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The Best of California Wine Country

napa valley

Considering Napa Valley's status as the most densely concentrated winery region in the world-- 240 wineries in the 30-mile stretch between the towns of Napa and Calistoga-- it's still a relatively peaceful place. Just about the only time you'll have to wait in line is when the traffic slows along Highway 29, the two-lane main road. Still, 29 is a thoroughfare you can't and wouldn't want to avoid utterly, lined as it is with worthy restaurants and shops, in addition to tasting rooms. As you travel north, you'll pass signs for lanes that traverse the valley floor. Take one so you can shift from highway to byway, and from the vein of commerce to the land of glens and pastures and rhythmic rows of vines. The Silverado Trail runs parallel to 29 along the eastern side of the valley, but at a more relaxed pace. After a few days of exploring and sipping, you'll no longer dismiss Napa's hokey billboards that declare, " . . . and the wine is bottled poetry. . . ." Yes, even Robert Louis Stevenson fell under the area's spell.

where to stay in napa valley

Oak Knoll Inn (2200 E. Oak Knoll Ave., Napa; 707/255-2200; doubles from $225) may be conveniently close to Highway 29, but the 600 acres of Chardonnay vines that surround it ensure guests the greatest luxury of all-- quiet. The veranda and views are broad; the pool, Jacuzzi, and arbor, perfect elixirs for hot summer days. There are only four (huge) rooms, which means a lucky few get all of the above to themselves.

David Jackson and Craig Claussen are restless types, forever tinkering with their 20-room project, La Residence Country Inn (4066 St. Helena Hwy., Napa; 707/253-0337, fax 707/253-0382; doubles from $150). Flanking a trellised pool area are an 1870 mansion with tall Victorian interiors and a French barn with larger rooms, done up à la Pierre Deux. Live oak centenarians filter the summer sun, though not the hum of traffic. Care for a little Italian with your French?Popular Bistro Don Giovanni is a five-minute walk up the road.

Waterways course through the Eden-like grounds and tidy clusters of two-story buildings that make up the Vintage Inn (6541 Washington St., Yountville; 800/351-1133 or 707/944-1112, fax 707/944-1617; doubles from $150), a lucky thing since the gurgle and splash help mask the noise of nearby Highway 29. Rooms on the ground floor lead to rosebush-bordered patios; the ones upstairs soar to cathedral ceilings and open onto verandas. And in any of the 80 rooms, you can light a fire; too bad the logs are artificial.

The juiced-up scale of Michael Taylor's 1981 interiors now seems more amusing than chic. Still, the 52 guest rooms are oh-so-comfortable. After all these years, no inn tops Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 800/348-5406 or 707/963-1211, fax 707/963-8764; doubles from $350) for indulgence-- in terms of space, sun, and privacy. With a pool, tennis courts, sculpture trail, deep views, and the most romantic restaurant in the valley, the Auberge makes sure you never need or want to leave.

El Bonita Motel (195 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-3216, fax 707/963-8838; doubles from $87) is so fastidiously cared for and charmingly embellished-- with window boxes, trellises, and potted topiary-- you can't help falling for it as a model of its kind. Rooms in the newer two-story building at the back are larger and quieter. Families will appreciate the kitchenettes and the supply of cribs and rollaway beds.

Vineyard Country Inn (201 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-1000, fax 707/963-1794; doubles $195) has none of the dolls and dainty dishes that characterize so many of its kin. Instead, it has handsome pencil-post beds, walnut armoires, and wrought-iron lamps in 21 spacious suites, most of which look out, through windows unobstructed by swags, to rows of mature vines. Dancing across the slate roofline are spiraling brick chimneys for the wood-burning fireplaces that are in every room.

The accommodations at the Inn at Southbridge (1020 Main St., St. Helena; 800/520-6800 or 707/967-9400, fax 707/967-9486; doubles from $195) are the most refreshing in Napa Valley. Ceilings open to the rafters make the second-floor rooms lofty; white piqué cotton bedspreads and pickled-fir woodwork lend them a lightness; fireplaces, fruit, and candles make them notably luxurious. The inn has little in the way of public rooms or facilities, but who needs lots of lobby when you have all of St. Helena at your doorstep, or sports equipment when you have privileges at sister resort Meadowood, less than two miles away?The inn is opening its own spa this summer.

As you wind into the canyon where the White Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa (3100 White Sulphur Springs Rd., St. Helena; 707/963-8588, fax 707/963-2890; doubles from $85) takes shelter, ignore the private property sign and take note of established 1852 engraved in a stone pillar at the entrance. For a modest price you get rustic lodging at the inn, or in the carriage house, or in a cottage-- as well as dips in the hot springs (spa treatments available), trails winding into redwoods, waterfalls, songbirds, and a creek skipping past your door.

Calistoga has no shortage of cottage accommodations, but none are better-conceived than those at the new Cottage Grove Inn (1711 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 800/799-2284 or 707/942-8400, fax 707/942-2653; doubles $175). Each of the 16 storybook structures has a front porch with wicker rockers, a fireplace, TV/VCR, wet bar, and deep Jacuzzi tub. Twin armchairs and bedside lights keep couples happy.

Indian Springs Resort & Spa (1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707/942-4913; doubles $160) is a bungalow colony where Adirondack chairs pair up on the lawn and croquet mallets are left out for pickup games. Welcoming porches front the 17 little houses; out back are hammocks and Weber grills; across the way is the 1913 bathhouse for spa treatments and mud soaks. When it's too cold for a cookout, it's just right for a dunk in the Olympic-size pool, whose 100-degree water is supplied by a thermal geyser.

By the time you've pulled up to Meadowlark Country House (601‚605 Petrified Forest Rd., Calistoga; 707/942-5651, fax 707/942-5023; doubles from $125), you've crossed a narrow bridge and passed a suits-optional pool and a meadow with frisky horses raised by innkeeper Kurt Stevens. The sun, the shade, and the silence will hold you-- but break away long enough to see the world's largest petrified forest, just up the road.

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