If your dreams of spending the summer in the Mediterranean feel a little too complicated this year, look to Napa, which is fast becoming the New Provence. Contributing editor Christina Ohly has a look at the area's best new offerings.
NAPA VALLEY — Napa Valley — long an escape for oenophiles and foodies alike — is coming back from a year like no other. Between pandemic shut-downs and devastating wildfires, the area literally got its ass kicked. But in a triumph of human resilience as well as natural regrowth, this part of California’s wine country has come back, and it’s better than ever.
With so much debate surrounding summer travel — to go abroad or not? — and variants cropping up with ever greater frequency, there is a lot of value for Americans in planning a vacation that a) won’t get canceled, b) doesn’t require umpteen Covid tests, and c) is in a destination where 70 percent of the local population has been fully vaccinated. Add to that sumptuous new hotel rooms, farm-fresh cuisine, and scenic hikes and biking, and the 30-mile stretch that is Napa Valley is looking like an (almost) fail-safe bet for summer 2021.
Consider it the New Provence.
I hadn’t traveled at all during the pandemic and decided that this part of the country — ;with its easy access from San Francisco International Airport — was perfect for my first foray back into a world outside my Northeast comfort zone. What I found was an area marred (in places) by the Glass Fire, but one that has bounced back to set visitors at ease, provide delicious meals and spa experiences, and access to some of the finest vineyards in the world.
For many, the allure of the Med will be irresistible this summer, but for others, a comparable experience in Napa Valley — with zero hassle! — will more than make up for the missed aperitivo. And take heart! Competitive bocce abounds here as well.
First Stop: Napa
The “city” of Napa doesn’t typically get a lot of love, as people tend to bypass it for the quainter towns of Calistoga, St. Helena, and Yountville. But it’s absolutely worth stopping for at least a day. Oxbow Public Market, brimming with everything from wood-fired pizzas to local cheeses, ice cream, and olive oil, to spices from around the globe, is a gastronome’s true north.
Next door to Oxbow is CIA at Copia, the Culinary Institute of America’s newest campus, which offers hands-on cooking classes, boot camps, and private lessons, many in partnership with America’s Test Kitchen. If you’d rather let the pros cook, have a meal at The Grove at Copia, where the meal is locally inspired (of course). For a truly highbrow meal, Le Petit Chef is a 3D dining experience inspired by Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road. Another must for curious foodies is The Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum on the top floor, which displays the mind-blowingly extensive collection of more than 4,000 kitchen tools, accessories, and serving ware pieces amassed by the Williams-Sonoma founder. (Le Petit Chef and the museum are currently closed, but will reopen.)
A terrific addition to the lodging scene in downtown Napa is R-INN, a converted historic building reimagined as a sleek boutique hotel. I recommend one of the independently-owned property’s five spacious loft suites, complete with 20’ ceilings, poured concrete floors, and vibrant artwork. This being northern California, the WiFi, enormous flatscreen TVs, Bluetooth speaker system — and even the coffee maker — are all state of the art, and the setting is perfect for those dwindling work from home days.
Heading North: Yountville & Rutherford
Long considered the culinary capital of Napa Valley, the town hangs onto the title with its many Michelin starred establishments — World’s Best chart-topper French Laundry, Mustards Grill, and Bistro Jeanty among them — but it was Ad Hoc that stole my heart during my brief visit. The casual branch of chef Thomas Keller’s empire, Ad Hoc serves killer (yet elevated, of course) mac ‘n’ cheese and buckets of fried chicken — with wine pairings — that make for a perfect picnic in the gorgeous surroundings.
Moving northward, Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford still reigns as the grande dame of the hotel scene out here. This was my first post-vaccination hotel stay, and it proved a completely luxurious, restorative escape. Our airy, 1,200-square-foot Valley View suite, with its sprawling terrace overlooking olive groves and the Myacamas Mountains beyond, was perfect for my teenage daughter and I to spread out and work/online school. The 50 rooms and suites have been recently refreshed and a neutral palette pervades, with crisp linens and thick, fluffy robes. (Oh, how I've missed such lovely hotel amenities.) Fully stocked refrigerators, a next-level team of estheticians at the tranquil spa, and a perfectly prepared cheeseburger served poolside were among the highlights of our stay.
Also of note is the gym, which features indoor and outdoor equipment to maximize valley views. After a 30-minute workout followed by iced tea at the redesigned pool area (think Il Pelicano meets St. Barths, with flowy canvas and stripy chaise lounges), I felt as though I’d been to Provence for two days. What enhanced my stay were the excellent team of concierges who arranged for our use of Auberge’s fleet of Mercedes — SUVs and Cali-perfect convertibles — and pointed us in the direction of restaurants like Press in nearby St. Helena and the iconic Oakville Grocery for prosciutto and brie sandwiches for the road. The loaner vehicles also enabled us to discover Carter and Co, my favorite new retail gem that specializes in artisan-produced everything in St. Helena. Come here to meet owner/artist Richard Carter and see his exquisite ceramics, along with a carefully curated selection of housewares, sustainably made deerskin jackets, local honeys, olive oil, and more.
Next Up: Calistoga
I have to admit, I didn’t want to leave Auberge at all, but the blow was softened by moving on to Auberge Resorts’ sister property Solage in nearby Calistoga. The hotel isn’t brand new, but everything (suites and studios included) has been refreshed over the past six months — the Covid safety protocols, the patio dining at Solbar (loved the twinkling lights), and the retro bicycles outside every room which made exploring downtown Calistoga a breeze. Any day now, Solage’s latest culinary offering, Picobar, will offer modern Mexican fare with atmospheric firepits and live music.
The feeling at Solage is sleek and contemporary (white pervades and rooms are minimalist chic), and it’s all just a bit more casual than at Auberge. I was there mid-week and there were no kids, but I can imagine the hotel’s enormous central pool (with swimming lessons) is a big draw for families at weekends. The team has, however, figured it out so that you never have to see anyone. Quiet places abound throughout the Bathhouse spa and geothermal soaking pools area. Overall, I felt as though I’d been transported to a Zen place with just the right amount of activity. In addition to the plunge pools (ranging from icily invigorating to seriously hot), I highly recommend a three-part, detoxifying mud bath. Calistoga has long been known for these curative slatherings (and I must admit, I wasn’t a buyer at first) and Solage’s “mud bar” was fantastic: I could feel the toxins from the last fifteen months leaving my body. (I won’t miss them!) Next time, I am going back for The Starlight spa experience where you soak and sip outside under the stars, after everyone else has gone.
Also of note is Indian Springs Resort and Spa just around the corner from Solage. A historic resort with a jaw-dropping Olympic-sized pool, Indian Springs is something a cult classic, with its Mission Revival main building (Fun fact: It was originally intended as the site of Stanford University) and sweet bungalows and cottages that attract families and couples alike. The mud bath here is especially low-fi and effective. Funky and fabulous (it has a Buddha Pond!), this is one for spa-goers looking for a slightly kitschy touch — and a meal at the buzzy-chic Sam’s Social Club, where breakfasts include a salad of maitake mushrooms, kale, poached egg, and farro in a shallot vinaigrette. This is, after all, NorCal.
In other Calistoga news, the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Napa Valley, located literally across the road from Solage, is set for a late summer opening. Its 85 spacious guest rooms will bring more farmhouse chic to an area already in very high demand.
More Spectacular Settings
One of the best area openings/re-launches is the Alila Napa Valley in St. Helena, which originally opened in 2017 as Las Alcobas, the sister hotel to the fantastic boutique hotel of the same name in Mexico City. The re-imagined property with 68 guest rooms and seven suites offers the ultimate mix of historic and contemporary luxury. The original Acacia House built in 1905 now has six guest room and a restaurant by noted chef San Francisco Chris Consentino. The single most memorable meal I ate during this trip was at Acacia House: a “simple” chicken salad and a club sandwich with fries, the best we’d ever tasted. Anywhere. The rooms, by noted hotel design firm Yabu Pushelberg, retain a sleek vibe, with lots of glass, metal and stone finishes, and sweeping views of the vineyard in the backyard. The new Alila Spa is set in a light-filled barn, and daily yoga classes and TRX fitness equipment are all part of the package.
Slightly further afield — and technically in Sonoma County but so worth a detour — is the stunning new Montage Healdsburg, with 130 Bungalow rooms and 34 spacious suites. The basic room category starts at 600 square feet, with a three-bedroom Guest House stretching to 4,600 square feet, complete with three bedrooms, a fully stocked kitchen, and a hot tub.
You get the feeling that no expense has been spared. Warm wood and natural stone finishes are found throughout, as are fire features and a stunning, infinity-edge, adults-only pool. Of special note is the expansive spa with views of the Alexander Valley, Yoga Among the Vines classes, and special treatments like a Harvest Honey Ginger Infusion Ritual (for moisturizing and immunity boosting) and a California Wildflower Ritual that includes healing poultices and vibrational technology. The next-level fitness center full of TechnoGym equipment and Peloton bikes is ideal for peaceful workout, so between the spa and gym, plan to spend a full day here if you are a remotely sporty fitness type.
And the food! Montage Healdsburg options include Hazel Hill, which serves a fusion of French and Northern California cuisines and a seasonal vegan menu. The wine list is world-class, with many bottles from Aperture Cellars, the renown winery next door. Convivial Scout Bar at the heart of the resort is the spot for casual drinks and a menu that ranges from caviar to double-patty burgers. An on-site grab-and-go market, the Healdsburg Country Store, offers frothy cappuccinos, wraps, and chocolate fudge brownies. Just one more reason to never leave this gorgeous landscape.
Looking Ahead to Autumn
One of the fall’s most anticipated openings is Stanly Ranch, a 712-year-old historic property poised to open in November ten minutes from the town of Napa, with 135 cottage suites and its own vineyard. Like the other neighboring Auberge Resorts Collection properties, Stanly Ranch will focus on a world-class spa and farm-to-fork cuisine led by chef Perfecte Rocher, with much of the produce coming from the surrounding land. A grand pool with an adjacent Basin Bar will be the place for evening snacks and wine tastings, while The Larder will be the breakfast, lunch, and dinner hub.
For hefty doses of lavender and a practically Provençal experience, you’ll want to book now. The only downside to visiting Napa Valley (that I can see) is that rooms are becoming increasingly hard to come by. Which may not be surprising, as this hardly undiscovered special, vibrant part of California only gets more special and vibrant with time.