Don’t Miss Downtown Napa

It used to be that people would drive through Napa on their way to someplace else. Not any more. There are so many choices: great accommodations, fantastic restaurants, delicious wine tasting, a lively marketplace. I stayed for a few days with friends and here is what we found.

Napa’s River Front occupies prime real estate in town. After about a 60 minute drive from San Francisco, we checked into the historic Napa River Inn situated right on the River Walk. In the main house, this boutique hotel offers comfortable rooms in a grand style reminiscent of the 1800s. Some include canopied beds and fireplaces, and all have modern amenities. The Inn is within walking distance to most everything, including the Napa Wine Train where we headed for lunch.
The Wine Train is an easy way to experience the good life of the valley as you travel to St. Helena and back. Sip elegant wines and enjoy award-winning local cuisine in beautifully restored vintage rail cars. Watch the chefs at work as the train moves along. The leisurely ride gives you time to enjoy stunning scenery from the dome car or in the Wine Bar or as you stroll from one end of the energy efficient train to the other.

After a relaxing train ride, more pampering was in order, so we slipped into La Pelle Skin Spa. Located across from the Napa River Inn, La Pelle offers treatments to rejuvenate and restore. My luxurious massage was pure heaven.

Feeling renewed, we decided a moveable feast for dinner would be a terrific way to discover downtown. We started our culinary escapade at Uva Trattoria with a specialty cocktail, arancini and a Calabrese pizza – accompanied by live music. From there, it was on to Neela’s for contemporary Indian cuisine. Neela herself graciously served several favorites: Sev puri (potatoes, onions, chutneys with crisp pea flour noodles), Karari Bhindi (crunchy strips of okra) and Chicken Tikka (kabobs in a cilantro-green chili marinade). With room for a bit more, we walked to Azzurro’s to savor eggplant bruschetta, arugula salad and mushroom pizza. Afterwards, we mellowed out to some cool jazz at Silo’s (serving exclusively Napa wine and beer).

The next day, it was time to get serious about Napa Valley wine. With our Taste card in hand, 14 tasting rooms – all downtown and within walking distance – awaited with the initial taste set at only ten cents (amount of wine varies by winery). The rooms are inviting, the people friendly and we never had to worry about blood alcohol levels.

Some of the standouts include: Ceja’s Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon (both 2006); GustavoThrace’s Sierra Foothills Barbera and Suisun Valley Petite Sirah (both 2006) and their 2005 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mason Cellars’ 2005 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. At Wineries of Napa Valley, six wineries are represented, and we tried the 2006 R.A. Harrison Nobility (Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc), the 2007 Girard Artistry Red Bland (all Bordeaux varietals) and the 2007 Goosecross Napa Estate Cabernet.
A taste at Uncorked at Oxbow was our last stop. This unique spot carries both Ahnfeldt and Carducci wines. Our favorite was the 2005 Quid Pro Quo, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Exhausted, we checked into the next hotel – AVIA, Napa’s newest downtown luxury property. The contemporary rooms have the latest technology and upscale touches. I sunk into the stand-alone soaking tub (sitting right outside the bathroom’s sliding doors) and drifted off.

After eating our way through town the night before, dinner was an easy choice: We simply took the elevator down to AVIA Kitchen + Wine Bar. Small plates are made for sharing so we sampled Portobello fries, sea bream with an artichoke ravioli and seared rare ahi tuna. We sipped dessert – a NV Heitz Cellar Ink Grade Vineyard Port – then took the elevator home.

The Westin Verasa was our choice for our final stay. It is on the east side of town in Napa’s Oxbow District and overlooks the Napa River. Rooms at the resort have kitchenettes, spacious bathrooms and a Heavenly bed (Westin branded), which almost guarantees a dreamy sleep. We relaxed by the pool, played a round of bocce ball and chose the hotel’s casual BANK Café & Wine Bar for lunch, part of Chef Ken Frank’s culinary domain.
BANK offers mouthwatering dishes like Pajaro’s Shrimp Cocktail (slow poached shrimp over gazpacho sauce), Soy Glazed Pork Belly with Gingered Brussel Sprout Slaw, Daikon Sesame Salad with Radish Sprouts served with shrimp, golden caviar and crab, and sandwiches that change daily (crab cake with Asian mustard dressing the day we visited). With a Domaine Carneros 2005 Brut, we were set.
Just down the street from the hotel is the popular Oxbow Public Market. Similar to the Ferry Building Marketplace, experience great wines, delicious food and artisanal products. Use the Taste card at Oxbow Wine Merchant, stop by the Cheese Monger and check out the Venezuelan food at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen. Buy treats to go or eat in – either way, the marketplace is a foodie’s delight.

The next morning, we enjoyed a final Napa breakfast at Gillwoods Café. Our fun stay was coming to an end, but not before the Gillwoods Scramble with bacon, mushrooms, chives, cheese and a rich, foamy cappuchino. Napa is no longer a sleepy dot on the map. It’s a vibrant town with an array of exciting options. Make the drive and take advantage of wine country’s good life.