Friday, 15 May 2009

Napa Wine Train offers taste of luxury

When you visit the famous wine-growing region of Napa,
perhaps there is no local attraction that captures the
spirit of your journey better than a ride on the Napa
Valley Wine Train. Hop on board this historic train and
you'll chug your way through scenic vineyards to
wine-lover's heaven.

The Napa experience is all about wine, of course, but it's
also about enjoying the finer things in life. The typical
Napa visitor will spend considerable time visiting several
of the local wineries where each will offer up its special
formulas and vintages - usually for ten to 15 bucks for a
few sips - and there are few lodgings in Napa that are not
upscale. Fine dining is also considered de rigueur for any
serious visit to what is now the home base for hundreds of
wineries.

It's fitting, therefore, that the Napa Valley Wine Train
would be one of the most popular tourist attractions in a
place that is the definition of elegance. Just like
visitors taste expensive wines for a fraction of their
cost, the visitor who boards the Wine Train gets a little
taste of pampered rail travel - think Orient Express - for
a fraction of what it would cost for the real thing.

We stayed the night before in San Francisco, but we were
still able to make our way to the Wine Train's station in
Napa by about 10:30 a.m. to board the lunch train. The Wine
Train also offers a dinner excursion but that was fully
booked when we called for reservations weeks ahead. The
lunch train, though, has its advantages: the entire
three-hour ride is in daylight no matter the time of year,
and it costs a little less.

You'll want to plan on being patient during the boarding
process. With hundreds of guests and passengers allocated
to different dining areas and even, in some cases,
different meals, it just takes a little time to get
everyone signed in and out onto the train. But during the
hour we waited for actual boarding, the Wine Train offered
a lecture on Napa Valley wineries and - always a
crowd-pleaser - a couple of glasses of wine to sample.

Once on board, it's clear that the Wine Train has pulled
out all the stops to make this as luxurious as possible. We
settled down into plush chairs facing one another with a
table in between. Others in our car sat in comfortable
over-stuffed swivel chairs positioned side by side so that
guests could constantly view the passing scenery or easily
chat with one another. This particular rail car was styled
in red and gold with natural wood accents, giving a sense
of luxury and feeling quite different from a typical
passenger car on, say, Amtrak.

This is a historic rail car and, in fact, there is quite a
history behind this train and railroad. The rail line was
first built in 1864 by San Francisco's first millionaire,
Samuel Brannan, and was used to take visitors to his new
spa resort called "Calistoga." In 1885, Southern Pacific
bought the Napa Valley Railroad, which provided regular
passenger service to the Napa Valley until the 1930's. It
was used for freight for awhile after that, but it was not
until 1987 that a group of concerned citizens founded the
Napa Valley Wine train and purchased locomotives and
restored 1910-era Pullman rail cars to provide the new
service.

During our three hours on board, we were treated to waves
of meal and beverage service starting with wine (not
included in your meal price, by the way), appetizers,
salad, a main course - which during our trip was a choice
between salmon and a beef entrée - and dessert.
Everything was exquisitely prepared and the presentations
rivaled what you would find at an expensive gourmet
restaurant.

The trip took us part way up the valley to St. Helena and
then back to Napa. Along the way we passed countless
wineries, gorgeous vineyards and majestic views of the
hills and mountains just beyond the valley. On weekends the
Wine Train offers a variation of this lunch service that
allows passengers to disembark and spend some time at a
local winery before making the return trip to Napa.

We arrived back in Napa totally relaxed and decided to
visit a few wineries before checking into our resort. The
choices are endless and, in Napa, there are several major
wineries that have put Big Money into their visitor
centers. There are also a few smaller family-run wineries.
They all want you to buy cases or bottles of wine to take
back home but, in Napa, we've noticed a trend in recent
years toward charging more for wine tasting. Or it may be a
case of charging the same but getting less wine. Part of
this, we're suspecting, has to do with how busy Napa is on
weekends and is a way of reducing the line at the tasting
bar.

One of the least expensive tastings is at V. Sattui Winery,
where the gift shop and deli were buzzing with people, and
lines were forming along the wine bar to taste the latest
offerings for just $5 for four wines. Located in St.
Helena, this winery is a popular stop for visitors who want
to buy a bottle of wine and then picnic on the beautifully
landscaped grounds. The winery even sets up a buffet line
out on the grounds, offering barbecue for those who didn't
bring their brown bags. Interestingly, V. Sattui does not
sell its wine anyplace other than the winery, by mail
order, or from the company web site.

While V. Sattui is typical of a relatively small family-run
winery, the other end of the scale is Domaine Chandon,
which we found in Yountville. With spectacular park grounds
and a four-star gourmet restaurant just footsteps from
where the wine is made, Domaine Chandon is an example of a
winery owned by a large conglomerate that distributes its
product world-wide. On a previous trip we took the
45-minute tour of this massive facility, which we thought
was well worth the time. Small groups are taken
step-by-step through the process of wine-making all the way
from growing the grapes to bottling the product.

We concluded our busy first day in the Napa Valley with a
short drive to our lodging for the evening, the Silverado
Resort and Spa in Napa. Like several other Napa Valley
accommodations, the Silverado is steeped in luxury and
offers a feast for the senses. Located adjacent to an
18-hole golf course, the Silverado is really a series of
individual cottage suites which are reached by winding
walkways through and alongside picturesque, colorful
gardens, golf fairways, courtyards and ponds.

Each of the cottages at Silverado has a unique décor
and ours felt like a small one-story vacation home with a
complete kitchen and living room area, dining table,
fireplace and separate bedroom. A wide-screen flat TV was
in the living room, while just outside the sliding glass
door was a patio and chairs where we could sit and watch
the golfers just a few yards away.

The Silverado reminded us a little of Harrison Hot Springs,
B.C., a favorite resort of ours that has the same kind of
feeling - that of a village of unique accommodations
connected by meandering walkways with little surprises
around every turn. With 1,200 acres altogether, Silverado
guests encounter many pleasant surprises on grounds that
are lush with trees and vegetation and impeccably
maintained.

Silverado was the perfect complement to our day on the Napa
Valley Wine Train and another great example of the spirit
of Napa Valley.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: The Napa Valley is about 45 miles northeast of San
Francisco or about 60 miles southwest of Sacramento.

WHAT: The Napa Valley has become famous because of the
grapes grown in this location. Grapes grown in different
climates, soils and locations have different
characteristics and Napa Valley grapes are judged to be
some of the best in the world for making several varieties
of fine wine. Accordingly, more than 300 wineries now have
located in the Valley. Fine restaurants, lodging and
shopping have also come to the Valley.

WHEN: Any time of year. A special bonus comes in August and
September during the annual grape harvest. You can
sometimes see first-hand how the grapes are crushed. Hint:
Most of them don't do it like Lucy Ricardo did.

WHY: The Valley has an almost mystical ambiance that is
hard to describe, but easy to discern.

HOW: To begin planning your trip to Napa Valley, go to
www.napavintners.com or www.napachamber.org. To learn more
about the Napa Valley Wine Train, call 800-427-4124 or go
to www.winetrain.com. For information on Silverado Resort
and Spa, phone 800-427-4124 or visit
www.silveradoresort.com.


About the Author:

Cary Ordway is a syndicated travel writer and president of
Getaway Media Corp, which publishes websites focused on
regional getaway travel. Among the sites currently offered
by GMC are http://www.californiaweekend.com , and
http://www.northwesttraveladvisor.com .