There’s no doubt—wine tasting is the most popular pastime in California’s Napa Valley. And for good reason. With hundreds of wineries to choose from, there are so many options to enjoy. Indulge a bold cabernet sauvignon, a sweet and refreshing rosé or a dry, fruity sauvignon blanc. Sip in a tasting room, on a shady patio or in a sunny vineyard. Pair your wine tasting with a winemaking tour or enjoy a cheese plate while you sample. The possibilities are endless.
But it doesn’t stop there either. You can go wine tasting in a castle dungeon. You can learn to create your own red blend. Or you can even take a themed tour of local wineries aboard a vintage train (with a four-course meal!). It’s one of the most famous wine regions in the world—I mean it when I say the possibilities are endless.
However, there is so much to discover outside the realm of wine. Definitely don’t skip the wine tasting—but indulge in some adrenaline-fueled adventures, creative exploration or tranquil relaxation as well. The best part? Your whole crew will bond over these eclectic experiences.
Soarin’ Over California
The indisputable beauty of Napa Valley is best explored from up above. That’s right: hot air balloon rides. While you can take to the skies from the town of Napa, we opted to head to the northern end of the valley. Calistoga Balloons reigns supreme up north, offering a solo morning flight each day (as wind permits).
I’m not a morning person at all but the early rise time was beyond worth it. We met in downtown Calistoga at the company’s train car office. Once the whole group had arrived—public flights can hold between 6 and 16 people—we drove off. Though the launch site varies, we set out for the parking lot outside of the Old Faithful Geyser Of California. After sending a test balloon into the atmosphere, our pilot and his staff inflated the balloon as we looked on.
Once it was properly filled, we all climbed into the basket, our guide set up a GoPro, we snapped a few pictures and we were off. It was my first hot air balloon ride, and possibly the most shocking aspect was the silence. It took us a couple minutes to realize we weren’t on the ground anymore. Then we really began to rise.
Because it was so early, we watched the sun rise over the distant mountain peaks. The golden light creeped across the vibrant vineyards, offering stunningly clear views of the land below. Staying at the perfect height, we could make out homes, tasting rooms, people walking their dogs and waving up to us. As the sun hit us, it cast a cute balloon-shaped shadow on the land below.
After about an hour in the air, we came to an abrupt landing in an empty field and were shuttled to the nearby Solbar at Solage, an Auberge Resort. We dined on a fresh breakfast (I opted for an egg white omelet while my friends ordered a veggie scramble and poached eggs) with delicious mimosas before returning to town.
Art lovers can find plenty to keep them busy in Napa Valley as well. Downtown St. Helena offers various art galleries, all within walking distance of one another. Or, go wine tasting at Hall Wines and opt for a tour of their private art collection. However, for something a little edgier, do some research on the Baker Sisters.
Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe these incredible ladies. They do it all—painting, music, fashion and jewelry design, acting and more. Mercedes and Melissa live in a barn-turned-art-studio on their parents’ old cattle farm, which they’ve turned into a one-of-a-kind creative space. The barn itself is sectioned off, with a painting studio, a closet of homemade clothing and a jewelry portion. Outside, large trees offer shade for a magical setting that includes cozy couches, small stages, art installations and plenty more.
The sisters have formed the Ehlers Society, a group filled with a variety of different artistic types that come together to create. Welcoming to artists of all sorts, the sisters host a variety of art exhibitions, live stage performances, fashion shows and more. While many aren’t open to the public, a select few do invite guests to make their way onto the property for an art-filled evening.
On top of their work, the duo takes part in a variety of different art programs, teaching classes at Nimbus Arts and traveling across the country for various shows and productions. If you get a chance to check out any of the art they’re involved with, do so. Their kind spirits and beautiful work is beyond inspiring, and will have you group wanting to create something of their own.
Filled with Foodie Fun
When it comes to dining out, downtown Napa is the place to be. For a quick and eclectic option, visit the Oxbow Public Market. This food hall, situated near the river, offers plenty of choices so everyone in your group can find the perfect meal. They serve up everything from sushi and burgers to wood-fired pizzas and sandwiches. This spot is the best of both worlds, with retail shops providing some entertainment before or after the meal. Shop at the on-site bookstore, enjoy a wine tasting with cheese pairings, sample wine-infused chocolates or taste some locally made olive oil. It’s also a great place to get gifts for friends and family back home.
On the other side of the river, the Norman Rose Tavern offers a fun pub vibe great for rowdy groups. Watch sports games on the televisions, gather around a table for a meal or sit at the bar for a round of drinks at happy hour. The eatery serves everything from grilled cheese and pulled pork nachos to lamb burgers, warm spinach salads and fish & chips. They also boast an extensive beer menu for those looking for a little less wine tasting.
For something a little more upscale, visit the new Archer Hotel, which just opened last year. The property is home to Sky & Vine, a rooftop bar that offers spectacular views of the surrounding area. The bar, which doubles as a restaurant, is run by Charlie Palmer, ensuring that the cheeseburgers, steak sandwiches and seafood small plates are delicious. Sky & Vine has a hip vibe that will make you want to stick around so gather the group at one of the fire pits and sip one of the many craft cocktails.
Rest & Relaxation
If you’re looking to unwind, there is only one place to go. Nestled in the sleepy town of St. Helena, Las Alcobas Napa Valley is the first luxury hotel to open in the north part of the valley in a while. It has an impressive history to go with its ultra-modern style, expertly blending past and present.
The rooms are just as special as everything else about this place, with a variety of different layouts to appease different types of visitors. Have some members of your group grab different rooms so you can see them all. Mine was a vineyard view, adjacent to the neighboring Beringer Vineyard. Rows of grapes were just out of reach from my sunny wooden deck. Out of all of the places to relax at the hotel, the deck was my favorite, day or night. Whether in the sun or by the light of the fire pit, it was a great place for wine tasting the vino left in the room and the other bottles I picked up along the way. I also really enjoy the high-tech aspects of the room—electronic push-button controls for everything, blackout blinds and even a toilet seat warmer.
Another place with some great vineyard views is the tranquil pool deck. The bright yellow lounge chairs offer a lovely pop of color. On top of that, their terry cloth material made them quick drying and comfortable. Before or after you go for a dip, relax deeper with a spa treatment at Atrio Spa. The Balinese massage was incredible, but the use of reflexology techniques and aromatherapy enhanced it even more. The treatment itself paired with the delicious summer tea blend in the relaxation lounge made it an unforgettable experience.
While the property has a lot to offer, you can’t forget about the Acacia House. This restaurant, named for the 1907 farmhouse it’s housed in, is the most historic part of the hotel. With a wrap-around porch and original window designs, you’ll feel right at home every time you step inside. The restaurant has some delicious food, like a Hamachi crudo with crunchy tempura and an impressive crudités dish with some veggies coming straight from the on-site garden. Beyond that, they have wines to pair with each dish on the menu. The Sonoma chicken is a stand-out dish on the ever-changing line-up of dishes, but make sure to check what the chef’s specials are for the night as well. We had some rare piquillo peppers stuffed with ricotta cheese, and it was absolute heaven on a plate.
Acacia House is enjoyable any time of day. In the morning, the serve delicious coffee; by night, incredible desserts. Make sure to also sample one of the impressive cocktails, like the margarita, which is made with a house-made sea salt foam, or the gin and sparkling wine-filled Acacia Cocktail, complete with edible flowers on top.
No matter where you choose to unwind on the property, any time spent at Las Alcobas will be calm and incredibly memorable for the whole group.