Some men look forward to hitting the road to head out of town as much as their actual vacation. For these guys, a drive through California’s Napa Valley could be the ultimate vacation. There’ll be plenty of opportunity to put in some drive time between stops at some of the greatest wineries in the country, but there are also tons of other activities to enjoy, like riding in a hot air balloon or tucking into a fantastic dinner. With so many choices, figuring out where to start can be a bit daunting. Follow our six-step guide to take the stress out of planning. You’ll soon be on the road to one of the best vacations you’ve ever had.
1. Plan your arrival and route
If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere near the area, then getting started on your trip will be a cinch. Folks coming from farther away can either opt for a really long road trip, or fly in and rent a vehicle. The region has five airports to choose from. Though the Charles M. Schulz — Sonoma County Airport is the closest at 35 miles away, it’s easier to go for one of the major airports: Oakland, Sacramento, or San Francisco.
Once you reach wine country, you have a few choices for routes. The most popular one is Highway 29. It gives you access to tons of wineries and restaurants, but Wine Country Getaways said it can also be jam-packed. A more relaxed alternative is the Silverado Trail, which runs parallel to Highway 29. You won’t have quite as many options, but the views are stunning and you can always hop over to the larger highway for specific meals or tours.
2. Find the best stay for your budget
Access to a car means you have tons of options for lodging. Those looking for a tranquil retreat will enjoy a stay at The Meritage Resort and Spa. USA Today’s 10 Best chose this stay as a great all-purpose hotel thanks to its convenient location, wine tastings, and relaxing spa treatments. There are tons of other choices, though. Travel + Leisure listed plenty of options, including a wallet-friendly motel and a luxe ranch.
Let your companions be your guide for picking where to stay. Going with a bed and breakfast can be fun, but it might not even be an option if you have kids tagging along. Most of these small inns have a no-child policy. If you’re headed to Napa for a guy’s weekend, something more minimal is probably the way to go.
3. Be choosy about wine tastings
Trying to wing it for winery visits isn’t a very good strategy, because you might end up missing some bottles you would have loved. Remember, there are a lot of choices. Never fear, because Food & Wine compiled a pretty impressive list of some of their favorites. You’ll have the opportunity to taste tons of styles in some gorgeous settings.
Though many places used to offer free or very low-cost tastings, fees are becoming the norm. Larger wineries are often less expensive, but they can get crowded. Frommer’s said a lot of the pricier spots are worth the cost, because you’ll have a more intimate experience and avoid encounters with belligerent drunks.
4. Eat like crazy
While many wineries offer tasty nibbles and even full-service restaurants, you’d be a complete fool to skip out on the area’s eateries. You’ll find some of the best fine dining in the country here. And because of the location, you can guarantee the wine list will be superb. Travel Channel picked some of their favorites, featuring spots like The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood.
Surprisingly, the area also boasts plenty of great eats for smaller budgets. Two of Bon Appétit’s favorite restaurants in Napa are Addendum for great fried chicken and Gott’s Roadside for awesome burgers and hot dogs. And yes, you can still pair these low-brow meals with great wine.
5. Go for a less obvious tour
Scoring a great glass of Pinot Noir is one of the benefits of visiting all those wineries, but a lot of the tours can start to look the same. Some of the larger ones are completely packed and feel pretty impersonal. Sometimes, the best tours are great because of the people you get to meet. Into Wine listed 10 of their favorite stops that go way beyond a rehearsed speech and a few pours. And who says every tour has to involve rolling hills or even the outdoors? There are some remarkably cool options that wind through caves.
6. Give the booze a rest, at least for a bit
You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, spend every second of your trip seeking alcohol. Napa has plenty of other attractions that make for a spectacular trip. Such fantastic scenery practically begs for a view from up high, so Condé Nast Traveler recommended opting for a ride in a hot air balloon, vintage aircraft, or helicopter. And no trip to Napa would be complete without a visit to Oxbow Public Market. Think of this place as a farmers’ market on steroids where you can pick up an astounding array of locally made products.
Getting a little bit of exercise probably isn’t a bad idea as you’re sipping your way through vacation. Consider giving the car a rest for a day or two and take off on a bike tour. With so many different trails, it’s also a great place to hike. Besides, there’s no better way to reward your effort than enjoying a glass of wine.