When I tell people we went to Napa Valley for a family vacation this summer, people look at me in surprise and ask, “With the kids?” Yes, with the kids. We spent five glorious, sun-filled days in northern California with a 9-, 7- and 2-year-old in tow.
We enjoyed world-class wines, ate at fine restaurants, visited a geyser and picnicked our way through Napa Valley. Though we had to make some concessions for our napping toddler, there was plenty to do, and the whole family enjoyed it. Here’s how we did it.
Don’t spring any kind of trip on your kids. Get travel books and watch travel shows about the region you’re going to visit. We like the DK Eyewitness Guidebooks, like Top 10: California Wine Country. If you’re also going to San Francisco while in the area, get San Francisco and Northern California.
Anticipation is a key factor in having a happy trip. We love to watch our kids’ faces light up when what they read comes to life. For example, they were so excited to see bunches of grapes dangling heavily on vines when we visited Vincent Arroyo Winery.
Because the staff was so happy to see children interested in their craft, they gave us a private tour of the vineyard, explained the winemaking process and even took us into the barrel room where they siphoned port directly from a barrel.
Make your restaurant and wine-tasting reservations. Napa Valley gets busy, so it’s worth it to do some legwork before the trip and get your bookings in place — especially if you have young kids who may not be able to wait patiently. Napa Tourist Guide was invaluable.
Sign up for a Priority Wine Pass, which gets you complimentary wine tastings or 2-for-1 tasting deals, wine club discounts, and priority service. This also helped plan out which vineyards we wanted to visit, like Hall Wines in Saint Helena, owned by Dallas-based Hall Financial Group founder Craig Hall and his wife, Kathryn.
We received a complimentary tasting and spent some time just perusing the grounds to admire the modern sculptures and artwork. The kids loved Little Bunny Foo Foo and the camel looking through the eye of the needle. Use coupon code “LOCALWALLY” (a money-saving tip from Napa Tourist Guide), and pay $45 for the card instead of $125.
Search coupon sites like Groupon or Living Social to see if they have discounted tickets for things to do in the area, like hot air ballooning. We got heavily discounted tickets to see Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga.
Learn the rules of bocce ball. Tons of vineyards have bocce onsite, as do many restaurants. We visited Solbar at Solage Calistoga, and what a pleasure it was to sit outside sampling sparkling wines while kids played. No one batted an eyelid when the kids, covered in sand, sat at the table to dine.
Where to stay
Calistoga sits on the northern tip of Napa Valley. At just 2.5 square miles, we chose to stay at this tiny, bohemian town known for its hot springs, natural beauty and laid-back feel. Finding hotel accommodation to fit a family of five can be a challenge.
We found a great deal through Jetsetter and stayed at Sunburst Calistoga. The hotel offered suites, a geo-thermal heated pool and microwave facilities for warming up milk for baby. It’s a quaint, quiet property with midcentury modern touches, and downtown Calistoga is only a short walk away.
What to do
We split our days into segments, so there was time to be active and sightsee as well as picnic at wineries.
Old Faithful Geyser of California. Old Faithful, in Calistoga, lives up to its name, spouting out hot water every hour. There’s a small petting zoo with Tennessee fainting goats, geology museum, bocce, picnic tables and lots of room for kids to run around while waiting for the geyser to wake up. Because this is wine country, you can bring your own bottle. There are wine glasses and an opener at the front desk.
Petrified Forest. Also in Calistoga, the Petrified Forest is a treat for nature enthusiasts and science-loving kids, who can learn about the process of petrification and how these majestic redwoods turned into stone. It’s really quite mind-bending to touch wood that is 3 million years old only to find that it’s actually cold stone fossil.
Chateau Montelena Winery. This winery put Napa Valley Chardonnay on the map in 1976 a the historical Judgment of Paris wine competition. The chateau resembles an English Gothic castle gatehouse, and the beautiful grounds are worth a visit, especially for the beautiful lake with swans and ducks. Book ahead for a private vineyard tour.
Where to go for picnic supplies
For all your picnicking needs, you must go to Oakville Grocery. We bought a little of everything from this highly curated selection of products from farmers, artisans and purveyors in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. We gorged on olives, local cheeses, freshly made salmon, salads, spicy fried chicken and artisan bread.
For those heading up to a Sonoma winery to picnic, we recommend the Epicurean Connection. It’s right in the heart of Sonoma Plaza, with a gorgeous park and playground for the kids. As a bonus, the owners make their own cheese and wholesale only at Kendall Jackson winery and French Laundry.
We bought our picnic stash before visiting Larson Family Winery (free tasting with the Priority Wine pass), which is just 10 minutes away from Sonoma Plaza. Larson has picnic tables, ride-on toys for toddlers and bocce ball — but call ahead to book a table.
Thomas Keller’s Bouchon is another great place to stock up on French pastries, croissants and coffee for a brunch picnic. This is one way to try some of Keller’s world-renowned cuisine without having to book a table at the hard-to-get-into French Laundry.
Barolo in Calistoga at Mount View Hotel in downtown Calistoga features southern Italian food with a contemporary and seasonal flair. We couldn’t get enough of the homemade pastas, especially the lamb Bolognese, and the hand-spun pizzas.
In Yountville, Bistro Jeanty serves country French cuisine. We enjoyed escargot, braised pork shoulder, steak frites and duck with lentils. The service, like the food, was hearty and warm.
A version of this story originally was published on Itty Bitty Foodies.