Napa and Sonoma, for kids

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Know where to go to experience family-friendly California wine country

When most people think about getaways to California wine country, they think of romantic inns, quiet dinners, and – of course – glass after glass of local wine. Napa and Sonoma counties are good for those kinds of trips. But they’re also great for families.

 

My brood has been lucky enough to call Sonoma County home for the last seven years. In that time, we’ve uncovered all of the very best spots in the area for moms and dads looking to experience wine country with kids in tow.

 

Our favorite of the bunch: Francis Ford Coppola Winery, in Geyserville (which is in Sonoma). Yes, this place has a typical tasting room in which you can sample more than six different types of wine from the region. It also has a day-use swimming pool complete with lounge chairs, a full bar, and closet-sized cabanas (they’re called “cabines”) for changing in and out of swimsuits throughout the day.

 

The pool area also offers a full menu, as well as a kids menu with popular (at least in our family) options, such as grilled cheese, fries, and chicken fingers. There are even bocce courts, and a tepee with kids’ books that little ones can borrow while they visit.

 

No. 2 on our list of kid-friendly wine country destinations: the Safari West animal theme park, located northeast of downtown Santa Rosa (also in Sonoma). Here, aboard 12-seat, open-top 4×4 vehicles, visitors zip around the 400-acre park, oohing and aahing in amazement as they witness giraffes, oryx, rhinoceroses, zebras, and dozens of other animals roaming the hills of Northern California wine country.

All told, Safari West boasts more than 600 animals. The place also offers surprisingly nice accommodations that look out on the giraffe enclosure, as well as an on-site restaurant. There’s even a walkable area (with cheetahs!), in case your kids aren’t comfortable on the trucks.

Viewfinder Tip: Book dinner reservations well in advance, as eateries fill up quickly during fall harvest.

Because my wife and I are history buffs, we also love the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park in St. Helena (in Napa). The park, which is operated by the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District, is the site of a water-powered grist mill that was built in 1846. Historians have told us it once was the center of social activity in the Valley, as settlers gathered here to have their corn and wheat ground into meal or flour. Grinding still takes place today; on weekends throughout the summer, volunteers dressed in period costume conduct demonstrations and offer tours of the park. All participants get to take home a bag of flour. 

No mention of family-friendly wine country would be complete without at least a few recommendations for wineries that welcome wine-tasters with kids. Atop our list: Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford (also in Napa). Owners Michael and Stephanie Honig – who have three young kids – go out of their way to make visiting families comfortable, offering them a separate tasting area with games for the little ones.

 

On the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains, we also like Preston Vineyards & Winery, out at the western end of West Dry Creek Road. The experience here is totally low-key; the tasting room itself is in an old barn. What makes the place really kid-friendly is the farm stand that sells produce grown on the property, and the squadron of friendly vineyard cats. When we visit, the cats greet our daughters and play with them long enough for us to down at least two or three glasses of wine. We leave and everyone is happy; the best kind of family outing of all.

 

What kind of destination activities do you seek when traveling with kids?


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Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at WanderingPod.com, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for SeeAmerica.com (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit Whalehead.com.

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