The Napa Valley Wine Country isn't really known for kid-friendly venues, since the emphasis there is primarily on adult beverages. Nonetheless, for Labor Day weekend, we decided to do a day-trip to Napa Valley, which is about a two hour drive from our house. Even though it's not that far from where we live, we rarely go up to the Wine Country unless we have visitors who want to see it, mainly because I didn't think there would be much appeal for our nine year old son. We decided to spend Saturday up in the wine country, exploring fun activities for kids in Napa Valley.
Castello di Amorosa Winery
Several on-line guides recommended the Castello di Amorosa, a re-creation of the 12th century Tuscan castle on the hillside near Calistoga. The guides said that this would be fun for kids, since there is a tour that includes a dungeon and castle turrets to run around on. We made our way down the Silverado trail and pulled up in front of the castle, which from the outside, did not disappoint. Alex exclaimed, "Where there battles here, Mom?"
I had to tell him that it was highly unlikely any battles were fought here, except maybe the Great Chardonnay Wars of '07, which resulted in casualties. Unfortunately, many grapes were crushed in the incursion. He rolled his eyes, because he's smart like that and knows when I'm pulling his leg.
Two things the guides failed to mention: 1) On the weekends, it costs $15 per adult/$5 per child aged 5-20 to go into the castle, and the guided tour is $30 per adult/$20 per child; and 2) the wine is not good. Kids under 5 get in free, and the entrance fees are slightly less during the week. The only way to see the dungeon is to pay for the full tour. I didn't think was worth $80 to see a fake dungeon, when we'd seen real ones in Scotland, plus the next available tour was four hours after we arrived.
We plunked down our $35 for the three of us, and proceeded to look at the Great Hall, which was a recreation of a medieval banquet hall. The walls were painted from floor to ceiling in scenes that looked like they could have been on some 12th century tapestry or another, and large metal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. There was nothing going on in the Great Hall, and it was a little dark and foreboding. Alex peeked in, and promptly ran away.
We walked around the the second floor turrets, looking for a bathroom, and had a nice view of Napa Valley. It was a beautiful, cloudless day, not too hot, and the scenery was breathtaking from this vantage point. We eventually made our way down to the wine tasting room and gift shop, where we were ignored by the wine pourers, which was probably a good thing, given how bad the wine was. Some of it was pretty much undrinkable, and a tannins a tannin, not matter how "oaky" or "smoky" or whatever spin you want to put on it. I drank the first three samples and one sip of the fourth and gave up. I'm no wine connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, but I know when something tastes bad and makes me long for a mouthwash chaser.
As a tourist attraction, this place gets high marks, as a winery, it has a long, long way to go. According to their webside, they use sustainable farming techniques and aim to reduce their carbon footprint in making the wines, which are laudable goals. Hopefully, in a few years, they'll get this wine-thing down and start producing wines that live up to the venue.
I can understand the vintner's desire to make a unique place for families to come out to be together, but it will take more than a free juice pouch and some coloring books to make this a destination for kids. The website touts horse-drawn carriage rides through the venue as one of the attractions, which might be fun, but sounds more like a romantic getaway than a family adventure to me.
Not far down the road from Castello di Amorosa is the famous Sterling Vineyards Tramway, another attraction lauded by on-line guides as a good place for families. The gondola-style tram ascends up 350 feet to the winery, over a lovely lily pond and a great view of the castle off on the distant hillside.
We waited for about half an hour to board the tram, and enjoyed the ride to the top, happily snapping photos and admiring the beauty of the Napa Valley. The tram ride plus samples of five wines was $20 for each adult, $10 for kids (3 and under are free). You can download a $5 off coupon for admission on their website. They give you a coupon for $10 off a wine purchase of $25 or more in the gift shop, to off-set the price.
Frank and I had been here before, and are not fans of Sterling wines. They tend to be too bitter and somewhat bland, but since we were here last, they seemed to have improved. The first pinot gris we tried was awful, acidic, and left a horrible after-taste, but the reds and the sweet dessert wine were drinkable, and would be fine with the right food pairing. We bought a bottle of the dessert wine to use our coupon. It was sweet and fruity without being cloying, and would go well with chocolate or fruity desserts or a summer salad. Alex got a Capri Sun grape juice pouch while we were tasting. It would have been nice to have some kind of snacks available, after the long wait for the tram, but there were none to be had.
The view from the top floor of the winery was also quite stunning, and the picture at the top of the blog post is just one of the vistas. It was a lovely place to snap pictures and hang around, but our impatient child wanted nothing to do with it.
We had lunch at Bosko's Italian Trattoria restaurant in downtown Calistoga, based on a recommendation from the AAA guide. The menu features fresh pasta, hand-tossed pizza, and salads. The service we had when we visited was lousy. It took nearly two hours to get food, plus a complaint to the manager. Based on my complaint, the manager graciously reduced our bill, but never explained why everyone around us who were seated later than us got served and were nearly done before our food came out. The pasta was fresh, but a little too al dente for Frank's taste, but Alex and I enjoyed ours. I don't know if our order was lost, or they just didn't like us, but I would probably opt for the deli across the street and a picnic next time we go to Calistoga.
Old Faithful Geyser
After some rather disappointing food and wine experiences (hey, not everything can be Fleur de Lys), we ventured on to the Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga. This is one of three or four geysers in the world that earned the title "old faithful" due to its regularity in spewing out hot water from the earth. We saw the one at Yellowstone last year, so we wanted to compare the California model.
There is something very quaint and old-fashioned about this park, like it is stuck in the 1920s, with its wooden picnic tables, petting zoo, and no frills attitude. We were there for about an hour, and Old Faithful, true to its name, went off about six times. I enjoyed sitting in the shade at a picnic table and just watching the families stroll by, take pictures, and picnic. Had we known, we would have bought sandwiches and brought a picnic lunch here and just enjoyed the view of the geyser. That would have been a better choice than eating in town.
The park features a small petting zoo with llamas, fainting goats, and sheep that kids may enjoy getting up-close and personal with, in addition to the geyser.
I had been somewhat skeptical about going to Old Faithful, thinking that after Yellowstone it would be sort of anti-climactic. However, I found that each time it went off, it was quite thrilling. It was far less crowded than Yellowstone, and had no pretense of being anything other than an interesting geological phenomenon and a petting zoo.
The entry fee is $10 for adults, $3 for kids 6-12. You can download a $1 off coupon on their website. In this economy, a buck's a buck.
The Petrified Forest
Frank was really interested in seeing the Petrified Forest, about four miles from Calistoga. After the geyser, we hopped in the Lincoln MKT and drove down the road to the Petrified Forest. I have to say that I was tired by this time, so I was inclined to skip this attraction, but I'm glad we didn't.
The Petrified Forest is about a half-mile trail through a grove of various kinds of trees, marked by the petrified remains of some very large, fallen redwoods. The trees were petrified by a volcanic eruption 3.4 million years ago, and the stone is really layers of silica that replaced the cells of the trees. The trail is well-marked, and the petrification process is explained by the markers. There is also a lovely grove of manzanita trees, stunning, gnarly branches with smooth bark that only grow in California. I thought someone had painted these trees with red paint, because the color doesn't look like something you'd normally find in nature.
The Petrified Forest is a lovely place, and like the Geyser, has a quaint, old-fashioned feel to it, like it's the same as it would have been in 1920 or 1940. The gift shop offers a wide variety of geological novelties and knicknacks. Many items would be great show-and-tell fodder.
Admission is $8 for adults/$6 for teens/$3 for kids under 12. You can download a 15% off coupon at their website.
Overall, my advice on Napa Valley is that if you want to do wine-tasting, find a babysitter and leave the kids at home. There are many excellent vineyards that offer tastings of some very fine wines, the kind of wine that makes California famous the world over. Be sure to drink responsibly and designate a driver (or hire one) so you'll make it back home to your kids.
If you want to do things with your kids in Napa, take them to the Petrified Forest and the Geyser, or pack a picnic lunch and hit one of the great parks in Napa Valley. Napa doesn't have to mean wine every time, so enjoy your family time together. Despite the less than stellar food and wine experience, we had a great day in Napa Valley and look forward to going back to see what else this unique part of California has to offer.