Napa Valley is a foodie paradise, but there’s more to it than gastronomy
Northern California’s Napa Valley is by no means solely about winery tourism — though admittedly, that’s a huge draw. But in addition you’ll find soothing hot springs spas and smartly furnished B&Bs, scenic opportunities for hiking and biking, and some of the country’s most celebrated restaurants.
This sunny, temperate valley bracketed by rugged ridgelines is first and foremost simply a gorgeous place to spend a relaxing weekend. Of course, having an appreciation for Napa’s world-class cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay doesn’t hurt.
Just a 50-mile drive north of San Francisco (the region’s largest community), Napa (pop. 80,000) lies just 15 miles east of the grape-growing town of Sonoma. The Napa and Sonoma valleys compete with and complement one another. Collectively, they’ve become favorite destinations among LGBT travelers for everything from spa- and epicurean-themed getaways to destination weddings, and they’re close enough to each other that it’s easy to spend time in each valley over the course of a weekend.
Highway 29 runs north through the Napa Valley, starting in Napa itself and then linking the smaller, charming towns of Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga. Each of these communities contains an abundance of prominent wineries, plus stylishly rustic restaurants and romantic country inns. You can drive the entire 30-mile valley in an afternoon, but it’s best to set out early to give yourself time for tastings — and lunch — at a few wineries along the way.
A scenic alternate route, the Silverado Trial provides a more visually alluring introduction to the valley, winding through the foothills past fine wineries while avoiding much of the traffic along Highway 29. One other way to explore the region is by booking a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train, which offers lunch and dinner rides from Napa to St. Helena in 1952 dome trains, classic 1915-17 Pullmans, and (in summertime) open-air railcars. These 36-mile round-trip excursions through the beautiful valley take about three hours and include first-rate food and wine.
Napa has a relatively compact and easily strolled downtown that abounds with diverting fashion boutiques and specialty food stores, winery tasting rooms and bars, the historic Napa Valley Opera House and Uptown Theatre, and several lively cafes and restaurants. Much of the action is along Main and First Streets, which intersect near Napa Creek and its attractively landscaped waterfront. A 6.0-magnitude earthquake shook downtown in August 2014, causing extensive damage to dozens of downtown buildings as well as more than 200 injuries, but the majority of Napa’s businesses have reopened. Still, some businesses were still making repairs in late 2014, so it’s best to call ahead.
Beyond downtown are several arts-related attractions. Out on Carneros Highway a few miles southwest of downtown, di Rosa is a dramatic lakeside art museum and wildlife preserve on some 200 acres of carefully tended grounds. You can visit the indoor art galleries, wander the sculpture meadow and tour the house on this former winery and estate. Also well worth a visit is the Hess Art Collection, a fine assemblage of contemporary art at Hess Winery, where you can also taste the acclaimed malbec, cabernet sauvignon and gewurstraminer.
For some fresh air and exercise, visit Skyline Wilderness Park, a breathtaking 850-acre wilderness a few miles southeast of downtown. You’ll find some 25 miles of trails for biking, hiking and horseback, and when the weather is clear, you can see as far west as San Francisco Bay and Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais.
Beyond Napa, each of the towns in the valley has a wealth of wineries. Yountville and Rutherford are small, quaint communities with a handful of notable restaurants and inns, and bustling St. Helena has a lively downtown with a particularly robust and sophisticated business district. At the northern tip of the valley, unpretentious and low-Calistoga is famed for its curative hot springs; it also cultivates a somewhat more countercultural vibe than the rest of Napa. About 10 miles north of town, you can visit one of the county’s best spots for outdoor recreation, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park — the 5-mile hike to the 4,343-foot summit of Mt. Saint Helena offers spectacular views.
As for the most popular exercise in Napa County, wine-touring can involve anything from dropping by one token tasting room during your visit to planning each day around stops at four or five wineries (anymore than that tends to become exhausting). Regardless of how many you visit, consider appointing a designated driver or even booking a trip with one of the region’s many winery-touring companies.
Notable Napa restaurants
The unassuming village of Yountville is home to one of the most famous restaurants in the United States — book far in advance for the opportunity to dine at Thomas Keller’s peerless French Laundry. You can also opt for a meal of classic French bistro fare at Keller’s less-spendy and more casual Bouchon. But downtown Napa is packed with other superb restaurants as well. A high-ceilinged, chatter-filled space on Main Street, TORC serves beautifully plated contemporary American fare. Carpe Diem is one of the most inviting wine bars in town, offering up an eclectic menu of eminently noshable small plates, from flatbreads to ostrich burgers. Swanky Tarla serves flavorful Mediterranean cuisine in a compact, stylish dining room, while Celadon turns out exquisitely prepared, globally inspired fare, like five-spice duck breast and Moroccan-style braised lamb.
For a quick lunch, stop by cozy Melted, a mod cafe serving creative sandwiches (try the one with pork loin, apple cider butter, wasabi slaw and bourbon cheddar). Or take a stroll through Oxbow Public Market, with its bustling array of small restaurants and fine food vendors, including Gott’s Roadside for gourmet burgers and garlic fries, Hog Island Oyster Co. for fresh seafood, Ritual Coffee for single-origin artisan-roasted brews, and the Model Bakery for mammoth cinnamon buns, gooey cookies and chewy pizzas.
In the county’s northern climes, Longmeadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead is one of the most romantic special-occasion restaurants in the valley, and Tra Vigne in downtown St. Helena serves impeccable modern Tuscan food. Up in Calistoga, both JoLe — a lively farm-to-table bistro in the center of town — and brunch favorite Calistoga Kitchen should be on any foodie’s “must-try” list.
Where to stay
A great base for exploring the entire region, Napa is home to a mix of upscale resorts and artfully restored small inns. Among larger properties, the inviting River Terrace Inn is close to downtown but with a quiet setting along the Napa River (it’s within walking distance of Oxbow Public Market). Rooms are handsomely decorated, and some have balconies overlooking the river and whirlpool tubs. The sleek, five-story Andaz Napa (part of Hyatt’s luxury brand) is in the heart of downtown and contains 141 cushy rooms with hickory hardwoods, plush linens and waterfall showerheads.
Two neighboring B&Bs of particular note are the Beazley House, a hip-roofed beauty with blue-and-white awnings and 11 warmly appointed rooms, and the gay-owned Inn on First, an Arts and Crafts-style mansion with 10 sophisticated rooms, marvelous gardens and spectacular breakfasts.
Calistoga has several wonderfully romantic, gay-owned inns, including the Chanric Inn, which has seven luxuriously furnished rooms, a landscaped pool area and a tranquil massage room. Gracious Chateau de Vie overlooks gardens of lavender and rose and contains four opulent rooms with such classy perks as L’Occitane bath products, iPod docks and cab sauv made from grapes grown on vineyards surrounding the property.
Another favorite, located just off the main village street, is Luxe Calistoga, a stately 1873 inn that mixes old-fashioned elegance with modern convenience. Note the iPads (with menus from local restaurants bookmarked), gas fireplaces and flat-screen TVs in each of the five roomy accommodations. If you prefer a more countrified setting, consider Kurt Stevens’ and Richard Flynn’s Meadowlark Country House, a 10-room hideaway located on 20 serene and secluded acres a few minutes’ drive from town. Rooms at this cushy retreat have marble whirlpool tubs and private decks, and amenities include a clothing-optional mineral-fed pool, hot tub and dry sauna. It’s an idyllic setting for unwinding after a day of exploring this gorgeous valley.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 27, 2015.