A couple drinks sparkling wine while looking at the view...

A couple drinks sparkling wine while looking at the view of the Napa Valley from the terrace of the Auberge du Soleil resort in Rutherford, Calif. (Jan. 25, 2012) Credit: AP

The Napa Valley is near the top of most California must-see lists, and rightfully so. The rolling hills planted with rows of grapevines and olive trees evoke the Mediterranean, and it's here that the particular California take on the good life finds perhaps its truest expression: organic fare prepared by top chefs and paired with local wines; spa treatments under sparkling blue skies; charming stores stocked with artisanal soaps, candles and jams.

But if you've never been before, it's hard to know where to begin with so many wineries, restaurants and inns to choose from. As far as when to go, there's a reason the climate is described as Mediterranean: hot -- sometimes scorching -- summers and wet winters are the norm. In September and early October, the grapes are being harvested, the weather is often picture-perfect, and the valley is packed with visitors. Whenever you choose to go, follow our first-timer's guide to get the lay of the land, then venture off the path we've beaten to make your own discoveries. 


Part of the appeal of Napa is its location, just a half-hour drive north from San Francisco. The main artery of the valley is Highway 29, along which you can find the principal towns: Napa to the south, then Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga at the northern end. Just a few miles east, the Silverado Trail, lined with wineries, is a less-trafficked, scenic alternative to 29. 


There are hundreds of wineries in the region and oenophiles will likely start with the wines they already know and love. Check the winery's website first, however, as many are not open to the public and others are by appointment only. Tours and tastings range from roughly $5 to $30, though you can spend more for private tours or special food-and-wine pairings. If you have limited time, consider visiting one of the historic wineries, such as Robert Mondavi, which produced its first wines in 1966. Exclusive cellar tastings, grape-to-table tours, and twilight tours are among the options (Highway 29, Oakville; 888-766-6328; tours and tastings $20 to $55). A stop at one of the smaller boutique wineries, such as Ancien, will give you a different perspective, with its owner, Ken Bernards, having entered the wine business in 1992. Specializing in pinot noir and pinot gris, the grapes used in Ancien wines are grown on several different small plots in the valley (Combsville AVA; 707-927-6594; ancienwines.com; visits by appointment only). The Hess Collection, west of Highway 29 between Napa and Yountville, is worth a detour as much for its outstanding art collection, with works by Robert Motherwell, Anselm Kiefer and others, as for the wines (4411 Redwood Rd.; 707-255-1144; hesscollection.com; tours and tasting from $10 to $75). The official Napa Valley tourism office has a comprehensive listing of wineries at legendarynapavalley.com, or head to the Napa Valley Welcome Center at 600 Main St. in Napa, filled with maps, guidebooks, interactive displays and knowledgeable volunteers (707-251-5895). 


It may have been the wines that first put Napa on the map, but the valley's food scene is now an attraction in its own right. Much of the credit goes to Thomas Keller, whose French Laundry in Yountville is one of the country's most acclaimed restaurants. Make reservations far in advance (call two months before the date you want to dine, when they begin accepting reservations) and be prepared to pay $270 for the prix fixe menu (6640 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-2380; frenchlaundry.com). Cheaper options from Keller include the bistro-style Bouchon (6534 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-8037; bouchonbistro.com; entrees, $18 to $42) and the casual, family-style Ad Hoc, famous for its fried chicken; the restaurant was recently renovated and reopened this week (6467 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-2487, adhocrestaurant.com; $48 for four-course prix fixe menu).

While Keller is Yountville's most famous chef, Richard Reddington has found a following at Redd, where he shows off the local bounty in preparations that reflect foreign influences from Japan to Italy (6480 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-2222; reddnapavalley.com; entrees, $27 to $31). His brand-new venture, Redd Wood, specializes in pizzas from a wood-burning oven and homemade pastas (6755 Washington St., Yountville; 707-299-5030; redd-wood.com; pastas, $14 to $16; pizzas, $10 to $16; entrees, $24 to $27).

Gott's Roadside started in St. Helena, but now has locations in Napa as well as at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. As the name implies, the restaurant specializes in good, comfort fare -- thick milkshakes, burgers and specials that venture into more daring territory, giving, for example, Thai twists to American classics (644 First St., Napa; 707-224-6900; gotts.com; burgers, $7 to $15). The Napa location has the added plus of being next door to the Oxbow Public Market, with a few casual restaurants, including an outpost of Hog Island Oysters, and gourmet shops (644 First St., Napa; oxbowpublicmarket.com; 707-226-6529). Also in Napa, "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto has brought his fusion of Japanese and Western cuisines to an eponymous restaurant at a riverfront location (610 Main St., Napa; 707-252-1600; morimotonapa.com; entrees, $29 to $45). 


If a cottage in the shadow of redwoods or overlooking rows of grapevines sounds appealing to you, you're not alone. The Napa Valley has some wonderful hotel options, but their popularity means that finding a bargain may require some shopping around.

Meadowood, outside St. Helena, is situated on 250 wooded acres, and it has its own three-star Michelin restaurant, The Restaurant at Meadowood, which will reopen on March 23 following an extensive renovation. In addition to typical activities such as tennis and swimming, the grounds have hiking trails and a croquet lawn at the center of the resort (900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena; 800-458-8080; meadowood.com; doubles from $475). Auberge du Soleil opened 30 years ago as a restaurant and then four years later added a small inn. Today, it is the Valley's most high-end option: All 50 rooms have private terraces and fireplaces and it, too, boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 707-963-1211; aubergedusoleil.com; doubles from $1,500).

In Calistoga, the four-bedroom Chateau de Vie stands out among bed-and-breakfast options with a pool next to rows of vines (3250 Hwy. 128, Calistoga; 877-558-2513; cdvnapavalley.com; doubles from $225). In the heart of Napa, 1801 First is a converted Queen Anne mansion with five bedrooms, two cottages and a carriage house. The multicourse breakfasts and the convenient downtown location make it an appealing base (1801 First St., Napa; 707-224-3739; 1801first.com; doubles from $295). 


While food and wine may first come to mind when thinking of Napa, a visit there need not be simply about calorie-packed indulgence. In 2004, the Clif Family Winery opened. The name may be more familiar in the context of energy bars. In 2011, the founders of Clif Bars and Clif Wines established Velo Vino in St. Helena -- a marriage of their two passions. This shop can set you up with some wheels through the Calistoga Bike Shop and then send you on your way with custom routes taking in highlights of the valley -- and they'll provide a Clif bar for the journey (709 Main St., St. Helena; 707-968-0625; bike rentals from $35 a day). The Land Trust of Napa County makes some areas that are protected by the trust accessible to it members. For a $40 membership ($30 for seniors and students), you can help preserve the Napa Valley from overdevelopment while also being able to join a field trip on the trust's land or request access for your own private hike (707-252-3270; napalandtrust.org). 


Spas abound in the Napa Valley, especially in Calistoga, famous for its mud baths and natural springs. Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort was established in 1952 when a young chiropractor from San Francisco began offering mud baths for $3.50. Today a soak in the volcanic mud, followed by a facial, blanket wrap and hourlong massage will set you back $179. (1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707-942-4102; drwilkinson.com). The Spa Solage is a newer, sleeker option with a Solage Sampler that includes a mudbath, body scrub and massage for $275 on weekdays, $295 on weekends (755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga; 707-226-0825; solagecalistoga.com/spa). The Spa Villagio at the Vintage Estate in Napa provides 16 treatment rooms and five spa suites on grounds dotted with splashing fountains and outdoor fireplaces (6481 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-8877; 50-minute massages, $145). 


While there's no bad time to visit Napa, art lovers may want to schedule their trip to coincide with the monthlong Arts in April event, which highlights the collections of wineries with special visits, exhibitions and performances. Each week of the month focuses on a different section of the valley beginning with Calistoga in the north, home to Clos Pegase's collection of sculpture, and ending with Napa. More details on the festival, as well as maps and other information for planning a visit any time of the year, can be found at legendarynapavalley.com.

In the fall, the second annual Flavor! Napa Valley will run from Nov. 14 to 18, with a series of events celebrating the wineries, restaurants and artisanal food purveyors of the Valley at the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa (silveradoresort.com) and the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Tickets will go on sale at the beginning of June (flavornapavalley.com). 


READER PICK: Francis Ford Coppola winery 

We recently spent a beautiful summer day at the Francis Ford Coppola winery (in Geyesrville) in the heart of Napa Valley. As you walk past the glorious fountains marking the entrance, you realize this is not your average winery. Not only do you get to tour the winery, but you get to enjoy the most beautiful setting overlooking the Alexander Valley. There is also a restaurant and a swimming pool there. The best part was the movie gallery with some of the original props from the "Godfather" movies and other Coppola blockbusters. Who knows -- you might even run into the famous director on your visit. -- Richard Tellerman, West Islip


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