As landscapes go, it’s hard to top the views of the Napa Valley from the basket of a hot-air balloon. On a crisp day last December, just after dawn, I floated over rolling green hills and maroon-coloured vineyards, the scenery tinged silver with early morning frost. Soon, other balloons were gliding through this stretch of Northern California sky, occasionally zipping straight up like languid champagne bubbles.
The vistas are startlingly beautiful and peaceful, so it’s hard to believe that just two months earlier, this area of California had been besieged by wildfires. Several fast-moving — and ultimately, deadly — fires damaged portions of the region, torching whole neighbourhoods in minutes. But despite the terrible loss in some places, most of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Butte and Solano Counties was left intact. Thanks to tireless first responders, about 95 per cent of the region was unharmed.
Northern Cali is now in recovery mode, and eager to welcome visitors back to this picturesque part of the world. And if the promise of delicious vintages and stunning landscapes aren't enough to convince you, here are a few other reasons to consider a visit in the near future:
Hot new hotels
View from room at Las Alcobas
There’s a fresh crop of hotels in Napa, where visitors and locals mingle in swish lobbies and dine at high-profile restaurants. The new kid on the block downtown is the Archer Hotel, with a rooftop that delivers 360-degree views of the Valley. On a recent Tuesday night — just days after opening — it was next to impossible to find a seat at the bar, adjacent to the hotel’s signature restaurant, Charlie Palmer Steak.
Up the road in St. Helena lies Las Alcobas, which features 68 guest rooms and suites curated by Canadian design firm, Yabu Pushelberg. The rooms are pure luxury, especially those with vineyard views — definitely worth splurging on. Don’t miss the signature salt-foam-topped margaritas at Acacia House, the on-site restaurant helmed by chef Chris Cosentino.
Festivals made for foodies
There are food-focused celebrations each and every season in wine country. Every January, guests can explore the Napa Valley Truffle Festival, a four-day gourmet event dedicated to the esteemed fungi.
If you’re a crab lover, this is the time of year to head to northern California, as crab season is in full swing. Mark your calendar for the nine-day Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Beer Festival (which just passed) or the Great Sonoma Crab and Wine Fest, which takes place annually on the first Saturday in February.
Arts & culture in every county
Napa Light Fest
Travellers who limit their California visit to wine country are missing out on the area’s amazing variety of art galleries, performance venues and cultural festivals. This became clear to me on a special tuk-tuk tour of the Napa Lighted Arts Festival, which illuminated the city over the holidays, and again as I toured France is a Feast, an exhibit of rarely seen, black-and-white photos of Julia Child at the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville (on now until May).
Those who like a little wine with their art can choose from 12 Napa Valley wineries that house art galleries. Don’t miss the extensive (and excellent) contemporary art at The Hess Collection Winery.
Or head over in Sonoma County: With thousands of artists and more than 120 performing arts companies, it may just have more artists per capita than anywhere else in California. Check out the South A Street Art District in Santa Rosa, a trendy neighbourhood housing nearly 40 working artists' studios. Visit on the first Friday of each month for First Friday Open Studios, which features live music.
Wine experiences that go beyond basic tastings
Wine Country Wildfire Relief
There are countless places to taste wine in northern California, so why not try your hand at making wine yourself? Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery offers a fun “Winemaker for a Day” experience. Held in the historic building’s Cave of Curiosity, you can blend, bottle and label your very own vino. It’s the perfect wine-country souvenir. (Top hats and fascinators are provided for the blending session. How fancy!)
For a more relaxed experience, check out Silver Trident Winery in Yountville, Napa. Billed as a “tasting home” and decorated exclusively in Ralph Lauren, Silver Trident’s various rooms and nooks encourage visitors to take it easy. My favourite space is the dining room, designed to be cozy-chic “like the inside of a purse.”
Disclosure: The writer was hosted by Visit California & its affiliates. They did not review this article before publication.