Only a short drive from San Francisco, California’s beautiful Napa County boasts more than 1,700 wineries and more than 400 tasting rooms. But Napa is more than just grapes and vineyards—it’s Michelin-starred restaurants, spas, markets, and hiking and biking trails, surrounded by a very attractive Mediterranean climate.
Although the Napa Valley was hit hard by the Glass Fire last year, the majority of the wineries, restaurants, markets and trails survived and have reopened, and the wineries will be ready by this year’s harvest in August to October. Be sure to check ahead, of course, as well as ask whether there are any COVID-related restrictions.
Start your visit in Napa the way the locals do: with an early morning English muffin at a Napa Valley mainstay, the Model Bakery. The secret of the muffins? They’re cooked in clarified butter on a stovetop instead of in an oven.
A must stop is the Oxbow Public Market. There are 22 independently owned stores and restaurants inside this 40,000-square-foot marketplace, which opened in 2007. You can sit outside, with great views of the Napa River, which runs alongside the market. Try the brittles and dessert sauces at artisanal chocolatier Annette’s, and the empanadas at El Porteño.
You can also immerse yourself in a gastronomic Napa experience. Just sign up for a cooking class at the Vista Collina Resort. Guest chefs host brunch, lunch and three-course dinner classes there. One recent class produced a menu of Granny Smith Apple and Foie Gras Toast, Seared Akaroa King Salmon and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta, each course paired with a glass of wine.
Then, take to the skies. One of the best ways to see Napa is from a morning hot air balloon ride over the Vaca Mountains. On some of those mornings you can see the San Francisco skyline in the distance, as well as the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can even combine the balloon ride with a bike tour through the vineyards.
Yountville, a small town located off State Route 29, is just a 15-minute drive from Napa. The place is packed with gourmet restaurants within walking distance of one another on Washington Street.
There’s also the Napa Valley Vine Trail, which lets you bike nearly 13 miles from Yountville all the way to Kennedy Park in Napa. Rent a bicycle and ride the trail, with multiple stops at wineries along the way. If you don’t want to exert yourself, you can rent motorized e-bikes.
Another 15 minutes up SR 29 takes you to St. Helena, a town of around 6,000 people. In my experience, St. Helena is really the heart of Napa Valley. There are about 175 wineries in St. Helena, including Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa (it opened in 1876) and home to a 17-room mansion that preserves that history.
Located about half an hour north from Napa, up SR 29, Calistoga is home to some of the titans of the wine world, including the ornate castles of Chateau Montelena and Castello di Amorosa, and the aerial gondola to the hilltop of Sterling Vineyards.
But I go to Calistoga for a completely different experience: the mud baths. A number of hotels there offer these special baths, which use mud infused with volcanic ash from nearby Mount St. Helena. In many cases you don’t need to be a hotel guest to reserve a treatment. While mud baths may sound like a new-age therapeutic, this practice originated with the local Wappo tribe, and today involves a process where you’re doused in warm mud that suspends your body in a feeling of weightlessness and is said to exfoliate and improve the skin.
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