“Look!” My friend, Bente, pointed directly below, forcing me to peer over the edge of our hot air balloon at another balloon beneath us. My knees buckled ever so slightly as I peeked over and then quickly stood straight up to look out at the horizon. A few minutes later she did it again. “Look!” This time she was pointing down at the beautiful vineyards below us. Again, my knees buckled just a bit and I quickly stood back up and focused on the horizon. Though her excitement was genuine, I finally caught on and stopped taking those quick looks over the side of our basket.
You see, I’m kind of afraid of heights. My friends, with whom I was visiting Napa, all wanted to take a ride to celebrate our 50th birthdays. They were the reason I found myself hovering over Napa Valley in a balloon, hoping not to be tomorrow’s news.
In addition to being a scaredy-cat in the air, I’m a lightweight on the ground when it comes to wine. So while most of the group was off visiting wineries, my adventuring better half and I made some discoveries of our own in the valley. Discovering, most importantly, that you don’t have to be a daytime wine drinker to enjoy wine country.
Hot air balloon
I know this is on a lot of people’s wish lists, but a hot air balloon ride was never on my radar. I was really just lukewarm about it—I could take it or leave it. But it was the peer pressure that got me floating above the vineyards. Once up in the air, however, I was mesmerized by the solitude and slow movement of the balloon. This was a nice change from my usual loud and fast(er) journeys by plane and helicopter.
“Bunny Foo Foo” at HALL Napa Valley
We booked our balloon ride in advance and departed from the Marriott Napa Valley Hotel & Spa. Although it is an expensive hour (just under US$200 for a ride), I had no regrets. Really? It was one of the highlights of my Napa weekend.
Wineries with art
At some wineries, it’s not just about the grapes. It’s also about the art. Mumm Napa, for example, has a beautiful Fine Art Photography Gallery that’s well worth a visit. The exhibits, such as Ansel Adams, change regularly.
When driving down Highway 29, you can’t miss HALL Napa Valley with Bunny Foo Foo—a much larger-than-life stainless steel rabbit that welcomes everyone at the winery entrance.
You can wander the grounds of this artsy winery and check out the outdoor installations (and plenty of places for sitting and relaxing). Other wineries known for their art include Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley and The Hess Collection.
Viewfinder Tip: Don’t make too many plans for your Napa trip. There’s so much to do that you’ll want to sink into the rhythm and just follow your gut.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Sure, it’s got “wine” in the name, but the Napa Valley Wine Train also offers food-focused excursions. You could take a lunch or dinner tour in their elevated Vista Dome car that provides the chance for a unique perspective of the countryside. The train follows an old rail line that was built in the 1860s along a 36-mile round-trip loop through beautiful vineyards.
Oxbow Public Market
This cute little market near downtown Napa is the perfect place for brunch, particularly on a sunny day when you can sit outside. Though it’s a relatively small building, it’s packed with specialty restaurants that feature coffee, booze, cupcakes, ice cream, and more. There’s plenty of free parking on the side streets so you can leave your car in one spot while you eat, and then shop at Oxbow or in the downtown area itself.
If your preference is to get a little exercise, the gentle rolling hills of Napa and Sonoma make them perfect for biking (or running, if that’s your thing). Though the daily rate will likely cost you more than a rental car, you can get a bike and gear through a number of bike-rental companies. Or you might consider bringing your own, checking it on your flight—which might end up costing you less than a rental—or packing it into your car if you’re driving.
Cheese, crackers, and fruit—just fine without wine
Go for a hike!
Though it’s no Pacific Northwest, there are numerous trails in the area. Because they are relatively easy, they’re great for both families and adults. It’ll get you out and about and working off some calories from all the great food you’ve consumed.
Take a cooking class
Napa has no shortage of chefs, cooking classes, and food tours. It’s no wonder since the West Coast Culinary Institute of America is located in nearby St. Helena! Take advantage of the opportunity to cook with some of the best-trained chefs in the country in a hands-on class, or have a chef cook for you. You’ve pretty much got your choice of options.
What are your favorite nonalcoholic things to do on vacation?