Fun in the Sun

From food, wine, and art events to community fairs, there’s a host of great options for outdoor entertainment in the coming months

More an idea than a season unto itself — especially here in the Bay Area, where it can mean oppressive heat or chilling fog — summer is less straightforward than we often see it. It’s limitless yet bounded by two holidays. It’s full of potential as it begins and full of longing as it ends. It’s made for discovery but laden with nostalgia. Ultimately, it’s just what we make of it.

So let’s push it beyond Labor Day and into the shorter days of October, when locals know to expect some of the best weather of the year. Let’s eat zucchini and chocolate, drink fine wine and cold beer, and enjoy all types of art. Let’s build a sand castle with the whole family. Let’s sing, dance and laugh. At these excellent festivals throughout Marin, San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma — some world-famous, some little-known — let’s do all this and more. Now that’s what we call summer.

{Food, Wine, Art} 

No need to feel guilty: Saturating the senses is an inspired summertime ambition. Opportunities abound throughout Marin and neighboring counties — and with the right ingredients, it’s hard to go wrong — but these six are among our very favorites.

Every Labor Day weekend since 1952, the Sausalito Art Festival (September 3–5, sausalitoartfestival.org; $20, $15 seniors, $5 youth, free under 6) has drawn art enthusiasts from the Bay Area and well beyond to the sparking shores of Marin’s internationally famous bayside hamlet. Tradition and natural beauty alone could sustain this end-of-summer soiree, but the organizers have bigger things in mind. “We’re going to have a very wide array of artistic talent here this year,” says artist coordinator Heather Huber. “We’re getting a lot of international artists and a lot of people from across the nation coming in.” Expect an expansive collection of more than 20,000 contemporary fine art and craft works in all mediums — plus food, wine, and live entertainment. All event proceeds return to the community through grants and scholarships.

Up for the quintessentially Californian trifecta of art, wine and sunshine? The San Anselmo Art and Wine Festival (July 16–17, sananselmochamber.org; free) is a good place to get it. Now in its 28th year, the event offers an opportunity to shop for or simply enjoy high-quality art at more than 200 booths in charming downtown San Anselmo. This year’s festival, dubbed “Hippy Hippy Shake” after the classic-rock tune of the same name, also features a kids’ zone and puppet show plus 11 bands on two stages, including local favorites The Sun Kings and Revolver, paying tribute to the sounds of the ’70s.

Housed on the grounds of the Falkirk Cultural Center, a 19th-century country estate situated on 11 acres, the San Rafael Food and Wine Festival (August 13, sresproductions.com), offers food from local restaurants and wines produced by 25 of the region’s top boutique wineries. All-day food and drink passes are available ($25, $15 food-only), or sample à la carte. For the inner aspiring chef in us all, a cooking-demonstration stage highlights area restaurants; last year’s featured Gaucho Brasilio, Il Davide, and more. Meanwhile, smooth jazz and classical music provide an aural backdrop.

The Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival (September 24–25, mvfaf.org; $10, $5 students and seniors, free kids under 12), meanwhile, may boast the best venue of all: a fragrant redwood forest at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. Now in its 55th year, the intimate festival is also among Marin’s oldest. While art is at the forefront — this year’s event features works by some 140 artists — Mill Valley’s annual farewell to summer also offers a children’s area and live entertainment. Plus, notes publicist Erma Murphy, each of the six food vendors on site donates a portion of proceeds to a local nonprofit.

Food and wine are one thing, but chocolate is a temptation all its own. Succumb to the urge at the Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival (September 10–11, ghirardellisq.com; $20 for 15 samples). The name alone should reveal what you’re in for, but allow us to elaborate: chocolate delicacies, cupcakes, ice cream, coffee, toffee, cheesecake, gingerbread, pancakes … well, we don’t want to give it all away. The festival also features chef demonstrations, sundae-eating contests, wine and live music from the Magnolia Jazz Band and Dave Costa.

Every year more than 25,000 attendees stop by the Napa River Wine, Crafts & Jazz Festival (September 10, napawineandcraftsfair.com; free), a celebration of fine arts and crafts, local wine and live music in downtown Napa. The focus is on locally made artisanal products, and no imports or commercial booths are allowed — so you know you’re getting the real deal. Organizers hope the new Third Street festival site, located on Main Street between First and Third streets, will encourage revelers to take it slow while taking in the best of Napa Valley.

Fifty miles to the north is a festival you must see to believe: fantastically festooned cars made of zucchini racing down a wooden track competing to be the first to reach the finish line without losing a wheel, careening off-course or colliding with a fellow racer. Healdsburg’s eccentric yet low-key Zucchini Festival (August 20, healdsburgfarmersmarket.org; free) also honors the best-dressed zucchini car; last year’s second-place squash was styled as Lady Gaga. Finally, there’s the requisite giant-zucchini contest — the 2010 winner weighed nearly 18 pounds.

{Community}

Many festivals provide a rich opportunity for family gatherings, where the young and the old find something to enjoy together; siblings set aside the squabbling for old-fashioned fun; and, if everything goes just right, the modern world fades away for a day.

Straddling the Fourth of July holiday weekend and themed to begin a yearlong celebration of the Golden Gate Bridge’s coming 75th anniversary in May 2012, this year’s Marin County Fair (June 30–July 4, marinfair.org; $15 adults, $13 seniors and children, free under 4) promises an especially festive mood. Events and attractions include carnival rides, six top-bill concerts with acts including Three Dog Night and The Pointer Sisters, a host of friendly competitions, a bonsai exhibit, a barnyard petting zoo (with pig races) and nightly displays of the biggest and best fireworks ever staged over the San Rafael Lagoon. “We wanted this event to be the kickoff for the big anniversary,” says publicist Clara Franco. So far, so good.

Native Americans have called the Bay Area home for more than 10,000 years, a span that dwarfs Europeans’ 500-year history here. Celebrate and honor the Coast Miwok tribe and other local American Indians at the 31st Big Time Festival (July 16, nps.gov/pore; free), held at the re-created village Kule Loklo at Point Reyes National Seashore. Demonstrations in basketry, flint knapping and clamshell bead making will shed light on traditional ways while music, dancing and children’s activities will entertain the entire family.

If you needed another excuse to haul the whole family out to stunning Point Reyes National Seashore, this is it: the annual Sand Sculpture Contest (September 4, nps.gov/pore; free) hosted by the National Park Service at Drakes Beach. All ages can enjoy (and participate in) this amateur sand-sculpture contest, now in its 30th year, and get that good-time festival feeling without any hustle and bustle. Drakes Beach is reserved for swimming and recreation, so make a day of it. Contest categories are offered for families, adults and teams.

The city of Napa has well outgrown its pastoral roots, but that’s no reason not to celebrate small-town Americana and recall our own childhoods at the annual Napa Town and Country Fair (August 10–14, napavalleyexpo.com; $13, $10 seniors and youth, free under 5). Artisanal foods, world-class wines and luxury spas are forgone for country contests, carnival rides and the inevitable corn dog at this old-timey fair. Enjoy the clinking of plastic rings around bottlenecks and the constant crashes of the popular Destruction Derby, where junker cars helmed by brave souls collide wildly on a dirt field.

Here’s more cause for fairgoers to rejoice: In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Sonoma County Fair (July 27–August 14, closed Mondays, sonomacountyfair.com; $9, $3 ages 7–12, free under 6) has been extended to a full 17 days this year. That’s two-and-a-half weeks of livestock shows, turkey races and animal acts — not to mention carnival rides, live entertainment and a host of exhibits. Special this year is a tribute to the 60-year history of the fair’s annual Flower Show, vaunted by organizers as the country’s largest. After “A Stroll Down Memory Lane” closes on August 14, a huge plant sale offers an opportunity to take home some of those exotic plants and vibrant colors.

{Music}

Often a music festival offers the best of all worlds: good food and drink, good company and a chance for the whole clan to get together. Opportunities for live outdoor music are abundant throughout summer and early fall, but few offer as much music and accompanying attractions in one place as these annual highlights.

Talk about groovy: Point Reyes Station’s Far West Fest (July 16, farwestfest.com; $23–$30, $15 youth, free under 5) is green to the core, a zero-waste event providing carbon offset options and prohibiting all plastic packaging. Nor is the food your typical festival fare. Instead, look for local, organic and sustainable offerings such as oysters, fresh produce and grass-fed beef. Plus, proceeds benefit a number of nonprofit causes. And yes, the tunes: a full day of funk, blues, country, rock, folk, experimental, bluegrass, world music and more — including popular local headliners Zion-I.

Hosted by Performing Stars of Marin, the Marin City Blues, Jazz and Soul Party in the Park (September 5, performingstars.org; free) is a music festival for a good cause. The community event, now in its 14th year, offers a slate of activities highlighted by live blues, jazz and soul from big names like Bay Area legends Sugar Pie DeSanto and Pete Escovedo, who played last year. Proceeds benefit Blues in the Schools, a program that employs Bay Area blues musicians to teach local students about the richness of this American art form.

By now we all know to take the name of the massive San Francisco music festival Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (September 30–October 2, strictlybluegrass.com; free) to heart; it means names like MC Hammer, Conor Oberst and Roseanne Cash appearing alongside the world’s top bluegrass musicians. This fall’s lineup has yet to be released, but for the festival’s 11th year we can expect more of the same. We can also expect hordes of people; last year’s event drew an astonishing 600,000 to Golden Gate Park.

Downtown Napa’s Blues, Brews and BBQs (August 27, napadowntown.com; free) has an intriguing local twist —- a rib-eating contest pitting local winemakers and grape growers against one another in a messy, saucy battle for glory — but wine otherwise takes a backseat. “So many events in the Napa Valley are about wine, and we wanted to create something that wasn’t wine-centric,” says Napa Downtown Association executive director Craig Smith. “From the get-go, it’s been the most popular event that we do. It’s been a huge hit.” Grilled options from 24 barbecue vendors pair perfectly with an abundance of cold beer, while blues music pours forth all day from three festival stages.

And then there was one. Jazz on the River and the Russian River Blues Festival, traditionally held on separate summer weekends at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville, have been combined this year into the two-day Russian River Jazz and Blues Fest (September 24–25, sonomauncorked.com; $50–$180, $10 children, free under 5). Jazz will be performed on Saturday and blues on Sunday. Park a lawn chair on the beach, gaze up at the surrounding redwoods and — whether the jazz is cool or the blues smokin’ — complete the festivities with a dip in the warm and inviting Russian River.

Mark Your Calendar

Here’s a roundup by date of festival offerings to keep handy so you don’t miss out on one of your favorites.

July
Marin County Fair (Marin County Fair Grounds) 6/30–7/4
Napa Valley Art and Music Festival 7/2–3
Napa County Fair 7/1–4
Fillmore Street Jazz Festival (San Francisco) 7/2–3
Big Time Festival (Point Reyes) 7/16
Far West Fest (Point Reyes) 7/16
San Anselmo Art and Wine Festival 7/16–17
Sonoma County Fair 7/27–8/14

August
Petaluma Music Festival 8/6
Napa Town and Country Fair 8/10–14
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival (San Francisco) 8/12–14
San Rafael Food and Wine Festival 8/13
Zucchini Festival (Healdsburg) 8/20
Blues, Brews and BBQs (Napa) 8/27
Tiburon Art Festival 8/27–28

September
Sonoma Wine Country Weekend 9/2–4
Sausalito Art Festival 9/3–5
Mother Earth News Fair (Marin County Fair Grounds) 9/3–5
Marin City Blues, Jazz and Soul Party in the Park 9/5
Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival (Santa Rosa) 9/10
Napa River Wine, Crafts & Jazz Festival 9/10
Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival (San Francisco) 9/10–11
A Taste of Downtown San Rafael 9/21
Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival 9/24–25
Russian River Jazz and Blues Fest 9/24–25
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (San Francisco) 9/30–10/2
Sonoma County Harvest Fair 9/30–10/2

October
Treasure Island Music Festival 10/15–16
Fiesta on the Hill (San Francisco) 10/16

Categories: Environment, Feature Story, Things to Do