By Nathan Lump
June 11, 2019
Calistoga Ranch lodge
Credit: Courtesy of Calistoga Ranch

Every once in a while, you get the urge to celebrate a birthday like it's a milestone — even if it isn't one of the nice, round numbers. This year, I wanted to do something a bit more special than usual for my husband, Charles, and my plan was pretty simple: travel somewhere he loves, make all the plans (read: no work whatsoever for him), and invite his parents, his sister, her husband, and their daughter to join us.

Adding family put some parameters on my decision-making. The location needed to be easily accessible and appropriate for people ages 12 to 82. I wanted us to have the ability to gather as a group, which might have called for a house rental, but frankly, I also wanted the service and support that a hotel can provide, so that I could relax, too.

I landed on Napa Valley as the destination. Charles and I both love great food and wine, it's a part of the country that we enjoy, and it was easy for everyone to reach. Calistoga Ranch, a resort that Charles has frequently told me he'd really liked on a stay many years ago, filled the bill precisely.

Tucked into a canyon on more than 150 wooded acres that encompass a lake and private hiking trails with breathtaking views, the resort is convenient to the attractions of Napa (and Sonoma, for that matter) but feels like a world apart. And the architecture suited our purposes; the guest rooms are all in freestanding cedar lodges, with big decks that encourage you to kick back with a glass of wine and savor the beauty and quiet.

Poolside dinner at Calistoga Ranch
Credit: Alanna Hale

We put Charles's sister and her family in their own one-bedroom, and then Charles and I shared a 2,400-square-foot suite with his parents. It had two enclosed bedrooms at opposite ends of the structure and, in between, a huge indoor-outdoor living room with a hot tub and fireplace, plus a kitchen. The setup allowed everyone to sit together and trade stories, share a bottle of wine, and enjoy one of several birthday cakes I had arranged.

Here's the key to these kinds of trips: don't overdo the activities. Let people go off and do their own thing when they want. One day, I had set up a couple of very special wine tastings—one with the founder of Realm Cellars, known for its exceptional red blends, and another with two of California's most creative winemakers, Jill and Steve Matthiasson at their farmhouse and namesake vineyard — which Charles and I visited with his parents, while his sister and her family appreciated some downtime at Calistoga Ranch's pool. We reconvened at our lodge to sample a bottle of Matthiasson's beautiful Chardonnay and then headed to dinner in St. Helena at the Charter Oak. There, in a giant wood-burning fireplace at the center of the restaurant, recent Food & Wine Best New Chef Katianna Hong does magical things with local produce. (Save room for the delights on the dessert trolley.) Refined yet unpretentious, the dinner was one of those experiences that felt perfect to everyone.

But that was just one of a number of good dinners together. Others included a meal at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc four-course menu in Yountville, where there's a set menu served family style, and a feast we cooked ourselves in the lodge following a field trip to the Napa Farmers Market. I scheduled the main birthday event on our last night at Calistoga Ranch's Lakehouse. As the light faded and the fireflies emerged, we savored the waterfront restaurant's farm-to-table cooking and excellent wine before the carrot cake (Charles's favorite) was served.

Toward the end of the night, my mother-in-law brought out a homemade photo album filled with images from Charles's childhood and beyond. Seeing the smiles on everyone's faces as they paged through, I knew that the memories of our long weekend would surpass any tangible gift I could have given.