Napa Valley is a tiny place with a lot of wineries. At the south end of the Valley is the town of Napa, a place in its own right, where the visitor can easily spend a few days and nights well-amused with wine tasting, art and restaurants. The wineries of note, the famous, the large, the infamous, ridiculous, silly, and amazing, are all “up” valley.
Yountville – a ten minute drive north from Napa – is Fine Dining USA – home of the French Laundry, Redd, Bottega, Bistro Jeanty, and more and more and more. There are tasting rooms, wine shops, jewelers, galleries, gardens, and expensive places to stay that are well worth it if you plan to spend time hanging out at home instead of running around the countryside.
St. Helena – an eight minute drive north of Yountville – is Napa Valley. This is the historic centrified town with great restaurants, gorgeous Inns, and all the wineries in the same Zip Code – from Cain on Spring Mountain to Spring Mountain Winery to Trinchero and Ehlers on the north to Corison and Heitz and Raymond on the south and Duckhorn to the east. The traffic stops in all directions for St. Helena and for good reason. There is a whole lot of Here, There.
Calistoga – Napa Valley is five miles wide in the town of Napa and one mile wide in Calistoga. All things funnel to this adorable, small, still-authentic town jam-packed with wineries in all directions. What Calistoga lacks in eateries (though there are a few) it makes up for in beds (there are over 500). Calistoga and its Calistogans are in love with themselves and so have parades and fairs and events all year long. Their Fourth of July parade is among the best in the west and their Christmas Tractor Parade is unbelievable. The visitor could spend a week in Calistoga – at the base of Mount St. Helena, a half hour from the Lake County wine region, a half hour from the Russian River region of Sonoma County – and have it not be long enough.
Flying in – If you have a choice (and the air fare is the same) – fly in to Sacramento. It is simply the easiest in and out airport anywhere and if you can use it; do.
Driving – If money is no issue; hire a driver from one of the many limo services available in Napa Valley. Plan your own itinerary, inform the driver of your plans, then kick back, drink lots of water all day, and relax.
If money is an issue or you are a control freak like me, then drive yourself keeping in mind that Napa Valley is home to many horrible alcohol-related collisions each year. The Designated Driver can taste, but should spit out most tastes and drink gallons of water all day. When driving in Wine Country regions do as we natives do; drive defensively as if everyone else might be drunk.
Taxis – With the slightest exception there is currently no such thing north of the town of Napa, so unless you are staying in Napa, know in advance how to return to Napa from St. Helena and Calistoga. After hours busses aren’t really an option and the wine train is fun, but not a train in that sense.
Napa, as the valley’s biggest “city” is home to most of the valley’s lodgings. With few exceptions, it is the only place the visitor can stay at budget prices. Stay in Napa for the values, for convenience, for any hope of after-hours nightlife, or if you have only one night in the area and want to save time. Because one night, even two, in Napa Valley isn’t nearly enough, a night or two in Napa proper will allow time to choose from a variety of Napa wineries to visit as well as excellent in-town restaurants to dine at and still get you to your plane or back to San Francisco in time.
Yountville is a wee walking town with loads of the very best restaurants and a pinch of occasional nightlife. A good place to stay if part of your day will be spent enjoying your hotel’s amazing amenities.
St. Helena can be a challenging place to find a parking space by day, but at night; no problem. Aside from the town bar – Ana’s Cantina – and the quite wonderful vintage movie theater (playing a current, single-screen release, blessedly) – there is no nightlife once the restaurants close for the evening. A town of lovely Inns with every accommodation and even a local’s favorite motel – the El Bonita – that works just fine for family visitors and the occasional evening of overdoing at a wine event. Excellent restaurants. A good place to spend a night or a week for those not needing late-night amusements who want to stay dead-center in Napa Valley in the land of wineries, large and small.
Calistoga gets the prize for the most beds per capita in Napa Valley and the most down-to-earth residents. The town, with a population the size of St. Helena, has, however, only one grocery store because Calistogans don’t allow chains of any kind. No McD’s, no Safeways. So once tucked in for the night in Calistoga make certain you require no provisions that can’t be had at one of the three gas station’s mini-marts. It costs less to stay in Calistoga than in St. Helena or Yountville, it has just as many wineries nearby, and is a great launching place for things other than wine or for other wine regions than Napa Valley!
Written by: Holly M. Evans-White has worked in the wine business as a tour guide, wine educator, wine buyer, sommelier, wine concierge and wine consultant in Napa and Sonoma counties for over twenty years. Holly’s expertise is in pairing the wine enthusiast with a wine experience that surprises and exceeds the wine explorer’s expectations.Holly, also known as the Cellar Cat, believes everyone can learn to Drink for Themselves, and that only Practice makes Purrfect.