Where to stay, spa, eat, and drink in the country’s premier wine region.
There’s nothing like spending a long, romantic weekend in California’s famed Napa Valley—but it does help if you and your lover adore fine wine, world-class dining, and gorgeous sunny days, for that’s what this breathtaking region thrives on.
As a longtime SoCal resident, I’ve spent some of the headiest moments of my life in that verdant valley, starting with the road trip up the California coast, my partner at the wheel of our Mustang GT convertible and the wind in our hair. It’s a bit of a haul—seven hours from Los Angeles—but when you’re in love and have plenty of snacks and good tunes, it’s a mostly gorgeous drive with the Pacific Ocean by your side for much of it. As a bonus, we get to carry lots of bottles home with us to share later.
Alternatively, you can fly into Oakland or San Francisco and rent a car. The 30-mile long, five-mile wide valley is a joy to maneuver, with its flat, straight valley-floor roads giving way to hilly byways that often lead to hidden gems. There is one caveat, of course. If you both plan to get blotto on wine-tasting, Uber and Lyft both service the valley, as do private limo companies, allowing you to booze it up with abandon. And even if you’ve flown in, every winery will ship your treasures home for you.
Personally, I’m a big believer in pacing when it comes to imbibing, the better to remember every sexy moment of the trip and not suffer the morning after. So while these five romantic things naturally include wine, there’s also plenty of non-alcoholic breaks to keep things balanced.
The Most Intimate Hotel
The Napa Valley teems with amorous places to stay, from the pretty Milliken Creek Inn in the city of Napa to Yountville’s Vintage Inn and Bardessono. But in my book, the ultimate destination for romance and privacy is Calistoga Ranch.
Part of the luxurious Auberge Resorts Collection of hotels, Calistoga Ranch is tucked away at the north end of the valley, near the town of (duh) Calistoga. The resort has only 50 “rooms,” which are more aptly described as private lodges, complete with indoor and outdoor spaces. Relax in the outdoor shower/bath, slip into a plush bathrobe and slippers, and lounge on your private deck, complete with fireplace and hot tub.
The ranch caters so completely to privacy that only guests of the resort can book spa treatments, restaurant reservations or an intimate dinner for two that is catered to your every desire, served in their wine cave, near the secluded lake or right in your lodge. The only downside is that you might never step outside the grounds.
The Newest Luxury Spa
In order to experience the new luxury spa at Meadowood Napa Valley, you’ll have to forgo Calistoga Ranch and stay at Meadowood, the incredible resort near St. Helena. That’s the elegant place that boasts a three-star-rated Michelin restaurant and that also serves as the country club for Napa’s elite; once, when I was staying there for a dreamy fall weekend, I noticed Robert Mondavi swimming laps in the pool.
That was back when Mondavi, one of the valley’s wine pioneers, was still alive; and when the spa was a small structure near that pool. Nowadays, with a completely new building tucked into the woods that are elemental to the feel of the resort, the Meadowood Spa caters to romance in a big way. Its couple’s treatment rooms have their own bathroom, lounging area, and plenty of extra time added in beyond the side-by-side treatments for privacy, complete with tasty tidbits and champagne on request. We tried the “From the Vines” treatment—3.5 hours of spa bliss centered on therapies using grape extracts for both our massages and facials. It was beyond heavenly.
The Best Wineries
Trying to choose the single most romantic winery to visit in Napa is impossible. There are so many incredible places off the beaten track (read: not jammed with other people) that also happen to be making some of the valley’s most renowned wines. But if I had to name two of the best, Chateau Montelena and Shafer Vineyards would be my picks.
You won’t need a reservation to visit Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, a gorgeous stone chateau built into a hillside in 1888. The English Gothic-styled winery today has a stunning lake surrounded by a Chinese garden and is a national historic landmark. Owned by the Barrett family, who began making wines there in 1972, Montelena is the home of the Chardonnay that shocked the world by winning the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, gaining Napa Valley international respect for the first time. Visit the winery without a reservation to taste its world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, old-vine Zinfandels, that classic Chardonnay, and other varietals; and take a romantic stroll in the charming garden, too.
Further south in the celebrated Stags Leap District on the Silverado Trail, you’ll find Shafer Vineyards, another of the family-owned wineries that made Napa famous in the 1970s and continues to lead the way today, delivering five consistently wonderful top-rated wines every year. Make a must-have reservation for one of the $55 tastings, held twice every weekday and limited to 10 people (we love the 2 p.m. 90-minute session, perfect after a leisurely lunch in a nearby restaurant). Drink in the spectacular vineyard valley views from their open-air tasting room as you entwine arms and toast to your mutual love of Shafer’s legendary Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Most Classic (But Still Relaxing) Restaurant
Napa Valley restaurants come and go, even some of the very best. But one of the most romantic places is still going strong. Terra, which made its mark almost 30 years ago with its eclectic Contemporary American cuisine with a Japanese bent, remains a memorable dining experience. Tucked into an old fieldstone building off the main drag in St. Helena since 1988, over the years chef-owners Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani have grabbed every major food award, from James Beard’s Best Chef California to regular Michelin-star honors.
The food is fantastic; the wine list is top-notch; the service legendary. But it is the special ambiance of Terra that makes it so romantic. Warm tile walls washed with soft lighting, hewn wooden beams, and uncrowded spacing between tables make each of the series of dining areas seem extra cozy. We love to order the day’s crudo selection and a bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine to begin, before putting in an order for the signature black cod in miso broth and the soy-sauce braised short rib.
The Most Idyllic Afternoon Itinerary
We’ve tried a lot of different romantic experiences together in the Napa Valley – hot-air balloon rides, couple’s cooking classes, music festivals and more – but our favorite way to jumble up fun and romance is to jump on a pair of bicycles and ride out into the vineyards around Calistoga. Starting at the Calistoga Bikeshop in the center of town, we pick up two rental bikes, helmets, insulated bike bags, and locks. (You can also try the company’s Cool Wine Tour, a self-guided tour that covers 8 to 20 miles and five wineries, including appointments and tasting fees.) Let them help you map out your route, pack your picnic into the saddlebags, and pedal off.
Your first stop is Tamber Bey Winery, having called ahead for a tasting reservation. Located at the Sundance Ranch, this unique winery is surrounded by a 16-stall barn filled with performance horses, so choose the tour that includes visits with the animals and tastes of the wine. When you get hungry, picnic next door at the Old Faithful Geyser of California Park. The geyser has been going off every 30 minutes or so (depending on the time of year) for centuries, in a bucolic setting just right for some wine, cheese, and charcuterie.
Those healing mineral waters that create that geyser are all over the area, which means your last stop—after dropping the bikes back at the shop and walking a block or so should be Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort, to take a shared mud-water-massage treatment in one of their private mudrooms for two. Soak first in Calistoga’s famous volcanic mud, then move on to the geothermal mineral waters burbling up from right below the spa, and end with a side-by-side massage.