By: Andrew Collins/Special to TRT—
Northern California’s Napa Valley (visitnapavalley.com) is by no means solely about wine-touring. 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 (population 80,000) also lies just 15 miles east of the town of Sonoma. The Napa and Sonoma valleys both 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 – this winding road through the foothills passes a number of fine wineries and avoids much of the traffic along well-traveled 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 summer – 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 landscape waterfront. A 6.0-magnitude earthquake shook downtown in late 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, as some businesses were still making repairs as of this writing (October 2014), it’s best to call ahead to confirm hours.
Beyond downtown, there are a couple of notable 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 125-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 – always a good idea to offset all that time you spend drinking fine wines and eating delectable meals – consider visiting 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 – you can view a full list at visitnapavalley.com/transportation_tours.htm.
At last count, there were more than 450 wineries in Napa Valley. Some favorites, both for the quality of wine and the experience of visiting the tasting room and grounds, include:
- Beaulieu Vineyard, Rutherford: founded in 1900 and set in a stately building offering full tours and tastings.
- Castello di Amorosa, Calistoga: the owner of esteemed V. Sattui Winery opened this incredible 121,000-square-foot castle in 2007. The artwork and architecture makes for a truly memorable experience.
- Chimney Rock, Napa: set in an ornate white building in northern Napa along the Silverado Trail.
- Clos Pegase, Calistoga: Michael Graves designed this striking, contemporary winery that produces high-caliber wines.
- Domaine Chandon, Yountville: one of Napa’s preeminent destinations for sparkling wine.
- Franciscan Estate, St. Helena: among the prettiest of the wineries along Highway 29, with tastings offered in the tranquil courtyard during the warmer months.
- Rutherford Hill Winery, Rutherford: occupies a handsome barnlike building; bring a lunch to enjoy an alfresco meal at the winery’s lovely Olive Grove Picnic Area. It’s just up the lane from the sumptuous wine country resort, Auberge du Soleil.
- Stag’s Leap, Napa: beautiful patio and gardens, famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon having beaten out several top French wines in a blind taste test in 1976.
- Sterling Vineyards, Calistoga: the experience here involves taking an aerial tram up to the hilltop villa and winery.
Notable Napa Valley 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 (frenchlaundry.com). You can also opt for a meal of classic French bistro fare at Keller’s less-spendy and more casual Bouchon (bouchonbistro.com/Yountville).
Downtown Napa is packed with superb restaurants. A high-ceilinged, chatter-filled space on Main Street, TORC (torcnapa.com) serves beautifully plated contemporary American fare. Carpe Diem (carpediemwinebar.com) 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 (tarlagrill.com) serves flavorful Mediterranean cuisine in a compact, stylish dining room, while Celadon (celadonnapa.com) 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 (meltednapavalley.com), 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 (oxbowpublicmarket.com), 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 (longmeadowranch.com) is one of the most romantic special-occasion restaurants in the valley, and Tra Vigne (travignerestaurant.com) in downtown St. Helena serves impeccable modern Tuscan food. Up in Calistoga, both JoLe (jolerestaurant.com)—a lively farm-to-table bistro in the center of town—and brunch favorite Calistoga Kitchen (calistogakitchen.com) should be on any foodie’s “must-try” list.
Where to stay in Napa Valley
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 (riverterraceinn.com) 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 (napa.andaz.hyatt.com) – part of Hyatt’s rapidly growing luxury brand – is right in the heart of downtown and contains 141 cushy rooms with hickory-hardwood floors, plush linens and waterfall showerheads.
Two neighboring B&Bs of particular note are the Beazley House (beazleyhouse.com), a hip-roofed beauty with blue-and-white awnings and 11 warmly appointed rooms, and the gay-owned Inn on First (theinnonfirst.com), 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 (thechanric.com), which has seven luxuriously furnished rooms, a landscaped pool area and a tranquil massage room. Gracious Chateau de Vie (cdvnapavalley.com) overlooks gardens of lavender and rose and contains four opulent rooms with such classy perks as L’Occitane bath products, iPod docks and Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes grown on vineyards surrounding the property.
Another favorite, located just off the main village street, is Luxe Calistoga (luxecalistoga.com), 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 (www.meadowlarkinn.com), 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.
*Andrew Collins produces the website GayTravel.About.com and writes about travel for a variety of LGBT and mainstream publications. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.