This summer we took a bit of a departure from our usual trips to Disneyland and other kid orientated destinations and went to a few more adult orientated places. One of our stops this summer was in the Napa and Sonoma region. Most people associate this area with wineries, fine dining and other adult pursuits, but my husband and I love the region so much that we just had to stop in for a few days, even though we had the kids in tow. While it certainly will never replace Disney as a family destination, with a bit of patience and inventiveness (and lot of bribes!) we were all able to enjoy this beautiful part of the world together.
Napa and Sonoma are two famous wine regions just north of San Francisco. Napa is traditionally the more developed region and Sonoma has a reputation for being more rural and informal, but both valleys are very popular tourist destinations and wherever you go you can expect that there will be plenty of others touring the area as well. It’s about an hour drive from San Francisco or Oakland to the south end of each valley via major freeways, but once you’re in the area the roads become narrow country lanes in many areas and it can take a surprisingly long time to get from one end of the valley to the other.
We started our “Wine Country with Kids” tour in the larger, more rural Sonoma Valley and spent a full day in each region. In Sonoma we went first to the small town of Sonoma a the south end of the valley. Despite the amount of traffic it sees coming through, Sonoma retains it charm as a historic rural town centred on a lovely central square with historic buildings on all four sides. The central square contains the small, mission style town hall and a lovely park with playgrounds and lots of shade. We took turns watching the kids at the playground while the other parent browsed the shops.
Sonoma was actually one of the original mission settlements which form a chain up the coast of California and include Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano and Mission Doloras in downtown San Francisco. It’s one of the smaller ones, but you can easily walk a few blocks north of the main square to tour some of the original buildings. The town also has several other historic buildings including a historic hotel and barracks that you can view just north of the square.
After we’d run off some energy in the playground we headed off to our favourite part of the region, the wineries. I had done a bit of research and tried to find some places that the kids would find somewhat interesting, but it was a bit challenging since the lists of family friendly wineries I could find just kept listing the same few places over and over again. Some of these were open by appointment only and we didn’t want to be tied to a schedule. In the end we mainly went to places that I remember enjoying on previous visits.
One thing to be aware of when wine tasting is that tasting fees in this area are quite high and a day of tasting can quickly add up. $15-$20 per tasting is quite typical and $30 and up isn’t uncommon. We tended to save money by sharing tastings, which usually isn’t a problem if you’re travelling with someone with whom you’re willing to share a glass. Even then we tended to limit out tastings to two or three per day and concentrating on visiting places we really liked and spending a bit of time there instead of flitting from place to place.
Our first stop was the gorgeous Chateau St Jean winery, just north of Sonoma. This winery has beautiful grounds with French style formal gardens and lovely views over the surrounding hills. The tasting room is spacious and the staff is wonderful, laid back and welcoming. We got an early start and arrived shortly after opening time of 11 am and had the place to ourselves for the first little while. The tasting room also had a small deli counter and we ended up buying a couple of glasses of our favourite wines and going out to the patio with some cheese and bread to enjoy a snack while the kids played in the gardens.
After our first successful winery visit we decided to do something completely different and headed up another section of the valley to the Armstrong Redwood State Reserve. It was a bit of a detour, about 45 minutes each way, but since we were so close to some majestic old growth redwoods I really wanted the kids to have a chance to see them. We did a few short loops on the well marked hiking paths which took us by some of the largest trees in the park and the kids really enjoyed the chance to stretch their legs and clamber around on some of the fallen trees and stumps. I’m not sure if they really appreciated the significance of the huge trees, as evidenced by my daughter rolling her eyes and saying, “yes, I know, these are some of the biggest trees in the whole wide world!!” every time I tried to point one out, but I remember seeing the redwoods when I was five, so I can always hope.
We made our last stop of the day at the flashy Francis Ford Coppela winery at the northern end of the valley. This winery is brand new and was built as a sort of destination winery with a large pool where you can rent cabanas for the day and lie around sipping wine and looking elegant or browse through enormous rooms filled with movie memorabilia from the last few decades. It was mainly a place for fancy people to hang out and look fancy, but there were a few kid friendly touches here and there including a small reading area with kid’s books and some nice outdoor areas to relax with a glass of wine and enjoy the view. While I don’t think I’d pay the premium charges to use the pool it was a nice place to enjoy a glass of wine and a light snack.
By the time we finished at the Francis Ford Coppela winery it was close to four pm so we decided not to push the kids’ patience any further. It was a good thing we headed back when we did since the afternoon traffic heading out the valley was much heavier than when we headed in at nine am and it was a bit of a long, slow drive back to the hotel. There was a bit of crankiness along the way, but overall we were pleased with our day and felt that everyone in the family had the chance to do what they wanted to do most. With playgrounds, redwoods and of course, wine, the Sonoma Valley really is a wonderful family destination.