Located between the small towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood in Sonoma County, Beltane Ranch was a weekend retreat built in the 1890s for Mary Ellen Pleasant, a Black entrepreneur based in San Francisco.
Sometimes on a trip, you just need somewhere to sleep, maybe near an airport or a historic site. But for a sense of place on your travels, one-of-a-kind spots—especially smaller ones—can offer a chance to learn a little history and be pleasantly surprised by a perk or two not on the standard list of amenities.
Case in point: After nearly a year of pandemic restrictions and living and working in a little apartment, I wanted a quiet escape last winter. Someplace easy to get to, just for a night. I’d even splurge a bit for a change of scenery.
Five or six years earlier, when I’d lived further away, I’d come across Beltane Ranch in my search for a weekend getaway but never gotten there. Now, more eager than ever for a break from city noise, I found no openings. Finally, I called to ask about availability. Yes, they were completely booked for weekends through the next few months, but I could get a Friday night in January. Fine. But before January arrived, COVID had made a stay unfeasible. How about February? OK. Then there was a construction delay. (I appreciated that the staff was honest about possible noise, as I’d said I wanted quiet.) How about March? Please.
Located between the small towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood in Sonoma County, Beltane Ranch was a weekend retreat built in the 1890s for Mary Ellen Pleasant, a Black entrepreneur based in San Francisco, where she lived in a mansion. (Beltane Ranch is about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco.) Pleasant rose from servant to active abolitionist and later a wealthy businesswoman; she claimed to have helped fund efforts by the radical abolitionist John Brown before the Civil War, and the inscription on her gravestone in Napa reads, “She was a friend of John Brown.” Today, a tiny San Francisco park hails her as “the mother of civil rights in California.” When the New York Times recently presented obituaries of people overlooked by history, among those it featured was this self-made millionaire: Mary.
The ranchland already had vineyards growing from cuttings from France. Pleasant had many interests and investments, but she was not an aspiring winemaker; she was drawn by the serene and scenic setting. Following a few different owners and uses, the ranch house returned to its origin as a retreat; it was opened as the area’s first bed-and-breakfast in 1972. But all along, it has remained a working ranch of 100 acres, and the same family has operated it for 75 years. They produce Beltane wine and olive oil, and the peaceful grounds offer a firepit, hammock, garden, tennis court, even a few donkeys, with “feed ’em yourself” carrots on supply.
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My upstairs corner suite included some old-fashioned touches: an actual key, not a card, for the door, a handsome claw-foot tub, fresh flowers grown on site in both rooms. It was the same building Mary Ellen Pleasant had lived in, but it was hardly rustic. From the verandah, I saw farmland, distant hills, coastal oaks, and other greenery, a bucolic scene that seemed much as it would have been in the late 19th century, although there was now a highway, instead of a train, to reach the area.
Although the ranch is also open to those with reservations for winetasting, I saw more animals on the grounds than people. With warmish weather for March, I wanted to be outdoors. I rested in the hammock, enjoying a sky filtered by oak branches, but couldn’t stay still. I’d been doing that for months. So I explored the property on foot, stopping at a barn to chat with a woman grooming a horse. As I got further from the ranch house, I spotted bee hives and wandered along bumpy country lanes with no cars.
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When I returned to the main house, it was still early for dinner (Beltane serves breakfast only; I would be driving to nearby Kenwood for my first restaurant dinner since the pandemic started. Not indoors but with live music.) While I lingered outdoors, I found a staff member with a baby sheep in her arms. As I greeted the sheep, I learned he’d become a local celebrity: On that Saturday, he was literally front-page news in the local paper. He’d been born on Valentine’s Day and his name was Wally. (And it took me awhile to get the reference: Wally Lamb, author of two novels selected by Oprah’s Book Club.) Wally was the second of twins but slow to arrive; hours passed. By the time he emerged after his sibling, his mother had lost interest in him. So Wally was being raised by the staff and fed from a bottle. (He now has his own web page.)
It was a brief but memorable reminder that life went on before and during the pandemic. Happy just to be somewhere new and outside, I asked to sample one of the Beltane red wines they were pouring. From my socially distanced Adirondack chair, I sat and sipped and watched as Wally followed another staff member, trailing along like a fluffy puppy. After a grim, limited winter, I savored the moment.
Later, I visited the ranch’s flock of sheep; their job is to eat the weeds in the vineyards, part of the sustainable farming Beltane promotes. I also paid calls on the two longhorns and the donkeys. Too soon, my stay at the ranch was over.
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