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Napa

You can still find the quiet side of Napa Valley, along with world class wines.

At St. Helena winery, you can sit outdoors, sip wine, and gaze across the vineyards.
Photo caption
At St. Helena winery, you can sit outdoors, sip wine, and gaze across the vineyards.

Remember how quiet Napa Valley was before it became an international tourist destination? You can still find that quiet—plenty of it—in the little town of Napa—along with some of the epicurean flair that attracts visitors to this world famous winegrowing valley.

Hurry though. Napa is stepping into a busy future—ground has been broken for a 6.5-acre wine, food, and art center. When completed, the ambitious center will embody two stories, gardens, agricultural displays, and a 300-seat amphitheater.

But, Napa wears its working class past proudly. Within a few blocks along Main Street, you can go from a chic riverfront micro-brewery, past the vintage Firefighters Museum, to the venerable landmark Labor Temple, the AFL-CIO wine valley local.

Odd juxtapositions like Napa Wine Bar on First Street next door to Napa Net, where you can enter cyberspace, seem, well, very Napa. Napa’s best anachronism: free parking, on its tree-lined streets or in covered lots, for up to three hours.

So ditch the car and take to foot-friendly historic downtown, with its handsome old county seat buildings, impressive First Presbyterian Church, bright murals, quaint or contemporary boutiques, bookstores, cafes, and creekside restaurants, including a few that give the town a healthy dose of snob appeal.

Town center’s bulky clock tower might put you in mind of a clunky adolescent with a big heart. It turns into a jumbo music box on the hour and the town resounds with its hollow plinks.

Many visitors orient themselves at the bustling Visitors Center on Main Street. As a southern gateway to wine country, Napa is a natural stop, even if you don’t plan on spending the night.

Which would be too bad, because more than half the Valley’s lodgings are in Napa—everything from romantic inns to fine hotels. And, what a shame, if you leave town without dining on the best Maine crabcrake and fine wines at Celadon; roasted, barbecued, or fresh oysters at Pearl; sausage marinated in Tail Wagon Ale at Downtown Joe’s Brewery.

As if to reward strollers, Napa’s streets are lined with exquisite, stately Victorians, many of them built by steamship captains of the late 1800s. Ornate cornices, friezes, brick, stone, and tile work, porches, sills, trimming, and detail wood the discriminating eye. Many of Napa’s pre-1906 Vics—a collection equal to those in Eureka or San Francisco—are now lavish inns with lush gardens.

To celebrate the town’s 150th anniversary this year and assist your walking tour, Napa County Landmarks has produced a map of historic sites. Pick one up free at the Visitors Center.

The small Veteran’s Memorial Park on the river is a nice place to relax, savor a picnic lunch. The kids may prefer the playground at Fuller Park, a few blocks from town center, where everyone can enjoy the thick lawn, giant cedars, picnic tables, and barbecues.

If your trip doesn’t feel complete without some shopping, downtown retailers can satisfy the need. You’ll find novelties and gifts at stores such as Napa Mercantile, Napa Children’s Book Company, the Paper Tiger, the Mustard Seed, Doll Store, Napa Valley Emporium, and many more.

On the west side of Highway 29, at the First Street exit, bargain hounds will find the Premium Outlet Malls, with favorite outlet haunts: Ann Taylor, Nine West, the Luggage Outlet, J. Crew, Van Heusen, Nautica, Book Warehouse, the Gourmet Chef, and more.

If strolling and shopping are too sedate for you, bicycle lanes invite two-wheeled sightseeing. And, if you’re really ambitious, you can pedal broad-shouldered First Street a few miles out to Westwood Hills Wilderness Park. Rolling trails—for foot traffic only—take you through peaceful wooded hills of oak, buckeye, olive trees, and other native trees and plants. Skyline Wilderness Park on Imola East is also loaded with native botanicals and naturalist trails.

Every Friday evening through October, the locals come out for a moveable feast at the Chef’s Market in the Town Center. Local chefs demonstrate their culinary expertise, shopkeepers and artisans set up booths, a farmer’s market sells everything from fresh flowers to exotic mushrooms.

Culture hounds might catch a concert or performance at the Jarvis Conservatory, 1711 Main St., in the former Lisbon Winery, built in 1882. The Conservatory showcases ballet, opera, and special performances throughout the year.

You’ll also find fine outdoor spectacles at the Napa Valley Music Festival, September 20-21, at Skyline Wilderness Park. Performers include Kathy Mattea, Cats N’ Jammers swing band, Freddy Fender, the Mumbo Gumbo Cajun Swamp Boogie, and more.

The comedy can be lively as well as intimate at Town Center’s small Vintners Showcase. You can also test your sleuthing skills at its murder mystery theater.

The ever-popular Napa Valley Wine Train begins its scenic chug up the valley in the town of Napa. You board at the Depot on Soscol Street. Order gourmet brunch, lunch, or dinner in the restored Pullman cars. Add a twist to your excursion on one of the theme trains— Murder Mystery, Halloween Ghost Train, Octoberfest Train, Santa Claus Train.

Golfers tee off at the Napa Municipal Golf Course, the Chardonnay Golf Club in south Napa, and the elegant Silverado Country Club north up the Silverado Trail. You can rent bicycles there, too.

Lest we forget what grows best here, Napa has a good twenty wineries in or near town, including Hess Collection, Monticello Vineyards, Trefethen, Pine Ridge, and some other spirits—Carneros Alambic Brandy Distillery and Hakusan Sake Gardens.

If you wish to accelerate the pace of wine touring, you have only to head north on either of two winery-dense routes—Hwy 29 or Silverado Trail. But be forewarned: You may have to leave the "quiet" behind in Napa—especially during upcoming crush season.

Photography courtesy of Visit Napa Valley

This article was first published in September 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.