Not everyone loves wine, but everyone should vacation in California’s wine country. While you may not have guessed it there is so more to do than just drink wine. Grab the family, pack up your bags and get going to wine country – you won’t be disappointed.
I grew up in Sacramento, and although I was never more than a two-hour car drive from the Napa Valley, it went completely unexplored by me. Even when I had reached the magical drinking age and it became a trendy activity for 21-year-olds to rent a limousine for the day to go wine tasting, I took a big pass. Why? Simple answer: I didn’t like the taste of wine, and I couldn’t understand why so many people lost their senses over it.
I’m 50 now, and I started drinking wine a few years ago, mostly because it makes me feel like a grown-up. I started with White Zinfandel, the Kool-Aid of all wines, and I have matured into the Merlots. I’m growing up, slowly. There’s hope for me.
So when my daughters and I were given the opportunity to explore the Napa Valley for the first time, it really was very easy to take another big pass on the whole wine-tasting-in-the-Napa-Valley thing. Rather than getting light-headed in a few tasting rooms, I decided to take my daughters to one of Napa Valley’s most charming cities – Calistoga — and soar to dizzying heights in a hot-air balloon.
Even better than being at the vineyards, we floated high above them.
(We also took an eight-mile kayaking trip down the Russian River that same weekend. But more on that miserable experience a little later.)
Warm, Welcoming and Muddy Calistoga
Have you ever been to Carmel? You know, the coastal city that Clint Eastwood calls home? Calistoga has all the same charm and ambiance, but instead of the lure of the calming ocean, travelers have been coming to Calistoga for its world-famous hot springs since it was founded in the late 1860s as a wellness destination.
Without getting all scientific on you, the town sits on top of geothermal mineral water and volcanic ash that have made Calistoga famous for its soothing, natural hot springs and mud baths.
There are nearly 30 different spas and resorts in this delightful little town, so you are sure to find just the right combination of massages, mud baths and mineral springs to soothe your 9-to-5 aches and pains.
We were lucky enough to be invited guests at Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort, right in the center of town. I loved that I could park my car at the resort and walk just one block to all the restaurants and shops in historic downtown. Our family suite came with a mini kitchen, fridge, stove, sink and dining table. We didn’t cook “at home” because we were there for only one night and wanted to check out the town’s offerings. But for families on an extended stay in Calistoga, it is an ideal set-up. The resort even offers a barbecue area and picnic tables — perfect for some home grillin’.
The best feature of the Roman Hot Springs Resort, and probably the reason why it is such a popular destination, is that it has three natural geothermal pools that range from 92 to 104 degrees to help with blood circulation and oxygenation, as well as an indoor and outdoor Jacuzzi kept at different temperatures. What’s more, there are separate men’s and women’s saunas for some quality alone time. All this is free, included in your room rate.
If you’d prefer to indulge in spa treatments, the resort has plenty – from classic massages and facials to mineral treatments to mud baths. I poked my head into the mud bath area, and while I couldn’t imagine crawling into a tub of goo, one of the guests told me she tried the mud bath and never felt more relaxed and refreshed in her life.
Refreshing mud. An Interesting juxtaposition.
Where to Eat in Calistoga
The main street of downtown Calistoga is dotted with one tempting restaurant after another, catering to nearly every appetite: Southern BBQ, Mexican, French, Italian, Chinese, delicatessens – you name it.
We dined at Bosko’s Trattoria, a family-friendly Italian restaurant that is a favorite with the locals. I judge Italian restaurants on the quality of their bread, and I have to say that Bosko’s has THE. BEST. GARLIC. BREAD. I have ever had in all the years I have been eating! It disappeared so fast, that we had to order another basket – or maybe it was two! Although the restaurant was packed, the service was fast, and the pasta was warm and cooked perfectly. Our server told us they make their own pasta, on site, every day.
Impressive. We will be back!
Calistoga’s Hot Air Balloons
Ever been in a hot-air balloon? If not, put this adventure on your Bucket List. The first time I ever went up in one was in Sedona, on New Year’s Day. I wanted to start off 2007 doing something bold and daring, and by golly, I certainly did. I was scared out of my mind, as only someone who is afraid of heights can be. But once I rose from my fetal position on the floor of the basket and got the nerve to look out over it, I was HOOKED!
Four years later, I was ready to share this wondrous experience with my daughters. They’ve been zip-lining over the rain forest with their dad, so soaring in a hot-air balloon with mom was child’s play.
We hitched our ride with Calistoga Balloons of Napa Valley. They picked us up at our hotel bright and early – 6:30 a.m. (big yawn!). Hot-air balloons typically launch in the early morning because they are easier to navigate when the air is cooler. We drove about an hour up a twisting, winding road to our launch area, high above Calistoga. The most intriguing part of the balloon ride was watching the crew blow it up with propane and a fearsome flame thrower of some sort (not quite sure of the technical term), and connect it to the basket.
The ascent was the most exciting experience, for me. Within seconds, it seems, we rose from ground zero to thousands of feet into the air, slowly and gracefully. Like the slow zoom-out of a camera lens, the world we left behind got smaller and smaller. Trees that towered above us when we were grounded appeared small enough to pinch between our fingers.
It was a beautiful morning, as we floated about 3,000 feet over the Napa Valley. The pilot entertained us with stories about couples getting engaged onboard. He told us about one guy who proposed, and then just as he was about to give his gal the BIG diamond ring, he faked like he tripped and the ring flew out of his hand and over the side of the balloon. Turns out, it was only a cubic zirconia ring – HA! HA! – and he then presented his flabbergasted fiance with the REAL McCoy, tucked safely in his pants pocket.
Except for the occasional blast of propane, our 1.5-hour ride was so quiet I could actually hear air. Hot-air ballooning is so peaceful. So serene. So soulful.
In my next life, I want to come back as a bird.
Kayaking in California’s Wine Country: Never Again
I saved the best story for last. On our way to Calistoga, we stopped in nearby Healdsburg to go kayaking. My daughter’s friend, Chris, was visiting from Wisconsin, and he thought it would be a cool thing to do.
While my head was telling me, “Lynn, you are not an outdoor-adventure-type gal; you are going to hate this,” the Miss Hospitality in me wanted to show the Wisconsin boy a good California time.
Always, always, ALWAYS listen to that little voice inside you.
We booked our adventure through the Russian River Kayak Adventure, a first-class outfit that is a division of SOAR Inflatables. I was quite impressed that they spend about 20 minutes educating everyone on how to navigate the eight-mile journey down the Russian River.
Wait!! Did you say EIGHT miles? Are you kidding me? (Woulda-coulda-shoulda, and I shoulda not gone after hearing that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
We had to partner up for the trip. Of course, my oldest daughter paired up with her Wisconsin friend; that left me and my youngest daughter, Erin, to share a kayak. Lately, Erin and I have been clashing – A LOT! – over the usual stuff between mother and daughter: messy room, sassiness, bad attitude. I thought this might be a good bonding experience for us.
Our non-compatibility started the moment we pushed off from shore. Rather, the moment we started arguing over who was going to do the pushing off. “You weigh more than me, Mom!” “Yeah, but you’re younger and have more energy. Besides, I’m the mom. Now do it!”
Our 4.5-hour kayak trip went downhill, down river, from there. True to our nature as mother and defiant teenager, whenever I would row one direction and we’d advance a few inches, she’d row the opposite direction and we’d start spinning in circles. That’s how it went most of the day. We didn’t kayak; we SPUN down the Russian River.
Imagine that, and you have the recipe for THE. WORST. EXPERIENCE. OF. OUR. LIVES. In fact, that is the ONLY thing we both agreed on that day.
The Russian River has moments of swift-moving rapids, but for the most part, the only way you’re going to move at all is by the continuous, constant, SYNCHRONOUS movement of oars. And that was the problem. We were terribly out of sync, and had been for months.
So we rowed. We spun. We bitched. We got tangled in brush – A LOT!. We cried – A LOT. (I am a Native American and my ancestors would have been terribly ashamed of me.)
Several times, I kicked into Mom-Mode and tried to encourage my daughter to engage in some rowing teamwork with me. I found myself saying things to her that were metaphors for life itself:
“Dig deeper! Try harder!”
“If you get off course, straighten yourself out again.”
“You won’t go anywhere if you just sit there and do nothing.”
At one point, a helicopter flew over and we were praying that someone was coming to rescue us. We had completely lost our minds.
Terribly long story short . . . we eventually made it to the end, four and a half hours later, tired, sore and dizzy from all that spinning. My other daughter, who had been about an hour ahead of us, tried to find the silver lining. “Well, at least you can say that you DID IT!”
I glared at her.
If life is a journey of discovery, I discovered on that journey that I am NOT a kayaker, and never will be. To be fair, there were plenty of kayakers that paddled by us who were having a great time, and we spun past several families stopped along the way to picnic and enjoy the beautiful day.
On the way home, the realization hit me: I finally made it to the California’s wine country in Napa Valley after all these years, and in the end, I did a lot of whining, after all.
Lynn Armitage is a writer, blogger and former magazine editor who has reinvented herself as the owner of Rockin’ Cupcake Cafe in