The Rustic and Resplendent Charm of Napa and Sonoma

Annik Boulva

California Travel Expert

One of my favourite things about Napa and Sonoma is the charming mix of rural, small-town America, combined with a laid-back (yet luxurious) atmosphere. With its proximity to San Francisco, it’s a must-visit for oenophiles from around the world. (And we B&R trip designers simply can’t resist crafting trips that pair great wine regions with beautiful biking). 

Combining relaxed California cool with the allure of rural Americana and a touch of European sophistication, there’s no reason why you should hold back on visiting, despite what you may have read in the headlines–many of our good friends in the area are continuing to give warm welcomes to all that pass their way.

A Golden Past

The term ‘Napa’ comes from Native American Indians who first inhabited this land before the first recorded visit to the region in 1823. Settlers first came to the region in the 1850s, seeking to strike it rich during the California gold rush. More prospectors seeking silver in the hills arrived in the 1860s, bringing even more fortune-seekers and immigrant labourers (from China, Ireland and Southern Europe) to the region. In 1861 Charles Krug established the first commercial winery in the region, which was shortly followed by a wave of new growth. By 1889 Napa Valley and Sonoma became home to more than 140 wineries in operation.

Quickly becoming a boom town, Napa’s Main Street became quite the busy outpost, with an average of 100 horses saddled and ‘parked’ along the street.

One of the last American frontiers, resource-rich California only attained statehood in 1849. First and foremost a farming community, the orchards, vineyards, and ranches remain, but with a more polished veneer these days. 

Stop by a Mom-and-Pop

There are still charming reminders of the past to be found here, though, including some of my favourite places for a casual bite or break. One of my favourite mom-and-pop shops, Dry Creek General Store, was initially established in 1881 to help supply the settler families with all the provisions they needed.

The wooden-frame, whitewashed exterior remains, but the interior is modern, as are the unique products featured from local purveyors. The General Store also has some of the best sandwiches around, with practically everything grown and cultivated in the area.

Another popular place to visit (also established in 1881) is the Oakville Grocery, who touts themselves as the oldest grocery store in the state; it, too, has upgraded to offer snacks, casual meals, and locally produced items you won’t find anywhere else.

Boon Fly Cafe

Another great example of the region’s farmer-chic aesthetic is the bright red modern farmhouse that forms the distinctive exterior of one of the area’s most beloved restaurants, a favourite choice for both locals and visitors alike. You’ll find their hearty, rustic take on California cuisine showcased here. (I also can’t resist their fried chicken or signature donuts anytime I visit).

See for Yourself

On our Napa & Sonoma Biking trip, scenic bike routes wind through small towns and meandering walking trails exist only a few hours from bustling San Francisco.

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The Other Side of Paradise

With the riches of wine country prosperity came the sophisticated side of Napa and Sonoma. The area’s best new restaurants and most luxurious hotels are a far cry from the rough-and-tumble prospectors of yesteryear’s frontier…and a reminder of how this rural community has ‘struck gold’ in a very different way. 

Single Thread

One of the most-buzzed-about restaurants to open in the last year,  Healdsburg’s Single Thread restaurant more than earns its two Michelin stars. The restaurant (and inn) is owned by a husband-wife team (Kyle Connaughton cooks, Katina Connaughton manages the restaurant’s farm located along the Russian River) who are inspired by Japanese-style hospitality which highlights the spirit of ‘omotenashi’: warmly anticipating a guest’s needs in advance.

The only option when dining here is a showstopper of an 11-course feast, which sings a song of the seasons; the whole experience is totally immersive, and every single detail is obsessed over from the dining room to the custom dishes.

It’s well worth the visit to experience such a high level of craftsmanship, artistry, and care from start to finish. Oh, and the name? That ‘single thread’ refers to the humble onion, which is the only thing on the farm that grows year-round. 

Vallette

A restaurant run by two brothers with deep roots in the region (their great-grandfather owned a bakery in Healdsburg), Vallette highlights the exceptional produce that grows here, with international flavours to surprise the palate, no doubt influenced by chef Justin Vallette’s stints in Hawaii, New York, Las Vegas, and beyond. (Foie gras chorizo and cocoa-nib-crusted duck breast, anyone)?

The front-of-house brother, Aaron Garzini, looks after the wine list, which leans heavily on wines from Sonoma County, but also from France, New Zealand and further abroad.

Where to Stay in Napa and Sonoma

Hotel Healdsburg

A breath of fresh air, the contemporary Californian vibe of the Hotel Healdsburg allows you to experience the charms of the town, without sacrificing your own seclusion.

Relax at the outdoor pool overlooking the grounds, head to the spa post-ride, or indulge at chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant, featuring the best of the region, including an impressive wine list of over 500 wines from Sonoma County alone.

Service hotel-wide is refined without being overly formal—the Healdsburg gets it just right. Located right on the lovely tree-lined main plaza of Healdsburg, you can sit and watch the locals, or join right in—the main square hosts a weekly farmer’s market.

Auberge du Soleil, Napa

A wine country experience for the ages, a stay at the Auberge du Soleil may spoil you for all future hotel stays.

This stunning property is set amongst the hills and a sprawling 33-acre olive grove. It more than earns its stripes with a Michelin-starred dining room and a Relais & Chateaux designation, and the wonderful staff anticipate your every need, down to the smallest detail.

From bespoke breakfast service to a guests-only spa, a meditative sculpture garden perfect for post-prandial strolls, a huge spa complex with a hot-and-cold plunge pool circuit, tennis courts and complimentary fitness classes means you’ll hardly want to leave this sanctuary.

Major upgrades will be unveiled this year, including a re-imagining of the grounds, incorporating more drought-hardy grasses and plants native to the region.

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