55 miles N of San Francisco
The city of Napa serves as the commercial center of the Wine Country and the gateway to Napa Valley -- hence the high-speed freeway that whips you right past it and on to the "tourist" towns of St. Helena and Calistoga. However, if you veer off the highway, you'll be surprised to discover a small but burgeoning community of nearly 75,000 residents with the most "cosmopolitan" atmosphere in the county (though I use that term loosely) -- and some of the most affordable accommodations in the valley (Calistoga also has good deals). Still in the process of gentrification for the past decade, and deeply affected by the economic downturn, it continues to welcome new, and surprisingly fancy hotels, condos, and restaurants (as I mentioned previously, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and TV celebrity chef Tyler Florence opened restaurants here in late 2010), while the city center's small storefront spaces remain glaringly abandoned. Heading north on either Hwy. 29 or the Silverado Trail leads you to Napa's wineries and the more quintessential Wine Country atmosphere of vineyards and wide-open country views.
68 miles N of San Francisco
As tiny a town as it is, Yountville (pop. 3,085), is a serious power player in the world of food and wine. Why? Two words: Thomas Keller. Probably the nation's most revered chef has not one, but four dining destinations here -- and counting. But there's more to munch on than fabulous French-inspired food. Chef Michael Chiarello (who became famous decades ago as Tra Vigne's chef) has an Italian restaurant here, too, right alongside his NapaStyle home style and gift shop. You'll also find several other well-established culinary legends who have long given visitors reason to veer off Hwy. 29 to overindulge. Fortunately, the town also has lots of places to sleep off the food comas. Most are midlevel luxury resorts, which are subtly sprinkled along the thoroughfare, including the latest addition, Hotel Luca (6774 Washington St.; www.hotellucanapa.com; tel. 707/944-8080), a charming 20-room destination in downtown Yountville that conjures Tuscan decadence, complete with giant, opulently appointed rooms, a centerpiece courtyard with outdoor fireplace, outdoor pool, a polished restaurant, and basement spa that also delivers.
70 miles N of San Francisco
Driving farther north on Hwy. 29 brings you to Oakville, most easily recognized by Oakville Cross Road.
3 miles N of Oakville
If you so much as blink after Oakville, you're likely to overlook Rutherford, the next small town that borders on St. Helena. Each town in Napa Valley has its share of spectacular wineries, but you won't see most of them while driving along Hwy. 29.
73 miles N of San Francisco
Located 17 miles north of Napa on Hwy. 29, this former Seventh-day Adventist village maintains a pseudo-Old West feel while catering to upscale shoppers with deep pockets -- hence Vanderbilt and Company, purveyor of fine housewares, at 1429 Main St. (tel. 707/963-1010). St. Helena is a quiet, attractive little town, where you'll find a slew of beautiful old homes and first-rate restaurants, boutiques, and accommodations.
81 miles N of San Francisco
Calistoga, the last tourist town in Napa Valley, got its name from Sam Brannan, entrepreneur extraordinaire and California's first millionaire. After making a bundle supplying miners during the gold rush, he went on to take advantage of the natural geothermal springs at the north end of the valley by building a hotel and spa here in 1859. Flubbing up a speech, in which he compared this natural California wonder to New York State's Saratoga Springs resort town, he serendipitously coined the name "Calistoga," and it stuck. Today, this small, simple resort town, with fewer than 6,000 residents and an old-time main street (no building along the 6-block stretch is more than two stories high), is popular with city folk who come here to unwind. Calistoga is a great place to relax and indulge in mineral waters, mud baths, Jacuzzis, massages, and, of course, wine. The vibe is more casual -- and a little groovier -- than you find in neighboring towns to the south.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.