If you’re stressed out trying to brainstorm where you should go on your honeymoon….stop. Your honeymoon shouldn’t be stressful, it should be a relaxing getaway of post-wedding bliss where you can savor the fact that all the planning and craziness is over. It’s important to remember that it is not the last vacation you’ll ever take, nor will it (hopefully) be the best vacation you’ll ever take. That was the mindset I kept myself in when planning our honeymoon in August. The only non negotiable factor was that I was determined to go the week after the wedding. Nothing sounded more awful to me that having to go back to work that Monday, I didn’t care if we stayed at home all week but I was taking the week off! *stomps foot* Given that Cody and I were already so frazzled by all the money going to the wedding, spending even more on a lavish vacation would have just added unneeded stress. That excluded pretty much anywhere that required us to fly a far distance or stay in nice hotels for an extended period of time. Honestly, we’re pretty low key people anyway and were more excited at the idea of a low key road trip to several national parks until logistically we decided it wasn’t going to work. Eventually we landed on a honeymoon in Napa, neither of us had been so it would be a new adventure. Plus, we’re big wine geeks, I took the introductory sommelier exam back in the day, and the two of us spend many of our weekends wine tasting in the Willamette Valley, so it seemed perfect!
The plan formed into driving down from Portland, stopping to sight-see and spend a night near Humboldt Redwoods State Park before continuing on to Napa. Driving took the stress off even further; we wouldn’t have navigate an airport, pick up a rental car, or worry about overpacking. Seriously, why don’t we road trip more often? I even went completely against my usual self and barely planned anything to do during the week, except for a hot air balloon ride we received as a gift from our registry and two tastings gifted from a coworker. There was so much planning going on already, I wanted to leave the week up to wherever the wine took us!
In order to make this the most budget friendly week possible, I really wanted to use points to book our hotel to help mitigate some of the cost. As much as I wished we could have stayed in a fancy resort, this wasn’t the week. We picked a cute B&B in the actual city of Napa called the Arbor Guest House that allowed me to book through Chase using my Ultimate Rewards points, the total coming out to just $14 for 4 nights. Do you ever feel like you deserve a gold star for getting a deal like that? I sure do. The city of Napa is the furthest south along the St. Helena Highway, about 40 minutes from Calistoga in the north. It’s cute, but it’s not what you imagine when you think of wine country, and I wouldn’t stay in that area again.
Our Honeymoon in Napa Begins: Getting There!
The Monday after our wedding we started our drive bright and early, crossing the California border just around lunch time and stopping at a fantastic little oceanfront gem called the North Coast Ocean Sports Bar & Grill. It was chilly and foggy, but we stayed cozy in their glass walled outdoor patio, sipping beers and enjoying our sandwiches as we watched the waves roll in. My tuna melt was fantastic, but I could barely finish it. One thing you forget about is how small your appetite is when you’re driving all day. Sitting certainly does not burn calories!
Our journey continued onward to the Avenue of the Giants, 31 miles along old highway 101 that is absolutely worth the detour. We drove slowly through the forest, craning our necks to the treetops. You can pick up a guide highlighting worthy stops to make as you enter the park, but our favorite moments were spent just pulling off the road and walking amongst the trees. It’s awe inspiring to looks at these giants, knowing they’ve been alive longer than you. Besides the forested sections, this entire drive is kitschy. Dinky outposts and souvenir shops dot the highway every few miles.
Our final destination and home for the night was a few more miles south at the Benbow Historic Inn. This historic hotel dates back to the 1920’s and was so charming and comfortable. A decanter of cream sherry awaited us in our cozy room in the Historical Building, accessed not by a scannable keycard, but an actual heavy old key. Martinis and old fashioneds in the lobby bar, and dinner on the patio were just what we needed after a long day of driving. The Inn was undergoing construction while we were there so we did not get the full effect but it was a great place regardless and I would love to visit again.
Napa Valley Wineries- Where to Visit
After going to bed at 8:30 and getting a full 12 hours of sleep at the Benbow Inn, we headed south towards Napa. Our tasting journey began in Calistoga at Chateau Montelena, one of the most iconic Napa wineries after helping put California wine on the map at the 1976 Judgement of Paris. Watch Bottle Shock with the late Alan Rickman and Chris Pine for a fun take on the story.
The Chateau was beautiful, although the Chinese gardens installed by previous owners didn’t make sense with the rest of the landscaping. We were able to drop in to the tasting room as reservations are not required, and took home our first souvenir: a bottle of the 2014 Chardonnay.
We got our first full day of tasting started with a bang the next morning, departing from Chandon on a hot air balloon ride! This was definitely a bucket list item, and we were so excited to receive the package through our registry. The biggest drawback was having to be up really early, arriving at the winery at 5:30AM. Pastries and coffee were set out and we milled about with the other people before getting sorted into groups based on which balloon we’d be in.
Vans drove us out to a field where we could watch the balloons being inflated. What an amazing scene! The balloon baskets were so much bigger than I expected, ours had four quadrants holding 4 people each, plus a center section for the pilot.
Once up in the air, it’s so incredibly calm. You aren’t bouncing around, nor do you feel the wind. We just floated there serenely over the fields. I felt safe and snug the entire time, you don’t realize how warm you stay thanks to the flame heating the air in the balloon.
Back on the ground, a hot buffet breakfast and mimosas awaited us at Chandon. They definitely weren’t stingy with the bubbly, and were happy to provide “juice-free” mimosas as well *wink wink*. Post breakfast and full to the brim, our next stop was Silver Oak, named for its location halfway between Oakville and the Silverado trail. They had lots of fun gifts to peruse and a gorgeous tasting room, walk ins welcome. Afterwards, quickly searching a map for other nearby spots, we called ahead and were able to set up a seated tasting at Frog’s Leap within 20 minutes. Located in an old farmhouse, it was much smaller and less extravagant than other properties we’d seen along the road. However when you walk inside it is beautifully decorated, straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog, and I could have moved in right that second.
The tasting was set up on the covered porch, overlooking the gardens ripe with fresh fruits and veggies, flowers in every color, and rows of grapevines. In addition to four wines, you get a small assortment of bites including nuts, crackers and a white nectarine conserve that I just had to take home with me. Thankfully, it’s sold in the reception area. Our host encouraged us to stroll around the grounds, which Cody and I eagerly took advantage of, peeking into various barns and lounging in Adirondack chairs, glasses of wine in hand. We felt so welcome and I wish I could visit more often! Instead, we departed with our two souvenir bottles and my prized conserve, onward to Caymus for the final tasting of the day.
Four wineries in a day was a little overzealous, but we still somehow managed to roll ourselves out of bed post-afternoon nap for dinner in Calistoga at Sam’s Social Club. Everything was incredible, from the grilled octopus to the indulgent candy cap churros for dessert. I don’t think I’d ever been so full!
Fortunately there were only two wineries scheduled the next day, Far Niente and Inglenook. The property at Far Niente was gorgeous, but we didn’t get to see most of it since we were 30 minutes late to our reserved tasting because we had the time wrong. I felt so bad, but were able to meet up with the group as we sat down to the tasting paired with several cheeses. If you do get a chance to visit, they have a pretty cool old car collection visible in a structure off the parking lot.
Inglenook was by far one of the most impressive locations and amazing tastings we had over our entire honeymoon in Napa. Owned by the famous Francis and Eleanor Coppola, you must first check in at the small visitor center off the highway before being allowed access through the main gate. Driving down a long gravel picturesque driveway, you’re then greeted by rows of vines, impeccable grounds and an amazing chateau.
I’d suggest getting there early because there is so much to see on the first and second floors of the main lobby, and their boutique is a treasure trove! It’s almost like visiting a museum, you’ll enjoy reading about the history of the estate and filmography, and viewing lots of fun artifacts like old cameras and one of Francis Coppola’s Oscar’s from the Godfather series. Our tasting paired with cheese was located in the salon, the staff noticeably wearing their certified sommelier pins. In fact, Inglenook was the only winery where the tasting room staff proudly recognized the fact that they were certified sommeliers. Our guide was even studying to become one of the elite master sommeliers. We appreciated knowing how serious they were about wine!
Not eager to leave, we stopped by the cafe, picking up some additional glasses of our favorite wines from the tasting along with a baguette, a small wheel of Vermont Creamery cheese, and a cigar for Cody before resting at a table in the shade. Small sailboats are available on loan to sail around the fountain (good for kids and kids at heart), and word was that Francis would make an appearance occasionally, sitting at his favorite table in the corner, although we didn’t see him on our visit. Once again, although we were quite full from the day of tasting, we rolled ourselves out to dinner, this time at the Charter Oak in St. Helena. I could not recommend it enough, we dug in to several courses as part of their family style dinner, but I was not able to enjoy the meal as much as I wished because I felt so full from wine and cheese.
Friday, our final full day, was the least impressive as far as wineries go. We visited Del Dotto and Domaine Carneros, both of which I would happily skip if I were to visit again, along with Mondavi from a spur of the moment decision Thursday. We stopped at Mondavi because we had some time before our tasting at Inglenook and they didn’t require reservations. The tasting room was packed, and the staff distant. It felt much more commercial, and less personalized than some of our previous experiences. Del Dotto set themselves apart by leading the tour group through the caves and tasting wine directly from the barrel, which was admittedly pretty cool. Back in the main room, you’re brought much heartier snacks than any other winery; a spread of cheese & salami and several types of pizza. But towards the end of the tour, our guide’s banter started to feel a little rehearsed. We were turned off by how pushed we felt to buy wine from him, and he seemed clearly un-enthused when we only ventured to buy two bottles, not full cases. They either cater to a crowd with more to spend, or our guide worked on a stiff commission. It ruined the experience for both of us. Domaine Carneros was our attempt to taste some more sparkling after our visit to Chandon, and unfortunately Schramsberg was fully booked. If I thought Mondavi was packed, this place was crazy, a clear favorite for bachelorette parties as well. Neither of us liked the wines, and overall didn’t enjoy the experience. The one highlight? The Freemont Diner is super close and a perfect stop for an inexpensive casual dinner.
If there was one thing I took away from our honeymoon in Napa, it’s that Napa is like Vegas, for wine. Grand hotels & casinos are replaced with chateaus and vineyards. Big names and bigger tasting rooms are everywhere, each somehow more spectacular than the last. Driving down the main highway, you’ll catch glimpses of some of the most famous and notable wineries in the country.
Most wineries require that you book tastings in advance but there are plenty that don’t, and many others can be flexible if you’re visiting on a weekday. We booked most of our tastings day of, calling from the car on the way there, or up to a few days in advance for the more popular ones like the cave tasting at Del Dotto. Nearly every Napa guide I read mentioned that sharing tastings is the way to go to help alleviate the high costs, which add up quickly at $15 to $60 a person. We never felt looked down on for asking to share, and some wineries seemed to expect it. For those of you doing a self driving wine tour, you’ll want to share simply to cut back on how much you’re consuming!
Speaking of consuming, I don’t think either of us were prepared for how full we felt all week! Wine is not water, it has calories and when you have several tastings a day, it really adds up. One morning as we sat down to breakfast at the B&B we requested to be brought only one plate of food because we just couldn’t bear to eat a whole one ourselves. I’m not known for someone to turn down food, but I was pushed to the limit.
Now that we’ve driven through all the little towns, I’d highly recommend staying near Yountville or St. Helena. One thing to keep in mind, if you’re drawn to a property by the idea of a complementary wine & cheese happy hour they offer (who doesn’t like free things?), let me tell you that you’ll probably be so wined out from the entire day you won’t even participate. Cody and I enjoyed some of the cheese and crackers at our B&B one day, and I think we skipped it the rest of the time.
It was such a blast selecting and taking home our own personalized mixed case of wine, something we are looking forward to enjoying over the next few years. That’s one of my favorite things about wine, you can open a bottle and be transported back to the time you first tasted it. I’ll just close my eyes and pretend I’m back among the vines, sipping a glass of wine in the shade of my favorite estate.