By Kathy Chin Leong
There's a getaway in Northern California where you can track cheetahs on safari, fly to the pinnacle of a mountain via aerial tram and picnic in front of a 60-foot geyser. In the same region, you can hopscotch among specialty museums, kayak along a lazy river and tickle your taste buds over fresh rhubarb jam. And, oh yes, if you aren't too exhausted, you can go wine tasting, too.
Contrary to belief that this grape-growing mecca is for adults only, the Napa Valley is crammed with treasures and recreation for kids of all ages. I should know. My husband, Frank, and I have taken our two children, 13-year-old Gwen and 10-year-old Aaron, on weekend jaunts there since they were toddlers.
Where to Stay
Once you land on Highway 29, you are on the cusp of Napa Valley with its cornrow vineyards sprawling the valleys and hillsides. This vintner's paradise, once home to the Wappo Indians, stretches 30 miles, linking the towns of Napa, Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga. A car ride from Napa, the largest and southernmost city in the region, to Calistoga at the extreme north, takes 45 minutes on light-traffic days.
The region accommodates families with a vast array of lodging. Choices include Napa's Embassy Suites, the Marriott Hotel and Spa, the John Muir Inn and Best Western Inns.
One of my favorites is Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, a motel with spa services, a gym and four mineral pools. All rooms have kitchenettes, and prices range from $99 to $176. If you request a room on the bottom floor, you have access to a patio and a barbecue pit. Within walking distance of restaurants, coffeehouses, grocery stores and shops, this popular motel maintains a three-night minimum in the summer.
Also in Calistoga, Indian Springs Resort offers 1940s-era bungalows throughout the 40-acre site. Known for its Olympic-sized mineral pool, Indian Springs is a historic resort dating back to 1860. Croquet, giant checkers, tennis and badminton keep folks busy throughout the day.
Not far away is the Mountain Home Ranch with rustic cabins and cottages on 300 acres of woodland. The ranch has two pools and basketball, volleyball and tennis courts. Owners Suzanne and John Fouts maintain a flexible bed-and-breakfast format allowing visitors to pay for meals a la carte.
Most bed-and-breakfast inns cater to adults, but a few welcome families, such as Scarlett's Bed and Breakfast Inn in Calistoga, which has a tire swing, an enclosed trampoline, a swimming pool, a hot tub and a bird aviary. The inn also has cribs, high chairs and in-room continental breakfast.
For something more exotic, consider Safari West, Santa Rosa, 15 minutes north of Calistoga. The nature preserve seeks to replicate an African safari. You can stay in a cottage or an authentic African canvas tent cabin with high-end furnishings. If you book a two-hour safari tour, you get to bump around in an open-air jeep through the 400-acre wildlife sanctuary, home to more than 350 exotic mammals and birds.
Napa Valley is a gastronomic wonderland with delis, roadside cafes and interesting restaurants that won’t make you feel skittish about bringing the kids.
Pizza in Calistoga is fun at Checker's where the ambience is colorful and bustling. You can gaze out the large picture windows as you await your gourmet pizzas and pasta.
In St. Helena, Taylor's Refreshment is a one-of-a-kind fast-food stand with kid fare and tantalizing adult items, such as Chinese chicken salad, fish tacos, and, of course, wine. Sunday brunch is best at Napa's Silverado Country Club Golf Course Grill. The $15 buffet serves a striking assemblage of hot and cold dishes.
For a dress-up meal in Napa, board the Wine Train, a three-hour ride that includes brunch, lunch or dinner. Twice monthly, the Wine Train touts a Family Fun Night when children ages 12 and younger can dine in their own car under the supervision of daycare workers. After the meal, families reunite to enjoy the rest of the train ride. The night we went, the rack of lamb was stupendous.
The Great Outdoors
Napa Valley has poured millions of dollars into 43 parks for hiking, biking and other recreation. Be warned that the region is rife with poison oak. Go online at www.Napachamber.org to see lists of amenities (skateboard facilities, toddler swings, restrooms.) at each park.
A visit to Jade Lake at Chateau Montelena Winery is just the ticket for a short, flat walk lasting only 20 minutes. Kids can feed the swans, while you leisurely stroll around the premises.
Although picnicking is off-limits at Jade Lake, you can picnic at Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga. Every 30 minutes, this landmark spews forth boiling water and steam 60 feet into the air. It's a blast, so to speak, to sit under the shade and watch kids mosey up to the geyser before it erupts.
Community swimming pools are open to the public for a minimal fee. Check out Napa High School, Veterans Home of California in Yountville, Napa Valley College, Bothe Napa Valley State Park and St. Helena Community Pool. Expect to pay $2 to $5 per person.
Calistoga Spa Hot Springs opens its mineral pools to the public and charges $15 per person on weekdays, $20 on weekends (pools are open until 10 p.m.). If you choose a spa treatment, the cost of pool privileges drops to $5.
Education: From Fire Trucks to Jello to Chips and Dip
Museums range from quaint to modern. Yountville's sleek Napa Valley Museum features art, local history and interactive displays. In Calistoga the low-key Sharpsteen Museum attracts little ones with 3-D miniatures of Calistoga in the1800s and a full-size stagecoach.
In downtown Napa, the Firefighters Museum is a tiny treasure filled to the rafters with fire trucks, old-fashioned hose carts and everyone's favorite: a pair of stuffed Dalmatians. Free trolley rides run daily, except Tuesday.
If your family enjoys going to the grocery store, you'll love the Copia Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Want to know when Jello was invented? How about the Hershey's bar? Geared best for kids who can read, Robert Mondavi's brainchild weaves the history of food, wine and food art into a modern complex, which offers seminars, restaurants, an art gallery and an interactive food museum.
Off the usual path is Marshall's Farm Honey in nearby American Canyon. The Marshalls welcome visitors with a 20-minute film presentation on bees and show active beehives. In the tasting room, guests may taste as many as 20 varieties of honey, preserves and candies.
Gourmet grocery stores and delis are abundant in the area. Oakville Grocery, V. Sattui Winery and Dean & DeLuca routinely offer samples of crackers, pretzels, cheeses, sauces and dips.
More samples can be found at the local farmers’ markets. One of the best is the Chef's Market. From 4 p.m. Fridays the Napa Town Center shopping district is transformed into an outdoor party with music and food. You can sample fresh fruits and baked goods while chefs round out the entertainment with cooking demos.
Wineries are worth the visit even if you don't drink. At the St. Supery Winery in Napa, the Smellavision center lets visitors test their olfactory senses by picking out the fruity and nutty fragrances in wine.
Sterling Winery in Calistoga is the only winery with an aerial tram. A self-guided tour of Sterling is short, but interesting. My favorite moment comes when you get to sit down and rest your feet inside the mountaintop visitor center.
The windy drive to Hess Collection Winery in Napa is steep, but you won't be sorry. Visitors are treated to a high-tech gallery filled with modern art and a short movie describing how Hess grapes are cultivated and transformed into award-winning wines.
Wine caves are an impressive story. Excavation is dangerous and expensive. Find out how architects must design these tunnels to withstand earthquakes and temperature changes. Napa's Pine Ridge Winery welcomes kids and offers an extensive underground tour complete with wine tasting for adults.
Zebra tracking, mountain biking, honeycomb tasting, winery touring, museum grazing. This is just a taste of what families can do in Napa Valley. Next time you long to go to wine country, forgo the sitter and bring the kids along. Salud!
Silverado Country Club Bar and Grill
1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa
707-257-0200. Casual dress. Sunday brunch $15.
Napa Wine Train
1275 McKinsky St., Napa
800-427-4124. Pricey, but memorable. Men's dinner jackets a must.
Taylor Automatic Refresher Stand
933 Main St., St. Helena
707-963-3486. Gourmet fast-food stand with items such as fish tacos and Chinese chicken salad. Reasonable prices.
California Culinary Academy's Greystone Restaurant
2555 Main St., St. Helena
707-967-1100. Pricey; you can see chefs preparing main entrees and desserts. Dress is upscale.
Copia: American Center for Wine Food and The Arts
500 First St., Napa
Admission $12.50 adults, $10 students and seniors, $7.50 ages 6 to 12, free under 6.
di Rosa Preserve
5200 Carneros Highway, Napa
Admission: $12 per person, free under 2.
35-acre lake, 130-year old winery and 2,000 works of art. Reservations required. No baby backpacks. Strollers permitted.
Calistoga-Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Lincoln Ave.
St. Helena-Fridays 7:30 a.m. to noon. Crane Park.
Yountville-Wednesdays 4 to 8 p.m., Washington St.
Napa-Tuesdays 7:30 a.m. to noon. Kaiser, Lui, Lee Building on Main Street.
Marshall's Farm Honey
159 Lombard Road. American Canyon
Admission: $6 per person; call for tour times.
Old Faithful Geyser
1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga
Admission: $8 adults, $3 children 6 to12, free under 6.
3115 Porter Creek Road., Santa Rosa
Admission $58 adult, $28 ages 3 to12; reservations required
1311 Washington St., Calistoga
Admission: $3 adult, free younger than 12
Scarlett's Country Inn Bed and Breakfast
3918 Silverado Trail, Calistoga
Rates $135 to $205
Calistoga Spa Hot Springs
1006 Washington St., Calistoga
Rates $99 to $176 per room, minimum stay three nights, June 15 to Labor Day
Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa
3425 Solano Ave., Napa
Rates starting at $170
John Muir Inn
1998 Trower Ave., Napa
Rates $125 to $210
Indian Springs Resort and Spa
1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga
Rates $185 to $550; bungalows
Mountain Home Ranch
3400 Mountain Home Road, Calistoga
Rates starting at $55 p.p. double occupancy
3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa
Rates: $225 to $300
Kathy Chin Leong is a freelance writer in Sunnyvale who visits Napa Valley frequently, with and without kids.