A few tips for navigating your way around the Napa Valley
I have been fortunate enough to stay at a couple of fabulous places here at reduced media rates (still very spendy), plus one perfectly adequate spot that fits my usual budget. Personal recommendations:
For those with a penchant for heated bathroom floors, top-notch Craftsman furnishings and a glass of bubbly upon one’s arrival, the Poetry Inn is, as my Tennessee aunt used to say, purt’ near heaven. It feels that way physically as well, perched several hundred feet above a stupendous vista, with the east-facing rooms allowing guests to watch hot-air balloons rising above the morning fog and sunsets dipping into the Mayacamas Mountains. The furniture is luxurious but eminently tasteful. In the lobby’s guest book on our visit, the last entry read “I’ve never used word ‘perfect’ so many times in my life.” I’m not nearly eloquent enough to convey it any better than that. 6380 Silverado Trail, 707-944-0646, www.poetryinn.com
If there were a dictionary for phrases — actually, there probably is one — a photo of the Meadowood resort would surely be next to “casual elegance. With cottages spilling across wooded hillsides on a secluded property, this is the ultimate retreat for either relaxing or getting out for a hike, 18 holes or a few rounds of croquet on obscenely immaculate grass. The restaurant just got a third Michelin star, and the accommodations are comfortable and nicely appointed. Only problem is, you won’t want to leave your room and actually do that whole Wine Country thing. 900 Meadowood Ln., St. Helena, 800-458-8080, 707-963-3646, www.meadowood.com
The El Bonita is a classic American motel; no more, no less. The rooms are clean, relatively comfortable and a bit cramped, with ample opportunities for shin-barking. The rooms in the back end of the complex are pricier and ostensibly quieter, but we’ve never had noise problems staying out front. Plus it’s closer to the pool, the hot tub and a modest continental breakfast. The El Bonita is not for those who want to be languidly hanging out at a “home away from home,” but it is a godsend for those of us who would rather spend our time out and our money on great meals and winery visits. $80-$280, depending on the season and the room/suite. 195 Main St., St. Helena, 800-541-3284, 707-963-3216, www.elbonita.com
For something in between, my trusted friend Mindy recommends the cottages at the Indian Springs Resort in Calistoga. “We’ve always found it very comfortable, and we love having a small house with a kitchen that has access to the big thermal pool and spa and is within easy walking distance of downtown Calistoga.” 1712 Lincoln Av., Calistoga, 707-942-4913, www.indianspringscalistoga.com
Take the trail: Tucked between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountains, the The Napa Valley is 2 to 5 miles wide but 35 miles long, with just two long thoroughfares, Hwy. 29 and the Silverado Trail. From the town of Napa to Yountville, 29 is a divided highway, but then it turns into a two-lane nightmare, especially on weekends and anytime during summer or harvest season. Take one of the cross roads — often conveniently including “Crossroad” in the name — to Silverado Trail for any major north-south travel (watch out for the bicyclists, though). If you’re trying to get onto Hwy. 29 during busy times, don’t even bother turning left unless there’s a traffic light; just go right and take the next left to turn around.
Oil vey! Fancy-food purveyors are easy to find, but the one not to miss is the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company. In a seriously rustic space, there are all manner of great condiments at reasonable prices ($1 fennel sausage links, mmmmm). Without fail, get some Sparrow Lane golden balsamic vinegar and the delicious, screamin’-bargain-priced olive oil; we usually have a couple of half-gallons of the latter shipped back to Tundraland. 835 Charter Oak Av., St. Helena, 707-963-4173, no website.
Belly up: For at least one lunch or dinner, eat at the bar. The food’s the same, but the server is more accessible for ordering or just talking about Napa. You also stand a really good chance of meeting a vintner or grower and hearing some local gossip. Some of my favorites: Mustards Grill, Press, Bistro Jeanty and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. Napa friends also tout the Rutherford Grill and Bounty Hunter.
Don’t belly up: If you see an oversized limo or similar vehicle parked outside a tasting room, turn around, stat! Large groups make the tasting-room workers cranky and invariably and indubitably diminish the experience (even if it’s a physically attractive bachelor or bachelorette party). Some believe that it can affect our ability to taste, and I’ve actually seen that borne out.