Napa and Sonoma Wine Country Activities
Half a dozen fall wine country getaways
Heading to Napa and Sonoma is an easy getaway from Marin County. And for those who want to do a bit more than sip ‘n swirl the latest varietal, we’ve curated a six different scenarios for your next visit.
1. Calistoga: Health
For centuries the Wappo Indians enjoyed the healing properties of the area’s hot springs. But it was California pioneer and entrepreneur Sam Brannan who founded this town as we know it, with the intention of creating a West Coast health mecca. Thanks to the natural geothermal springs and thousands of pounds of the famous therapeutic mud, Calistoga remains a top destination for the health-minded traveler.
Centrally located on the town’s main street (Lincoln Avenue), the Mount View Hotel has a motto: the Art of Relaxation. Guests can choose among perks like breakfast in bed, an easel and paints to take to the vineyards, and an afternoon at the on-site spa or just lounge with a book by the tranquil swimming pool.
Morning: Café Sarifornia is a popular diner where you can fuel up on a classic breakfast. Its name is a nod to the naming of the town itself: according to legend, after a few too many cocktails, town founder Brannan made a toast to “the Calistoga of Sarifornia” when he had intended to say “the Saratoga of California,” referring to the New York spa town of Saratoga Springs.
Midday: Enjoy a luxe lunch at Solage Calistoga Resort’s Solbar. Opt for indoor (fireplace) or outdoor (patio) seating overlooking the pool. The menu features bounty from local organic farms.
Evening: Join the Main Street menu crawl as the sun goes down. Dozens of would-be diners size up the offerings and their appetites to find the perfect match. However you can’t beat Sam’s Social Club up the street at Indian Springs for your final destination.
Start early in the morning to summit Mount St. Helena, and bring a hat, water and sunscreen. In the words of the Chronicle’s venerable outdoorsman Tom Stienstra, it’s a “butt-kicking” workout. Start at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and follow the signs to the trailhead. It starts slow and is a five-mile grind to the summit.
The Petrified Forest walk is a half-mile trail that passes by stony remains of ancient trees, a frozen-in-time record of a catastrophic explosion of Mount St. Helena. Meander and ponder life’s fragility, or stroll through in 10 minutes. Plaques with names for the trees offer interesting tidbits of information. Ten minutes north by car is Calistoga’s Old Faithful geyser. Don’t let the underwhelming setting fool you: this is a sight worth seeing. There are only three geysers on the planet worthy of the “old faithful” moniker, which means the geyser performs (spews) at regular intervals. Both these experiences each cost less than $10 and will provide hours of dinner party fodder.
2. Healdsburg: Romance
A former mid-1800s stopping point on the route from San Francisco to the gold mines, downtown Healdsburg is the center of it all, and it’s only a short drive from here to the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. Spend the day people-watching from a bench in the Spanish-style town square and shopping at upscale boutiques like Corte Madera’s M Clothing sister store.
Romance meets luxury at the Relais & Château–designated Hotel Les Mars. Think Louis XV armoires, draped four-poster beds, deep soaking bathtubs and marble-appointed bathrooms, all housed in a fresh limestone facade. With only 16 rooms, the staff provides top-notch personalized service and guests can mingle comfortably at the nightly wine and cheese reception in the carved-walnut-paneled library.
Morning: Grab coffee and a flaky croissant at Costeaux on the north end of the town square; then head to the Saturday morning farmers’ market, in the parking lot at North and Vine streets just behind Hotel Healdsburg, to browse a bounty of chili jams, white peaches and locally made chocolates.
Midday: The lobster roll is a must-try at Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar, as is the hamachi ceviche with chili and lime juice. If you’re carb-loading for an afternoon of wine tasting, indulge in Willi’s French Fries with a Laura Chenel goat cheese ranch dipping sauce.
Evening: Go alfresco for dinner at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in the Hotel Healdsburg. Or head to Valette, the family owned hot spot.
Put on a pair of solid walking shoes; downtown Healdsburg is home to more than two dozen tasting rooms, including Artiste Winery, La Crema and Topel. Don’t miss a stop in the new Ferrari-Carano and Lazy Creek tasting room, which features exposed brick walls and an original 1833 tin ceiling and where you can sip pinot grigio at the 20-foot bar while perusing a well-edited array of home decor items.
Get in touch with the town’s local history with an afternoon of antiquing. Tour a maze of rooms filled with vintage cameras, typewriters, clothing, tchotchkes and more at local shops like Mill Street Antiques, Moonshadows Antiques. Who knows, you may even find a treasure that pays for the trip—or at least gets you on an episode of Antiques Roadshow.
3. Glen Ellen: Outdoors
Nestled between Sonoma’s plaza and the stretch of Highway 12 known as Kenwood, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Glen Ellen has been home to an impressive list of literary types, including Jack London, M.F.K. Fisher and Hunter S. Thompson. Visitors come for the quiet surroundings, looking to get in touch with as well as sample the bounty of the land.
Originally built for the town butcher in 1890, the Gaige House isn’t your typical wine country bed-and-breakfast. The 23-room luxe property has Asian-style decor and a 40-foot-long swimming pool; all guest rooms have private baths and several have fireplaces. A spa garden suite includes an oversize granite tub.
Morning: Grab breakfast at the Glen Ellen Village Market, where you’ll find three-egg dishes, bacon, maple sausage, breakfast burritos, croissant sandwiches and 30 different doughnuts and pastries each morning.
Midday: It’s not quite in Glen Ellen, but Kenwood Restaurant isn’t too far down the road. Sit on the patio with its great views of the vineyards and indulge in a hamburger and Sonoma vino—served by the half- or full glass, half- or full bottle.
Evening: Visit the cheesemonger at Raymond and Co. for a one-hour tasting; owner John Raymond has been known to let a guest sample every cheese there. Appetite piqued, head over to Fig Café and Wine Bar (take advantage of the no-corkage fee) for a plate of steamed mussels and fries.
From the upper parking lot at Jack London State Park, take a 1.5-mile round-trip hike past farm buildings up to the lake where London spent his summers with famous friends. A short trail from the lower parking lot leads to London’s grave and to the spectacular ruins of the Wolf House. At Jack London’s Beauty Ranch, tour the House of Happy Walls, a home and museum built by London’s wife after his death.
The Glen Ellen tasting room at B. R. Cohn Winery was founder (and Doobie Brothers manager) Bruce Cohn’s former home. After your tasting, take a self-guided tour of Quarryhill Botanical Garden, home to rare plants and one of the largest collections of temperate Asian plants in North America.
4. Sonoma: History
While Sonoma is synonymous with sunshine and a delectable harvest, it is also situated around the northernmost California mission, making the Sonoma plaza a great destination for history buffs. Just up the hill in a well-established cemetery is the grave of William Smith, the only Revolutionary War soldier known to be buried in California. The Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma was founded on July 4, 1823, and down the street, the Blue Wing Inn at 125 East Spain Street, built by General M. G. Vallejo in 1840, is the oldest adobe structure north of San Francisco.
The El Dorado Hotel and Kitchen, on the northwest corner of the plaza in a historical adobe building, is always a popular spot. Be sure to make time to enjoy happy hour in the garden.
Morning: Grab a cup of coffee and a treat at California’s historic landmark No. 501, Salvador Vallejo’s Home, aka the Sunflower Caffé. Most patrons are lured by the shaded patio and tempting victuals and don’t realize that it is the oldest adobe building in the area open to the public.
Midday: The patio of the Swiss Hotel, built in 1909 on the northern edge of the plaza, has been a favorite lunch spot for decades. Not too hungry? Grab a snack at the Sonoma Cheese Factory next door for a picnic elsewhere.
Evening: El Dorado Kitchen’s “farm-driven” menu is a favorite for locals and visitors alike. Enjoy his celebrated cuisine at an intimate table for two on the patio, under the century-old fig tree, or with a large party on the 21-foot dining room table of reclaimed single-plank wood from a Vermont bridge.
Connect with the bike path a block north of the square. Head east a mile or so to Bartholomew Park, a historic and organically farmed estate winery. Besides the on-site museum, which presents unique wine-making artifacts and vintage photographs, the property has three miles of hiking trails. The original estate included neighboring Buena Vista, California’s first winery, and once belonged to viticulture maverick Agoston Haraszthy.
On the way home along Highway 121, stop at Cornerstone Gardens to browse the nine acres of inspiring garden installations and/or partake in some wine tasting at Artesa, Roshambo, Grange Sonoma, Larson Family or Ridgeline winery. Enjoy a fresh salad, soup or sandwich alfresco at Sage Fine Foods. With all the money saved on your Sonoma experience, splurge on a unique piece of garden art.
5. St. Helena: Family
This charming town could be the backdrop for a classic black-and-white ’50s sitcom, complete with happy families strolling Main Street, kids clutching melting ice cream cones and American flags hung proudly on each corner.
If the Hansel and Gretel–like grounds at the Harvest Inn don’t win over the kids, the two outdoor swimming pools and family-friendly breakfast will. Chilly wine country nights are no problem; snuggle by the in-room fireplace or soak in the Jacuzzi while the teens watch an in-room movie on the flat-screen TV. No need to leave Fido at home; dogs are welcome, too. For a private experience, choose the Napa Confidential package, which includes a personalized tour with driver, monogrammed bathrobes, a picnic lunch and more.
Morning: There aren’t any familiar commercial coffee stations near the hustle and bustle of Main Street (though Dean & DeLuca is just down the road), but Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company is the place to meet the locals, enjoy the free Wi-Fi and nurse a headache from last night’s libations.
Midday: Head to V. Sattui Winery for a tasting, then choose from 200 cheeses, meats, sandwiches and salads at the on-site market and deli for lunch with the family out in the large shaded picnic area. Traveling sans children? Head to the Revana Family Vineyard, where winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett of Screaming Eagle fame has a cab surely destined for cult status.
Drive or bike to the Redwood Trail at Bothe State Park entrance on Highway 29, a few miles north of St. Helena’s Main Street. Walk among redwoods and ferns along Ritchey Creek, which runs all year long. The first loop extends two miles; other well-marked trails can be accessed for longer hikes, with a trail past the summer home of San Francisco’s Hitchcock family, who came up from in the 1870s to host lively social gatherings for the city’s moneyed crowd.
Stroll down Main Street, especially between Pope and Pine streets, and stop by Martin Showroom for unique and unusual finds from interior designer Erin Martin. A little farther off the main drag is the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, a replicated Tuscan mansion where visitors can watch demonstrations and stock up on kitchen gadgets in the boutique, as well as the 17-room Beringer Vineyards–owned Victorian Rhine House, a National Register of Historic Places–listed building, offering tours/tastings by appointment.
6. Yountville: Gastronomy
Yountville, the first stop for most on Napa Valley’s famed Highway 29, is consistently producing more “have-you-been-to” restaurants and experiences. From Cindy Pawlcyn’s Mustards Grill and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry to more recent culinary must-try’s like Richard Reddington’s REDD and Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, these eateries are nationally recognized and locally admired. The hardest decision you will make during your stay is where to have your next meal.
Villagio Inn & Spa and Vintage Inn and swanky Bardessono will not disappoint.
Morning: For those staying at the Villagio Inn & Spa or the Vintage Inn, the weekend buffet breakfast is complimentary and will convert the most strident “breakfast-is-not-my-thing” person into a blubbering carbo-devouring fool. Staying elsewhere? Pop into Bouchon Bakery for a sweet treat and a latte.
Midday: Linger on the patio at Hurley’s and watch the world pass by as you enjoy seasonal dishes like squash blossom fritters.
Evening: Sample Thomas Keller’s famed cuisine without financial stress at his family-style, casual ad hoc restaurant. Call ahead to find out what will be on the menu, since each night one meal is served to all diners.
Bike it. This relatively flat area of the valley abounds with scenic, winery-filled routes. Many hotels have bikes available for free or a nominal fee. From downtown Yountville, head out about 2.5 miles to Cliff Lede Winery, and stop in for a tasting and a look in the on-site art gallery. Continue south on Silverado Trail for more of the famed Stags Leap District’s offerings. Sound too intimidating? Sign up with Napa Valley Bike Tours for a planned, and pampering, tour—i.e., guides and sag wagons.
Balloon ride! That 5 a.m. wake-up alarm can be brutal, but the sunrise over the vineyards makes up for it as you float above the vineyards. On a clear day the San Francisco skyline is visible; any day brings a bird’s-eye view of the entire valley. Do it at least once.