This summer we did a series of mini trips with the kids, including several destinations which are not normally considered especially “family friendly”, like the Sonoma Valley, which I covered in my last post. So to continue the theme of “You took your kids where?” 2015 edition I thought I’d share the fun things we found to do in the Napa Valley.
Like the Sonoma region, the Napa Valley is just north of San Francisco, less than an hour from the Golden Gate bridge if traffic isn’t too bad. It was once an area of farms, orchards and the occasional vineyard but since the 1970’s the wineries have taken centre stage. You can still find many family run operations, farmer’s markets and independent boutiques and restaurants in the area, but you can’t get away from the fact that wine is now big business here and flashy “superstar” type wineries dominate the tourist market. Tastings are rarely less that $30 here and many places are incredibly ostentatious. But showy and ostentatious can be a lot of fun, especially with kids.
So with that in mind we decided to start at the biggest and flashiest winery in the valley, the stunning Castello di Amorosa in the north end of the valley near the town of Calistoga. It was still being built the last time we visited as newlyweds in 2007 and when we started planning this trip my husband and I both knew that one of our stops would have to be “that castle” which was so stunning and unexpected rising up from the side of the valley that we had to turn around and drive by it again the first time we saw it.
The castle is a real, working winery operated by the same family that owns several other properties in the valley. And if you need any more proof that the place is awash in cash you need look no further than this place. As far as I can tell, someone woke up one morning and decided it would be nice to have an authentic reconstruction of a 13 century Italian castle on his new property and simply went out and had it done. And this place is no cheap folly with plaster “stonework” and hollow pillars. It was built with materials and craftspeople brought over from Italy with incredible attention to detail.
A $25 admission fee included entrance to most of the castle plus a wine tasting, which wasn’t too bad of a deal. Unfortunately this was one place where you couldn’t share a tasting and there was a small entrance fee for the kids so it wasn’t exactly a cheap stop. However, the castle itself was a lot of fun to explore and we ended up spending almost two hours on our visit. Once again we got an advantage by arriving as soon as it opened and being some of the first visitors of the day which gave us a lot of individual attention during our tasting session. My husband and I agreed that this was probably our favourite tasting session of the trip, mainly due to the great staff. The man pouring our wine was Italian, originally from Venice and we had a great time talking with him about Italy, Venice and the Napa Valley as we enjoyed some of the wonderful wines. The kids were actually very well behaved and watched shows on the tablet and sipped grape juice as we chatted for far longer than the standard wine tasting session. Overall, it was a great experience and I’d highly recommend the Castillo di Amorosa winery for anyone looking for a family friendly wine experience in Napa
From Calistoga we headed south to the Beringer winery, which was one I remember visiting on previous visits. It is one of the oldest wineries in the valley and the main house and grounds are lovely with older trees and a lovely craftsman style mansion. We didn’t end up staying for a tasting here, but we had a great time looking around and let the kids run off some energy on the grounds.
At this point it was getting close to lunch time so we decided to stop for some picnic supplies. Of course, in the Napa Valley you don’t just stop to grab pizza or buy some generic sandwich makings at the local Safeway. No, we decided to do Napa right and stop by the Dean and Delucca in the tiny, but posh town of St Helena. I had some fun checking out the variety of overpriced options before settling on some fresh bread and cheese as well as a few other treats. The next step was finding a place to enjoy them.
Our first stop was the huge Robert Mondavi Winery, which I remembered enjoying previously. The setting is beautiful with stunning modern architecture, fountains and interesting sculptures scattered around. The huge green lawn was as beautiful as I remembered, but it also came complete with large “No Picnicking” signs scattered around the grounds, so our stop there was brief.
Fortunately in the Napa Valley there’s a winery for every taste and need so after a quick Google search for wineries that allow picnics we went a few hundred metres up the road to the lovely Franciscan Estate Winery where we found the perfect spot. The kids just wanted to eat so we skipped the wine tasting and bought glasses of lovely chilled white wine instead. There were wooden tables set out in a beautiful shady courtyard where we were able to relax with our goodies and our wine and enjoy ourselves. Once again we were impressed with the friendliness of the staff and got into a discussion with one staff member who took us out to look at some of the vines in the display vineyard out front and even took the time to answer the children’s questions about grapes and bugs and dirt.
By this time it was getting to be mid afternoon and we had learned our lesson from the traffic jam coming out of Sonoma the day before. We headed back to the hotel a bit early to ensure we would have plenty of time for a swim after supper since even the best young travelers can’t be expected to visit wineries all day without the chance to play in the hotel pool before bed.
And that was Napa. It was a short visit and we could have easily spent much more time there but one day and four wineries felt about right with a five and six year old along for the ride. We found the area to be great for families and were pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and unpretentious it was. With a bit of planning and flexibility, Napa really can be a great family destination.