Travelogue: 48 hours in Napa Valley, California (April 2011)


Along with visiting family, Aron and I took a couple of days while we were in California to tour around the Napa Valley. Not only were we eager to collapse into a big, fluffy hotel bed and just relax, we’re conscious that we’ll be sharing the romance of travel with someone new soon and want to take every opportunity to sneak off together now. (In fact we were super-curmudgeonly and booked our stay at a no-kids-allowed hotel–more on that spot to come.)

Aron and I both grew up in California, so the Napa and Sonoma valleys aren’t completely new territory, but we have had a tendency to only visit a few favorite spots on day trips from Davis or San Francisco. We were determined to spread out and see the area with fresh eyes. So on our first day, with check-in not until 4pm,  we made a large loop, just taking in the scenery and getting a lay of the land.

We bypassed the town of Napa, knowing we would return there for our night’s stay, and stopped first in the small village of Yountville–most famous for that impossible-to-book restaurant (you may have heard of it), The French Laundry. Thomas Keller has three restaurants there, in fact: Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and French Laundry. We grabbed coffees and ogled the beautiful breads at the Bouchon bakery (of which there’s an outpost in Manhattan), before strolling along the few restaurant-filled blocks which seemed to comprise the town.

Next we passed through Oakville, where we stopped to browse a local favorite (since 1881), the Oakville Grocery, at the corner of Oakville Crossroad and Highway 29. We considered picking up some picnic provisions, but decided to save that for the next day. From there we drove north through St. Helena, where you’ll find Dean & Deluca–a New York favorite–as well as a cute, little (slightly posh) downtown, and on to Calistoga.

Calistoga was one of the first towns in the valley to become a tourist destination: back in the mid-19th century, a developer bought a few thousand acres with the intention that the natural hot springs around the area would draw tourists. Visitors made the trip by rail from San Francisco; the town still retains a sort of old-west feel today.

The most popular spa attraction today are probably mud baths–where one is immersed in hot volcanic ash–at classic, slightly kitschy spots like Doc Wilkinson’s. Something for another time.

We kept on our way. Some of the best bits were just stops along the side of the road, like a field of grazing horses somewhere between Calistoga and Healdsburg. Wildflowers were springing up everywhere and the grasses appeared tinged with purple in certain light.

We had a late lunch in the town of Healdsburg–which is in Sonoma. Its downtown is lovely and seemed more geared toward locals than some of the others (i.e. fewer art galleries). The streets angle around a pleasant central plaza, and it’s a good base for exploring the Russian river along with the Alexander valley wine region. The most famous restaurant in town–and one of the best in the area–is Cyrus, but we chose another recommended spot for lunch: Ravenous. We thought our parting view of the place was fitting: a women pulled a box of organic produce out of a Prius for delivery.

We also considered the pastry cases at Downtown Bakery and Creamery–where a Chez Panisse alum apparently makes a famous “donut muffin”–but opted for coffee from the Flying Goat instead.

I was also impressed by the town-cineplex’s concept, “Hollywood & Wine,” where a slightly higher ticket price (still less expensive than Manhattan’s) includes a wine bar and cozy leather seats with armrests that hold a glass of wine and a small plate.

The next part of our drive took us south through Santa Rosa (the largest town in Sonoma County) to Glen Ellen, where we crossed the mountains back into Napa Valley around Oakville. Just as I feared my stomach couldn’t take another bend, we pulled out into the valley and were faced with amazing views of the valley floor. The breeze when we stepped out of the car felt amazing (and calmed my stomach), and we couldn’t help but run to grab the camera again.

It was already four by this time and we couldn’t wait to get back to Napa and check out the Inn. We splurged on a super-luxurious spot, Milliken Creek Inn & Spa and were really eager to settle in.

Everyone at the hotel was so helpful–which was great because although we had collected so many great recommendations for places to eat (thank you all again!), we hadn’t made any reservations. We actually considered having something delivered in so that we wouldn’t have to leave the room, but decided instead just to stay close-by.

The Inn sits on the Napa river just off the Silverado Trail, so it wasn’t far into downtown. The riverfront complex has (fairly) recently welcomed a resurgence of activity with chefs like Morimoto moving in; we decided to try Celadon–won over partly by the menu, partly by their font decisions on the menu. It sits in the historic Hatt building.

After a warm breakfast-in-bed at the hotel, we set off to explore some more. We noted that the regional famers’ markets wouldn’t be opening until May, so we decided to make the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa our first stop.

The Oxbow Public Market was awesome! It reminded us a lot of the Ferry building in San Francisco (in fact I think I recognized a few vendors). There were so many places I would have liked to try (here’s a list); we both look forward to a return visit.

All of the beautiful cheeses and breads at the market inspired us to pick up provisions for a picnic, and then we high-tailed it up back up to Calistoga, from where we decided to rent bikes for a ride to St. Helena.

The original plan was to stop in St. Helena for a shake and a burger at the roadside stand, Gott’s (formerly Taylor’s Refresher)–a stop on a route we found on Jauntsetter before we left–but it was too hard to resist the call of cheese and bright red strawberries. We decided a shake would be dessert after the ride.


The ride took us from Calistoga to St. Helena via the scenic Silverado Trail–a hilly stretch that parallels Highway 29 and climbs 1000 feet in elevation in intervals over the course of about 10 miles. It was definitely challenging at times, but very doable.

We kept meaning to pull to the side and stop to eat, but we found we were very picky about just which winery’s grounds were scenic enough, off-the-beaten-track enough to warrant a picnic after working so hard. We finally landed on Duckhorn (pictured above), but learned they don’t allow outside food. So on we went.

It turned out to be the best choice we could have made. Even though we basically ended up riding all the way back to Calistoga (following Hwy 29 for a bit before cutting back to the Silverado Trail) and then stopping for lunch, the setting at Cuvaison was by far the best. I had noticed it when we first set out, but it was too early to eat then.

Aron bought a bottle of Chardonnay (can’t get enough of that California malolactic fermentation style–so buttery), and we shared some Cowgirl creamery cheese while sitting among poppies, vineyards, and groves of olive trees. It was one of those situations you can’t completely describe to anyone else without their being prompted to turn away and point a finger down their throat in a gester of “gag me.”

I highly recommend getting out of the car to ride a bike if you visit the area. Along with our hotel stay, it was a highlight of our trip (sunburnt hands and all). If we were to do it again, we might look into renting bikes in St. Helena (it would have made more sense considering our lunch stop and our starting destination), but either direction would be beautiful. We both agreed that the area around Calistoga was the prettiest for a cyclist.

I wouldn’t let Aron forget the shake stop at Gott’s–we’d earned that ice cream–but I can admit it now: it wasn’t anything special. They just blend pre-made ice cream and as we chose a banana fudge shake, this meant fake banana extract flavor (Aron wouldn’t touch it). I’d like to try the burgers sometime, but wish I could give more of an endorsement for such a cute stop.

Far, far better was our dinner. We had made early reservations at Redd in Yountville, but switched those to lunch when we decided we wanted a bit more time to freshen up after the ride. Instead we tried a spot called Farmstead in St. Helena (yes, we did feel a bit silly driving back there having just left). It was a tough call: we also really wanted to try Ubuntu. But farmstead also featured a simple farm-to-table menu, and it was exactly what we were hoping for. I got to have my asparagus (at a cost), and we were both especially wowed by the cornmeal cake we had for dessert.

We lingered at the hotel as long as we could (11 a.m.) the next morning over more breakfast-in-bed before taking one more look at the river and grabbing our coffees to-go. We had decided we would visit St. Helena’s downtown (which we had merely driven through previously) before our lunch date at Redd.

We especially loved the childrens’ section of a shop called Vintage Home–where we picked up a special souvenir to share with the baby

…and St. Helena Olive Oil, where everything was packaged in such minimalist, beautiful ways (and out for tasting) in a gorgeous, restored Bank building (dating from 1890, having originally housed the Bank of Italy).

Chef Richard Reddington’s Redd won me over immediately when they made me a custom mocktail and served it straight-up in a martini glass (it’s the little things). This one had lemongrass syrup, ginger ale, lemon juice, a touch of cranberry juice, and an orange peel.

We also loved the space–so bright and airy–and, most significantly, everything we tasted.

(sunchoke soup with gruyere panini and house-made potato chips)

 (caramelized scallops over pureed–and non-pureed–cauliflower, with some balsamic and raisins)

(ravioli with peas and butter and ricotta and some-such heavenly mix)

(glazed pork belly over fennel and apple with soy caramel)

It was so, so good–and probably a better deal at lunch than it would have been at dinner. We decided to pass up their desserts, however, knowing that we had strawberries in the car. Instead we supplemented them with a couple of pistachio macarons from Bouchon bakery as we went in search of one last winery stop on which to end the visit.

Aron had read about the beautiful setting at Bartholomew Park Winery, which happened to be just around the corner from our favorite–Buena Vista–in Sonoma. The property has trails and a museum and sits inside a 375-acre park–and used to be the site of a nudist colony I believe–and made for a nice final stop before we reluctantly went on our way.

A wine region might not seem an obvious choice for an expectant getaway, but we found plenty to enjoy. 

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Let’s Discuss

  1. Your pictures look amazing! I have never been to Napa, but it's now on my to travel list. Congratulations on your soon to be new addition to your family. I really enjoy reading your blog:)

  2. Wowie, looks like a great trip, if only for all that beautiful cheese! Way to be a trooper, Ashley. I am a scotch-lover and went to Scotland pregnant. I was more whiney that I'm sure you were in Napa!

  3. i was looking forward to this travelogue and, as usual, it didn't disappoint! reading about all the great spots (especially flying goat (i have an obvious love of these animals!) and the gorgeous oxbow public market and seeing all the lovely scenery makes me so excited that we are moving to the west coast in 5 weeks!
    thanks for sharing.

  4. Gah! I love this post!

    Oxbow is perhaps my favorite market ever (love that spice wall!)

    Biking is genious – why have I never thought to do that?

    And Taylor's/Gotts USED to be so much better, before they changed the name and got all popular.

    Looks like a lovely trip!

  5. super nice travelogue – once again! i love to follow your trails and see what you did and it is such a wonderful source for research. hope to return to california soon!!

  6. I love Northern California. Last year before our visit, I had mapped out a few of these places, but sadly we didn't have time for Napa Valley (we wen't north to Redwood country instead). I can't wait to go back and visit all of these places, especially the Thomas Keller establishments. The food looks like a dream.

  7. Oh, my god. I know I've said this before, but you guys always make we want to go everywhere! And I adore that picture of the poppies…

  8. Thanks so much, everyone, for all of the amazing comments! I'm so glad you like it!
    (And Nicole–miss you, too! Hope all is well upstate.)

  9. Wow, thanks for that amazing tour. The sister of my boyfriend married an american (we are german) in Calistoga two years ago and I couldn't go, because I had my final exams just at the same time. They made a few pictures of the area for me to watch, but far to less, if you ask me :). So your pictures completed, what I hadn't seen yet. I even recognized some spots :)! Seems like you had a great time. This last lunch looks amazing!! Greetings from Germany, Fee

  10. You need to submit these photos because they are so much better than all the ones I've seen of the Napa Valley. Seriously, they need you to work for them.

    My husband and I have always wanted to go there but are never sure what to do because we don't drink. THANK YOU! Now we know what to do and where to go. In full detail. I love Ravenous. They have one down the street from me in the Pocket area of Sacramento. Never knew there was one in Napa! It is delicious!

  11. This is amazing! I'm from Napa & everywhere you mentioned is a memory. Isn't the Hatt building cool? One of the upper floors has angled floorboards because according to one local legend (I think it was) Mr. Hatt's wife wanted a place to rollerskate inside so he made a rink for her! I just love the history of the valley. I'm so glad you and Aron had fun, this is the perfect time of year to visit! (p.s. I adore your photos and your writing!)

  12. Oooooh! This trip looks so dreamy! The Mr. and I will be in the Napa area this summer for a brief break from his hectic medical school schedule–I'll be sure to put these yummy places on my list to visit!

  13. Ooooh and just read a comment from Aron on my blog! Thanks for reading! The pic you thought was cool of my Mr. was taken in the Rocky Mountain National Park at Black Lake. If you guys haven't been, go! The Rocky Mountains in CO would make a great next travelogue!

  14. Beautiful photos! I hope I get to visit Napa one day. It looks like a grand adventure. I can't get over those bread "wreathes"! And a movie theater with holders for wine glasses and small plates sounds just amazing.

  15. Such beautiful photos and so many great idea for my next trip to CA. You're going to look back fondly on these special outings when you have a little one in the mix. Too bad you missed Ubuntu, but there's always next time!

  16. looks like a totally fantastic trip!!! Bryan and I went to Napa for our 1st anniversary and hit a lot of the very same spots…I'll never get the patty melt from Taylor's Refresher out of my mind.. so good!

    p.s. you are a LOVELY pregnant lady. Just sayin!

  17. Margart

    These photos make me so hungry to travel!

    I'm actually a part of the Yale Globalist, an undergrad international affairs magazine (think Vanity Fair-style reporting) and we're currently taking a reporting trip in Turkey (read about our adventures here:

    You guys should seriously come to Istanbul, because it is absolutely amazing!

  18. Wandered in from a pinterest post…

    I love Napa so much, I grew up there. Spent my summers in Calistoga.

    The macarons at Bouchon are insane. I had a passion fruit one my last visit there and wanted to buy six more.

    You definitely did my home town justice with this travelogue!

  19. Hey hun. Will from Bright Bazzar sent me over as we are thinking Napa for our honeymoon next year. Your post is so inspirational – I loved evrything about it -especially the pictures – the food looks AMAZING!. It looks like such a great place. Thanks so much for sharing
    Love Rachie xo

  20. I know I’m late to the game, but I wanted to say that your trip sounds lovely! My husband and I went to Napa-St.Helena on our delayed honeymoon earlier this year and it was probably the best trip of my life! We mud-bathed in Calistoga, ate a Farmstead, wine tasted and toured – many of the things you did! What a lovely place! Thanks for sharing.

  21. Hi there! I can’t remember where I stumbled upon your blog, maybe it was from another blog’s blogroll, but I’m a big fan and have been clicking through random posts! I visited Napa (and California in general) with my mom a couple years ago and loved it. We toured a couple vineyards with her friends and had lunch at a French restaurant and then got macarons at Bouchon. This summer my family again went to California, but this time instead of Napa we did a day trip to Sonoma, which was also fantastic!

    • Ashley

      That’s so nice to hear, Elisse! Thank you! And isn’t the valley beautiful? I’m looking forward to heading back soon.