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Napa Valley City Trip - Hot Air Ballooning

Ballooning in Napa Valley
Ballooning in Napa Valley


NAPA VALLEY DAY 3: Hot Air Balloons, Oxbow Public Market, Dining in Napa

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Prepare your wake-up call to depart as early as 5:30 a.m., depending on the time of year. Yes, it's worth it. Balloons Above the Valley or Napa Valley Balloons will pick you up at your hotel, and then transport you to the heavens. At sunrise, you'll drift gracefully above the treetops and vineyards as your pilot narrates the one-hour journey. Afterwards, you'll be whisked away for a commemorative sparkling wine brunch.

Napa Abloom in Spring
Napa abloom in spring

You'll likely want to freshen up in your room before checking out for your last day of exploring. Then, ponder a winery that embraces rule-breaking, off-kilter design. Founded by Carl Doumani of Stag's Leap Winery, Quixote Winery boasts the imaginative work of Viennese artist-architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The surreal buildings shun any straight lines, burst with Technicolor touches and sprout vegetation and gold turrets on the rooftops. The serious Cabernet and Petite Syrah remind you that you're not in a cartoon dream.

The beautiful Napa weather begs for an outdoor lunch. Brix fits the bill with casual but polished California cuisine on a lovely, expansive patio that simultaneously overlooks gardens, vineyards and hills. Linger al fresco in the afternoon at the Di Rosa Preserve in the Carneros region to the south. Within its 200-plus acres, migratory birds share the meadows, lake and woodlands with more than 2,000 mixed-media art pieces from Northern California artists. There's a gallery for drop-in visitors; or plan a guided tour of various lengths and scope to meander the grounds.

Try Spanish-style tapas with a California spin at Zuzu in Napa
The dining room at Zuzu

Resolve to make a last-chance wine tasting stop in Napa. The Vintner's Collective, housed in a former saloon and brothel, offers pours from over a dozen noteworthy but esoteric labels such as Vinoce, Melka, Mi Sueño and D Cubed. Or, sip bubbly on a sofa on the luxurious, contemporary back patio lounge at 1313 Main.

Whereas tourists eager to journey into the heart of the vineyards once breezed by the town of Napa, it's come into its own as a dining destination. Continue the sampling theme at Zuzu for zippy tapas. Or, tour Oxbow Public Market, yet another enticement to linger in Napa. Within the 40,000-square-foot, barn-like structure, more than a couple dozen eclectic, upscale shops showcase local artisanal goods to stock your pantry and enrich your table. Browse fish, cheese and spice merchants, an outpost of Model Bakery, charcuterie from the Fatted Calf, flavored oils at the Olive Press, and Petaluma's Three Twins Organic Ice Cream. Dine on the deck overlooking the Napa River, perhaps choosing a blue cheese burger at Gott's Roadside or Venezualan arepas at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen.

Morimoto Napa showcases the Iron Chef's creative cuisine
The sushi bar at Morimoto Napa

Continue to embrace Napa's diverse food sensibilities by having dinner riverside at acclaimed Morimoto Napa. The Iron Chef blends Japanese and Western ingredients and techniques, creating an entirely modern dining experience. Indulge in delicacies such as abalone pot pie, lobster and king crab in red miso broth, sea urchin carbonara and 45-day aged steaks.

Napa Valley's renaissance spirit seems unstoppable. The town of Napa has become a walkable foodie paradise, while vineyards new and old continue to flourish in the area's fertile soil. And who knows what the next winery wonder will be, or the next cult label? The time is ripe, no matter the season, to get to know Napa Valley's ever-evolving personality.

TIPS:

It's tempting to tackle an ambitious list of "must do" wineries. But we recommend focusing on three or four per day to maximize your appreciation and keep a keen palate. Note that the days of complimentary tastings in Napa are practically over. Generally fees range from $5 on the low side to $15, $25, $40 and even higher, depending on the winery and depth of the tasting experience (i.e. tour and bottlings involved). Do ask your hotel's concierge for passes and even to arrange tastings for you, as sometimes fees might be waived. While many wineries are open to the public, generally between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., others require pre-set appointments. If unsure, call ahead while planning your visit to ensure a time slot.

Fall in the Vineyards of Napa Valley
Fall in the Vineyards

Consider hiring a chauffeur from Royal Coach Limousine to transport you between wineries. Not only will this foster more carefree wine tasting, but you won't mind being stuck in traffic along the thin Highway 29 main artery should you visit during the peak months (May through the final stages of grape crushing in October).

It's also wise to book restaurants prior to your stay during primetime unless you don't mind late-night noshing. Weekend reservations may be especially difficult to secure without advance planning. However, don't rule out wine country in the off-season. During summer months and grape harvest time, tasting rooms can be packed and rowdy. Trade that in for quiet, more personalized experiences at wineries, lower priced lodging and easier restaurant reservations from November through April. Late fall turns the vines to stunning reds and golds, winter brings the cozy romance of fog and green grassy hills set against the browns of the dormant vineyards and early spring's bright yellow mustard dazzles.



MORE NAPA VALLEY INFORMATION

Grape Vines in Napa Valley

* Hot air balloon image courtesy of www.visitnapavalley.com. Spring blossoms image courtesy of California Travel & Tourism Commission/Robert Holmes. Fall vineyard photo from www.inetours.com

(Updated: 06/03/13 SG)

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