Party planner extraordinaire Julia Lake grew up in Napa Valley. Who better to tell us what's fun, beautiful, delicious, scenic, Valleytastic, and worth a detour?
Napa Valley is part fancy, part country. I guess I'd call it rustic chic, though every year it becomes increasingly more stylish. I haven't decided if that's a good thing. At heart, it's a small community of laid-back people who appreciate good food, good wine, and good weather.
The valley is a small pocket of land that stretches 30 miles in length and between one to five miles in width. It runs from the city of Napa north through Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Saint Helena, and finally Calistoga on the northern tip. Highway 29 is the glorious, slow-moving highway that runs the entire length of the valley and passes a million wineries on the way. If there's traffic headed north, take pretty much any right off 29 to cut through the vineyards toward the mountain range, and swing a left on the Silverado Trail.
Napa the city, is surprisingly worth skipping. Aside from some new chic/trendy restaurants in the newer part of downtown Napa, the quaint charm of the valley is in the smaller towns up north.
Yountville has the best restaurants (French Laundry, Bouchon, Ad Hoc, and Bottega top the list) and some chic hotels and inns (Bardessono), but there's not much else to do.
Saint Helena, where I grew up, is by far the most charming town, though it has become increasingly chic. It's great for a day of shopping, eating, and strolling. There are great restaurants (Farmstead, Press, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, Gott's Roadside), but no real accommodations besides private B&Bs and Meadowood.
Calistoga has more of an old-school, Cali-hippie vibe and is great for spas and mud baths, hip hotels (Solage), and hiking. Don't bother eating here — you've already passed the better options down south.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Grab a picnic at Oakville Grocery, a charming roadside grocer that has been there since 1881. It has always been unabashedly gourmet, but in the most chill way. Once you've stocked up on wine, cheese, and sandwiches, take any turn off Highway 29 and trek (with your blanket) into the vineyards.
WHAT TO DO
Grab a toasted English muffin at the Model Bakery (closed Mondays) along Saint Helena's Main Street. They're to die for — a cross between a donut and a crumpet. Cross the street and pop into Patina to drool over Wayne and Markus' superb collection of fine estate jewelry. While you try rationalizing dropping a few grand on a golden 1920s snake necklace, head next door to design store M. Cool off wishing you were as brilliant as the brain behind the curiosities and large-format antiques that fill the showroom.
Nature in All Its Glory
Hot Air Balloon Ride
There are tons of different companies that organize balloon tours, usually first thing in the morning, so set your alarm clock. This is so much fun! I surprised my husband with a sunrise balloon ride for his birthday, and it was extraordinary.
Table Rock Hike
I'm more of a leisurely stroll kind of gal, but the views from the top of the hike are certainly worth it.
For that old California feeling, check out the geyser-fueled mineral water pool at Indian Springs Resort and Spa. I've been coming since the 1980s, and this place is a true source of nostalgia. Start with a massage and spend the rest of the day bobbing on the floaties at the pool with vino and snacks or borrow a bike to cruise the grounds. They also have adorable cottages that you can stay in.
Gott's Roadside Refresher
Formerly know as Taylor's Refresher, you can't miss this 1950s-style outdoor eatery when you cruise up the main drag into Saint Helena. The burgers, shakes, and fries are amazing, as is the ahi tuna burger. Don't worry: They serve wine. Avoid the lines at noon.
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen
If you're looking for something more classic Napa-style for lunch, this place is Martha Stewart-meets-Frida Kahlo, and the mojitos are the best I've had. Ever.
The hippest resort in the Valley has a great brunch scene. You can have mimosas while you play bocce and ride bikes around the property. Also notable: the sexy pool and the spa with a mud bar and bathhouse.
I always advise friends not to try to visit too many wineries because it's easy to get burnt out. If you'll only see a few, Sterling is a great choice for a winery visit. (Nostalgia alert: This is where my high school prom was held.) It's an all-white building perched on a mountaintop and the only way up is in a gondola. Once you disembark, you are immediately handed a glass of wine. (Not back in high school.) Sniff, Swirl, Repeat.
Hess Collection Winery
This winery is unique in that it houses an exquisite collection of art, so you can sip wine and browse art in the same visit.
Castello di Amorosa Gift Shop
This place is bananas. It's a winery in a 13th-century Tuscan castle, and when I say castle, I mean castle like in the fairy tales. The gift shop, located down in the catacombs (yes, the catacombs), is where the treasures are. Shop owner Beverly is a woman of endless taste, and her divine store is worth pillaging. Plus, the castle itself is one of the most impressive (if a bit over-the-top) sites in the Valley.
Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company
The Particelli family has been running this little-changed gem since 1962. Tucked away off Main Street, the old white barn is home to an Italian salumi market with loads of fantastic local olive oil that isn't overpriced.
WHERE TO STAY
Auberge du Soleil
Romantic, expensive, and GORGEOUS. If you're fancy and you know what's good for you, stay here. It's the best resort in the Valley, with stunning views, swanky people, and immaculate service. The pool area is a little bit of heaven. If you can't stay here, come for Sunday brunch or dinner at their insane restaurant.
This is our country club. It has charming cottages, two pools, tennis courts, and a golf course, all tucked away in the forested mountainside. Definitely a yuppie crowd.
An exclusive "rustic" retreat for high-end grown-ups.
Attracts a sexy, younger crowd. The pool is quite a scene.
El Bonita Motel
An old relic. A hilarious option, and probably the only one under $200, aside from B&Bs and private home rentals, which are everywhere.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Drive: Napa Valley is a good hour north of San Francisco. You need a car when you're here and often a designated driver. This can be cumbersome, but the cops are always on the prowl.
Fly: Fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), or Sacramento International Airport (SMF). The prettiest route from SFO is over the Golden Gate Bridge and along Carneros Highway, but be warned: There is often heavy traffic on the weekends.
WHEN TO GO
Late spring and early fall are the best. Summer is great, but July and August are hot and busy. Winter is a bit grey, although February brings the annual mustard festival, an activity-packed time when the whole Valley is painted with yellow flowers. It's a sight to be seen.
See the locations on this trip. (Google Maps)
BEST OF THE WEB
- Plan your winery tours on Napa Valley's tourism website.
- Download and print this wine aroma wheel before you go wine tasting. It's the most helpful tasting tool I've ever come across.