Without visiting California’s Napa or Sonoma Valley, it is easy to assume the area is covered with clusters of purple and green grapes that lazily stretch out over meandering hills, with twisting wine trains and designated-driver-helmed minivans loping along in two-lane traffic jams aiming for the next winery. And the next one. And the next one.
Well, that is not entirely wrong. At first glance.
small wine-free step north or west to find hot springs, cooking classes,
medieval castles, Spanish missions and even zebras. While the summer overflows
with tourists, the fall and winter can be the best time to visit wine country,
especially if you want to snuggle into a hot mud bath or tour the torture
chamber of a medieval castle.
To get as
relaxed as your wine-drinking counterparts (while retaining full rights to
operate heavy machinery), head to Calistoga. The Old West-ish town sits on top
of a goldmine of mineral-rich hot springs, and folks have been visiting to
“take the waters” since the Gold Rush.
writers do not say these sorts of things lightly, so pay heed: one of my favourite
places on Earth is the Olympic-size hot springs-fed pool at Indian
Springs. A few years back, a paddling of rubber duckies invaded the pool
and was eventually assimilated. Beachy cottages and a croquet set surround the
famed mineral water-fed pool and spa, where one can hear the “oohs” and “aahs”
of stress floating away in volcanic mud baths and deep-tissue massages.
Castello di Amorosa is not your
everyday 121,000-sq-ft authentic recreation of an Italian medieval castle. But
not everyone grew up playing between the barrels of their Italian
great-grandfather's pre-Prohibition San Francisco winery. Developing a healthy
obsession with medieval Italian architecture, owner Dario Sattui and fourth-generation
vintner spent a good chunk of the ‘60s and ‘70s roaming Italy in a VW van to
snap photos of medieval castles and monasteries. A la William Randolph Hearst,
Sattui poured every cent and ounce of passion he had into this project, which,
to his luck, has been an incredible success.
workmen worked 11 years to individually carve each stone (in addition to the
8,000 tons of bricks imported from Europe), and Sattui used his encyclopaedic
knowledge of Italian medieval architecture to personally buy a medieval wishing
well, confessional and honest-to-torturous-goodness iron maiden. Hour-and-a-half
tours do end in wine tastings, but non-drinkers are welcome to either skip that
part or request the castle's non-alcoholic grape juice, made from their Moscato
Not that one.
surprisingly, the Culinary Institute of America decided to base their West
Coast campus (the main campus is in upstate New York) in the heart of Napa
Valley. Located near the border between St Helena and Calistoga, the stone
castle would not be out of place at Oxford (or as a stand-in for Hogwart's
School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). Most folks come here for the student-run
dinner (with an excellent accompanying wine list) but lesser-known are the
weekend classes. Every Saturday and
Sunday, the students run one-hour demonstration classes for $20 – where you
might learn how to make devilled eggs, pumpkin bisque or homemade eggnog – and
day-long baking and cooking courses (around $250).
think of California wine country, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
Water buffaloes? Cheetahs? Well, surely zebras.
Past St Helena towards Santa Rosa is Safari West, a miniature replica of an
African safari, complete with wide-open spaces with roaming animals. They call
themselves the Sonoma Serengeti and, with more than 400 African mammals and
birds, it is a fitting moniker. On a three-hour tour, you might find yourself
feeding bananas to giraffes while perched atop an open-topped safari that tours
past rhinos, gazelle, and flamingos, or walking through an aviary filled with
dozens of exotic birds. The preserve is more than 4,000 acres, so the animals
have some serious space to stretch their legs. Book a safari lunch before or
after your tour. You can also spend the night in luxury tents (bring ear
its official name is the Mission San Francisco Solano, what is known as the Sonoma
Mission holds the distinction of being California's northernmost and final
Spanish Mission. Completed in 1823, the Franciscan mission is now a small
museum anchoring the town square of downtown Sonoma. Thick adobe walls, a
mission garden, military barracks and artefacts from California's mission
period grace the walls.
Try Market in St Helena for a Napa Valley
take on American comfort food. Or, if you would prefer beer instead of wine
with your meal, check out the Silverado
Brewing Company. Known for casual sustainable and organic meals, the
115-year-old building also houses a working brewery.
The article 'California’s wine country without the wine' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.