There is no denying that the Napa Valley is a world-class tourist destination; renowned wine, an impeccable culinary scene, a robust arts scene and a blossoming entertainment repertoire. When most people think of the valley, they conjure up images of adults cavorting through the vineyards and toasting glasses filled with wine. In these instances, children are nowhere to be seen.
Throughout the better part of our twenties, we saw nothing wrong with this. We weren’t parents and the vast majority of our friends were childless, so we puttered along, oblivious to the dynamic that adding children to your life presents.
But there comes a time in your life when you start having to factor children into the equation: either your own or your friends’. For us, this became a reality at the end of last summer when we welcomed the delightful little M into our lives. Gone were spontaneous mid-week cocktails or deliciously long summer afternoons of day drinking. Welcome: responsibility, bedtime routines and the ever-present needs of a young (yet supremely special!) son.
However, always eager to enjoy all that our valley has to offer, we began the quest to find out how to best enjoy this valley with a little one in tow. Was it even possible?
Due to the fact that we are the type of parents who prefer to bring our son with us (especially at the infant and toddler stage), we’ve become adept at assessing the valley through the eyes of young parents. There are – obviously – various venues that are completely off-limits to children (either posted by the proprietor or through a simple test of common sense), but there are also a wealth of venues and experiences that are both child-friendly and accessible.
Below we have started to chronicle our exploits through the eyes of M, our newest (and most discerning) critic. As we come across new (successful) experiences, we will be certain to add them to the list.
Napa is often the town that most tourists skip over as they head up valley, but as its local leaders make a concerted effort to further invigorate its offerings, it’s becoming more and more appealing to the visiting patron.
Where to taste?
Save for a smattering of downtown establishments, the town of Napa itself does not offer too many tasting rooms that exude a family-friendly environment, so our suggestions here speak more to the surrounding countryside. Our trusted and reliable establishments here include visiting the AVAs of Oak Knoll and Stag’s Leap. The playful and relaxed vibe of Judd’s Hill welcomes good exploration, Signorello Estate affords incredible views and great wines in a calm atmosphere (the outdoor tables around the infinity pool may provide a decent respite and distraction for the curious little ones in your midst) and the neighboring property of Regusci always seems to have a fun and vibrant crowd overflowing the tasting room and onto the patio (again: if there’s open space and an area for kids to run, you should be golden).
Where to eat?
Oxbow Public Market is a great hub of activity. Given the vast array of offerings, there is something to satisfy everyone’s palate. We’ve found that in the warm weather months, sitting outside on the deck is a huge plus (you want to air out your lungs, Junior, go ahead…babble to your heart’s content). In fact, the last time that we lunched there, we found ourselves sitting across from a beautiful and sweet four year-old angel. Junior was fascinated by her wings. Such sweet innocence and revelry abound here. What’s more, for the adults in the group, the culinary options are vast: Gott’s, Kitchen Door, Hog Island Oyster Bar, C Casa, and Ca’ Momi, not to mention a charcuterie, spice store, distiller and wine shop (among others) to satisfy all cravings.
(A nice bonus: on Tuesdays and Saturdays, from 8AM to 12noon, the Napa Farmer’s Market takes place directly adjacent to Oxbox Market. In addition to amazing local produce, story time can be enjoyed by the children and cooking demonstrations can be observed by the parents; a win-win situation.)
Another bustling option is the Riverfront. Across the river (and down Main Street) from Oxbow, the Riverfront is cementing itself as a fun center of activity. At the south end of the Riverfront, Angele has long been a favorite. With the addition of a young one, our patronage has remained constant (although typically for brunch and lunch, these days). Their outdoor dining area is perfect for mini me to dine. And the best part? If the little one decides that exploration is necessary, the riverfront walk is right there, so mom or dad can sneak away for a stroll, without interrupting any other diners.
Celadon, Morimoto, The Pear Southern Bistro, The Thomas/Fagiani’s, Bounty Hunter (moving shortly into a new residence across the street on Main Street), Cole’s Chop House and the new City Winery are all great restaurants and experiences, but less so on the baby/toddler accessible aspect (of course, as this is the epicenter of American hospitality, they will always graciously make accommodations if you arrive with a little one in tow, they are not conveniently set up for their three feet and shorter guests). So if the parents are able to sneak away for an evening out, all are viable and wonderful options for a date night.
(As a side note: A quick shout out to Napa River Velo: for those of you with jogging strollers, running in the vineyards can leave your tires punctured, so a quick trip to the boys at this bike shop may be necessary for a quick fix. And for those lovers of gelato, Frati Gelato is a new addition to the Riverfront, much to every child’s delight.)
Where to play?
Connolly Ranch on the westside of town is an endearing suburban ranch that plays host to a myriad of animals and activities. While the bulk of their programs are for routine, local engagement, should you find yourself visiting the valley on a Wednesday or a Saturday, it’s a solid recommendation to scope out their Walk-in-Wednesday and Second Saturday programs, respectively.
Where to stay?
The Carneros Inn affords a wonderful open space of 27 acres. While a tranquil and upscale vibe, the grounds do provide a children’s pool separate of the main pool, so if the little ones want to be particularly robust, they can head down there. Additionally, the set-up of the accommodations allows for privacy and calm, so guests with children shouldn’t be deterred from the little ones being curious and “investigative.” For a downtown Napa option, the Westin Verasa is always a staple. Convenient, accommodating and respectful.
Yountville is likely our favorite town in which to take M for a mid-week date. Strollers, Ergos and other mini-me modes of transport are readily visible. Our typical dates with M start at Bouchon Bakery for a little bite and libation, followed by a stroll to the French Laundry gardens, and finishing at Yountville Park for a wicked fun swing session. Toss in a nice vineyard run with the BOB (talk about great views) and it makes for a nice morning.
Where to taste?
Yountville has a number of tasting rooms in town; the storefronts for Cornerstone, Jessup, Hill Family and Ma(i)sonry all dot the main drag of Washington Street. Given that they are not on large properties, the opportunity for little ones to crawl/run around are limited, so be attune to this if frequenting these locations. Again, heading outside of town for tasting might be your best bet, given that little ones need area to roam and explore. Our particular favorite tasting room in this vicinity (in the nearby Stags Leap AVA) is Robert Sinskey. Situated on the Silverdo Trail, this venue has wonderful picnic tables on the patio for afternoon snacks, a koi pond out front (hello little nibbles on the fingers!) and a biodynamic garden with (hold your breath) sheep for maintaining the tidiness of the crop. Everytime that we’ve been to Sinskey, children of all ages have been enjoying the experience with their parents (and for Michael, he is like a kid in a candy shop when scouring which of Sinskey’s delicacies he wishes to imbibe). This – in itself – is enough of the warm and fuzzies to convince us that this is a top-notch venue to patron.
Down the road a bit is Paraduxx (a Duckhorn property), another great outdoor experience (are you sensing a theme here?). When the weather is good (about ¾ of the year), you can sit out back in some lounge chairs, sip on your wine, play some backyard games that are conveniently situated nearby and let the children frolic in the grass and under the trees. Another win-win situation for everyone.
Where to eat?
Although adults will want to maintain their nighttime nibbles at Bouchon, The French Laundry, Redd, Bistro Jeanty, Bottega and the like, pre-dinner drinks and small plates can be enjoyed (child in tow) at the new R&D Kitchen (north end of town). They have a great outdoor bar, complete with a fish pond for your curious little ones, as well as Adirondack chairs surrounding fire pits. Whereas we used to always judge places now based on service, decor, speed, quality, and value, we now largely base reviews on how much exploration can be achieved by M. In this case, R &D receives high marks. Nearby Redd Wood is a popular option, as well. Seating options are available both inside and outside. There’s a versatility of menu options, so as to satisfy a variety of ages and palates. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, Bouchon Bakery is a staple in our weekly routine. Comfort, delicious treats and a command of the espresso machine result in satisfied customers. Hot tip: Be sure to arrive early, particularly during the summer months. The wait times can be gruesome if you’re not careful.
Where to play?
At the north end of town, there is a great little park (Yountville Park) for toddlers and older kids, alike. At the south end of town, there is a second park (Veterans Park) for bocce ball aficianados. The French Laundry gardens on Washington Street afford a nice opportunity to stroll through and observe the wide-ranging edibles in their various seasons of glory. If you happen to be in the valley during the summer months, the town hosts children’s movies in the Yountville Community Park on the third Friday of each month (June through September). For those skeptical of us suggesting a picnic (oh the horror!) when visiting Napa Valley (isn’t this an epicurean’s dream), let us remind you that a picnic, in this case, is unlike whatever picture you have in your mind. Picture charcuterie from Dean and Deluca, fromage from Oakville Grocery, bread from Bouchon, prepared goods from Sunshine Market, fresh greens from the farmer’s market, and dessert from Model Bakery. Yep. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, we have failed you.
Where to stay?
With children in town, Yountville wouldn’t be our top choice for accommodations, simply because we like the concept of giving the bambinos open space to roam. However, Villagio, Vintage Inn and Hotel Yountville are all options. Bardessono, while a particular favorite and LEED Platinum Certified structure, is also in the heart of town (for a little adult time, check out Dive Bar at their pool during the summertime for pre-dinner drinks).
St. Helena is the king of the little ones. From Crane Park to Farmstead, and everything else in between, St. Helena provides great entertainment for adults and children alike.
Where to taste?
In town, a great (and low key) venue is Velo Vino, Clif Family’s tasting room. No judgmental looks here when a little one needs an extra dose of attention or stroll around the block (plus, they often have little snacks and treats that they’ll bring out to satisfy the curiosity of your offspring).
Outside town, there’s Raymond Vineyards: as bold and eclectic a physical presence as its well-known proprietor. The benefit of Raymond is that it has a garden area for the mini explorers amongst us, unique environmental art that begs tactile engagement (read: touch, touch, touch!) and enough indoor activities, sights and sounds for the little minds to be engaged for quite some time.
Further south of town, at the end of Whitehall Lane, is Tres Sabores. Adults and youth alike will delight at the (in no order of importance): wide open space, animals (from dogs to sheep to chickens, this is an animal paradise), the farm-to-table produce, the Porque No? red blend, the engaging personalities, and the feeling that this is Napa, “pre-Napa.” There are no artificial pretenses here. Just a picnic table, some farm animals, incredible scenery, and some truly stellar wine. Check their website for upcoming events. Enough praise cannot be heaped on this little gem of a winery (in fact, it deserves its own blog post of adulation!). We should write that down as a “to-do” once once things quiet down here even a bit.
Where to eat?
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch hands-down wins the child-and-parent-friendly award of the year. We have frequented Long Meadow since M’s birth. Brunch, lunch, summer concert series, wine tastings, olive oil tastings, and other random events (by far the most friendly Easter Bunny in the valley!), this is a parent’s dream location. A little bit of fun for mom and dad; a whole lot of freedom for the little one. Seriously. Check out their summer concert series. These are filled with happy and content families spread across picnic blankets in the “backyard” of the ranch. Patrons can either bring their own picnic or purchase food once on-site. All “adult beverages” are to be purchased on-site, including a great selection of hand crafted cocktails. Kids run free. Parents relax. And everyone grooves to the music. In our most recent visit, M decided to explore the on-site vegetable garden, dance to a few tunes, investigate the other little ones frolicking nearby, and melt hearts with his curiosity and genuine interest. It was pretty much awesome in every sense of the word.
Other comfortable and accessible dining options for families include the one-and-only original Gott’s Roadside (children can make as much noise here as they so wish; it’s all old-school charm and grub here), Pizzeria Tra Vigne (the “sister” restaurant of the more famous Tra Vigne), and La Condesa (from the tortilla soup to the watermelon salad, there’s something for everyone on the menu).
(As a side note: If you – the parents – ever get the opportunity to sneak away for the evening, drinks at Terra or Goose and Gander, dinner at Press and dessert at Cindy’s Backstreat Kitchen (particularly the campfire pie…delicious!) are all highly recommended.)
Where to play?
Crane Park is the place to go for the little valley patrons. For mom and dad, there are bocce courts (cue: evening picnic + a riveting game of bocce); for Junior, there’s a great park filled with all sorts of contraptions (and for the older children, there’s even a skate park). Most months out of the year, there’s a Friday Farmer’s Market at Crane Park that lasts through 12noon. Just as the Farmer’s Market in Napa, there’s something for every age here. Story time, the occasional face painter, delicious local grub, and a plethora of local characters to enjoy.
Where to stay?
For families visiting the valley, we always recommend Harvest Inn for its cozy and inviting comfort. If folks are willing to drive a bit out of town (and plunk down a bit more change), Meadowood is an obvious choice (lots of freedom in the open space here). But again, if we’re spending money on staying at a place like Meadowood, we’re likely leaving M at home and indulging in the amenities and ambiance of this resort sans offspring. For a more low-key and one-with-nature approach, Boethe State Park is available for camping. Located just north of town, this state park is equipped with hiking trails, camping spots (and even some rental yurts), a seasonal swimming hole, and miles upon miles of open nature for the little ones. Even if you choose not to camp, this is an opportunity to let the little ones out for a solid run/get all your energy out/move your legs kind of outing.
Calistoga is the most relaxed of the up-valley towns. It’s down-home and country feel mean that the little ones are pretty much welcome 24/7. From tree-lined streets to the local market, everyone seems to know everyone. Children are at the centerpiece of this.
Where to taste?
We are always fans of visiting the swans and ponds at Chateau Montelena (the fact that their wine is delicious is a wonderful bonus). If you’re already as far north as Tubbs Lane, there’s no excuse not to visit Bennett Lane Winery. Frank Family Vineyards is just south of Calistoga on Larkmead Lane; delicious wines (still and sparkling), a vault of industry information (just mention the name Dennis) and a great porch for a casual catch-your-breath moment. More commercial properties – but likely entertaining for the children – include Castello di Amorosa (it is a castle, after all) and Sterling Vineyards (yes, there is an aerial tram here).
Where to eat?
While not huge patrons of the Calistoga culinary scene, we’ve dabbled enough to have a few recommendations for the family bunch. SolBar at Soalge is – in a word – divine. Fresh ingredients + outdoor dining = showcases the best that the valley has to offer. CalMart has great sandwiches and prepared foods for the families on the run or those desiring a picnic experience. And if all else fails, an old staple for reliable grub is Brannan’s Grill, which has always accommodated our younger guests and offbeat requests.
Where to play?
For a legitimate hike, head to Mount St. Helena and Robert Louise Stevenson Park State Park. There is a five mile loop trail to the top of the mountain. Children will be entertained by the wildlife, as well as the amazing views from on top of the mountain.
Where to stay?
Calistoga is home to a large selection of quaint and endearing Bed and Breakfasts. Check with your host first to see if there are any age limits/requirements. For the larger institutions, Calistoga Ranch is a phenomenal option. A sister property of the no-children-allowed Auberge du Soleil, it offers the best of both worlds: family accessibility with wine country finesse. Solage is another wonderful option (and yet another Auberge property), as are the cottages at Indian Springs. Moral of the story: there’s something for everyone here.
Do you have a tip or suggestion to parents of little ones? Send them our way and we’ll give them a shot!
Of note: Since the original posting of this article, the Napa Farmer’s Market has changed locations from First Street to Imola Street. Further, a number of the above-mentioned venues have closed including: La Condesa, The Thomas/Fagiani’s, The Pear, and City Winery. The hospitality industry can be lovely, but – at times – brutal. Ouch. That’s a lot of closures in just two years.