Even more than neighboring Sonoma Valley, Napa County first put the United States on the international wine map, and since its ascendance in the 1970s, its popularity as a vacation retreat for wine lovers and foodies has grown at a steady rate. Stretching from its seat and largest city, Napa (population 80,000), north through the small country towns of Yountville and Rutherford and on to tony St. Helena and the artsy and outdoorsy spa town of Calistoga, the Napa Valley contains some 400 wineries, including world-renowned powerhouses like Stag's Leap, Rutherford Hill, Clos Pegase, Domaine Chandon, and Franciscan Estate.
It's a smaller county, by far, than Sonoma to its immediate west, and it's slightly farther from San Francisco (which is a one-hour from downtown Napa) as well. Napa also has a less ardent gay following than Sonoma County, but this is still very much a welcoming, socially liberal region with a sizable percentage of GLBT residents, many of them employed in the hospitality industry.
Napa County abounds with diverting lodgings, from upscale chains and boutique resorts - which prevail especially at the southern end of the county - to independent B&Bs, vintage motor courts, and secluded getaways, several of them gay-owned.
If you're familiar with the luxury boutique resort brand Auberge, you may already be aware of the company's reputation for unparalleled personal service, thoughtful amenities, and unbelievably romantic settings. Begun in Napa with Rutherford's still supremely inviting Auberge du Soleil resort, and with outposts elsewhere around the world in such desirable locales as Aspen, Anguilla, and Cabo San Lucas, the brand also operates one of the most enchanting and inspired getaways in the Napa Wine Country, Calistoga Ranch (580 Lommel Rd., Calistoga, 707-254-2800), a completely private 157-acre spread in a lush canyon just a few miles east of the village of Calistoga. A favorite retreat of everyone from celebs keeping a low profile to couples celebrating major occasions in the ultimate style (it's an amazing location for an LGBT destination wedding), the Ranch offers premier amenities and spacious, handsomely appointed accommodations with ample indoor and outdoor spaces.
The property is made up of 50 freestanding guest lodges shaded by oaks and pine trees and set in a spectacular canyon. There are two- and one-bedroom options as well as "deluxe" units, which might bring to mind a studio, but even these are 600 square feet, have huge master bathrooms with private bath gardens, and spacious outdoor living rooms. Just to give you an idea, the two-bedroom lodges are 2,400 square feet. All have outdoor gas fireplaces and outdoor rain showers in the bath garden. The resort is also home to a superb spa offering full slate of treatments featuring the curative mineral waters for which Calistoga is famous, along with massages, facials, and complimentary yoga and fitness classes. Dining in the open-air Lakehouse restaurant, helmed by Executive Chef Bryan Moscatello (formerly of Aspen's exclusive Little Nell), is a treat for the senses: organic, locally sourced produce and meats feature in the farm-to-table California fare (rabbit with foie gras and truffles, wild King salmon with chanterelles and char roe), and the estimable wine list includes Calistoga Ranch's own celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon. There's also more casual dining on the Pool Terrace (adjacent to the resort's stunning swimming pool) and in the Lounge Bar. The resort also offers classes in a variety of disciplines, from beekeeping to wine-blending, as well as bocce, guided hikes, wellness classes, and more. Of course, you're perfectly free simply to soak up the grounds and the radiant vibe at your own pace.
The beautiful, gay-owned Chanric Inn (1805 Foothill Dr., Calistoga, 707-942-4535) is an airy, smartly furnished property with seven guestrooms and a handy location just off Highway 128 on the edge of Calistoga's picturesque downtown - it's just a 10- to 15-minute walk to the main drag, Lincoln Avenue, which is lined with great restaurants and shops. Rooms are the Chanric are airy, uncluttered, and contemporary - for a truly memorably experience, book the largest room, which has a Jacuzzi tub. In all rooms you're treated to fine Thierry Mugler spa products, iPod clock radios, thick robes, and free W-Fi, and rates include an extensive three-course breakfast (with organic juices, and creative treats like French milk sausage with Fuji apples, prunes, and Calvados; or smoked-salmon rolls with eggplant caviar and Kalamata olives), sweets at turndown, and Schramsberg champagne in the evening. In-room massages can be arranged, and guests can while away a sunny afternoon on the expansion patio, or with a dip in the kidney-shape swimming pool or hot tub. Hosts Joel Haddad and Jim Dollard are originally from France and know a great deal about the Napa region - they're great resources for planning everything from local winery tours to area hikes.
Lazing by the blissful pool and garden hot tub at Chateau de Vie (3250 Hwy. 128, Calistoga, 877-558-2513), it's easy to forget about any plans you might have made previously related to touring the dozens of stellar wineries in and around Calistoga. That is, until you sit up and gaze east toward the rows of vineyards adjoining the neatly trimmed yard and rose and lavender gardens surrounding this gorgeous, gay-owned, and unabashedly romantic five-room inn a five-minute drive from the engaging little downtown of Calistoga. Genial innkeepers Felipe and and Peter strike the perfect balance between tending to any requests you might have and leaving guests to their own devices. There's that lovely pool, or you could curl up on the back garden patio with a book, soaking up the sunshine and vineyard views (it's also nice to eat breakfast out here on warm mornings).
Four of the guest rooms are inside the gracious French chateau-inspired manor house, its exterior walls covered in ivy. They include a spacious third-floor suite with pitched ceilings. Another suite is just behind the main house, tucked down a quiet pathway and set inside a handsomely restored carriage house - this one has a deep Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom, a gas fireplace, and its own private patio. Perks include L'Occitane bath products, flat-screen TVs, iPod docks, guest robes and sandals, and high-quality Egyptian cotton sheets, and the decor throughout guest rooms and common areas is uncluttered and in the style of a modern country house - there's nothing fussy or overbearing about this chateau. In the morning, guests are treated to fresh-prepared full breakfasts at a time of their choosing, and wine and cheese are served in the afternoon. You can also purchase bottles of the outstanding Chateau de Vie Cabernet Sauvignon, produced with grapes grown in the vineyards behind the inn.
Run by amiable owners Jim Gunther and Jamie Cherry, the Inn on First (1938 1st St., Napa, 707-253-1331) is one of the most inviting and popular small properties in the city of Napa. The elegant 1905 home is in a pretty residential neighborhood that's within an enjoyable 10-minute walk of downtown's many restaurants, shops, and tasting rooms. Accommodations in this dog-friendly getaway include 10 rooms and suites set among two buildings, the main mansion and an adjacent outbuilding with Garden Suites on the ground floor and two spacious Honeymoon Suites on the upper level. An extensive full breakfast is included in the rates, as is Mumm sparkling wine in your room when you check in, parking, and chocolate truffles and other treats prepared by Gunther, a talented chef.
Set along a tree-shaded paved pedestrian and bike path flanking the Napa River, the aptly named River Terrace Inn (1600 Soscol Ave., Napa, 707-320-9000) makes an ideal base for a Wine Country getaway. It's close enough to downtown Napa for easy access to the many tasting rooms and fine restaurants (and just a 10-minute walk from the gourmet food stalls and cafes of Oxbow Public Market), but it's on a peaceful tract of land. Rooms are spacious and comfortable, with upscale countryside-inspired furnishings, but at reasonable rates for the area. A hearty breakfast is available in the Terrace Cafe restaurant, which acts as a fun bar and dinner option at night. On Friday evenings, guests enjoy a free wine tasting in the lobby featuring a local vintner. There's ample free parking, a well-equipped fitness room, and a heated outdoor pool, and spa treatments can be arranged for enjoyment in the privacy of your guest room. A welcoming, helpful staff completes the picture.