A Luxurious Road Trip Through California's Wine Country
There are times when I like to rough it, that exhilarating rush of surviving the elements with nothing but your backpack. Pinching pennies, sleeping in cramped hostels beneath unfriendly skies, eating street food out of the back of trucks, making your own fire out of fallen driftwood… There are times when opulent pampering and unadulterated luxury fails to enhance your experience.
This is not one of those times.
I touched down at the San Francisco International Airport but never set foot in the city. I was here for a weekend to explore gorgeous wine regions that bookend the city both to the north and to the south, through a most luxurious lens. And if ever there were a place to splurge for the überluxe experience, San Francisco’s famous wine country might be the best spot on earth to go all out.
First stop: Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small, sophisticated town of Danish gingerbread houses, French country estates, cobblestone streets, English cottages and Swiss chalets — a European-inspired storybook town of just less than 4,000 people, with quirky details that put the town in a class of its own. It’s the quintessential California charmer, a throwback to an easier time and a slower pace, where there are no streetlights, no street addresses (houses instead have whimsical names like Bluebird Cottage and Bumblebee Manor, and the nearby crossroads are the closest you’ll come to directional coordinates.)
Locals love talking about how Clint Eastwood was once, fairly recently, the mayor here, though they say his political maneuvering was mostly to sidestep city council bureaucracy that had been holding up certain licensure approvals of the restaurants he owns in town. But Eastwood’s presence gives an idea of the kind of place we’re talking about, a place where big-money power players come to escape into a world of charm and romance.
The city is bordered to the west by rugged coastline and soft beach, though there are no houses on the beach, and even ocean views are limited, making it less of a “beach vacation” and more of a romantic getaway. L’Auberge Carmel is the ideal place to stay, an intimate boutique property of just 20 rooms, reminiscent of a French farmhouse you’d find tucked away in the vineyards of Burgundy. There’s a Forbes five-star restaurant in the lobby, a small dining room called Aubergine with just 12 tables, which also serves a complimentary breakfast for guests. The rooms themselves are handsomely dressed in masculine earth tones, with courtyard and garden views, quaint touches like delivered homemade cookies, and upscale amenities such as heated bathroom floors. L’Auberge is just a few minutes walk from Ocean Avenue shopping and restaurants and the nearby beach. The La Playa Carmel is another great choice, a bit bigger at 75 rooms, some with the slightest sliver of a Pacific view. The property is a bit more contemporary but every bit as comfortable. The backyard pool is lovely for hot summer days when you’d rather lounge poolside than stroll to the beach.
About two hours’ drive north of Carmel along the 14-mile stretch of coastline is Sonoma Valley, and the verdant, vineyard-softened back roads of a darling little town called Healdsburg, a former farming village that once supplied the entire area with prunes (though these days the prune crops have been replaced with Pinot grapes). As recently as 15 years ago, there wasn’t much to speak of around these parts aside from a couple of chain restaurants, but then the Hotel Healdsburg opened in 2001 and chef Charlie Palmer came to town with a certain big-city swagger; soon two Michelin stars followed, transforming this one-horse town into a two-Tesla vacation haven, just a short drive to Alexander and Dry Creek Valley (without the tourist crowds of Napa and Sonoma). It’s a town of charming inns, farm-fresh food, boutique shops, and plenty of wineries.
The town itself centers on a main square, while all around it are restaurants, bookstores, artisan crafts makers, boutique shops, and hotels. The Hotel Les Mars is the best hotel around, a Relais & Chateaux French maison-style hotel with ornate rooms full of dark-wood armoires, antiques, 17th-century art, and shelves of tattered books. In the lobby of the hotel is the new restaurant, Chalkboard, a hip, rustic-chic dining room that was once the Michelin-starred Cyprus. And while it’s not up to those same haute standards, this more relaxed space does some terrific spins on homestyle comfort cooking. The Hotel Les Mars is in the town center, close to shopping and restaurants and directly adjacent to the Saturday morning farmers’ market.
Next door from the Hotel Les Mars is SHED, a progressive, sunlight-flooded, farm-to-table lunch spot, market, and green space. The owners are lifelong farmers who’ve blended their philosophy on fresh produce with the simple virtues of California cooking. SHED has its own garden and also sources fruits and vegetables from the farmers’ market across the street. It’s among the most innovative and artful lunch counters in the state.
To the east of Sonoma, across the Alexander Valley, is the more famous, more affluent, Napa Valley, with idyllic small towns like Calistoga and foodie mecca Yountville (a.k.a., home of the French Laundry). The jewel of them all, St. Helena, is the heart and soul of Napa Valley, where charm and sophistication come together to create the perfect American small town (with some of the best food and wine in the country). There are a few five-star options for accommodations here, the best being the Meadowood Resort, a property known more for its restaurant’s three Michelin stars (The Restaurant at Meadowood), but the resort itself is a treasure. You’ll arrive to champagne and fresh-baked goods, and an escort to take you anywhere on the premises in a new Mercedes. There’s croquet, tennis, swimming, plenty of hiking trails, and the best-rated restaurant in the United States. The rooms are small farmhouse suites with complimentary bottles of wine, cozy beds and fireplaces, and a staff ready to attend to your every whim.
The Riviera-styled Auberge du Soleil is one of the valley’s premier properties, with the best view in town, looking towards plush hills, barn-red farmhouses, and the purple and pink of dusk. The property has performed several gay weddings on premises and remains the quintessential wine country getaway for gay couples. The sun-drenched rooms are spacious, with huge soaking tubs, a free snack and beverage bar, and gorgeous views.
For lunch, Archetype in downtown St. Helena has won several design awards for its French-country interior, but the food is no slouch here. Fresh fish, farm-to-table produce, and creative sandwiches make for one of the best lunches in the Napa Valley.
After three full days of farm-fresh food and local wine, vista views and 300-thread count sheets, I was beginning to get used to this, and that scared me a bit. Don’t worry, I told myself. Soon enough, you’ll be back to your usual ways, living out of a backpack, eating food off of sticks, and waiting your turn for the community shower. But for now, try to enjoy the moment. And so I did.