The Napa Valley is a worldwide travel destination only a 70-mile hop, skip and jump from Sacramento. There’s no reason not to visit.
Though it’s only 30 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest, the valley is an idyll of sprawling vineyards, heralded wineries built of local stone and timber, green hills and shaded woods, mild weather and an alluring something in the air that lets you know you’re in a unique place.
Its towns are historic, its restaurants fabulous, and its hotels and spas wear their star ratings like gold medals. The world-class wines have become so sought after that merely seeing the “Napa Valley” appellation on their labels is enough to make oenophiles drop their corkscrews in anticipation.
Visitors can easily find a vacation’s worth of wine tastings, art shows, vineyard and winery tours, wine-and-food pairings, festivals and the like, from one end of the valley to the other along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
But here we take you to some unexpected destinations for some new experiences that will have you talking, but in a different way.
Eat like a local
Forget any semblance of a French chateau or rustic restaurant with a prix fixe menu. The aged edifice of Lawler’s Liquors looks closer to that of a “food desert” corner store. But step inside, and not only do the shelves teem with an exceptional selection of top shelf liquors, but a small kitchen in the back whips together some of the best homestyle Italian food in the Napa Valley.
Tucked inside the store you’ll find a small deli that’s renowned for its raviolis and malfatti, a spinach dumpling that translates to “badly made” but will more than satiate your touristy tummy, especially when topped with Lawler’s meaty house sauce. Other takeout items include lasagna, sandwiches and garlic bread. And unlike the chi-chi up-valley restaurants, the prices here are geared toward regular folks: Sandwiches are $3.50 each and raviolis cost $3.99 per dozen. That’s to say, if you’re looking for a spot to grab homestyle raviolis, a tall can of Bud and a $100 bottle of Don Julio 1942 tequila, this is your spot.
Lawler’s Liquors is in the city of Napa at 2232 Jefferson St. (707) 226-9311; www.lawlersliquor.com.
Catch a concert
It’s no secret that Napa’s not the best town for night owls. Once the wineries close for the day and dinner’s a done deal, good luck finding a place to boogie or partake in other nightlife adventures. However, Napa’s music scene has picked up over the past few years since the renovation of downtown’s Uptown Theatre, the creation of the multiday BottleRock Festival, and now City Winery Napa.
Situated inside the Napa Valley Opera House, this 134-year-old venue recently underwent a $2.3 million facelift and now presents live music in a supper club format as City Winery Napa. Like the City Winery locations in New York City and Chicago, this downtown Napa venue features live music and performing arts geared toward grown folks. Upcoming artists include comedian Lewis Black (July 10-12) and musical artists Martha Wainwright (July 15) and Bettye LaVette (Aug. 16).
The 300-capacity venue also includes a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner daily. Concert dining is available up to two hours before show time, and food/beverage service is also available during shows. Get your groove on (in your seat, that is) while noshing on a menu that includes flatbreads, tempura tofu and flat iron steak. The lengthy wine list highlights Napa favorites (Miner Family, Arietta) with brief detours into Spanish and French selections.
City Winery Napa is at 1030 Main St. (707) 260-1600; www.citywinery.com/napa
Take a ghost tour
Napa certainly ranks as a land of spirits, but we don’t always mean the alcohol kind. Among the area’s historic buildings, you’ll hear whispers of ghosts and other creepy occurrences.
The Napa City Ghost & Legends Walking Tour guides visitors through such spooky landmarks as the site of the last public execution in California, former undertaking rooms and other spots said to teem with paranormal activity. Your tour guides double as ghost hunters, and come equipped with gear that purportedly allow us living beings to communicate with the spirits.
The tours run each Saturday night and meet on the steps of the Napa Courthouse (825 Brown St.). The walking tour encompasses about nine blocks of downtown Napa and last up to two hours. Tickets cost $25, or $30 for a VIP option that includes a ghost-themed cocktail following the tour at Napkins Bar & Grill. To reserve a spot: (707) 363-6890 or www.napaghosts.com.
Walk in the woods
The Napa Valley is geologically diverse with microclimates and vividly varied terrain. Those dynamics and its nearly 55,000 acres of protected land make it ideal for hiking. A bonus is the elevated vistas from the trails – grand sights of vineyards, wineries and secluded estates.
Day-walkers can meander through forests, linger lakeside, maneuver over rocky hillsides, ford creeks and picnic in fragrant meadows. Three areas are indicative:• Skyline Wilderness Park, (707) 252-0481, www.skylinepark.org: The 850-acres encompass Lake Marie and offer views of San Francisco Bay and beyond. RV park, tent camping and barbecue areas.
• Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, (707) 942-4575, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25133: Author Stevenson honeymooned in the area in 1880. For great views, hike five miles to the summit of Mount St. Helena. Is that Mount Shasta in the distance? Yep.
• Bothe Napa Valley State Park, (707) 942-4575, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=477: The Redwood Trail is a mellow walk through conifers and ferns. Swimming pool, camping and picnicking.
For more hiking trails and parks, go to www.visitnapavalley.com.
The Land Trust of Napa County organizes guided hikes and themed events; www.napalandtrust.org, (707) 252-3270.
Get lost in a castle
The must-do winery tour in the Napa Valley is Castello di Amorosa (the Castle of Love) in Calistoga. Not so much for the wine tasting (though the vinos are consistent medal winners) as for the unique experience of walking through the spectacular medieval-style Tuscan castle.
The castle is the love child of fourth-generation winemaker Dario Sattui, whose fascination with medieval architecture led to the nearly $40 million, 15-year construction project. The 107-room showplace occupies 3 acres – four levels above ground, four more of caves and cellars below.
“I was responsible for 90-plus percent of its design, down to the most minute details,” Sattui said. “It was an obsession and I got carried away.”
The castle isn’t a Disneyland or Las Vegas facade, but as close to the real thing as possible. Sattui sourced hundreds of tons of stone, 1 million-plus antique bricks, hand-formed terra-cotta roof tiles, antique doors, timber and metalwork from Italy, Austria, France and the Napa Valley, and employed artisans and engineers from Europe to put it all together.
Castello di Amorosa offers tours, tastings and wine-and-food pairings (and other programs) from $19 to $72. Reservations are accepted by phone only (707-967-6272). The winery is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For directions and more information, go to www.castellodiamorosa.com.
Stalk a trout
Serious angling in the Napa Valley is about catch-and-release fly-fishing in Putah Creek, home to a native rainbow trout fishery. Unless you know the difference between a casting arc and a backcast, it would be wise to hire a guide and take a lesson. Four guides are available through Off the Hook, a local fly-fishing outfitter owned by Carrie Copithorne ( www.offthehookflyfishing.com).
“No fly-fishing experience or gear is needed,” she said. “Our program is for all anglers.”
For those who prefer a more casual fishing experience using spinning or casting gear, consider Lake Berryessa in eastern Napa County or Lake Hennessey, a few miles east of St. Helena.