northern california coast and wine country - detailed itinerary

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Day 1 - Point Reyes
Pick up your rental car this morning in San Francisco and take the Golden Gate Bridge north to Highway 101. You’ll enjoy the trip more if you avoid rush hour.

Just after you cross the bridge, take the Alexander Avenue exit and follow the signs to the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. At 15-square miles, it’s the largest urban park in America.

There’s plenty to see and do here, from scenic hiking and beach-combing to mountain biking and bird-watching. The Marine Mammal Center here operates a hospital where you can see injured sea lions, and elephant and harbor seals being cared for by volunteers.

Birders will want to visit Hawk Hill, especially during the fall when as many as 20,000 birds -- and 21 species of hawks -- can be seen soaring over the cliffs.

If you’re in the Headlands on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday afternoon, you can hike out to the Point Bonita Lighthouse for incredible views of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The trip’s not for the faint of heart -- it involves a long tunnel, seven footbridges, 300 steps, and a suspension bridge. But getting there is half the fun.

The lighthouse has been in operation since 1877 and was the setting for the 1980 horror movie, "The Fog."

When you’re through exploring the Marin Headleads, take Highway 101 and exit on the Panoramic Highway (Highway 1). If you’re hungry, follow the signs to Muir Beach. The Pelican Inn is a cute place that you’d expect to find in England’s west country. It serves traditional British lunches like Fish and Chips and Cottage Pie and has a great selection of ales.

Muir Beach is usually much less crowded -- and therefore more pleasant -- than Stinson Beach, a few miles up the road. So if you’re in the mood for a little beachcombing after lunch, go for a stroll along the lovely crescent beach here.

Follow the road a couple of miles back toward the highway and follow the signs to Muir Woods. Designated as a National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt, Muir Woods has six miles of walking paths through 560 acres of redwoods -- some of which are 1,000 years old.

Its always cool here, and the forest is filled with birds and wildlife, so if you didn’t walk along the beach, take a walk through the woods.

From here, the drive to Inverness takes a little over half an hour. If time permits, you can check out the cute little towns of Stinson Beach or Bolinas where the People’s Store is a local landmark.

From Highway 1, follow the signs to Inverness and get settled into your hotel and relax before heading out for dinner. If you’re in the mood for something really special, try the restaurant at Manka’s Inverness Lodge, a gentrified Arts and Crafts lodge dating from 1917. It has one of the best restaurants on the Northern California coast.

If you prefer something a little more casual, Taqueria La Quinta in Point Reyes Station has great Mexican food and a casual, festive ambience.

Day 2 - Point Reyes
Have breakfast at your inn this morning and then spend the day exploring Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). Wear layered clothes so you’ll be prepared for any unexpected change in the weather.

There aren’t a lot of places to eat in the PRNS, but there are wonderful picnic spots, so consider taking your lunch along with you. You can get supplies at the deli in the Inverness Store on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

Established by President Kennedy in 1962, Point Reyes is a 71,000-acre sanctuary where thousands of species of land and marine mammals, birds, and plants flourish in its forests, meadows, and pristine beaches.

What you’ll see depends on when you visit. From December to March, a large colony of elephant seals breed in the park. The giant creatures -- some weighing as much as 5,000 pounds -- can be seen from an overlook at Drake’s Bay. Between December and April, California gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja, Mexico passing very close to Point Reyes en route, making the park one of the best places to watch whales in the world.

In the springtime and early summer, huge numbers of blue herons and egrets -- and as many as 60 other species of birds -- nest in the Bolinas Lagoon Preserve at the Audubon Canyon Ranch north of Stinson Beach. Sea lions can be observed year ‘round.

There are dozens of ways to enjoy the gorgeous scenery here, so start your exploration with a visit to the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center where you can pick up a map and information about hikes, guided walks, and other activities in the park. They can also tell you what wildlife you can see and where.

If the weather’s fine, there’s no better way to experience the shore than in a sea kayak. There are several outfitters in the area and you can rent kayaks and equipment or take a half- or full-day tour of Tomales Bay. Depending on the time of year, you may see marine mammals, fish, and rare ducks, geese, shore and open-water birds as you glide through sheltered coves. And keep a look out for the herd of 400 Tule elk that graze in the park.

Tomales Bay is famous for its oysters, so if you love them be sure to have some while you’re here. Johnson’s Oyster Company and Tomales Bay Oyster Company in Marshall serve the freshest you’ll ever taste.

Bicyclists can rent bikes and get advice about area trails at Cycle Point Reyes next to the Bovine Bakery. Equestrians can explore more than 120 miles of trails through the park on horseback. Five Brooks Ranch south of Olema offer both private and guided trail rides.

Hikers can choose among a number of trails for all levels of ability. The Earthquake Trail takes walkers from the Visitor’s Center along the San Andreas Fault to what it believed to be the epicenter of the 1906 earthquake. It’s an easy half-mile walk.

The 0.7-mile Woodpecker Trail leads through forests and meadows and often offers good wildlife viewing. The 1.2-mile Chimney Rock Trail has great ocean views. And the 1.5-mile Palomarin Beach Trail winds past several small lakes and meadows to Alamere Falls.

Birders will enjoy the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, one of the most important orinithological research centers in the country. There are more than 400 species of birds here and if you visit in the morning, you can see birds being banded and tagged.

Those who are interested in marine biology will enjoy the Duxbury Reef Nature Reserve, the largest inter-tidal reef in North America. You can see all sorts of sea creatures from star fish to urchins in the tide pools here.

There are a number of spectacular coastal drives in the PRNS. You can take the Drake Highway to Mount Vision Overlook for breathtaking views of the peninsula. If you want to visit the beach, stay on the Drake Highway until you come to Point Reyes Beach North or South. They’re great for beachcombing and walking, but not safe for swimming. Another good choice is Drake’s Beach, where there’s also a café.

If you continue going south on Drake Highway, you’ll come to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. You’ll enjoy the views even if you don’t elect to climb the 308 steps down to the lighthouse. Just remember, what goes down must come up.

Be sure to take your binoculars. From December through April, this is the best spot in the PRNS for whale watching and you can see harbor seals and sea lions from the overlook all year long.

For dinner, you can get a great pizza at the Gray Whale in Inverness or something more ambitious at the Station House Café in Point Reyes. If you haven’t had the local oysters yet, you can get them at the Station House.

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Day 3 - Mendocino
After breakfast at your inn, return to Highway 1 and head north toward Bodega Bay, passing through tiny towns like Marshall and Tomales on the way. If you’d like to picnic at one of the windswept beaches along the coast, the Tomales Bakery has gourmet to go items and great pastries.

After Valley Ford, the road veers to the west. The busy harbor town of Bodega Bay marks your return to the coast. If Bodega Bay looks familiar, it’s because Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller "The Birds" was filmed here.

Today, the town’s a little tacky and has more than its share of tee-shirt shops. But the scenery is great and there are a couple of wonderful hikes out on Bodega Head. The Sonoma Coast Visitor's Center on Highway 1 can give you detailed maps and directions. If you’re here between December and April, both trails are great for spotting whales.

In the 16 miles between Bodega Bay and Jenner you’ll find the Sonoma Coast State Beaches -- 14 pristine wonderlands featuring rocky bluffs, tide pools, and lots of shore birds. Just follow the "Coastal Access" signs on Highway 1. Tides are tricky, so exercise great care in the water.

In Jenner, Goat Rock State Park, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, is especially beautiful. Between March and June, the beach here is packed with breeding harbor seals.

If you’re not having a picnic, your best bets for lunch are the River’s End in Jenner or the Restaurant in the Sea Ranch Lodge. For something more casual, try the Food Company in Gualala.

The next town up the road is Fort Ross. Once a Russian fur trading outpost, the fort has been reconstructed and you can tour the fort, its barracks and Russian Orthodox chapel, and a museum tracing the history of the region. After you tour the fort, walk along the bluffs and down to the beach.

Salt Point State Park has good walks around Gerstle Cove and Fisk Mill Cove with views and photo ops of Sentinel Rock. If you’re here in the late spring, the Kruse Rhododendron Garden has thousands of specimens on 317 acres.

If the Point Bonita and Point Reyes Lighthouses were closed or the weather was inclement, you can visit the Point Arena Lighthouse. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1907 after the original was damaged in the 1906 earthquake. It’s open daily from 10AM to 2:30PM Monday through Friday; 10AM to 3:30 Saturday and Sunday.

When you’re through exploring the coast, check into your inn in Little River, or Mendocino, two miles to the north. You can enjoy everything the area has to offer whichever base you choose.

For dinner tonight, try Café Beaujolais or 955 Ukiah Street. There’s not a lot going on after dark in Mendocino, but the bar at the Mendocino Hotel is a nice spot for a nightcap.

Day 4 - Mendocino
Established by loggers from New England, Mendocino is a dead-ringer for a 19th-century New England fishing village. In fact, it played Cabot Cove, Maine in the "Murder, She Wrote" television series.

Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places has protected the town from strip malls, fast food places, and general tackiness. And the surrounding natural beauty is nothing short of spectacular. The only thorn on this rose is the crowds you’ll find on weekends and during the summer.

The town itself is best explored on foot. Built in 1861, the Kelley House is one of the oldest homes in Mendocino. Today, it houses a small museum with articles and photographs documenting the town’s history.

The Ford House, which was built in 1854, has a model of Mendocino in 1890. It doubles as the visitor center for Mendocino Headlands State Park, a wide swath of grass that separates the town from the sea.

The 3-mile trail through the park offers wonderful views, particularly at sunset. And in spring, the headlands are covered with California poppies, lupine, and other wildflowers.

There are plenty of cute shops and galleries to explore. Gallery Bookshop and Mendocino Jams & Preserves are standouts. And stop by the Mendocino Art Center which has three galleries displaying ceramics, textiles, and jewelry as well as fine art and sculpture. The shop is a great place to find distinctive gifts.

If you need a break, stop by Tote Fete Bakery on Lansing Street for a latte and a pastry.

Golfers can play a round at the Little River Inn Golf and Tennis Club. Bicyclists can take an unforgettable ride up the coast along California 1. And kayakers can explore the Mendocino sea caves or the Big River Estuary.

Two miles north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park has some wonderful hiking trails. You can take the path to the Devil’s Punch Bowl -- a 200-foot long tunnel with a spectacular blowhole where part of the tube collapsed -- or the 5.5-mile Falls Loop Trail leading through old-growth forest to Russian Gulch Falls.

Another rewarding walk is the 5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail at Jug Handle State Reserve, north of the town of Caspar. The trail takes you from the headlands down to the beach via a series of naturally formed bluffs or "stairs." It leads to a pygmy forest of centuries-old trees that have been dwarfed by the highly acidic soil.

Those who just want to enjoy the beach can spend the day at Big River Beach in Mendocino or McKerricher State Park outside Fort Bragg.

Gardeners and those interested in horticulture should visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. It is the country’s only public garden fronting directly on the ocean. The 47-acre park includes formal gardens, azaleas and rhodies, pine forests, and a variety of ferns.

There are a couple of good reasons to visit nearby Fort Bragg. The first is the North Coast Brewing Company. One of the "Top Ten Breweries of the World" according to the Beverage Testing Institute, North Coast -- best known for its Red Seal Ale -- offers tours at Noon on Saturdays. And their Tap Room is a great spot for lunch.

Fishermen and women can catch charter boats from Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor in search of halibut, rockfish, red snapper, ling, china, and black cod. During the summer, salmon fishing is also available. During winter, whale watching trips leave daily.

Train buffs can take the vintage Skunk Train along the Redwood Route from Fort Bragg to Willets or Northspur.

For dinner tonight, try the Moosse Café or the MacCallum House Restaurant.

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Day 5 - Wine Country
Enjoy a leisurely breakfast and a little last-minute shopping this morning in Mendocino before taking Highway 1 south to Highway 128 east to the Anderson Valley wine region. The cool-climate grapes grown here produce outstanding Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gewurtztraminer.

There are two main routes through the valley. Highway 128 winds through Navarro, Philo, and Boonville. Highway 101 goes through Ukiah and Hopland. Most of the wineries along Highway 128 are clustered around Philo, between Navarro and Booneville.

Much more low key than Sonoma or Napa, the Anderson Valley retains a rural country feel. Most of the wineries are small, family-owned affairs. And the drive through vineyards and apple orchards, past old farms and tiny towns is very enjoyable.

There are more wineries than you can possibly visit in a day, so pick one of two and either taste sensibly or appoint a designated driver.

Tune your radio dial to 90.7 KZYX FM, a public radio station playing everything from blue grass to zydeco.

Handley Cellars was founded by Milla Handley, Henry Weinhard’s great-great-granddaughter, in 1982. They produce 14,000 cases of sparkling wines, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Rose, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir on 59 acres of the original Holmes Ranch. Their lovely tasting room is filled with folk art from Mexico, Bali, and Africa.

Husch Vineyards was the Anderson Valley’s first winery, bonded in 1971. The Oswald family has owned Husch since 1979 and they use only grapes grown on their property. They produce both Reserve and table wines under the La Ribera label. Their best wines are Chadonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gewurztraminer.

One of France’s most esteemed Champagne houses -- the producer of Cristal -- Roederer established their Anderson Valley winery in 1981. It produces sparkling wines following French traditions including using only the first juice from estate-grown grapes and aging in oak barrels. Their tasting room offers complimentary tastings daily.

Greenwood Ridge Vineyards has one of the most pleasant tasting rooms in the Anderson Valley. On sunny days, their deck overlooking the vineyards is hard to beat. And so are their wines which include Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Greenwood Ridge is the home of the California Wine Tasting Championships held in July.

Lovers of Alsatian wines should not miss Navarro Vineyards. Their fruity Gewurztraminer is outstanding and chances are, you haven’t had it. Production is so limited that Navarro sells only at the winery and via mail order. In addition to Gewurztraminer, Navarro also produces Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and excellent non-alcoholic wine.

Scharffenberger Cellars was established in 1981. This producer of top-notch sparkling wines has a long history with the Champagne houses of France. Their Blanc de Blanc Prestige Cuvee is one of California’s best bubblies. And the tasting room in a restored farmhouse is very attractive.

Long before the region began growing grapes, the Anderson Valley was known for its apples. The Apple Farm in Philo and Gowan’s Oak Tree two miles west of town sell fruit, ciders, chutneys, and other local specialties.

When you’re ready for lunch, Boonville is your best bet. For innovative California cuisine, try the restaurant at the Boonville Hotel which is run by the same family who owns the legendary French Laundry in Napa. For something more casual, try the Buckhorn Saloon, a brewpub serving Anderson Valley ales.

Twice recognized as one of the Top Ten Breweries of the Year by the World Beer Championships, Anderson Valley Brewing Company offers tours at 1:30PM and 4PM daily with advance reservations.

And if you’re lucky enough to be here on a Saturday, there’s a farmers’ market in the parking lot of the Boonville Hotel.

After you’ve explored Boonville, continue south along Highway 128 past Yorkville to Cloverdale. Part of the Russian River Valley, the 20-mile stretch between Cloverdale and Healdsburg has several of California’s most highly regarded wineries including Clos du Bois, Geyser Park, Pedroncelli, and Trentadue -- all outside Geyserville.

Because the Sonoma and Napa Valleys are only about 15 miles apart, you can easily explore both regions from one base in either valley. In Napa, St. Helena, Rutherford, and Yountville are appealing. And in Sonoma, Healdsburg, Kenwood and Glen Ellen make great bases. Generally speaking, Sonoma is less crowded, less commercial, and less expensive than Napa.

Highway 128 intersects Highway 101 at Geyserville. If you’re staying in Napa, take 128 south toward Calistoga and continue on to your destination. If you’re staying in Sonoma, take 101 south and then Highway 12 from Santa Rosa.

Fine dining is one of the great pleasures of a visit to California’s wine country, so you’ll have plenty of choice for dinner. Those staying in Napa will enjoy Terra, or Tra Vigne in St. Helena, or French Laundry or Mustards Grill in Yountville. In Sonoma, the Glen Ellen Restaurant and the Kenwood Restaurant are both local favorites.

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Day 6/7/8 - Wine Country
Spend the next three days enjoying the good life in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Start at least one morning with a hot air balloon ride over the vineyards. Sunrise flights culminate with a gourmet breakfast with local bubbly. Above the West Ballooning will pick you up at your hotel and guarantee you a maximum of four or six passengers.

Another must-do while you’re here is the Napa Valley Wine Train. One of the "Top 20 Railroads in the World" according to the International Society of Railway Travelers, the wine train combines everything that’s wonderful about the region -- fantastic food, wine, and scenery.

Brunch, lunch, and dinner trips are available in the meticulously restored Pullman lounge and dining cars, where etched glass, Honduran mahogany, and polished brass are the order of the day. The 36-mile, three-hour trips leave from the town of Napa and travel to St. Helena before returning.

If you want to taste with reckless abandon there are several tour companies that will chauffeur you among the wineries. Antique Tours has a fleet of 1947 and 1948 Packard convertible limousines and California Wine Tours and Transportation offers private and group tours.

Another option is to tour the region by bicycle. Napa Valley Bike Tours offers both tours and bike rentals for those who prefer to go on their own.

There are two main roads through the Napa Valley: the St. Helena Highway (29) and the Silverado Trail. Though many of the wineries you’ll want to visit are off Highway 29, the Silverado Trail is much more pleasant, so make an effort to enjoy the bucolic charms of this back road whenever possible. On summer weekends, the St. Helena Highway can be packed.

The main towns in the Napa Valley are (from north to south) Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford, Yountville, and Napa. There are more wineries than you could visit if you spent weeks here doing nothing but tasting. So choose two or three per day and leave some time for enjoying Napa’s many other attractions.

Calistoga, named by Sam Brannan who wanted to position the town as the Saratoga of California, has been a spa since the first resort opened in 1859. The sparkling, mineral-rich waters here are the main draw and today, there’s no end to the pampering you can receive. Don’t expect luxury though, unless you stay at the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa.

Calistoga Spa and Hot Springs has four mineral pools for soaking and they also offer mud baths, massages, wraps, and other health and beauty treatments. Indian Springs has the largest mineral pool, volcanic mud baths, and a bath house built in 1913. Lavender Hill Spa specializes in aromatherapy, massages, and herbal treatments for couples.

If you’ve never been to Yellowstone, consider driving one mile north of town to see the Old Faithful Geyser. It shoots jets of steam and water 60 feet into the sky every 35 to 50 minutes, making it one of just three regularly spouting geysers in the world.

Art lovers and history buffs will enjoy a visit to the Sharpsteen Museum, created by Ben Sharpsteen, an animator at Disney Studios for 30 years. The museum contains several dioramas of early Calistoga and one of the town’s 14 original cottages.

One of the most appealing wineries in Calistoga is Chateau Montelena which is housed in a 19th-century French-style chateau surrounded by Chinese gardens and a manmade lake. Chateau Montelena participated in a 1976 blind taste test in which French judges proclaimed their 1973 Montelena Chardonnay the winner. Today, they produce award-winning Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Clos Pegase is noteworthy because it was designed by architect Michael Graves in 1986 as a "Temple of Wine." The result is a postmodern interpretation of an ancient Mediterranean structure. Tours are conducted at 11AM and 2PM and you can picnic under a 300-year old oak.

If you didn’t visit one of the sparkling wine producers in the Anderson Valley, Schramsberg Vineyards is a good stop. The extensive network of caves here was hand-dug by Chinese laborers at the turn of the century and the winery became a designated California Landmark in 1957. When Richard Nixon toasted Chinese Premier Cho En-Lai in 1972, it was with a glass of Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc. Tours are by appointment only, so if you’d like to visit, make reservations in advance.

Good restaurants in Calistoga include the All Seasons Café, Catahoula, and the Wappo Bar & Bistro.

South of Calistoga, Sterling Vineyards is one of the most striking wineries in Napa. The white-washed building looks like it was plucked from Santorini and placed on a 300-ft. hill overlooking the valley. The winery is reached by an aerial tramway from the parking lot and there’s a Visitor’s Center and self-guided tour. Sterling produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Just north of the town of St. Helena, Beringer is one of Napa’s oldest continually operating wineries. You’ll know you’re there when you drive through the Row of Elms along Highway 29. The winery, which was built in 1876, is a designated historical landmark and it’s one of the most impressive in Napa. Tours culminating with tastings are given at 10:45AM, 1:30PM, and 2PM daily.

St. Helena is one of the most charming towns in Napa, filled with stylish shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Robert Louis Stevenson settled outside Calistoga and wrote about the Napa Valley in his "Silverado Squatters." Fans of his work can visit the Silverado Museum in a Victorian house that has more than 8,000 documents, photographs, manuscripts, and personal items related to the author.

If you’d like to go for a stroll, Bale Grist Mill State Historical Park has several nice walks through forests and meadows.

Foodies will want to visit the Culinary Institute of America in the old Greystone Winery. In addition to acres of vineyards, herb and vegetable gardens, the Institute has a kitchen shop, a wine museum, and a library. They offer several cooking demonstration a day -- reservations are required. The Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant here serves Mediterranean influenced dishes.

Other good restaurants in St. Helena include Terra, and Tra Vigne. If you prefer to picnic, V. Sattui Winery south of St. Helena has a wonderful deli with more than 200 kinds of cheese, cold cuts, salads, and desserts. Their shady picnic area is very popular. Off the Silverado Highway, Rutherford Hill Winery is also a great picnic spot.

Just south of town, Merryvale occupies the stone buildings of the old Sunny St. Helena winery. They offer highly informative two-hour tasting seminars on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10:30AM. Reservations are required. Merryvale’s Profile 1997 was selected as the number eight wine in Wine Spectator’s list of the Top 200 Wines of 2000.

The next town south is Rutherford, known for its outstanding Cabernet Sauvignons. The town itself doesn’t have much to offer, but there are so many great wineries here that choosing which to visit can be really tough.

Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) was founded by Georges de Latour in 1900. Their Rutherford and Georges de Latour Private Reserve set the bar for California Cabs. Beaulieu offers tours, and regular and reserve tastings.

The Rubicon Estate (previously known as the Niebaum-Coppola Estate), housed in the old Inglenook Chateau, is a must-see. The Chateau itself is gorgeous with beautiful stained glass and a hand-carved stairway. The Centennial Museum contains items tracing Inglenook’s history and memorabilia from Coppola’s film, including Vito Corleone’s desk from "The Godfather," numerous Oscars, and an automobile from the movie "Tucker." One hour tours are available at 10:30AM, 11:30AM, 12:30PM and 2:30PM.

At $25 per person, the tours here are the most expensive in Napa, but you can stroll the beautiful grounds for free.

Cakebread Cellars, a small, family-owned operation has tours by appointment and daily tastings. Cakebread placed 7th in Wine & Spirits 2000 annual restaurant poll of the top ten wineries overall.

Built in the late 1880s, the Oakville Grocery is the best reason to visit tiny Oakville. They have gourmet treats from paté to hard-to-find wines — everything for a sensation picnic or pre-dinner snack.

Oakville is better known as the home of legendary Robert Mondavi and his joint venture with Baron Phillippe de Rothschild, Opus One.

Modeled after a Franciscan Mission, Robert Mondavi Winery is arguably the most important in California. A consistent innovator and tireless promoter of California viticulture, Mondavi invented Fume Blanc. The 75-minute tours here are a crash course in wine-making, following the path from the vine to the glass. More extensive tours and tastings are available. Reservations are recommended.

Just down the road and across the street, Opus One should be on any Napa Valley short list. Created to combine the best practices of French and California winemakers, Opus One was begun in 1980. The striking white building was designed by the architects of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and it’s quite unlike anything else in the valley.

Among the best -- and most expensive -- wines produced in California, Opus One wines are produced from grapes hand-picked on the estate. The wine is aged 18 months in French oak and then aged another 18 months in the bottle.

Complimentary tours are daily at 10:30AM by appointment only. Tastings are available following the tour starting at $25 and are a must for serious wine lovers.

The little town of Yountville has some of the best restaurants and the best shopping in Napa. Housed in a 130-year-old winery, Vintage 1870 has 34 stylish shops, galleries, and restaurants. The stores offer unique gifts, housewares, clothes, and crafts and the ambience is outstanding.

Domaine Chandon, owned by legendary French Champagne house Moet & Chandon, was the first French foray into California. With its lovely gardens, ponds, ancient oaks, and roses bordering the vines, it’s a lovely spot for a stroll. The hourly tours here describe the Methode Champenoise used to make sparkling wines. The restaurant is one of the top two or three in Napa.

Other good restaurants in Yountville include Brix, Bouchon, French Laundry, Mustards Grill, and Bistro Jeanty.

Also in Yountville off the Silverado Trail, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was the other California winery to beat the French at their own game in 1976. Today, Stag’s Leap produces some of the best Chardonnay to come out of California.

Napa is the largest town in the valley and with its pretty Victorian houses, it’s worth a stroll.

Trefethen Vineyards, built in 1886, is the last three-level, wooden, gravity-powered winery in Napa. Trefethen wines are made exclusively from estate-grown grapes and distribution is extremely limited. Standouts include Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The property has been lovingly restored and there are antique farming implements and winemaking tools displayed. Tours are by appointment only.

Affiliated with the French Champagne house of Taittinger, Domaine Carneros occupies a Louis XV style chateau modeled after the Taittinger family country estate. It’s one of the most beautiful wineries in the Napa Valley. Tastings and tours are available without reservations.

To learn about a different kind of spirit, visit the Carneros Alambic Distillery where they make and age fine brandy. It’s interesting, but be aware that tastings are unavailable -- it’s against the law.

Modern art lovers should visit the Hess Collection Winery and Vineyards to see the art collection of Donald Hess which includes work by Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. The winery, which dates from 1903, once belonged to Christian Brothers. And the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay produced at the estate are excellent.

Golfers can play Vintner’s Golf Course outside Yountville or Chardonnay Golf Course in Napa.

After exploring Napa, Sonoma’s lack of traffic and laid-back lifestyle can be just what the doctor ordered. The towns along the Sonoma Valley wine route are (from north to south) Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and Sonoma.

There are bike rentals available in each of the towns, and if you’re in fairly good shape that’s a pleasant way to explore.

At the intersection of three great wine-producing regions (the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys), Healdsburg is the least crowded and in many ways, the most inviting. The surrounding countryside is gorgeous and unspoiled and the town is centered around a charming plaza. Country stores, produce markets, and antique shops vie for your attention. And there are some lovely inns and restaurants to choose from.

If you’re in the area on a Saturday in season, don’t miss the Farmers’ Market. Another good source for picnic supplies is the Healdsburg branch of the Oakville Grocery.

One of the best wineries in the neighborhood is actually ten miles north in Geyserville. Clos du Bois produces a highly regarded barrel-fermented Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon that’s fermented for up to four weeks and then aged in oak, and a Merlot that’s aged in oak for 18 months. The staff in their tasting room is extremely knowledgeable and friendly.

Ferrari-Carano is one of the most attractive wineries in Sonoma. Their Villa Fiore estate is surrounded by beautiful gardens and the tasting room is modeled after those in the chateaux of France. They produce Fume Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, a Tuscan-style Sangiovese/cab blend called Siena, and a Reserve Red called Tresor.

Also in Healdsburg, Rodney Strong Vineyards, founded in 1959, was one of the first wineries in the region to vineyard-designate its wine. They produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir from vineyards in the Alexander, Russian River, and Dry Creek Valleys, as well as Zinfandel in the 90-year-old River West vineyard. During the summer, concerts are held on the green and there’s a lovely picnic area. There are daily tours at 11AM and 3PM and complimentary tastings.

Santa Rosa is the largest town in the region, and it has several interesting attractions. The Santa Rosa Visitor's Center is housed in the restored train station at Historic Railroad Square. It’s a good place for maps and information about wineries and other attractions in the area.

The square is surrounded by blocks of restored turn-of-the-century buildings filled with boutiques, restaurants and antique stores.

Those who enjoy gardens will want to visit the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, where the botanist spent 50 years hybridizing 800 species of plants. There are self-guided tours through the gardens, which have been completely restored, and exhibits about Burbank’s work.

Across the street in Juilliard Park is the Church Built from One Tree, which was created in 1873 using the lumber from a single giant redwood. Today, the church houses the Robert L. Ripley Memorial Museum. Drawings by the Santa Rosa cartoonist, famous for "Ripley’s Believe It or Not!" are displayed here.

Also in town, the Sonoma County Museum in the restored 1909 Post Office and Federal Building exhibits 19th-century landscapes painted in the area.

On Wednesday nights in summer, there’s a popular Farmers’ Market on Fourth Street. The best places to eat in Santa Rosa are John Ash & Co. and Lisa Hemenway’s.

Deciding which Santa Rosa winery to visit is easy. Matanzas Creek not only produces some of California’s best wine, their winery is surrounded by acres of lavender. Before the lavender is harvested in June, you’d swear you were in Provence. In addition to the lavender fields, there are six beautiful gardens. You can take a self-guided tour of the grounds, enjoy a complimentary tasting, and then shop for lavender-scented products in the gift shop.

There’s not much more to the town of Kenwood than a historic train station, but there are several wineries worth visiting here, and the Kenwood Restaurant is very good.

Chateau St. Jean, as the name suggests, is styled after a Mediterranean chateau and surrounded by lovely gardens. You can take the self-guided tour, climb the tower for wonderful views of the vineyards, and then picnic on the beautiful grounds. Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon has been served at the White House.

Kenwood Vineyards was founded in 1906 when Jack London lived at the estate next door. Kenwood still grows its grapes on the Jack London Ranch for their award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. The tasting and reception rooms are located in a complex of old, weathered barns.

The town of Glen Ellen might as well be named Londonville, so pervading is the preoccupation with author and man-of-action Jack London. The most appealing shops in town are located in Jack London Village, the Jack London Saloon is a popular watering hole, and Jack London State Historic Park in the hills above town contains the remains of Wolf House -- the home that burned down before he could move in -- and the House of Happy Walls, a museum with London’s art collection and memorabilia from his life and travels.

The park is a really pleasant spot with more than ten miles of trails through oak, madrona, and redwoods. The author’s grave is here under centuries old oaks.

The Benziger Family Winery offers more than almost any winery in the region. Here, you can take a comprehensive self-guided tour, hop on a tram pulled by a tractor for a 40-minute tour through the vineyards, visit their art gallery which showcases art commissioned for Benziger labels, or picnic in the estate’s redwood grove. Tickets for the tram tour are limited, so if you’re interested, stop by early in the day to ensure a space.

The restaurant at the Glen Ellen Inn is your best bet in town.

Sonoma, designed by a Mexican general named Vallejo in 1835, has a central plaza surrounded by historic buildings which now house attractive shops, galleries, and cafes. There’s a market on the plaza Tuesdays from 5PM until dusk and another at Depot Park on Friday mornings.

The Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma was the last and northernmost of the Franciscan missions built in California. Today, the mission is a museum displaying 19th-century watercolors of other California missions.

There are several fine adobe structures in Sonoma, including the Sonoma Barracks. Begun in the 1830s, the barracks were the headquarters of General Vallejo. You can also visit the General’s Victorian home and garden, Lachryma Montis. The roses here are the oldest in town and the house is furnished in the style of the period.

Next to the Barracks, the Toscana Hotel was built in the 1850s as a general store. The hotel was restored by the League for Historic Preservation and it’s open on weekends for tours.

If you’re shopping for picnic supplies, try the Sonoma Cheese Factory and the Sonoma French Bakery. If you prefer to dine in, Della Santina’s and The Girl and the Fig are good choices.

Zinfandel lovers shouldn’t miss Ravenswood, which has set the bar for the big, bold reds. Their slogan, "No wimpy wine," kind of says it all. They currently produce about 400,000 cases a year, of which 70% is Zinfandel. Ravenswood hosts barbecues on summer weekends featuring grilled trout, salmon, ribs, or chicken. Tours are at 10:30AM daily and reservations are required.

Sebastiani Vineyards, founded by an Italian winemaker in 1904, underwent a seismic retrofit. You can taste Sebastiani wines, shop for European housewares, take a trolley or historical tour, at Sebastiani Vineyards and Hospitality Center.

Founded in 1857, Buena Vista Winery is the oldest premium winery in California. In fact, the history of California winemaking began here when Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy brought vines back from Europe. Two of the estate’s buildings are registered historic landmarks and were built using the limestone Chinese laborers excavated while digging the aging caves.

You can tour Buena Vista on your own or sign up for a guided tour. The grounds here are wonderful for picnics.

Owned by the same family for six generations, the Gundlach-Bundschu Winery was named "Rhinefarm" by its founder. There’s lots going on here. On summer weekends, Shakespeare’s plays alternate with outdoor movies like "Dr. Strangelove" or "Barbarella" in the outdoor amphitheater. And there are hiking trails and picnic tables overlooking the pond. Guided tours include a stroll through their 10,000-ft. wine cave.

South of Sonoma, Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves is owned by a Spanish family who has been making sparkling wines for more than 500 years. The Ferrers also own Freixenet, Spain’s top producer of cava and the largest sparkling wine producer in the world. The winery would look perfectly at home in Catalonia and there’s a lovely veranda overlooking the rolling vineyards from which to sip your bubbly. Gloria Ferrer also produces and sells gourmet grapeseed oil and condiments. Tours are given several time a day. Call for a schedule.

Founded by members of the Sebastiani family, Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace is a foodie’s dream. The complex was designed to resemble a Tuscan village and olive trees were imported from Italy to complete the effect, which is charming. Tours are by appointment, but you can wander on your own. The Marketplace is a wonderful spot for gourmet gifts or picnic supplies. And during the summer, Viansa has frequent jazz concerts at Cucina Viansa on the Plaza in Sonoma.

Viansa also has a 90-acre man-made wetlands preserve that provides habitat for up to 10,000 birds. Two-hour tours are available every other Sunday from March through June.

For your last night in the Wine Country, splurge with dinner at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford.

Day 9 -- San Francisco/Homeward
Return to San Francisco this morning for your trip home.