As you drive along Route 680 in Contra Costa County, a solitary mountain dominates the horizon. It could almost be mistaken for a volcano. Sacred to the Miwok Indians who once lived here, this geologic show-stopper called Mount Diablo is many things to many people – a wilderness playground, a temple of solitude, a subject for artistic expression. For all who live within its shadow, it’s an everyday reminder of nature’s beauty and endurance. Continue reading
As the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, Santa Cruz is the perfect destination for those who want to combine kayaking and hiking for a day (or two) of adventure surrounded by pristine, natural beauty. Continue reading
Nevada City is one of those “I can’t believe I’ve lived in Northern California for almost 20 years and haven’t been here yet” places. After passing by the Nevada City/Rte. 49 exit off I-80 countless times on trips to Lake Tahoe, my husband and I finally made the turn off to check out the historic gold mining town that is fast becoming a popular spot for San Francisco Bay Area transplants. Continue reading
In the early 1920s, elephant seals numbered in only the double digits after being hunted to the brink of extinction for their blubber that was used to make oil. Today, the elephant seal is a conservation success story. Continue reading
Even though Napa Valley may be only an hour away from our home, my husband and I have never been ones to take it for granted. It’s pretty awesome to have a gazillion wineries practically in your backyard, so we try to get there a couple of times a year to try out different seasons, spots, and activities (Yes, there’s more to do other than wine tasting!)
A couple of weekends ago we stayed for a night at the Westin Verasa in the town of Napa. That’s right, the actual town of Napa. Usually when people say they’re going to Napa, they mean the region and zip right past the county’s principal city of almost 80,000. We, in fact, had never been to Napa proper ourselves until now, and I’d say it’s worth a stop, with an impressive selection of restaurants, tasting rooms, and shops. It’s a convenient base for exploring the rest of the valley, and since it’s at the southern end of wine country, it’s a shorter drive from San Francisco and the Bay Area.
One of the advantages of being so close to Napa (and Sonoma for that matter) is that we can pretty much go whenever we want and take advantage of “off-season” deals. Our wine country escape was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Not surprisingly, it was quiet, and as Starwood members, we found ourselves at the relatively new Westin Verasa just a few minutes from downtown along the river.
Normally when we go to wine country, I like to stay in more intimate, B&B-type accommodations, so when my husband booked this, I was a bit reluctant. But what a treat it was — a wonderful romantic getaway for two, though with a pool, hot tub, and bocce ball court, it would have been fun with the kids as well, especially since we were upgraded to a suite with a full kitchen and spacious dining and living areas. Oh, and it’s pet friendly, so four-legged guests are more than welcome.
While the hotel’s exterior design seems more suited to Tahoe ski country and it may lack the charm of smaller wine country inns, the convenient location and amenities of this hotel are hard to beat. They’ve got a free shuttle to downtown Napa, and it’s a quick walk down the road to the Oxbow Public Market, a veritable “foodie heaven.” The market is adjacent to chef Todd Humphries’ Kitchen Door, featuring an eclectic menu of seasonal comfort foods, and a couple of quick-eat restaurants like Gott’s Roadside, which is basically an upscale diner with deadly delicious milk shakes. It’s a good choice for lunch or dinner, although the breakfast selection was sparce and the portions insufficient for even my husband and me who are not very big eaters. For dinner, we eschewed the trendy “farm-to-table” cuisine and dependable French fare for a tasty and inexpensive Thai meal at the Mini Mango, run by a lovely couple from Bangkok.
OK, enough about food . . . how about the wine? Admittedly, we’ve been to a ton of wineries over the years, so these days when we go to wine country we’re not necessarily itching to belly up to the tasting bar. We’ve also found that wine tasting has gotten really expensive. When I first moved to California almost 20 years ago, many wineries offered tasting for free — maybe $5, or $10 at the most. One of the wineries we stopped at this time around charged $30 for a tasting. Yikes! Needless to say, we split that tasting between the two of us.
In researching wineries, it’s helpful to find out what they charge for a tasting, if the value can be applied to the purchase of a bottle, and if they have a license to serve glasses or bottles of wine for on site enjoyment. Now that we’ve tried out every type of wine in California (ok not really, but close), I prefer to visit wineries with lovely verandas where one can order and relax with a single serving of wine and maybe a little cheese and crackers on the side. Ironically, at many wineries you can’t just order a glass of wine because they’re only licensed to serve tasting portions. Mumm Napa, situated along the Silverado Trail in Rutherford and not too far from the Westin, has a beautiful outdoor patio where you can order their signature sparkling wine, in addition to tasting them. And if you’re there, be sure to visit their beautiful fine art photography gallery.
If you want to do a tour, call first, since many wineries require advance reservations. On our last trip to Napa (actually, it was to the lesser-known Alexander Valley), we made reservations at a place that combined a tour with wine and cheese tasting, an ideal pairing. First-timers to wine country should consider visiting Robert Mondavi. Yes, it’s big and touristy, but their tour provides a nice introduction to the art and science of wine making and the varietals of the region.
On the second of our two days in Napa, my husband and I decided to enjoy non-alcoholic pursuits. The Westin provided us with a detailed guide to hiking trails in the region, and there’s a lot more than you might think, with all types of terrain. We chose an invigorating five-mile hike at the nearby Skyline Wilderness Park, followed by a dip in the Westin’s pool and hot tub (yes, the pool in November!) before heading back to the real world just an hour away.