. (707) 857-3264, www.hoffmanhousecafe.com, Breakfast (till 1 p.m.) and lunch served indoors and on patio. Entrees, $19-$23. Open 7 days a week, dinner served Friday and Saturday.
Taverna Santi, 21047 Geyserville Ave. (707) 857-1790, www.tavernasanti.com. Artisan Italian food and fine regional and Italian wines. Lunch Wednesday-Friday, entrees from $10; nightly dinner, entrees with salad from $27.
Penny Laines, 21065 Geyserville Ave. (707) 857-1777. Organic coffee, smoothies, house-baked pastries and locally made art and jewelry. Drinks and baked goods, $1 to $4.
WHAT TO DO
Isis Oasis Sanctuary, see above. Tour of exotic animals, 2 p.m. daily; temple services, 2 -4 p.m. Sunday. Egyptian New Year festivities, this Wednesday-July 22; check Web site for details.
Francis Ford Coppola Presents Rosso & Bianco, 300 Via Archimedes (formerly Souverain Lane). (707) 857-1400, www.ffcwinery.com. One of nearly 70 wineries within a 15-mile drive. Open daily with free wine tasting. Tours with tastings ($10), 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. Cafe, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday night farmers' market, 5p.m.-8 p.m. through Sept. 28.
Locals, corner of Geyserville Avenue and Highway 128. (707) 857-4900, www.tastelocalwines.com. Free wine tasting from 10 local wineries. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Monday.
River Rock Casino, 3250 Highway 128 (follow the Dry Creek Rancheria signs). (707) 857-2777, www.riverrockcasino.com.
Salvation Army Thrift Center, 200 Lytton Springs Road, Healdsburg. (707) 433-5177. Five secondhand shops with clothing, antiques, collectibles, furniture and kitchenware, plus used car lot. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; car lot Tuesday-Saturday.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, (707) 522-5800, www.sonomacounty.com.
This story originally appeared July 15, 2007 in the San Francisco Chronicle