Sunshine, cool afternoon breezes, and wine, wine, wine. The Napa Valley has it all and more. Consisting of the communities of Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Saint Helena and Calistoga, and all the vineyards between, the Napa Valley is known primarily for its more than 175 wineries that annually produce many thousands of gallons of chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel, merlot, and other wines, red, white, and blush. The Napa Valley is the premier grape-growing and wine-producing region in America, rivaling the best in France. You can see the process that makes these wines great. Most of the wineries offer guided tours, many of them give free tastings (others charge minimally), and all of them sell bottles and cases of their best-often you can get special vintages exclusively available at the winery store. You don't have to be a wine enthusiast or even drink wine to enjoy the tours, however. In a quickly passing 45 minutes to an hour, the tour guides distribute a plethora of food suggestions, wine trivia, and serving advice while walking you through the steps involved in turning grapes into wine.
The pioneers who came into the valley rightfully saw it as a land of promise and adopted the name given it by Native Americans; in the Miwok language, Napa means "plenty." George Yount, a trapper and explorer, recognized the area's potential early and established the first homestead in the valley over 150 years ago in the area that was to be named Yountville after his death. In the mid-1800s, vintners discovered that the hot mornings of the Napa Valley and the cooling afternoon breezes off the ocean were perfect for growing grapes. A collection of wineries sprang up around Yountville and beyond-by the late 1860s, 50 vintners were producing wines in the fertile valley. The next decade saw two of the valley's renowned wineries developed, Inglenook and Beringer, that survived Prohibition and still operate. In the 1920s, Prohibition and phylloxera, a plant louse that destroys vine roots, acted as a double whammy virtually knocking out the young wine industry. However, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 sparked a resurgence in wine production that has lasted to the present day.
The modern age of wine making has seen unrivaled cooperation among the Napa Valley wineries. Sharing techniques and new technologies, the region's vitners have collectively created one of the most prestigious wine regions in the world. In the process, Napa has become among the most popular tourist destinations in northern California.
Calistoga's Old Faithful Geyser is one of three geysers in the world granted the title because of their clockwork performance. As with its more famous namesake in Yellowstone National Park, the appearance of the geyser area can be deceiving. From the seemingly innocent flat patch of earth, uprising steam and boiling water begin to seep through the surface, growing in intensity just before the geyser erupts. Then, with a hiss and a boom, Old Faithful shoots thousands of gallons of boiling water and steam 60 feet into the air. The show lasts about four minutes, after which Old Faithful goes back to sleep for another 40 minutes before cutting loose again. The regular 40-minute intervals continue night and day. However, on occasion, the geyser is late or actually skips a show, and some scientists have linked these delays to major earthquakes. Seismological records seem to show that the geyser changes schedule two to 14 days before an earthquake, although scientists have yet to ascertain whether it can reliably predict a coming tremor. Entry to Old Faithful costs $4.
A large number of resorts have grown up around these springs, but none is more famous than White Sulfur Springs, a 330-acre resort that offers beautiful hikes, massages, and natural hot tubs. The family-owned operation is said to be California's oldest resort, rivaling the famed Saratoga Springs in New York state. White Sulfur has all the amenities for a relaxing escape-from its location, hidden in a secluded canyon, to no telephones or televisions, to 86-degree (on average) hot springs. If you do not want to stay overnight, you can purchase a day pass that gives you access to the challenging hiking trails, where you wander through the foothills at the east edge of the valley, then lets you recuperate in the relaxing hot springs afterward. Call for day pass and room rates. Reservations should be made at least a week in advance. The springs are located at 3100 White Sulfur Springs Road, Saint Helena. Call 707-963-8588.
The Petrified Forest, five miles west of Calistoga, is more evidence of the area's seismic activity. Some six million years ago, Mount Saint Helena erupted, spewing volcanic ash across a forest of gigantic redwoods. The eruption uprooted and toppled the trees, which were then infiltrated with silica and minerals, in effect turning them to stone while preserving their texture-the process called petrification. It is open in summer daily 9am to 6pm, in winter 9am to 5pm. Admission is $3. The forest is located at 4100 Petrified Forest Road. Call 707-942-6667.
Napa Valley Trail Rides offers visitors a touch of the old west in the wine country with horseback riding at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. The park is located off Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga. Trails traverse both shady canyons and hilltops with magnificent views. There is also a trail along the Native American Garden where one can see plants that were important to the Wappo Indians as a source of food, shelter, clothing tools, and basket-making material. Trail horses are available for both novice and experienced riders. Call 707-996-8566.
A number of resorts have grown up around Calistoga's hot springs with a wide variety of soothing body treatments from basic massage to a seaweed bath and wrap. Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs is one of the best-known names for body therapy. Far from fictional, Dr. John Wilkinson started as a chiropractor in Calistoga and later developed this spa. You can get a massage and then recline in a warm mud bath that gently suspends you, allowing your muscles total relaxation. Appointments are required, and lodging is available. The Springs are located at 1507 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga. Call 707-942-4102.
The International Spa repertoire includes a large number of different body therapies with facilities for two people to share. Here you can get an acupressure massage, a seaweed bath and wrap, and a mud bath for two. Appointments are required. The Spa is located on First Street in Calistoga, one block east of Washington Street, which runs north off State Highway 29. Call 707-942-6122.
Candles add that extra touch to a fine dinner and good wine. Stop by the Hurd Beeswax Candle Factory in the Freemark Abbey Winery complex to find the right candle to bring a new glow to your dinner. Wax workers, busy as bees, produce the candles right in the shop. You can watch as they roll the beeswax, cut out shapes, and form them into flowers or embed dried real flowers directly into the wax. The candle factory also displays some bees at work. The shop is open daily 10am to 5:30pm, but candles are made weekdays only. Call 707-963-7211.
Wine on the Rails & Up in the Air
The Napa Valley Wine Train takes you on a three-hour excursion from Napa to Saint Helena and back in the luxury of a restored Orient-Express-style train. In the elegance of the old-fashioned dining car with its spotless linens, polished crystal, and gleaming silverware, energetic waiters and waitresses serve fine continental cuisine. Lovingly prepared, tender meats combine with the freshest local produce to rival the best restaurants in the valley. Of course, the wine list includes a large number of the best Napa Valley wines to enjoy with your meal. Take the train for dinner in high summer for the four-course meal that pauses with a sorbet to cleanse the palate before the main course-what luxury! But when the days are shorter so that you miss the scenery on the dinner train, take advantage of the brunch or lunch train where you can wine, dine, and see the rows of vines pass as the train slowly rolls to your culinary satisfaction.
Tariffs for the train cost about $30 per person. You pay for the gourmet meals on the train, ranging from $22 to $25 for lunch and under $50 for dinner (not including wine; tipping is not necessary). You can ride the train without eating just to enjoy the wine and countryside, but the meal is recommended-the food is terrific and the countryside beautiful. Reservations are suggested. The train boards at 1295 McKinstry Street, Napa. Call for departure times. Call 707-253-2111.
Another Napa Valley attraction that combines many of the best aspects of the region and reserves time for the rest is hot-air-ballooning. Balloons lift off around 6:30 in the morning, giving the aerial traveler the best views of the lush vine-covered valley in the best possible, early morning light. And a champagne brunch tops off the whole expedition. Enjoy romance, intrigue, glorious photo opportunities, and, after landing, great food. The brunch flight ends at around 10 am with plenty of time to visit a good number of wineries or take a massage and soak in one of the many spa resorts. Rides leave from all parts of the valley depending on which balloonist you choose. Reservations required. Rides cost around $165 per person. Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. (707-253-2224) leaves from Yountville, and Bonaventure Balloon Company (707-944-2822) leaves from Rutherford.
From The Seasoned Traveler's Guide to Northern California, by Edwin Kiester, Jr. and William Kiester. © 1993 by Edwin Kiester, Jr. and William Kiester. Excerpted by arrangement with Country Roads Press. $10.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 610-666-9763.
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