By Carey Sweet
A treasure awaits about 20 miles east of Napa, in a lovely but largely “secret” area of sprawling countryside and bayfront beauty. This is Solano County, a Central Valley region thriving with residential communities and businesses—but also gorgeous landscapes. Here, you’ll discover family-friendly attractions such as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo and the whimsical Jelly Belly Candy Company in Fairfield. Sporty recreation also abounds, from kayaking to birdwatching, from hiking to golf. And since this is Northern California, there’s farmhouse fun, beautiful lakeside campsites, and plenty of excellent wine. “We’ve been seeing more visitors over the past several years, as people discover we’re a secret Napa,” says Ron Lanza, vice president of Wooden Valley Winery in Fairfield. “I credit part of it to technology. Cell phone navigation helps people find us, hidden on the map.”
Discover how you can make this off-the-radar destination your own private paradise. We’ve highlighted six great trip ideas to get you started.
Suisun City’s Waterfront District
Just past the commercial center of Solano County on Interstate 80, you’ll suddenly find yourself in a charming waterfront village that looks like it borrowed its aesthetics from the East Coast. Established during the 1850s California gold rush, the former shipping town of Suisun City now boasts a quaint waterfront district, with rows of boats and yachts bobbing in Suisun Bay’s slate-blue water. It was home to the county’s first railroad station, and visitors can still hop aboard for interurban train rides via the Western Railway Museum.
Start your day with a homespun breakfast at Babs Delta Diner on the marina, famous for its black-and-white checkerboard floor, and for the Filipino fried rice that regulars know to order instead of home fries with their double pork chop, eggs, and toast platter. For a bit of modern luxury, taste wines at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative, where the winemakers themselves may be pouring for you, then head to dinner at the elegant Ironwood American Bistro, where chef Megan Smith wows with her wild shrimp and crab potpie.
Great Suisun Valley Wine Finds
It’s something that large Napa and Sonoma wineries have long known: Suisun Valley grows great grapes. For the past several decades, these clever wineries have snapped up the Valley’s predominant varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot—to crush and blend into their own wines. Today, the area is an official American Viticultural Area (AVA), and produces a remarkable array of extraordinary grapes ranging from Albarino to Zinfandel. This is a terrific opportunity to explore lesser known fruit like Gamay, Grenache Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, Trousseau Noir, and Verdelho, and it’s likely, too, that you’ll meet the winemaker and/or owners at the mellow-mood tasting rooms, since these boutique businesses are hands-on.
A day of sightseeing and tasting can and should include a stop at the legendary Wooden Valley Winery founded in 1933, where the Lanza family still hosts the wood-paneled tasting room. Also don’t miss the magnificent Vezér Family Vineyard, with three tasting locations: the family ranch estate (for private tours and events), the quaint Blue Victorian, and the Mankas Corner Gardens chateau, reminiscent of a European castle.
Be it rollercoasters, water splashes, or Pepe Le Pew’s Rafts of Romance, there’s something for every age at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. The Western Railway Museum is another top draw, with more than 50 historic railroad cars on display, 22 miles of track (five currently operational) for intercity train rides, and an impressive collection of historic railway exhibits. Solano County is also known as a center for the Air Mobility Command, with the Travis Air Force Base operating its squadrons and hosting periodic public air expos. The TAFB Heritage Center is open year-round, showing off displays such as a tribute to the Wright Brothers, a Fat Man atomic bomb replica, and more than three dozen aircraft.
Nibble free samples of buttered popcorn and toasted marshmallow jellybeans at the quirky Jelly Belly Candy Company in Fairfield, where the tour lets you stroll past every part of the sweet-making process. Finish your tour at the Jelly Belly Chocolate Shoppe or at the Very Cherry Room, where you can sample handmade confections with Suisun Valley wine pairings. Or, stop in the café for—what else—a jellybean-shaped pizza.
Acres of almonds, wheat, olive orchards, and seed-rich sunflowers dominate this region, with some 860 farms operating in Solano County. As you drive the country roads, you’ll see plenty of farm stands offering just-picked fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
Or go straight to the mother lode—Cal Yee Farm of Fairfield is a virtual cornucopia inside a cozy white cottage, with shelves brimming with fruits and nuts. Founded in 1955, it’s still operated by the Yee family. At Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company, owners Ann and Mark Sievers grow 12 different varieties of olives in their orchards, hand-crafting the fruit into oils in Italian, French, Greek, and Spanish styles. Visitors are encouraged to sample and taste the differences, rounding things out with balsamic vinegars, local wines, and jalapeño- and citrus-flavored oils.
Sepay Groves is another popular destination, specializing in Tuscan-style extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegars made from Suisun Valley wines. The outlet-style store may look a bit industrial, but the products are all handmade in small batches, for superb flavor.
A Golfer’s Paradise
There are nearly a dozen golf courses across Solano County, from municipal to country club settings. Rancho Solano in Fairfield, for instance, wins fans for its scenic lakes, hilly, tree-studded terrain, and membership amenities that cross over to its sister Paradise Valley golf course. Another nearby course, the appropriately named Rio Vista (“river view”), sits along the Sacramento River delta. Its riverfront Golf Club takes advantage of the natural amenities, having been designed by Ted Robinson Sr. with strategically placed water features, rolling hills, and challenging greens.
And who knew that golf became popular in these parts not long after the gold rush pioneers settled down? The Mare Island Golf Club of Vallejo was established in 1892, making it the oldest course in the country west of the Mississippi. The biggest challenge might be keeping your eyes on the ball without getting distracted by stunning views of San Pablo Bay, the Napa River, Mt. Tamalpais, and even the Golden Gate Bridge.
Scenic Trails and Fowl Play
The Solano County countryside offers plenty of opportunities to hike, kayak, and check out winged wildlife. The 2,000-acre grassland Rush Ranch—and its neighboring Suisun Marsh on the banks of the California Delta—is perhaps the most famous local greenspace. Suisun Marsh is the largest remaining contiguous area of coastal wetland in California, encompassing more than 80,000 acres of marsh and upland areas plus 30,000 acres of waterways for up to 1.5 million migrating ducks, geese, and some two dozen other waterfowl species per year. Fairfield’s Rockville Hills Regional Park is another favorite retreat, spanning 633 acres of grasslands and oak woodlands, with its Rockville Trail that winds about a mile through volcanic rock hills.
King Tide at Rush Ranch By Tom Muehleisen
Things can get a bit more crowded at Lake Solano Park in the coastal foothills west of Winters, since the place is popular with campers, picnickers, kayakers, canoers, and anglers. The lake is considered one of the best fly-fishing spots in the Sacramento Valley, and there is excellent camping enhanced with ample trail systems, picnic grounds, and a boat launch. Horseback riders, mountain bikers, and joggers also flock to Lynch Canyon Open Space Park for its 10 miles of steep trails, including a segment of the San Francisco Bay Area Ridge Trail and ridgetop views across the Suisun Marsh, Carquinez Strait, San Pablo Bay, and the Sierra Nevada.