My Guide to Napa With Niños

There are few places that evoke romance more than Napa Valley. Spectacular scenery, romantic inns, excellent dining, and, of course, plenty of wine combine to create something nearing the ultimate couples retreat.

But, as I recently discovered, this viticultural wonderland doubles as an ideal escape for families, with plenty of kid-friendly attractions and eateries — as well as resorts that make the stay alone worth the trip.

Californians are lucky to have this verdant valley so close to home. But for those of us traveling from elsewhere, there’s one easy way to make the trip less of a schlep: Oakland International Airport. Smaller, easier to navigate and now served by JetBlue (my personal favorite airline for traveling with offspring), it’s also infinitely more convenient than SFO for heading north to wine country. Sure, that new Bay Bridge is pretty; its traffic isn’t.

Flights are always a hassle, but a hotel shouldn’t be. And though there’s seemingly no limit to dream-worthy accommodations in Napa Valley, many of them are strictly adults only — if not by official hotel rule than by general vibe. Solage Calistoga is the opposite.

The "Old Faithful Geyser of California" in Calistoga (Photograph by wallyg, Flickr)

The “Old Faithful Geyser of California” in Calistoga (Photograph by wallyg, Flickr)

The spacious rooms — which are actually separate cottages — are equipped for families, with DVD libraries full of children’s movies, complimentary bikes for cruising the property, and private patios that provide the perfect setting for a bottle of wine after the tykes have turned in for the day. And though the weather has turned chilly now, in the warmer months the family pool is stocked with toys and floaties, so kids can cannonball happily while couples sunbathe at the adults-only pool.

I was most impressed by the affordable kids menu at the property’s Solbar restaurant (Where else can mom and dad dine on Michelin-starred cuisine while kids eat delicious tacos for $10?), but my children’s favorite spot, the bocce ball court, which occupied them while we finished a good bottle of wine and dessert, quickly became a second runner up.

There are those who come to Napa simply to hang out at a place like Solage, but for me, resort life gets a bit dull. Luckily, Solage is located in funky Calistoga, where there are plenty of attractions in the neighborhood. Our first stop was a hike through the Petrified Forest, where massive redwoods were toppled and turned to stone by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago. The walk through the forest was easy enough for my three-year-old to manage and the interesting science facts along the way held my older daughter’s attention as well as ours.

Nearby is Old Faithful Geyser of California. Though it’s smaller than its Yellowstone counterpart, it’s still pretty fabulous, and there’s a small petting zoo as well to entertain kids. There are picnic tables, so bring snacks or lunch if you want to spend more time but can’t stand the wait between gushings.

Passengers aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train  (Photograph by jimg944, Flickr)

Passengers aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train (Photograph by jimg944, Flickr)

Even the wineries cater to families. Local friends rave about Sterling Vineyards, where an aerial tram carries visitors to the winery, kids are served juice and there are interactive screens that kids can manipulate to learn how grapes are gathered and pressed. Castello di Amorosa, a somewhat incongruous but totally fun reproduction of a 13th-century Tuscan castle, offers kids’ coloring books, “tastings” of grape juice and snacks.

Top of my list for our next visit is the Napa Valley Wine Train, a historic engine that hosts three-hour lunch or dinner tours through the valley with stops at various vineyards. Not only do they handle the driving for you, but they also host “Family Fun” nights where kids ride for free in their own area of the train (with a staff of babysitters, of course) while parents enjoy a relaxed dinner alone.

And then, there’s always the option of hiring a great sitter for the day. The highly recommended Grapevine Nannies sent us an adorable college senior who charmed my children within a minute of her arrival. My husband and I spent the day sipping at Quintessa (free tasting for Solage guests) and Outpost (stunning view from atop Howell Mountain) and splurging on lunch at Auberge du Soleil. It was a day everyone loved and proof that even on these family trips, there’s always a way to sneak in a bit of the romance that put Napa on the map.

New York-based travel writer Henley Vazquez has lived on three continents, but she’s happiest when she’s hitting the road with her husband and two kids. Follow her story on Twitter @HenleyVQ

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