““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
California's Napa Valley
Summer days can be quite warm in northern California's inland valleys, even those that lie fairly near the coast. By evening, though, the warm, moist air is cooled by the bitterly cold Pacific Ocean, resulting in a thick bank of offshore fog. From miles out to sea, the fog begins its eastward march, covering the beaches and then the hills of the Coast Range, where it settles like misty lakes in the inland valleys.
Most people find this daily pattern of hot arid days and cool moist nights-with an almost guaranteed absence of rainfall for months on end-to be very pleasant. Wine grapes love it. In combination with local soil conditions, the fluctuating summer temperatures produce exceptional wines, a fact that the region's initial settlers appreciated.
George Yount, for whom the Napa Valley town of Yountville is named, planted the first vines in 1838. By the early 1860s, San Franciscans were making their way north to the Napa Valley to wine, dine and vacation. The vineyards, which have engendered considerable wealth over the years, have since given rise to grand architecture and an elegant lifestyle.
Coincidentally, the hills that surround the valley hold an abundance of both geothermal and cold mineral water springs. When you combine sumptuous health spas built around natural hot springs with wealth from the wine trade and wrap it all in a beautiful environment, it's no surprise that the Napa Valley wine country has become a premier vacation destination.
For the typical airline traveler, flying to the area means landing a good distance away, at one of the busy airports serving San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento or San Jose. The business jet traveler, however, can touch down in the heart of wine country at Napa Valley Airport.
Wine and Silver
"Wine is bottled poetry" is a famous line from author Robert Louis Stevenson. It's often quoted in reference to wine in general, but he was referring specifically to wines produced by the early vintners of Napa Valley. In his 1883 travel book The Silverado Squatters he compared the planting of California vineyards with prospecting for precious minerals, describing how one grape variety after another was tried in one patch of land after another until the best combinations were found.
In 1880, a newly married Stevenson spent a long honeymoon in the Silverado area in the town of St. Helena. He suffered from a chronic bronchial ailment, which is why he left the fog of the San Francisco Bay Area for the arid air of the Napa Valley. It's said that he enjoyed the best health of his life at that time. The "Silverado" name came from the silver miners who dug and resided around Mount St. Helena, a peak in the Mayacamas chain. The name also was given to the first permanent road running north-south through the valley, the Silverado Trail.
The original settlers planted much more than wine grapes, however, as they needed grain and other staples to live. Dr. E.T. Bale built a water-driven grist mill near the town of Calistoga in 1846. Local farmers would bring their corn and wheat to be ground, and as that process gave them some time to socialize, the mill became a popular gathering point. Handmade of native fir and redwood on a base of local stone, the mill was restored by the state of California in 1988 and is currently operational.
A Culinary Experience
These days, the Silverado Trail is a two-lane blacktop road running up the eastern edge of Napa Valley. The more heavily traveled St. Helena Highway, California 29, runs up the western edge, alongside the route originally laid out for the railroad. In fact, rather than driving on either the Silverado Trail or the St. Helena Highway, you might prefer to do your sightseeing from the Napa Valley Wine Train. More than a means of transportation, it is a culinary experience with multi-course meals accompanied by excellent wines served in elegantly restored antique coaches. Both highways and the railroad lead to St. Helena and Calistoga, at the northern end of the valley.
Leaving the airport, we intersected Highway 29 and headed north. In less than two miles, the road forked and we took a right onto the Napa-Vallejo Highway. After three more miles, we came to another fork and again took the right-hand direction, putting us on the Silverado Trail. Either route north through the valley offers interesting things to see, but this smaller road is the more richly scenic. The old (by California standards) towns of Calistoga, Yountville and St. Helena are definitely worth seeing. In St. Helena you'll find the Silverado Museum, dedicated to the life and works of Stevenson.
We drove the 10 miles north from St. Helena to Calistoga, then another seven or eight miles up the road to the summit of Highway 29 and the entrance to the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. It includes the site of the abandoned silver mine, Silverado, which was already in dilapidated condition when the author and his wife, Fanny, "squatted" there in the early 1880s.
From the park, there are hiking trails leading to the top of 4,343-foot Mount St. Helena. The five-mile trek to the summit covers some fairly rough terrain and a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. It is described as "challenging." On a clear day at the summit, the hiker is rewarded with panoramic views from the Pacific to the Sierra and as far north as Mount Shasta.
Leaving Calistoga on another occasion, we went north on Highway 128 toward Mendocino and about a mile out of town turned left on Petrified Forest Road. In about 15 minutes, we reached the entrance to-you guessed it-the Petrified Forest. Another mile out from Calistoga, past Petrified Forest Road on Highway 128, a right turn on Tubbs Lane brings you to the Old Faithful Geyser. Of course, it isn't to be confused with the geyser in Yellowstone National Park of the same name, but it is old and faithful. Another attraction in the same area is the Bale Grist Mill State Park, located between St. Helena and Calistoga. All three are especially good stops to make if you have kids along.
Napa Valley Vintners lists more than 270 wineries as members, so a wine-tasting tour can take as much time as you can afford to give it. Many wine lovers come to the area with a fairly good idea of which brands produce their favorite vintages and plan itineraries accordingly. A somewhat simpler approach is to arrange for one of the limousine tours. This also avoids drawing straws to see who gets to be the designated driver.
The Silverado and Meadowood resorts offer golf and tennis onsite. In addition, there are golf courses in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, Napa and elsewhere in the valley and surrounding hills. Hiking and mountain biking trails lead to the top of Mt. St. Helena from the old Silverado camp, and there are swimming, hiking and other activities at the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, which is located between St. Helena and Calistoga. Canoeing and kayaking are available on the Napa River, and there are two recreational lakes in the area. There's also hot-air ballooning, which ranks among the most popular recreational activities in the Napa Valley.
Finally, there's the reason many people head for the Napa Valley in the first place: the health-giving properties of the natural hot springs. Upon the Napa Valley's native geothermal waters have been built some of the most sumptuous, highly developed and well catered spas, replete with mud baths and massages. Combined with the scenery and serenity of the environment, it makes for one of the world's great getaways. Whatever your taste and whether you are drawn by the wine, the springs, the recreation or all three, the chances are good that the Napa Valley won't disappoint you.
Traveler Report Card
Accommodations (A+): In addition to a wide range of hotels and B&Bs, the area boasts exclusive health spas in superb settings. The architecture and amenities earn an A. The plus comes from the addition of natural hot springs and a nearly perfect climate.
Food (A): California cuisine reflects its natural ingredients and the abundance of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Fresh ocean fish haven't far to travel. Add the excellent local wine and the fact that some of the world's best chefs have been drawn to the area, and it's reasonable to expect very good dining.
Activities (A): The main activity for many is wine tasting, but opportunities abound for burning calories and having active fun. Numerous golf and tennis options exist around the valley. Several companies provide hot-air-balloon rides. There are many trails for hiking and mountain biking. Canoeing, kayaking and cruising are available on the Napa River (which is gentle and free of rapids, thus relatively safe for kids). Sightseeing includes the geysers, the Petrified Forest, the Bale Grist Mill and all those gorgeous vineyards. The Napa Valley Wine Train is another excellent way to tour the area.
Quietude (A+): Even downtown Napa is relatively quiet, and from there it gets to positively serene. The better resorts occupy huge acreage and offer a feeling of really getting away from it all.
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is: A valley in northern California known for its wineries, health spas, climate and scenery.
Where it is: North of San Francisco, midway between Sacramento and the Pacific coast.
Ambiance: Miles of vineyards in a valley surrounded on the east, west and north by mountains, stately homes and wineries. It's possible to get well away from it all in some resorts tucked back in the mountains.
History: From the first vineyards planted on property obtained through a Spanish land grant in 1838, wine in the area was found to be exceptional. The Napa Valley Railroad Company formed in 1864, spurring tourism to the wine country and the health spas built around natural hot springs in the northern Napa Valley and surrounding mountains. A visit in 1880 by Robert Louis Stevenson, and publication of a book on the area in 1883, helped to further the worldwide acclaim of the region.
Airport: Napa County (APC), four miles south of Napa, has a 5,008-foot runway and jet-A fuel. For airport information, contact Wanda Kennedy, (707) 253-4300, send an e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
www.napacountyairport.org. Ground support is provided by Bridgeford Flying Services, (707) 224-0887,
Lodging and Activities
California Wine Tours and Transportation runs limousine wine-tasting tours. Contact: 22455 Broadway Sonoma, Calif. 95476; (707) 939-7225 or (800) 294-6386; info@californiawinetours. com; www.californiawinetours.com.
Calistoga Ranch offers spa facilities with thermal baths and swimming pool, acres of private hiking trails, facilities for meetings and groups and dining. Lodging runs $675 to $3,000 per night. Contact: 580 Lommel Road, Calistoga, Calif. 94515; (800) 942-4220 or (707) 254-2800;
Meadowood Napa Valley is a resort featuring spa treatments, fitness, golf, tennis, swimming, hiking and croquet as well as dining and facilities for meetings and groups. Lodging costs about $500 to $2,500 per night. Contact: 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, Calif. 94574; (800) 458-8080 or (707) 963-3646;
Napa Valley Aloft has been providing hot-air ballooning for more than two decades. Rides cost upward of about $200 per person. Contact: 6525 Washington St., Yountville, Calif. 94599; (800) 944-4408 or (707) 944-4408;
Napa Valley Wine Train offers several travel, wine-touring and dining packages. Contact: 1275 McKinstry St., Napa, Calif. 94559; (800) 427-4124 or (707) 253-2111;
Silverado Resort features golf on two 18-hole courses, 17 tennis courts, a health spa, bicycle rental and tours, facilities for meetings and groups, dining and lodging in the $160- to $500-a-night range. Contact: 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa, Calif. 94558; (707) 257-0200;