About 20 minutes from downtown Napa, Highway 29 rolls right into St Helena – a town that is full-on fine Main Street Americana. Drive a little further north and old-west-meets–bohemian-art culture in Calistoga. So after many years of wanting to experience Napa Valley, I found myself there for a full week to spa, indulge in local food, and explore the world-class wineries that surround these two towns.
Complete with wood-burning fireplace and a shady Juliette balcony, my spacious room at the Inn at Southbridge was the perfect vantage point to enjoy St Helena’s restaurants, boutiques and galleries. For the second part of this trip, I had a friend meet me at Solage Calistoga - a property that’s as luxurious as it is eco-conscious. And it’s the attention to detail that boosts the bliss at this resort. Inside each guest bungalow, the plush beds and ample supply of Solage’s signature range of aromatherapy products ensure a sweet slumber. Outside, I had a private garden complete with a water feature and a Jacuzzi. Supercool cruiser bikes were also stationed outside so I could leisurely cycle to a nearby winery, the town, or simply over to the pool. I’ll get to the spa, but there was no lack of activities that covered everything from yoga and Pilates classes, to spinning and ZUMBA.
It’s no secret the people of St Helena love art, music, food and wine - often combining them for sidewalk social events like Cheers!, which takes place on the first Friday of every month starting in May through October. Checking out amazing emerging artists at the Caldwell Snyder Gallery is a definite do, while next door you’ll find one of the oldest projection theatres in the country, Cameo Cinema.
There is plenty to covet inside St Helena’s charming shops, from locally designed bags and fancy footwear, to exquisite olive oils. Here is the what’s what:
Footcandy – Anyone who puts foot and (eye) candy together has my attention. Shoes from Jimmy Choo, Elizabeth & James, DvF and the like line the shelves, alongside designer bags from Rebecca Minkoff and Tory Burch.
Caldwell Snyder – This gallery specializes in the really unique and beautiful, yet edgy, modern art. Gallery director and gal about town, Xilary Twil, gave me the complete Cole’s notes on what to do in the area.
Toss – Lots of fun gifty stuff, but I loved these great bags designed by local style mavens.
Olivier –Lots to sample, sip and savour here. From exquisite olive oils, tapenades, dips and vinaigrettes…an essential afternoon snack stop!
Pennyweight – I cannot get enough of pretty bespoke paper and, as well as high-end designer stationery, this shop had a wicked collection of greeting cards.
Vintage Home – Their seasonally inspired stock includes antique French grape picking backpacks, artisanal tableware, luxe home fragrances (Diptyque candles, anyone?) and table linens. Some are homegrown brands, like the Olivina range of lovely lotions and soaps, and others are directly imported from Europe.
The Inn at Southbridge is conveniently located on the same grounds as the Napa Valley Health Spa. Tired travelers can book in for treatments like the incredible Centre Yourself Mud Wrap that starts with a mind-melting frankincense and ginger scrub.
Before dinner one evening, I checked into the highly rated Spa Solage for a power hour of pampering. The Mudslide (60 minutes) is a modern take on the traditional mud bath that begins by customizing mineral-enriched mud with essential oils, and ends with a cat nap in a zero gravity chair.
While staying in St Helena, I eased into the day with a light latte-fueled breakfast at Dolci. For the freshest farm-to-table menu, book a long lunch or dinner at Farmstead restaurant. The atmosphere is barn chic, and you will want to make return trips for their caramelized beet salad and savoury “brick cooked” chicken. On other days and nights out, Press has a great steakhouse scene, and Gott’s Roadside serves up dangerously addictive diner eats.
Michelin star dining is de rigueur in these parts and Napa Valley currently boasts many worthy restos. In Calistoga, Solage’s Solbar is where exec chef Brandon Sharp (a former sous at French Laundry) whips up healthy and hearty dishes that showcase organic and sustainably farmed ingredients. From the chilled carrot soup to satisfying seafood dishes like their seared Hawaiian Ahi Tuna, there’s no wrong turn.
MORE GOOD EATS:
After an essential tour of the Culinary Institute of America (the original CIA), I lunched on perfectly pan-roasted snapper with salsa verde and arugula in their Wine Spectator Restaurant. Made all the more delicious with a glass of Pinot Grigio from the Terlato vineyards in Sonoma. There are so many things for the foodie here. Step up to their “Flavor Bar” for a wine, olive oil or chocolate tasting experience. Visitors can also sign up for a cooking demo, as well as shop at the Spice Islands Marketplace.
Another thing I would recommend is picking up antipasto and heading to the Beringer Vineyards. Once you buy a bottle of vino, you are free to picnic on the gorgeous grounds of the estate. Same deal at the V Sattui vineyards, except that they have a deli on site.
Now, when I first arrived in the area, the taxi driver let me know about a running joke the cabbies have: Arrive on vacation, leave on probation. Noted. But we still took full advantage of Solage’s partnership with Mercedes. The deal is that guests can take out one of their sweet convertibles for a four-hour period. Free and easy. So after sorting out our designated driver, we started by tasting the reds and whites at Castello di Amorosa. After a bit of deliciously dry bubbly at Schramsberg, we decided we would drive a half hour northwest to Sonoma county, and through the rolling hills of Alexander Valley, to have lunch in the boutique-y town of Healdsberg. Just as sleepy as I’d envisioned, we settled on Willi’s because the restaurant had curb appeal and crab cakes (all meat, no filler!). Their Hamachi ceviche and hanger steak skewers were so satisfying as well.
After walking around a bit and noting that Hotel Healdsburg looked like a nice place to stay, it was on to Château Montelena. (The final vineyard stop we’d allow ourselves driving a Mercedes we’d probably signed our lives away for.) This is a must-visit. Not only for the beautiful landscape, but because it was the winery that put Napa on the map in 1976 when their ’73 Chardonnay won The Judgement of Paris wine competition. Yes, of course, a film was made about the whole thing. Bottle Shock is rather entertaining, but I digress from the highlight of actually being there.
but not necessarily budget-friendly Hotels: The Red Door Inn, St Helena; Calistoga Village Inn & Spa; Comfort Inn Calistoga; Harvest Inn, St Helena; Calistoga Inn (has a lovely patio restaurant and is a microbrewery); Cottages of Napa Valley; Sunny Acres B&B, St Helena.
Bike Rental: Velo Vino is run by the Clif Family (yes, the same energy bar people) and puts two things that should not necessarily go together - cycling and wine tasting. In any case, they have really fun events that make for a unique Napa experience.
More Wineries: Clos Pegase offers one of the most extensive art collections in Napa Valley. From Solage, bike to neighbouring August Briggs Winery or a complimentary tour and barrel tasting.
And Wine Tours: Probably an ideal way to hit the vineyards is via booking a ride in the restored historic railcars of the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Sport, Festivals & Other Places Worth A Visit: For an authentic Calistoga Mineral Springs and Mud Bath experience, try Indian Springs Resort & Spa.
For The Foodie: Flavor! Napa Valley begins on November 14th. For four days, this second annual food and wine festival promises to showcase the talents of chefs Michael Chiarello, Thomas Keller, Cindy Pawlcyn, Morimoto and more. Events include seminars, tastings and dinners created by the 50 top chefs and 125 vintners on hand. Tickets go on sale mid-July so visit flavornapavalley.com for all the details.
And if you’re hot for Hollywood, The Napa Valley Film Festival will take place from November 7th to the 11th.