Traveling Solo in California’s Romantic Napa Valley - Paul Ukpabio's Blog


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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Traveling Solo in California’s Romantic Napa Valley

Story by Kristen

“Oh you’ll just love Napa. It’s beautiful. Romantic. Is someone meeting you there?”

Trapped beneath the weight of her gaze I stood silent, amazed at how a simple inflection could lend whole new meanings to the word. Someone. As in the word before special. As in the euphemism for boyfriend. As in partner. Lover. Fiancé. Future live-in sperm donor.

Pretending not to hear, I glanced around at
the Andrea Stella pieces hanging on the walls. Their gold-leaf accents glinted under the glow of the gallery lights – a distinctive trademark of my favorite living artist. I had arrived in San Francisco earlier that morning where I threw on a sweater to combat the chill in the air before picking up my rental car for the two hour coastal drive down to Carmel-by-the-Sea. A former artists’ colony I’ve been coming to every August for the past fours years.

After checking into the hotel, familiar habit had me grabbing a to-go coffee from the Carmel valley coffee co and crossing one of the town’s many pedestrian walkways leading the way to my favorite independent art gallery, Tamara G’s. That’s where I sat now, dodging the saleslady’s question as she finalized the purchase of my first collector’s art piece. The only thing keeping me from running out the door was her possession of my credit card.

“Um…Ms. Sarra?”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?,” I replied before mentally kicking myself for not employing a more evasive tactic.
“Are you meeting someone in Napa?”
There it was again. That singsongy inflection on what used to be a completely ambivalent word. This time I battled a smirk as one smart-ass response after the other fought for external release.
Oh yes! My boyfriend owes me a romantic getaway since he hasn’t been able to get away from his wife in like, for. ev. errrrr.
Oh yes! The retirement home is finally letting my Marty out for an afternoon. Which reminds me – where’s the nearest pharmacy? I need to pick up a certain blue pill. 
Oh yes! I just have to swing by the prison to sign the release forms first.

If I were home in Manhattan I would have unleashed my word vomit like last night’s Jaiger shots; but, well, she was sweet as the name of the town. The kind of sweet that would cause lightening to strike down if one ounce of rude sarcasm was directed her way. So I sputtered out the truth.
“I’m actually single. I’m going alone.”
To her credit the flinch was nearly imperceptible. I would have missed it entirely had my chronic singleness (along with my inclination to travel alone) not been invoking this reaction for years. Mostly out of my great-grand baby addicted grandmother. Though her response is usually less imperceptible and more outspoken in nature. I learned long ago the best defense is no defense at all.
So I once again stood silent, smiling as she handed back my credit card.
“That’s…nice. Have a good time, um, by yourself in Napa.”

Napa ValleySolo Travel in Napa Valley

A couple days later I climbed into my car and headed north, watching in the rearview as Carmel-by-the-Sea vanished beneath the encroaching fog. No matter how far right I twisted the dial, the radio’s volume never was loud enough to drown out the doubts the saleslady’s flinch had inspired.

What the hell was I thinking booking a trip to the place where romance novels go to live happily ever after?
What am I going to DO there by myself?
What sexy, juicy story starts with “and one time in Napa”?
Seriously KS, you couldn’t have planned a solo trip to San Francisco or LA?
This apprehension was foreign to me. Especially considering 99% of my trips are undertaken solo. If I can traipse around Guatamala on my own, then certainly I should be able to pass through California’s wine country with flying colors. Yet there’s a difference between these two kinds of solo excursions. In Guatemala there are other backpackers to lean on. Groups of like-minded (if temporary) crutches to get each other through their respective journeys. It’s socially acceptable to backpack alone through Guatemala and stay in hostels or snacking on street food while queuing for the chicken bus that takes you along the quintessential Central American backpackers’ trail.
But Napa Valley? Well, it’s not exactly known as a backpacker’s paradise. It can be expensive, fellow solo travelers are practically nonexistent, and communal hostels are nowhere in sight. In all my reading, I never once came across an article about traveling alone through this famed wine region. What I did read drew me to the assumption that it’s a place for visiting octogenarians, mother and daughter sets, scores of gooey-eyed couples, girlfriends on long weekend getaways, and the occasional much-too-classy-and-tame-for-my-taste bachelorette party.
But the one constant when it comes to assumptions is their unreliability. As it would turnout,  traveling alone through Napa Valley was nothing like I imagined. While the tourist scene matched my expectations, it was the local side, with their social exuberance and open nature,  that far exceeded them. All my preconceived notions were thrown into the vineyards lying outside my window as Napa unexpectedly became one of my favorite solo travel destinations.
Below is my guide on how you too can make the most of your solo trip to California’s famed wine region.

Base Yourself in the Northern Town of Calistoga

Napa Valley is a conglomeration of towns (ok so mostly just a smattering of businesses along one or two main roads – but towns nonetheless) separated by fertile, rolling hills. Something I didn’t really know until about 2 weeks prior to boarding my flight to California.
Ok, so obviously I knew there were hills and I’ve visited enough vineyards to know the land had to be somewhat fertilitous in order to produce the grapes needed to give birth to wine; but I just figured Napa was the sole city and the Valley was its suburbs. A quick Google search proved me wrong. As if narrowing down and selecting a hotel wasn’t challenging enough for someone whose extensive allergies include ‘decision making’, I now had to choose between entire towns.

According to the internet gods the gist of my choices came down to 4 main places:
  • Napa – home of the wine train and scenic river views
  • Yountville – foodie central
  • St. Helena – a charmingly historic haven
  • Calistoga – springs and spas, spas and springs
I chose Calistoga for three reasons that ironically had nothing to do with springs or spas:
1.) It yielded the fewest results on Google – and who doesn’t love an underdog?
2.) It was the northernmost of the above towns – meaning the likelihood of day trippers from San Francisco was slimmer than say Napa or Yountville. If there’s one thing I hate more than the low-carb diet I’m currently on, it’s tour buses.
3.) It’s at the base of a mountain – mountainous terrain and scenery is kind of my jam. Throw in descriptors like remote, laid-back, and a place to feel away from it all and you’ve got my vote.
Putting pressure on the gas, I dangerously overtook the curves that wound through the mountains towards Calistoga; passing petrified forests, sprawling vineyards, and posted signs that led the way to various scenic overlooks. I turned off onto the town’s main street and was flanked on both sides with homey wine tasting rooms, art galleries, boutique shops, and vintage spas  – all adorned with charming storefronts. Sliding into the only available parking spot, I smiled the smug smile of a traveler who knew they’d made the right decision.
Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery

Find Accommodation Above a Bar

Said parking space was in the heart of downtown (downtown being one street long), just a minute’s stroll from where I was staying. Sourcing accommodation for one in Napa proved to be tricky. I found entire houses for rent amidst sprawling vineyards, plush resorts catering to the spa set, one bedroom cottages equipped with personal bikes and outdoor terraces, and of course there’s always a Best Western.
While I did almost give in to the siren’s call beckoning me to the one bedroom cottages. I just couldn’t justify the $350 per night price tag knowing I’d only be using the room for sleep. As for the others – the vineyard stays were too far from where I wanted to be, I’m not really a “spa resort” person (though this would change later on in the trip), and I wanted something with more character than a Best Western.
So I ended up above a bar at the Calistoga Inn and Brewery.
Part inn, part restaurant, and part brewery (the name really says it all) the Calistoga Inn offers 17 rooms above its bustling restaurant and is perfect for solo travelers. Each room is light, airy, and comfortable. The only downside is that there are shared bathrooms. They’re impeccably clean though and I did not have any run-ins with other guests when using them.
The inn’s central location is in walking distance to restaurants, tasting rooms, bars, bike rental shops, and spas. If you’re a massive wine taster like me, it means you don’t have to worry about getting behind the wheel after too many flights. Popular vineyards, hiking trails, and other area attractions are only a short drive away.
Rooms run around $125 per night. Seems expensive for one but it’s the cheapest option in town (I did go in August so you may be able to find cheaper alternatives in the offseason) and this is a solo travelers’ guide – not a budget guide! Napa can be difficult to visit for the frugal traveler.
Things to do in Calistoga in Napa Valley, California - Visit the Tank Garage Tasting Room

Visit Your Not-So-Typical Vineyards and Tasting Rooms

After plopping my overnight bag on the bed, I glanced at the clock and questioned if it was politically correct to go out drinking before 11am. Then I remembered I was in wine country and I never cared for political correctness in the first place so I went downstairs to the lobby and picked up a flyer promoting tours at Castello di Amorosa.
The pamphlet was beautiful. A castle reminiscent of a 13th century Tuscan estate sat enveloped by lush green vines and trees. Various quotes from the press touted its exquisiteness while badges stamped with “best tour” and “best winery” rested in the corner.
Of course I chucked it in the bin.
Replica castles aren’t really my thing and I’m biased towards anything labeled as “the best”. “The best” is often accompanied by overcrowding and less personal experiences. I wanted to meet locals. To linger and to chat. I didn’t need amazing wine, just something decent in a cozy, intimate atmosphere. I had a gut feeling Castello di Amorosa wouldn’t give me what I was looking for at that moment in time (though later that night I would meet two people who worked there and they almost managed to convince me to visit. Almost.).
Ignoring the rest of the pamphlets stacked in the inn’s display case, I opened Google Maps on my phone, searched nearby, and selected the first vineyard to pop up – Brian Arden Wines.
Things to do in calistoga california - Brian Arden Wines
A scenic, 26 minute walk (7 mins by bike and even less by car) from the inn, Brian Arden Wines is a small, family-run business that opened as recently as 2015; though the family has been making wine for years.
The only patron there, I sidled up to the open bar and looked out over the vineyards stretching for acres outside the tasting room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. I chatted with staff members Grace and Ezra as they poured me the first of many wine flights. Both were young and friendly and our small-town dwelling hearts connected as the conversation flowed. (Yes, I know I live in New York City but I spent 24 years of my life on a 3-mile peninsula so I’ve earned the right to refer to myself as a dweller of small towns).
They made me privy to all the vineyard drama – the biggest piece of gossip being how the winery dog, Caleigh, can’t go outside until the snake that’s been hanging around is caught and deemed not poisonous. I listened while sipping on the Kay Rose – a non-profit sparkling rose in which proceeds are donated to charity in memory of the winemaker’s mother – when said winemaker himself showed up. Joining the conversation, he discussed the wine, the vineyard, and the town of Calistoga itself.
Feeling at home, I toyed with the idea of loitering at Brian Arden the rest of the day. In part because Caleigh sat curled atop my foot looking not the least bit inclined to leave anytime soon. But soon another patron walked in to remind me this was not my friend’s house and I had limited time in Calistoga. Standing up to gather my things, I let Ezra and Grace to plan the rest of my day.
Which basically involved wine, wine, and more wine.

Recommended Wineries via Calistoga Locals

Tank Garage Wining– when I asked where I should head next, Ezra and Grace enthusiastically touted the Tank. Their biggest selling point? The entertaining staff. The Tank is uniquely set inside an old gas station with vintage 1930’s era gas pumps sitting outside. An all-window garage door floods the brick-walled interior with light and on cool days, the  doors are lifted to provide a semi-al fresco atmosphere. Their wines are just as unique as the building itself. They produce one-of-a-kind blends, meaning once they pour the last drop of a  certain label, it’s never to be made again. I can say hands down this is the coolest tasting room I’ve ever been to.
Lava Vine – lively. An unusual term used to describe a winery but its the best way to characterize Lava Vine. It was just pure entertainment. The staff were boisterous and friendly. I was swept up in interesting conversation before I even sat down. There was not one ounce of the pretentiousness my friends warned me I might find in Napa. The interior has a lot of character with its rustic decor and mini-stage ready for live music at any given time. I could have stayed all day and probably would have had I not made a date with a mud bath.
The classic volcanic mud bath at Indian Springs in Calistoga CaliforniaPhoto courtesy of the lovely Indian spring resorts

Relax Body Deep (and Naked) in Volcanic Mud

Seated on a stool at Lava Vine I was reminiscing about New York City with a man on the opposite side of the bar. He had a history with the city and I eagerly listened as he told tales of the old New York. The rough around the edges New York. Not the cushy, doorman-highrise-apartment-neighborhood kind I’ve been basing myself in the past 6 years.
Fascinated and caught-up is his storytelling, I barely noticed him pour my 6th flight of wine. Well, my 6th flight at this particular tasting room. It was probably my 18th of the day, if not more because people love to show kindness to solo female travelers and I definitely had extra tastes of rare wines throughout the day. The clock on my iPhone (because would you really believe me if I said the dial on my watch in this day and age?) was approaching 4:15 in the afternoon and my appointment at a nearby spa was looming.
I was having fun and toiled with the idea of canceling. But the kind receptionist at the Indian Springs Resort had managed to squeeze me in for a mud bath at the last minute and a mud bath in Calistoga is the thing your supposed to do in the place your supposed to do it  So I swapped business cards with the chap I sat chatting with and made tentative plans to meet up later. Then I headed to the Indian springs resorts.
Things to do in Calistoga California - take a mud bath at Indian Springs Resort
Full disclaimer – I’m NOT a spa person.
It’s not that I’m incapable of relaxing. Trust me I can sit in front of Netflix for days on end without ever stepping foot outside my apartment (thank you food delivery apps). I’m not a spa person for the simple fact that I just don’t go to spas. I have nothing against them. Truth is I rarely go for no real explanation at all except that I just don’t (yes there are things even a writer can’t explain).
However avoiding spas is hard to do in Calistoga. The town is built on natural springs and we all know natural springs translates to best spa treatments ever. When it comes to Calistoga, the mud bath is the creme de la creme of healing remedies due to the town’s proximity to dormant volcanoes. It’s one of the few regions in the world to use local volcanic ash in their unique bath offerings. I chose to try my first mud bath at Indian springs resort, because they use 100% pure volcanic ash mined directly onsite at their property. A mud bath just can’t get better than that.
Being slightly tipsy from wine tasting all afternoon worked in my advantage as I entered the mudroom and was asked to drop the Indian Springs robe I was sporting. One quick roll of my shoulders later there I was standing over an attendant – stark naked – and mentally calculating back to the last time I had shaved, well…anything.
Stepping into the thick sludge I slid down to a horizontal position. The mud slowly covering every spare inch of flesh until my head was the only extremity left untouched. The attendant leaned over me, “Want me to cover you hands?”
“Um, is that how you’re supposed to do it?”
Her answer was to pour mud over my hands.
It took all of 3 minutes to see why she had asked in the first place. With my whole body covered by a weighted substance, it felt as if I were buried alive. Not in a panicky, claustrophobic way. More in a peaceful I-could-drift-off-to-sleep-and-arise-from-my-cocoon-in-a-metaphoric-rebirth kind of way. Though that lulling feeling didn’t stop me from lifting my hands to make sure I wasn’t cemented in like concrete.
Emerging 10 minutes later, I self-conciously stumbled to the nearby shower stall. Black rivulets ran down my body, swirling down into the drain below as I cleansed my body of the volcanic substance. Once again in my birthday suit, I made my way to the next room to soak in the natural mineral waters flowing from the thermal springs below. Capping off the treatment was a visit to the steam room and another cocoon-like wrapping – this time in soft blankets. The bathing ritual combined with the lingering effects of Napa Valley’s wine soon had me drifting off.
Maybe I am a spa person after all being my last thought before giving into a deep slumber.

Go Out on a Monday and End the Night at a Dive Bar

Rejuvenated from my glorious mud bath, I strolled down Lincoln Ave. The restaurants and bars lining Calistoga’s main street had their doors thrown wide in an open invitation. Fiddling with the business card from the man I met at Lava Vine, I decided it was too early to head to Evangeline– the French bistro he recommended. We had agreed I’d text him if I wound up going there. Instead, I impulsively ducked into Jonnys for a glass of local wine.
Taking a seat at the bar, I decided to have one drink before heading on to Evangeline.
Well, best laid plans and all that. Little did I know as I took my first sip of the bartender-recommended Pinot Noir that I’d remain at Johnny’s for the next 3 hours. I stumbled upon a new discovery here – going out on a Monday is the best way to meet locals. Tourists were nil (as they pretty much had been throughout my trip thus far) as residents filtered in and out, grabbing an afterwork beer or wine. If there’s one thing small town locals can’t resist, it’s their curiosity over the new face in town.
Everyone knew each other and one after the other they peppered me with questions as I did the same in return. Most had grown up around the vineyards in Napa Valley so naturally talk of wine was inevitable.
We also swapped tales (as well as shared plates of food) of who has the weirdest local festival as I shared my own growing-up-in-a-small-town memories. Despite their best efforts, there was no way their tractor parade beat my hometown’s Tangbanger Festival where the color orange takes centerstage in the way of alcoholic slushies, goldfish swallowing contests, and the famed goldfish races where we shoot live goldfish with water guns to advance them through to the end of an obstacle course.
The night ended where apparently all night’s end in Calistoga –Susies.
Ask any local “Where should I go tonight for a few drinks?” and the answer is always a resounding, “Susie’s” – an unpretentious, brick-walled dive bar in Napa Valley (never thought I’d use the words Napa and dive bar in the same sentence) that’ll make you feel like you’re out in Brooklyn, NY. Not in the middle of California’s wine country.

Recommended Restaurants via Calistoga Locals

My unintentional detour at Johnny’s meant I didn’t get to try many places that were recommended to me. I like to give you guys as much local knowledge about a destination as possible so the below were all put forth by local residents I met.
Evangeline– An upscale French bistro. Not only do they serve French classics but they also have French Creole cuisine on their menu. Being as I grew up only 2 hours from New Orleans and constantly crave those good creole flavors, I was slightly sad I never made it here!
Busters Original BBQ – specializing in authentic, southern smoked meats, Busters rolled off everyone’s tongue when asked where to go for a hearty meal.
Pacifico Restaurante – I was actually recommended here for happy hour (or rather recommended to see bartender Arturo – I’m 88% sure that was his name) so I can’t attest to the food. Unfortunately Arturo was off when I stopped in and I wound up going out for more wine tasting instead.

Last But Not Least – Play Outside

As I mentioned some 3300 words ago (yay on you for making it to the end of this epic) one of the reasons I chose to visit Calistoga is because it was at the base of a mountain. I’m outdoorsy and knowing I’d have the option to do something other than immerse myself externally in mud (and internally with wine) was a huge plus. I awoke on my last day in Calistoga and headed out to see Mother Nature – sans camera – before the drive down to San Francisco to catch my red-eye flight back to the concrete jungle.

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