There’s a reason people dream about California. “Go west young man” ended at this edge of the American continent. California is where America’s biggest gold rush occurred and it’s where American royalty has made their home since the film industry was birthed. The best and brightest minds in America have flocked to the technology corridor here and a quick stop in Silicon Valley will convince you that all the hype about them is true.

But I think the reason most of us dream about California has nothing to do with those things. For us, it is the golden rolling hills that rush to meet the sea. It is standing on a mile wide beach with mountains rising up in your peripheral view (you can surf in the morning and snow ski in the afternoon all without leaving the border of this great state!). It is cool, crisp mornings followed by dry sunny days, touched with just a hint of humidity. It is lush flowers that burst forth in every color under the sun. It is not too hot and not too cold. You can run from the northern end of the state where it’s cool and rainy to the southern end where it’s sunny and warm 360 days a year.  Pick any destination in California and you’ll be dreaming of what to see and do.

When Audrey graduated from Texas A&M, she got to choose any city in the continental US for her mother/daughter trip.  Without a moment of hesitation, she chose the California wine country.  She wanted to bike, hike, learn a little about wine and dine al fresco under the stars on fantastic farm to table food.  We did all that and more.  Quite simply, we fell in love.  Since that trip in 2012, I’ve been on a quest–a quest which has taken me back to the wine country every single year.  I’ve been on mother/daughter trips, girls trips, wedding flower trips and family trips.  This time, our trip was for love, since we could think of no better place to celebrate 36 years of marriage. Since all previous trips had been to Sonoma county, Kyle chose Napa Valley to give us the full breadth of the wine country.  Napa lies east of Sonoma and we chose Calistoga Ranch for our accommodations.  Calistoga is the northern most town in Napa Valley and from this locale, we could visit several little artsy towns for shopping, lunch and dinner.  Catch just a few highlights of our multi-day trip.

Calistoga Ranch

This Auberge resorts property snuggles itself into a private canyon in the Mayacamas mountains. Every two room lodge boasts an expansive deck with indoor/outdoor fireplace and hot tub. If that doesn’t move you, perhaps the outdoor shower will. I saw steam coming off almost every single room deck, evidence that it is an exhilarating must. The workout room is open-air and overlooks a gorgeous lap pool. Pool service was limited, but we visited mid-week and there were simply not enough people to merit full service. The spa’s peaceful outdoor seating brings you face to face with nature in the best way. We tried every hike on the property and the vistas at the top were worth the work it took to get there. Bicycles are handy, but with all the hills and two lane roads, we chose to walk wherever we went.

After all, who doesn’t need a little exercise while wining and dining through Napa? For those unable to handle the hills, carts are available at your beck and call to transport you wherever you want to go. Each morning began with a hike to the hearty and private Lakeside Grill for breakfast. Concierge service was out of this world; they recommended day trips to the surrounding towns and made reservations in places that held exactly what we were looking for: outdoor seating under the stars and fresh, farm to fork dining.  Perfection.

Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch

This charming dining experience is a destination in and of itself.  The property had been a working farm and antique farming tools have been woven into the decor.  You’ll even find a refurbished old pick up truck to greet you upon arrival. There’s a General Store on property filled with artisanal delights to take home a delicious reminder of Napa valley.  Inside Farmstead, reclaimed barn wood mixes with steel and natural fabrics to create the perfect setting for a relaxed dinner.  We’d eaten big all day, so their small plate tastings were just what we were looking for.  Our charcuterie board was sumptuous, made up of perfectly paired cheeses, meats and pickled vegetables.  Fresh wild flowers adorned each table and the wait staff was warm and wonderful.

Archetype

With Google map pulled up on our phone in hand, we could not find our recommended lunch spot in St. Helena. That loss was our gain (as is so often the case when traveling and things do NOT go as planned). We simply turned around and walked back toward our car, stopping to peer into the window of this old “house”, which had been converted into a restaurant. Stepping inside was like finding yourself smack dab in the middle of grandma’s house. The large, rambling front porch made the perfect setting for our lunch.  We could see folks strolling by and were charmed by the ticking stripe napkins and detail that were a throw back in time.The cavernous dining room opens to the kitchen in back so diners don’t miss a thing.  It is bright and filled with light, and lots of white. The food is fresh, delightful and creative–bone broth was yummy and Archetype definitely rates a “must come back to” on future trips.

Oakville Grocery Store

Step back in time in this general store.  It’s a great place to pack your picnic basket and in case you don’t have a destination in mind, they have tables outside that do the trick.  Great deli sandwiches and fun place to pick up gifts to take home–something for every palette.

Rombauer Vineyards

We were never wine drinkers till our close friend Dean introduced us to a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay. Imagine our delight when we passed this vineyard only five minutes from Calistoga Ranch.  Our excitement grew when we toured the “art” garden outside; we were already hooked and we hadn’t even had one sip of wine!  The epiphane came at the tasting room counter where we found a big Texas poster on the back wall, with the Rombauer founder smiling at us. Koerner Rombauer had been a Braniff Airlines pilot when he decided to move his family back from Texas to his home state of California in 1972.  He liked farming and decided to test his hand at winemaking. His aunt Irma had conquered the food world with her groundbreaking book, The Joy of Cooking, published in 1932. Koerner capitalized on that family connection and set out to create the perfect wine for the most discerning of palettes. To this day, every bottle of Rombauer wine bears the label (worn proudly on its cork), “The Joy of Wine”, tying in his family connection. We are crazy about the fact that this winery remains family owned and operated down to the second and third generation–tradition and legacy.  We joined the wine club (something we’ve NEVER done before) so we can continue to taste bottles that aren’t available on the retail market. We were saddened to learn that shortly after we returned home, Koerner passed away.  We’re grateful we got to experience his vineyard while he was still alive.

Russian River Flower School

My final and most favorite destination in all of wine country lies 45 minutes from Napa.  Russian River Flower School is located in the charming town of Healdsburg, in Sonoma County.  I first heard the proprietor, Dundee Butcher, speak at a Dallas event and was instantly captivated.  Sixteen of us ventured out to her studio three years ago to learn “flower” skills so we could “design” the flowers for Alex’s daughter, Ally’s wedding.  I keep going back to see her. I cannot gush enough about this woman and this experience.  Dundee is a Texan, born and bred, but she’s traveled and lived all over the world.  She married an Englishman and to keep herself busy in London, took up flower design.  She worked for McQueens and did flowers for the “Queen” in Buckingham Palace.  When she and her hubby decided to relocate to the states,  California’s temperate climate and relaxed living won her over. She knew she wanted to step away from formal, “arranged” flowers and move into the organic loose look.  She has done that and so much more.  You MUST get to her studio and take one of her classes where you will be infused with confidence and equipped with practical skills.  You will leave believing that you too can become a floral designer.  It just takes practice, which makes you perfect.  You will LOVE this experience–it is a MUST DO.