Wine country crush: 9 activities we love in Napa and Sonoma
California's neighboring valleys of Napa and Sonoma have long been the stuff of oenophile dreams for their vast vineyards and world-class wineries. However, those in the know also love the region for its exciting outdoor activities, including cycling through rolling hills, tubing, and kayaking along the Russian River, and spearfishing. Yes, spearfishing.
Interested in seeing more than just grapes? Follow our guide to the best things to do in Napa and Sonoma.
1. Wine and Dine at the Vineyards
Vineyard hopping is the activity of choice in Napa and Sonoma, but for a more integrative experience book a winemaker's lunch or dinner. Many of the region's top wineries, including Robert Mondavi Winery, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, and Scribe Winery, offer special wine-pairing meals that feature fresh farm-to-table fare and fine wines hand-selected to enhance the flavors of the food. Best of all, you get to sup amid spectacular views of the vineyards.
2. Cycle Through Dry Creek Valley
Nothing beats feeling the sun on your back and breathing in fresh air while pedalling past undulating hills carpeted in vineyards, navigating through towering redwoods, or riding high above rugged coastlines. Take a tour with Wine Country Bikes to soak up the valley's superb scenery and stop at world-class wineries and cafes along the way. Whether you're a fitness fanatic or a bike tour newbie, there are routes and packages to suit all types, including easy-going day trips and multi-day adventures.
3. Take a Foodie Walking Tour of Healdsburg
Visit the small town of Healdsburg in Sonoma Valley, and it is soon glaringly obvious why Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the Top 10 Foodie Destinations in America. You can't shake an artisan bread stick here without hitting a cool cafe, craft brewery, or restaurant serving epicurean creations made with fresh locally-grown produce. Join Savor Healdsburg Food Tours on a walking tour of the town. Go behind the scenes in wine tasting rooms, local shops, and restaurant kitchens to meet winemakers and chefs and sample ridiculously good food and drinks.
4. Fly High on a Hot air Balloon Ride
See Napa and Sonoma from a whole different perspective on a hot air balloon ride with Up & Away. Depending on the weather, the hour-long flight may take you high above the valley to take in sweeping views the vineyards, Pacific Ocean, and San Francisco, or low among the grapevines to see wildlife, such as rabbits and deer. Each flight also includes a gourmet champagne brunch at Kendall-Jackson Winery, which includes homemade quiche, chocolate-covered strawberries, fresh fruit, local cheeses, creamy spreads, and cake served on hand-painted plates. If that doesn’t say fancy, we don’t know what does.
5. Kayak Through Sonoma County Waterways
It doesn't get more serene than slicing your way through the waters of the Russian River in a kayak while visions of meadows, vineyards, and redwood forests pass you by. Or you can up the adventure ante by heading out to sea to bob on the waves and watch seals play along the coast. Randy Johnson and Gateway Adventures offer two-person or small group private kayak tours that are suitable for all ages and abilities. Be sure to bring a sturdy pair of water shoes and prepare to get wet.
6. Master Spearfishing
Civilizations around the world have been practicing the art of spearfishing for millennia, and now you too can learn this ancient method with a full day spearfishing lesson with Sonoma Coast Divers. The class starts with a beachside lecture covering the basics of using a speargun, freediving techniques, and how to seek out your catch. Then it's into the water to spear rockfish and other underwater prey. Once you have collected your bounty, you can head back to shore to clean, cook, and devour your fish at a potluck picnic on the beach.
7. Rock Out at the Wineries
Wine country might not be known as party central (yet), but the area has become a hot spot for music events. One of the the biggest is the annual Bottlerock Napa Valley festival. The three-day event features more than 70 hit artists (past performers include Young the Giant, Imagine Dragons, The Avett Brothers, and Snoop Dogg) and wine and beer from more than 20 local producers. Robert Mondavi Winery, a seminal valley estate, has held a summer concert series for five decades with an eclectic range of performers—from the legendary Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, to recent stars like Gavin Degraw, Colbie Caillat, and Phillip Phillips. For a more intimate concert experience, head to the Huichica Music Festival, which takes place each spring at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery. The event features indie rock and folk bands, such as The Donkeys and Allah-Las, phenomenal food by vendors like Blueplate and Kronnerburger, great wines, and three unique stages around the property.
8. Soak in Natural Hot Springs
After trekking through the vineyards and exploring Napa and Sonoma's great outdoors and pretty towns, a day of pampering may be just what you need to soothe those aching muscles. Fortunately, the area has its fair share of luxurious day spas, especially in Calistoga. Located 3 miles northwest of St. Helena, the small town is famous for its natural hot springs, thermal geysers, and rejuvenating mud baths. The Wappo Indians were the first to identify the detoxifying properties of the mud here, and today serious spa seekers come to enjoy mud masks and soaks, mineral baths, and volcanic ash body scrubs in the numerous spas around town. For top-notch treatments, try Spa Solage for a three-part mudslide treatment, or the Auberge Spa at Calistoga Ranch for a warm-water Watsu pool soak or a eucalyptus steam room treatment—all while surrounded by a towering oak forest.
9. Explore Contemporary California Art
Sprawling across 217 acres in the Carneros region of Napa Valley, di Rosa is home to three separate art galleries housing more than 2,000 artworks by Californian artists. Some stand-out pieces include the mud, stick, and straw sculpture of a horse by Deborah Butterfield, the black and white figurative paintings by Viola Frey, the colorful glass wall made from over 4,000 bottles by Mildred Howard, and David Best's art car covered in such found objects as toy figurines and a massive rhino head.