Among Northern Californians there is a long-running debate as to whether Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley boasts the better hideaways and superior wine. Luckily for the rest of us, the two regions are very close together — separated by a small mountain range, the Mayacamas — and can both be explored on a single trip.
From San Francisco airport, we drove 60 miles north to the hamlet of Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley. The village is closely associated with writer Jack London, who purchased a ranch here in 1905 and over the years expanded it across 1,400 acres of Sonoma Mountain. After the death of his wife, in 1955, the ranch was transformed into the Jack London State Historic Park in order to preserve the author’s memory.
In search of peace and nature, we had made a reservation at Gaige House + Ryokan. Much of the 23-room property features a traditional Japanese minimalist style with a neutral color palette. Towering bamboos, mature oaks, manicured rock gardens and miniature pagodas, set along the rushing Calabazas Creek, all reinforce the refined Zen ambiance. The 1890 main house, however, is a conventional Victorian structure that comprises a lobby area, plus a club lounge appointed with a woodburning fireplace, Asian objets d’art and coffee table books on Japanese design, meditation and forest bathing. Wine and cheese tastings are served here daily. On arrival, the staff were dealing with an extremely demanding guest. Throughout the process, they regularly apologized for the delay and offered us green tea and homemade matcha-flavored cookies. Eventually, we were ushered to a desk by the amiable receptionist for an efficient check-in.
Before being escorted to our room, we were taken on a tour of the softly lit dining area, a furnished deck overlooking the gardens and creek, a secluded pool and hot tub flanked by lanterns and chaise longues, and a meditation barn. We could not have been more pleased with our surroundings, but the best was yet to come.
Our Zen Garden Suite (one of nine) featured a wooden platform bed, a gas fireplace, rice paper screens concealing a wet bar, traditional yukata robes, zori slippers and a cast-iron tea ceremony set. An abundance of natural light, plus bamboo and rattan design accents (such as the Asian woven baskets lining the entry hallway), contributed to an atmosphere of serenity. Our room’s crowning glory was a huge polished granite tub, which dominated the bath and faced our private rock garden. (Rooms in the main house should be avoided, as they are smaller and can be noisy.)
The property serves breakfast in the dining room of the main house, with dishes such as banana pancakes, a spinach-and-goat-cheese omelet, and an artichoke quiche. There is no room service. For lunch and dinner, guests stroll to one of the highly rated restaurants in the center of Glen Ellen, a five-minute walk away. Aside from its pool and small spa, Gaige House offers few amenities or activities, although many guests participate in the well-organized Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) excursions. Overall, this romantic property is ideal for those wanting to disconnect. At times during our stay, we had to remind ourselves that we were in Sonoma Valley, rather than in a haven somewhere outside Kyoto.
The minimalist design; the meditation barn; the magnificent granite tub in our bath.
The lack of an on-site restaurant.
Guests can request day passes to a nearby health and fitness club.
Though sad to leave Gaige House, we were looking forward to our stay in Calistoga (population 5,500) in the upper Napa Valley. Just 30 miles north of Glen Ellen, it is renowned for its geyser, mineral hot springs and mud bath treatments. On several previous trips, we had stayed at Calistoga Ranch, located 5 miles east of town, an Auberge property perennially popular with Hideaway Report members. As we turned onto the main street, Lincoln Avenue, I recognized the same locally owned coffeehouse, bookshop and grocery store as before. In recent years, Calistoga has acquired more-upscale restaurants and boutiques, but overall, it has maintained its low-key character. In contrast, St. Helena and Yountville are more self-consciously fashionable and can be overcrowded.
Previously, I had never found a hotel downtown that met the required standards. But I am pleased to report that an exceptional hideaway has now opened, set within a stately landmark building, surrounded by a gated compound, just two blocks from the main street. The Francis House debuted in August of last year. It comprises five individually decorated guest rooms and features a contemporary French design. Built in 1886 as a family home for prominent local merchant James H. Francis, the property, with its characteristic mansard roof, is one of the few surviving examples of French Second Empire architecture in Napa Valley. Over time, the building had fallen into disrepair and was slated for demolition. Then, in 2015, Richard Dwyer, a real estate broker, and his wife, Dina, an interior designer, decided to purchase the historic building and restore it to its original splendor.
When they acquired the property, its second floor was collapsed and it lacked plumbing and electricity. Over the course of three years, the Dwyers painstakingly renovated and retrofitted the structure. They restored the mansard roof, retained the locally quarried stone walls and preserved the oak plank flooring. Today, the elegant interior contains a pleasing mix of contemporary and classic elements, well-placed light fixtures and carefully selected artwork. Historic black-and-white photos showcasing the building’s past line the entry walls. Our room featured a period writing desk, handsome brass accents both in the bedroom and bath, and all the expected modern conveniences.
The Francis House has no restaurant, but breakfast is served, and the property is close to the restaurants and cafés on Lincoln Avenue. Aside from a swimming pool, amenities include an infrared sauna, a salt room and a fire pit.
We were able to spend time with the Dwyers, who proved gracious hosts. It was clear that this has been a passion project for them. Exceptionally hospitable people, they go above and beyond to make guests feel at home and to give them the benefits of their extensive local knowledge. From the moment we arrived, it seemed as though we had been invited to stay in a friend’s luxurious mansion. And as we departed, we felt as though we were leaving family behind.
The charming and obliging owners; the historic design paired with modern amenities; the convenience to town.
The lack of a hot tub.
The Dwyers have deep ties to the community and can acquire hard-to-get dinner reservations at Calistoga Ranch and Auberge du Soleil.
From Calistoga, we drove 8 miles southeast to Las Alcobas in St. Helena, which opened in early 2017 and is located next to the famous Beringer winery. As we turned into the driveway, we were met by an imposing mansion, Acacia House, dating from 1907. Exiting our car, we were greeted by a receptionist, who checked us in at the valet desk, as there is no official lobby. She seemed somewhat distracted as she gave us a brief tour of the hotel’s restaurant and bar, before directing our attention to a large barnlike structure housing the Atrio Spa.
The property has 68 rooms and suites, six of which are located in the main house; the rest either face the estate or the vineyard. Our Vineyard View Room came with a large bedroom that featured a gray-and-white color scheme and an austere minimalist design. The granite bath, with its spacious rectangular tub, was well-appointed, but the highlight of our accommodations was a covered deck, with comfortable chairs and a gas fire pit, which offered uninterrupted views of Beringer’s tapestry of vines.
We made our way back down to the Acacia House restaurant, which is overseen by chef Chris Cosentino, known for his numerous TV appearances, as well as for being the former chef-partner of Incanto in San Francisco. A seasonally inspired menu of California cuisine is served in a dining room with a fireplace and an open kitchen. Our persimmon, kohlrabi and avocado starter was delicious, as was the tuna crudo in a light Shinko pear vinaigrette. Cosentino made his reputation chiefly with meat and offal dishes, and, perhaps as a result, the menu featured limited vegetarian options.
The 3,500-square-foot Atrio Spa has been rated one of the best in Napa Valley, and its treatment menu features exotic wellness techniques from around the world, including the Hawaiian-inspired lomilomi massage and the oil-free tui’na technique, which originated in China 5,000 years ago. Alas, glitches in the air-conditioning system meant that I spent most of my massage shivering. But the masseuse was suitably apologetic, and the cost of the treatment was removed from our bill.
However, the small problems at Las Alcobas began to add up. These included a broken elevator, a lack of luggage racks, convoluted lighting controls and the inconvenient placement of power outlets in our suite, as well as snail-like room service. On our way back to our room from an excellent breakfast of cured smoked salmon and spicy chilaquiles, we noticed tan-colored mushrooms growing out of the damp stone walls as we climbed the stairs. Las Alcobas has an ideal location within walking distance of downtown St. Helena and the Beringer winery, but overall it did not fully live up to our expectations.
The outstanding cuisine and spectacular vineyard views.
The absence of a dedicated lobby; a lack of luggage racks; inconveniently located power outlets in our room.
Private reserve tastings with cheese pairings are offered exclusively to hotel guests; a bridge leading directly to Beringer Vineyards is under construction.
After checkout, we drove 20 miles southeast to the city of Napa (population 80,000), where we went for a casual lunch at Hog Island Oyster Bar in the buzzy Oxbow Public Market. Though this sprawling marketplace can be noisy and crowded on weekends, at other times it is a perfect spot in which to grab a quick bite and sample specialty goods, including those from Three Twins Ice Cream, the Model Bakery and Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant. After exploring the shops and purchasing more snacks than we needed, we headed 15 minutes southwest to Carneros Resort and Spa.
This discreetly located property, set on the border of Napa and Sonoma counties, is poorly signed, and the entrance is easy to miss. On arrival, we were ushered into the brightly lit reception area and offered glasses of wine. A map of the 28-acre estate highlighted amenities that include a family-friendly pool, a 3,000-square-foot fitness center, a hilltop pool and hot tub, and a general market store, where guests can create their own picnics (baskets with cutlery are provided).
The resort is set amid a landscape of flower-strewn pastures and towering palm trees. It comprises 86 board-and-batten stand-alone cottages, each of which features a private front porch and a backyard garden with a sundeck, a table and chairs, a fire pit and chaise longues. Individual cottages can be joined to create Two Cottage Suites, which are ideal for families. In addition, two- and three-bedroom residences provide full kitchens and outdoor fireplaces; some come with outdoor barbecues and in-ground hot tubs.
The interior of our light and spacious Vineyard View Cottage featured a rustic-chic farmhouse décor, with cherry wood floors, a polished concrete fireplace and a vaulted ceiling. Though the bath was too dark for my taste, it had plenty of counter space, a tub and a large walk-in glass shower. Specifically request cottages 1, 2 or 10 in either the Madrone or Juniper neighborhoods. The Persimmon division can be noisy. Carneros offers three restaurants that vary in design, cuisine and setting. The property’s signature destination, Farm restaurant, occupies a calm, elevated position and serves seasonally inspired multicourse tasting menus designed around a single ingredient. During our stay, it was the humble carrot. A braised octopus starter paired with trout roe and a carrot gel was delicious, while the filet mignon accompanied by a miso-carrot purée, salsify and pistachios was equally memorable. The casual Boon Fly Café, fashioned to look like an old-style roadhouse, is popular with locals and tourists alike. The menu, though not especially original, offers tasty flatbreads and filling salads. And Hilltop Dining Room (open to resort guests only) has floor-to-ceiling windows that afford panoramic views of the surrounding vineyards.
Inspired by vernacular agricultural architecture, the design of Carneros is more modern than that of other resorts nearby. The property is also larger than our other recommended hotels in the area. Nonetheless, it still feels homey and offers a strong sense of place. It is also one of the relatively few resorts in the Napa and Sonoma valleys that is family-friendly and features facilities and programs specifically intended for children.
The privacy of each cottage neighborhood; the scenic guests-only hilltop restaurant.
The uninspiring fare at the touristy Boon Fly Café.
The full-service, recently renovated spa offers first-rate treatments but books up quickly; advance reservations are a necessity.