Gourmets, culture hounds, and wine lovers gather at the river.
On its 50-mile journey from headwaters in Mount St. Helena, Calif., to San Pablo Bay, the Napa River nourishes vineyards, wetlands, and—finally—downtown Napa. The river, once a flood-prone property wrecker, is the source of a renaissance along Napa's Riverfront District.
There you'll find a flourishing community of great chefs, vintners, and artists. Some half-dozen years ago, visitors might have stopped briefly in Napa before heading up the valley to St. Helena. But Napa's spruced-up waterfront, protected now by a $238 million flood-control plan, is luring pleasure-seeking traffic.
The Riverfront District hugs Main Street and runs south to the historic A. Hatt Building, north to Yount Street, and east to the one-of-a-kind cultural center Copia. The commanding Hatt Building, with its front on Main Street and its back overlooking a pretty stretch of the river, is a good spot to take in the scale of improvements.
Shop Like a Chef
Buy organic and conventional produce at farmers' markets. Join the street food festival on Friday nights, or gather goodies at the Tuesday night and Saturday morning markets. Call (707) 252-7142 for times and locations.
Inside the Hatt, you can lodge at the plush Napa River Inn, where the rooms open onto verandas over the river. You can dine at either of two fine restaurants with outdoor seating near the river's bank, Celadon (where the international cuisine includes its signature calamari with spicy chipotle glaze and pickled ginger) or the French Angèle (don't miss the warm lentil-oxtail salad). The Hatt complex also houses the Napa General Store, the Greenhaus European Day Spa, and Sweetie Pies, a café-bakery.
Don't linger too long—get on the river. From the nearby Main Street dock, you can board Napa River Adventures' electric motor launch, a quiet, canvas-topped craft with windows and seating for 11 people, and navigate the marshland corridor.
Julia's Kitchen serves California-French cuisine made with ingredients picked from Copia's organic gardens. Call (707) 265-5700.
Reconnecting the lower end of the Napa to more than 650 acres of tidal wetlands has wrought an astonishing change—more birdlife than you can count. With the naked eye you can easily see grebes, kingfishers, egrets, and hawks.
Birding may take a backseat if you choose an excursion in a handcrafted Venetian gondola. As if gliding along the river with a sweetheart were not romantic enough, gondolier Angelino Sandri chants strains of "Tempo d'Estate" and Italian folk songs. No Bridge of Sighs here, though, so you'll have to smooch under the Third Street Bridge.
Back on terra firma, you can extend the Italian theme to dining choices that include Tuscany, Posticino, and Belle Arti. All are walking distance from the Hatt. At ZuZu, one of the hottest local eateries, you can savor tapas such as sizzling prawns.
Napa holds two of the county's most prominent cultural landmarks: the restored 1879 Napa Valley Opera House and Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts.
The opera house hosts a variety of events including lecture series, live comedy, theater, family programs, and classical music concerts. The fall lineup features such diverse performers as the Prague Philharmonic and vocalist Perla Batalla.
Copia, which rises in sleek stone, metal, and glass from the banks of the Napa River, opened in 2001 with generous seed money from vintner Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit. The center includes galleries, demonstration kitchens, an outdoor amphitheater, and beautiful organic gardens. Grab a bite at the American Market Café or enjoy fine dining at Julia's Kitchen, named after culinary icon and Copia trustee Julia Child.
Behind Copia you can stroll the oxbow segment of a lush trail that will be part of a 12-mile network when completed in 2009. As you do, you might ponder how much of this cultural revival is due to the call of a crooked river gone straight.
Photography by Mitch Tobias
This article was first published in September 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.