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by Erika Lenkert



The Perfect Wine Country Itinerary


Long before I lived in Napa Valley, when I first started writing travel guides to the area, research was tough work. Really. Most people think being a travel writer is a dream job where you get paid to enjoy for free the things that everyone else spends their hard-earned money and vacation time pursuing. In some ways, that is true. But when I headed to Napa to find out what's new since my last visit I always had to cram a month's worth of eating, drinking, and exploring into one week. In this case, too much of a good thing was just that. I raced from one winery to the next, throwing back sips faster than you can say, "Bottom's up!", and ate as though I wouldn't see food again for at least a year. By the last day I'd invariably climb into my hotel bed at 6pm, waiting for the morning when I could leave, put the food and wine hangovers behind me, and go directly to a gym. It was a hard way to learn the secrets of mastering wine country travel, but my blunder is your benefit. Should you plan a venture to these parts, follow my advice and you're in for a perfectly paced luxury vacation.

Pick a hotel based on your interests.
There are three elements that should determine where you want to stay. First is location: Driving the length of Napa Valley can take from 25 minutes to one hour, depending on traffic. If you know you want to spend most of your time at the northern edge in Calistoga or at its southern start in downtown Napa, booking a room in the vicinity will save you from burning precious time on transportation. Then there's price and availability: There's no need to spend $250 or more per night on a hotel if you want to do nothing more than sleep there. Conversely, if you want to linger in lush gardens, a country patio, or a plush room, you probably want to reserve something a little fancier than a motel. Regardless, Napa hotels and B&Bs are relatively expensive and sell out fast, so if you research and book early you're most likely to get what you want. (A midweek stay will get you better prices, too.)

Identify in advance the kinds of wineries you want to visit.
With around 300 wineries in the vicinity, Napa Valley has every type of experience you could wish for: romantic or scenic surroundings, an educational tour and tasting, a laid-back or formal program, specific varietals or brands, big buttery Chardonnays, or blockbuster Cabernets are just a few attributes that could whet your wine-tasting whistle. You could easily drive around and pull into tasting destinations that look appealing from the road. However, you'll get more bang for your winery buck if you narrow the options by creating criteria, finding wineries that will deliver the dream, and designing an itinerary that covers the most ground in the least amount of time. To narrow your options, read up on wineries or call any hotel's concierge or the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau (1310 Napa Town Center, Napa, 707-226-7459) for suggestions. Then create a list of the wineries you plan to visit and don't forget to make appointments for any of your selections that require one.

Visit no more than four wineries in a day.
You'll be surprised how quickly the day passes as you sit, swirl, sniff, and sip. In order to keep a relaxed pace and avoid the desire to call it a day by sundown, keep your itinerary loose and expect to visit between three and four wineries a day.

Book only one big restaurant meal per day.
Even if you're a foodie you're bound to experience burn out if you feast for every lunch and dinner. Instead, consider one major restaurant excursion and one picnic lunch or dinner each day. You won't be missing out: This region's gourmet delis offer delicacies that make for truly memorable dining, especially when enjoyed at a picnic table or in front of a roaring fire in your hotel room. If you absolutely must have two blowout restaurant meals each day, consider an early lunch and a late dinner, but be warned: wineries close around 5pm and lolling at your hotel for a few hours after a day of wine sipping can easily halt your momentum for the night.

Get some exercise.
One way to keep your energy up while you eat and drink yourself silly is to get a little exercise, wine country style. The region has fantastic hiking, golf, bike riding, horseback riding, and even good old fashion gyms. Indulge a little activity each day and you may even find the indulgent Napa Valley life almost moderate.