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A zigzag through a comical Santa Rosa

Special to The Times

I had invited my cool 13-year-old cousin, Sam, to see a new museum here commemorating the late "Peanuts" creator, Charles M. Schulz. I had assumed that a place dedicated to a comic strip wasn't the kind of museum most grown-ups would want to see unless they were trying to entertain someone younger.

Sam was a wonderful addition to the weekend, but the truth was that the Charles M. Schulz Museum and its environs were a worthy destination for us all, including my husband, Ross, and even our 8-month-old baby.

Many visitors overlook Santa Rosa, where Schulz lived and worked the last three decades of his life, and make a beeline for Sonoma's nearby wine country. The town, like its new museum, is full of underappreciated charms, and our travels took us to not only Woodstock's birdbath but also excellent restaurants and the intriguing home and gardens of renowned horticulturalist Luther Burbank.

On the way to Santa Rosa, we stopped in downtown San Francisco to look at the Cartoon Art Museum, on Mission Street near 3rd Street.

The permanent collection in the austere four-room gallery covers more than a century and includes comic strips, editorial cartoons, comic book art and underground works. Because of space constraints, it was a superficial overview. The special exhibits were more satisfying, especially a tribute to great female cartoonists and a wide-ranging look at the comic art of "alternative" weekly newspapers.

Afterward we parked ourselves on a picnic blanket at nearby Yerba Buena Gardens to catch some fresh air and let the baby flop around a bit. We ate a quick dinner on Mission Street at Mel's Drive-In, a diner that's not really a drive-in, then drove 55 miles north on U.S. 101 to our hotel in downtown Santa Rosa.

Charlie Brown & Co. The Vineyard Creek Hotel, Spa & Conference Center is a 155-room Mediterranean-style complex across the street from Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, a historic district of restaurants and boutiques around the 1904-built Northwestern Pacific Railroad Depot, now home to the Santa Rosa visitors bureau.

Opened in June 2002, Vineyard Creek still looks new. The common areas are comfortable and clean, if unremarkable. Our appealing deluxe room ($179 a night plus tax) had two queen beds and was decorated in muted autumn colors and a grapevine motif. It was a good choice for a family — quiet and spacious, at least until we added one portable crib and a vociferous 8-month-old.

The grounds, including a garden, swimming pool and hot tub, weren't as quiet. Although cars were not visible, the constant hum of traffic on U.S. 101 was nearly impossible to escape.

In the morning at the hotel's Brasserie de la Mer, the food was good, and the prices were pleasantly reasonable by hotel standards. That's not counting the $10 dining certificate we received upon check-in.

Sam had a beautiful fruit plate and a homemade muffin for less than $5. For about $10 apiece, Ross and I had omelets with such ingredients as fresh wild mushrooms and artisanal goat cheese. The staff was stretched thin, and there was a fair amount of waiting, but we ate there again the next morning because the food was worth it.

Less than five minutes away lies the modern and unassuming Schulz museum. Black and yellow trim evokes the zigzag stripes of Charlie Brown's shirt. Inside we found an understated approach, reflecting the personality of Schulz, or "Sparky," as he was called by friends and is referred to throughout the museum.

Among the first works visitors see are two whimsical tributes by artist Yoshiteru Otani. One is a 7,000-pound-plus woodcarving showing the evolution of Snoopy: from Spike, modeled after Schulz's childhood dog, to a beagle who can walk upright and use his floppy ears as propellers.

The second piece by Otani is a two-story mosaic of black and white ceramic tiles, each reproducing a different "Peanuts" strip. When viewed from afar, they form a larger image of Charlie Brown and Lucy with a football. The mosaic's 3,588 tiles represent just 20% of the comic strips Schulz published, a staggering monument to the volume and staying power of his work.

Other elements of the museum include some of the moving tributes that more than 80 of the nation's top cartoonists published in May 2000, three months after Schulz's death, in honor of the "Peanuts" gang's 50th birthday; a painstaking reconstruction of Schulz's studio, including his drawing desk and a worn leather chair; and a cool, comfortable movie theater showing "Peanuts" movies. Outside are a labyrinth garden in the shape of Snoopy's head and a courtyard with a Woodstock birdbath.

The visit reminded me why I loved "Peanuts" so much in the first place. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and the gang never grow up, never get old, never have to go to work. But they aren't exactly children either. Their dilemmas and neuroses and challenges are as relevant to me now as they were when I was in kindergarten.

Despite the characters' broad appeal, visitor numbers remain below projections. As its first birthday approaches, the museum has logged only about 75,000 visitors. During our time there, we saw just a scattering of grown-ups and even fewer kids.

That's too bad, because even the location — across the street from where Schulz played hockey, ate an English muffin with grape jelly every morning and watched children skate on a community rink he built — is a reminder of his lasting influence.

We made the Redwood Empire Ice Arena our next stop. At the snack shop, the Warm Puppy Cafe, we ate sandwiches and salads and watched skaters through giant windows. Marking Schulz's regular table by the fireplace: a bouquet of flowers and a sign that simply said "Reserved."

A place to unwind Later we visited the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, a two-minute drive from our hotel. Before he died in 1926, Burbank introduced more than 800 varieties of plants, some of which are included on 1.6 delightful acres here.

We were too late to tour the home, which closes at 4 p.m., but the gardens were a wonderful place to unwind.

We sniffed our way through a fragrant rose section, gawked at a cactus that was larger than a Hummer and found a compost box full of rotting fruit and worms in the children's garden. Then came a nap in the shade to the soothing lullaby of a water fountain.

For dinner we chose Mixx, a terrific restaurant on Railroad Square. Mixx is a rare sort of place, offering sophisticated wine-country food from a celebrated chef and an unpretentious ambience that's comfortable for families.

If only there were more restaurants where a couple could enjoy a five-course tasting menu and no one would flinch when a child throws Cheerios on the floor.

Our baby needed a couple of trips around the block to calm down during dinner, and the wonderful wait staff timed our courses so they arrived at the table just when we did.

Chef Daniel Berman's tasting menu ($45 a person) included gnocchi, seafood cakes with pea shoots, duck confit in a port sauce, a cheese course and a phenomenal dessert, Valrhona chocolate hazelnut pâté.

The children's menu has several choices at $5.95, but Sam ordered off the regular menu a gorgeous vegetable pot pie ($16), an airy tower of whole baby vegetables and puff pastry with a silky cream sauce.

A stop for Mom and Dad After breakfast the next morning, we drove east on California 12, the main winery road through Sonoma Valley, and stopped at Arrowood in Glen Ellen. It has a wonderful shaded porch with ceiling fans and wicker rocking chairs, the perfect place to taste wine, rock a baby and enjoy the beautiful sweeping view. The only attractions for Sam were free breadsticks, but he was a good sport.

Before heading home, we stopped at my favorite restaurant in the area, an Italian deli in Kenwood called Café Citti. The food, including homemade pastas, salads and a wonderful leek frittata sandwich, was outstanding. And the name — pronounced in a way that would be amusing to most 13-year-olds — provided endless amusement. ("I sure liked that Citti pasta.")

Before we had a baby and before we spent any length of time in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County was all about the wine country for us. Now we have more reasons to return.


Karen Alexander, formerly a Times staff writer, is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area.

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