Number 27 - August 2009
Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's quarterly newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website,, to learn more about our private, custom tours.

More than Wine in Napa's Wine Country

When I introduce visitors to Wine Country, they frequently say they'd like to return and spend a few days in Napa or Sonoma. I usually tell them about the great restaurants, the charming inns, and luxurious resorts; but I also caution them that tasting wine for three or more days may get a bit tiresome for all except the most serious wine geeks.

Fortunately, there's more to do in wine country than just visit wineries and taste wine. In the May issue of "Rick's Tips," I focused on other fun things to do in Sonoma County. In this issue, I'll cover Napa County.

Soak in the Mud

The town of Calistoga, at the northern end of the Napa Valley, was founded as a resort in the 19th century by San Francisco's first millionaire, Samuel Brannan. Brannan wanted to take advantage of the area's natural hot springs and build a resort patterned after Saratoga in New York. Legend has it that after a hard night of drinking, he said that he wanted the new town to be the Calistoga of Sarifornia, rather than the Saratoga of California. The story is probably apocryphal but, nevertheless, a good one.

Today Calistoga is full of spas. There are many opportunities to take mud baths and enjoy other spa treatments. Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort, Harbin Hot Springs, and Indian Springs Resort and Spa are among the oldest. The Calistoga Visitors Center's website has a full listing of spas, as well as other Calistoga resources.

Enjoy Mother Nature

The geothermal activity that creates Calistoga's hot springs also is the cause of one of only three geysers in the world to bear the name Old Faithful. While less famous than the Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful Geyser of California does erupt regularly and is worth visiting if you aren't going to get to Yellowstone or if you have children with you. About every half-hour, the geyser will send plumes of hot water 60 to 100 feet into the air. Old Faithful of California is privately owned. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. in the winter and until 6:00 p.m. in the summer. Admission is $8/adult, $7/senior, $3/child age 6 - 12, and free for children under age 6.

Also near Calistoga is the Petrified Forest. While this forest is not as famous as its namesake national park, a walk through the forest will take you past petrified redwood trees. This park is also privately owned. Petrified Forest is open daily from 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m., except in the winter when the park closes at 5:00 p.m. Admission is $7/adult, $6/senior and junior age 12 -17, and $3/child age 6 - 11.

Taste Some Olive Oil

More and more vineyards are lined with olive trees. Much of the fruit is pressed into artisan olive oil. You can taste samples of Napa's olive oil at Olivier in St. Helena and at the St. Helena Olive Oil Company, which has stores in both Rutherford and St. Helena. For a more formal olive oil tasting experience, visit Round Pond in Rutherford. You can do a 90-minute tour and tasting for $25/person or enjoy olive oil as part of a two-hour Al Fresco Lunch for $50/person.

Explore Napa's History

Most folks don't know that Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson spent some time in Monterey, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley. Stevenson came to California to convince the love of his life, Fanny Osbourne, to leave her husband and marry him. Osbourne agreed, and the two of them spent a couple of months living above what is today the Silverado Trail. Learn more about Stevenson's stay in California at the Silverado Museum in St. Helena. The museum is located at 1490 Library Lane and is open from noon - 4:00 p.m. from Wednesday through Sunday.

For a more general overview of the history and culture of the Napa Valley, visit the Napa Valley Museum at 55 President's Circle in Yountville. The Museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., except on Tuesdays and most holidays.

If you want to learn more about Calistoga and its founder, Sam Brannan, visit the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga. The museum is located at 1311 Washington Street in St. Helena and is open daily from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

Enhance Your Cooking Skills and Wine Knowledge

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is one of the world's premier schools for training chefs. The main campus is in Hyde Park, NY, but they have a west coast campus in St. Helena. The school offers degree and certificate programs in wine, food, and hospitality. The CIA also offers one and two-day programs, as well as classes for wine and food enthusiasts that last just a few hours. Cooking demonstrations are also available for you to watch chefs in action. If you collect cookbooks, be sure to drop by the school's bookstore. It seems to stock every cookbook in print. You can see a full listing of programs and classes on the CIA's website.

See the Valley from Above

As in Sonoma, companies offer balloon rides over the Napa Valley. Riding in a balloon is a peaceful way to see the valley from above. Unfortunately, the best time to ascend is shortly after sunset, so you have to meet your pilot between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m., depending on the time of year. Regardless of which company you travel with, you will have a continental breakfast before your balloon ride and a champagne brunch after the ride. Most rides last about one hour. The whole experience costs approximately $200/person. Two good companies are Napa Valley Balloons and Balloons Above the Valley.

Enjoy the Arts

Some wineries have art collections that are worth seeing even if you don't taste the wine. Turnbull and Mumm Napa Valley have very good photography galleries. The Hess Collection showcases Donald Hess' collection of contemporary art. Clos Pegase and Artesa have a good number of sculptures on the grounds surrounding the wineries. You can just stop by any of these wineries to see the art and taste the wine.

This is just a sampling of things to do in Napa County that do not involve drinking wine. For visitors, a three-day stay in Napa would be a peaceful part of a longer California vacation.

Northern California: An Explorer's Guide

This new guidebook, written by San Francisco resident, Michele Bigley, was released on June 1 and recommends Blue Heron Custom Tours & Travel. The book is a great resource for travel in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and all of Northern California - from Big Sur to the Oregon border.

Here's what Michele has to say about Blue Heron, "A wealth of knowledge, Rick takes folks on customized tours of the Bay Area, Wine Country, Central Coast, Mendocino, and even the Sierra Foothills. You tell him what you want and he'll create the ideal trip. He knows more about wine and food than most."

Thanks to Michele for the nice review. If you're planning on traveling in Northern California, you can pick up Northern California: An Explorer's Guide at most good bookstores.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Napa Valley, feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Rick's Blogs

For more information on sights in San Francisco, read my blog: Rick's San Francisco Journal. My other blog, Rick's Wine Country Journal, contains travel information on Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino wine country.

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See you on the road,

Rick Spear
Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel
275 Staples Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94112
(866) 326-4237 (toll free)
(415) 337-1874 (local)
(415) 587-7433 (fax)
TCP 16309-S CST 20685 16-40

"Go Where You Want To Go!"

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