When it comes to figuring out what to see and do at any destination, every traveler derives special pleasure from discovering the hidden gems and authentic experiences that uniquely define a place and its people. It can entail tasting new foods, stumbling upon a local with an interesting story, or finding a picturesque trail to hike or take a walk.
Most hard-core travelers find a way to balance time spent seeing the “tried and true” vs. “getting off the beaten path.” It may be trendy to disparage any attraction that reeks of mass tourism but who wouldn’t want to see the Leaning Tower in Pisa or the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Indeed, there are times when it’s worthwhile to follow the millions of tourists who have been there before us each year. At least, that’s what we found when we visited the Napa Valley. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do:
1. Napa Art Walk
Downtown Napa has an artsy side and it’s not afraid to show it. Get to know the nooks and crannies of the downtown area with the self-guided Napa ARTwalk. The fun, exhibition features 14 artists from 6 western states. Sculptures range from a turtle with a map of the world on its back, to a wave bench made from steel and recycled glass, to a giant fork adorned with mac & cheese. It is the fourth exhibition since the program began in 2009. Just wander through town and you’ll come across many of the sculptures. But if you want to be organized, download the free Napa ARTwalk audio tour on Otocast for directions and descriptions.
2. Trinitas Cellars Estate Cave
Chocolate makes everything better. Add wine and you’ll be in a state of Napa Valley bliss. Located at The Meritage Resort, the Trinitas Cellars Estate Cave offers a sweet wine and chocolate pairing. Located 40 feet underground, the cave is a warm and cozy spot to taste wine and satisfy your sweet tooth. Four Trinitas wines are paired with brittle and gourmet chocolates from local chocolatier Anette’s Chocolates. When you’re finished, there’s a bocce ball court waiting outside to help burn off some of those tasting calories. In between games, be sure to take a walk in the vineyard above. Regardless of the season, the views are camera worthy.
3. Uptown Theatre
The Uptown Theatre is a downtown Napa landmark. Ask any local and they’ll have a story to share about an outing to the theatre. Opened in the summer of 1937, it has seen everything from vaudeville to movie screens. Clark Gable and Carol Lombard used to frequent the theater on trips north from Hollywood. In 2000, a local resident and businessman George Altamura, bought the old movie house. Along with restoring the theatre’s glory and grandeur, with the help of friends like Francis Ford Coppola, he invested in a state of the art sound system, and the Uptown Theatre opened its stage to live performances. The venue attracts performers the likes of Chris Isaak, The Beach Boys, Keb’ Mo’ and Boz Scaggs. The distance from the last row to the stage is less than 100 feet, so there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
4. Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card
Wine tasting and Downtown Napa go hand in hand. With tasting rooms scattered throughout town, you can park the car and wander from one sipping spot to the next. Think of all the exercise you can get. Old favorites, hard-to-find varietals and new favorites are waiting just around the corner. At $30, the Downtown Napa Wine tasting Card is a bargain. You don’t have to visit all 12 tasting rooms on the stay day, or even the same month. The card is good for the year and transferable. Participating tasting rooms change every year, so there’s always a new spot to sip.
5. Schramsberg Vineyards
Bubbles and romance go hand in hand at Schramsberg Vineyards. The second oldest winery in Napa Valley, tastings and tours of the historic caves are by appointment only and are limited to groups of 12. Two miles of dimly lit cave tunnels are filled with more than three million bottles of wine and well placed candles. Tastings include generous pours of a few varieties of Schramsberg sparkling wines and one of their Davies label still wines. Founded in 1862, the winery is a state historical landmark. The Blanc de Blancs was served for President Nixon’s 1972 “Toast to Peace” with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai, and has been served at official State functions by every U.S. President since.
6. Skyline Wilderness Park
Skyline Wilderness Park is popular with local hikers and visitors, but it isn’t uncommon to go for stretches without seeing another person. (But keep your eyes open for critters like deer, geese and wild turkeys.) The park has almost a dozen trails to choose from, so you can opt a leisurely stroll or break a sweat. $5 covers parking and admission, along with a map of the park. Don’t be shy and ask questions when you arrive. Park staff are happy to suggest a trail depending on how much time you have to spend and how much you want to elevate your heart rate. Bring plenty of water, and have a camera handy.
7. Napa Valley Drifters
You have to get up long before the crack of dawn, but watching the sunrise over Napa Valley from a hot air balloon is worth getting out of bed for, even on a romantic getaway. Depending on wind conditions, flights with Napa Valley Drifters travel either North or South. Experienced FAA pilots know wine country well. Before take-off, guests get to view the preparation that goes into each and every flight. Seeing the balloon actually be inflated is fun and informative to watch. Every hot air balloon flight ends with complimentary champagne and complimentary pick-up is available from anywhere in Napa Valley. Don’t forget your camera!
8. Whitehall Lane Winery
Cooking a romantic meal is even better when all of the hard work is done for you. Cooking demonstrations with Chef Larry Calicchio at Whitehall Lane Winery & Vineyards offer the best kind of day in the kitchen. There’s no chopping or work, just watching, learning, eating and drinking. Chef Larry knows his stuff and he wants you to take his knowledge and tips home with you. When the multi-course meal is complete, you sit down to great meal paired with Whitehall Lanes wines. When you leave, happily well fed, you’ll know everything you need to know to re-create the dishes at home. Classes are limited to 4-8 guests per class.
9. Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort
A visit to Calistoga isn’t complete without getting dirty. The mud bath is a tradition of sorts at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort. It’s a secret family recipe, mixed with Calistoga’s famous warm mineral water. Don’t worry – when you’re finished, you’ll feel energized and be squeaky clean. Add in a couples massage and you’ll be ready to take on all the wine Napa Valley has to pour. Dr. Wilkinson’s has been owned and run by the same family since it was founded in 1952. The resort offers an assortment of lodging options, if you decide to spend the night.
10. Napa Valley Wine Train Excursions
Getting a meal on the go is a romantic experience when you are dining on the Napa Valley Wine Train. When you first board, it’s the restored Pullman rail cars that will wow you. The train looks and feels like something out of an old movie. Decorated with Honduran mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass and plush armchairs, don’t be surprised if you just seem to gravitate to a window seat. Sip wine and enjoy lunch or dinner while rolling through some of Napa Valley’s most scenic stretches. All meals are prepared on the train. Along with two engines, the Napa Valley Wine Train has three kitchens.