Eat, drink and be merry in California’s epicurean epicentre
‘Land of plenty’ is how the Native Americans described Napa Valley, an area 90 minutes north of San Francisco. The meaning was different in the 18th century, before farmers arrived from the east to plant the first vineyards, but the sentiment still applies today. Fine wine, gourmet food and sophisticated leisure pursuits pervade every corner, making it a glorious playground for grown-ups. At 30 miles long and 12 miles wide, with tree-covered mountains in almost every direction, the valley’s main towns – Calistoga, Napa, St Helena and Yountville – each have their charms.
Foodies must pay homage at the internationally acclaimed eateries of Yountville, and shopaholics will be in their element in chi-chi St Helena. Spa and nature lovers are in for a treat in woodsy, olde-worlde Calistoga, while buzzy Napa, the biggest town in the valley, offers a little of everything and is growing at warp speed. Oenophiles will be in their element anywhere in the country’s most famous wine region, with nearly 400 wineries sprinkled in the hills.
If you’re new to Californian wines, start at the top. Far Niente (1350 Acacia Drive, Oakville; 00 1 707 944 2861, farniente.com; tour and tasting, $50) is one of country’s most esteemed wineries. The tasting is pricey, but it’s worth it to sample the outstanding Cab Savs and Chardonnays. Champagne lovers should stop off at of esteemed Schramsberg winery (1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga; 00 1 800 877 3623, schramsberg.com; tour and tasting, $40 The superior pedigree and idyllic setting makes this a fine place to try some of California’s excellent sparkling wines. Culture vultures should head to the Hess Collection (4411 Redwood Road, Napa; 00 10 707 255 1144, hesscollection.com; gallery, free; tasting, $10; Tour of the Palate, $50) to view its world-class modern art, finished off, naturally, with a sample of its top-quality wines. The generous pours at most wineries make driving impractical, and there’s no viable public transport. Instead, do your tastings in style in the back of a chauffeured antique cat from Classic Convertible Wine Tours (00 1 707 226 9227, antiquetours.net; from $120/hour per car).
Take a break from the wineries to indulge in an old Napa Valley tradition – getting mucky. Since the 19th century, tourists have been visiting Calistoga’s spas to slather on the local volcanic mud, said to be good for skin complaints, arthritis and to draw impurities from the pores. Try it yourself with a Mudslide ($98 one hour) at the swish spa at Solage Calistoga (755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga; 00 1 866 942 7442, solagecalistoga.com).
Feel like walking on air after your treatment? Do it literally with a hot-air balloon ride, a hugely popular activity in the valley, despite its pre-sunrise start. Six companies offer the experience, with prices around $200 per person for a one-hour ride. The valley’s most popular sport has a distinct advantage. Bocce ball, similar to bowls and petanque, can be played with a glass of wine in one hand and the ball in the other. It’s easy to pick up, and many wineries and hotels have bocce courts, or you can use the public courts at Veteran’s Park in Yountville (townofyountville.com, 00 1 707 944 8712; $10 for one hour).
With so many fine hotels scattered through the valley, choosing where to sleep is as much a pleasure as a chore. Looking for that quintessential American B&B? Try Hennessey House, 1727 Main Street, Napa (00 1 707 226 3774, hennesseyhouse.com; doubles from $139, B&B.) Get back to nature at rustic-luxe Calistoga Ranch, 580 Lommel Road, Calistoga (00 1 707 254 2800, calistogaranch.com; doubles from $650, room only), gorgeous cedar-clad cabins are scattered up a tree-filled hillside. Boutique hotel White House Inn, 443 Brown Street , Napa (00 1 707 254 9301, napawhitehouseinn.com; doubles from $225, B&B) had a pool, small spa, concierge and chef, plus all the warmth and hospitality of a traditional American B&B without the faux Euro-style of many of the valley’s five-stars.
Gourmands will need at least a week to sample Napa’s award-winning eateries. After several years in the top five of many ‘World’s Best’ lists, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, 6640 Washing Street, Yountville (00 10 708 944 2380, frenchlaundry.com; two-month advance booking essential) is still turning out drool-worthy French-Californian cuisine. At $250 for the ten-course menu, it’s a good deal compared to some of the world’s other top restaurants, but the wine list is pricey, so it’s worth bringing your own, even with the $75 corkage. Another don’t miss is Michelin-starred Ubuntu (1140 Main Street, Napa (00 1 707 251 5656, ubuntunapa.com), an innovative vegetarian restaurant with trendy vibe and truly extraordinary food that even carnivores adore. When tourists and gourmet restaurants get too much for the locals, they escape to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, 1327 Railroad Avenue, St Helena (00 10 708 963 1200, cindysbackstreetkitchen.com). for the buzzy atmosphere and comfort food – Californian style. Chow down on mushroom tamales with grits or pollo loco (crazy chicken) with avocado salsa.
Max out your credit cards on St Helena’s small-town Main Street, with its cute boutiques and quirky shops. Get a blast of American past at WJ Guigni Grocery Co (1227 Main Street; 00 1 707 963 3421), where you’ll find old-fashioned sweets and candy bars along with a deli making delicious, cheap sandwiches. Tread lightly at Foot Candy (1239 Main Street; 00 1 707 963 2040), where celebs stock up on Jimmy Choos and Manolos. Animal lovers shouldn’t miss Fideaux (1312 Main Street; 00 1 707 967 9935), a dog and cat fantasy land with an amazing range of collars, clothing and accoutrements for pets. Yes, even our furry friends are spoiled for choice in this decadent wonderland.