NAPA, Calif. – Love the lush and lovely Napa Valley but hate how expensive it can be? You’re not the first. In the late 19th century, writer Robert Louis Stevenson moved his honeymoon to the rustic but free setting of an abandoned mining camp when the $10-a-week going rate for Calistoga hotels proved too much for his slender purse.
You’re not likely to find free lodging today, even if it is in a beat-up cabin. But there are a number of things you can enjoy in California’s premiere wine region at no charge.
There are two main ways to see the Napa Valley by car.
Highway 29 is a straight shot from the south end of the valley – marked by the famous Grape Crusher Statue – through Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga. Along the way are dozens of restaurants and wineries, including the Robert Mondavi Winery and Inglenook, the winery restored by director Francis Ford Coppola. Be aware traffic gets heavy at rush hour and slows to a crawl when there’s a big event going on, such as the annual wine auction held the first weekend in June.
To reach the Grape Crusher Statue from Highway 29 (heading north from the San Francisco Bay area), turn left onto Soscol Ferry Road, continue on Vista Point Drive, then continue onto Napa Valley Corporate Drive and then right at the statue.
The other driving option is the Silverado Trail, which is most easily picked up by taking the Trancas Street exit from Highway 29 in Napa and then turning left when you see the sign for the Silverado Trail. The trail more or less runs parallel to Highway 29 but is quieter, winding through green vistas of vineyards and rolling hills. Wineries along this route include Mumm Napa Valley.
The days when winery owners routinely poured their wares for free are no more, although several wineries offer two-for-one tasting coupons (check online before you visit), and others will waive tasting fees if you buy a bottle to take home. But there is still at least one winery offering tariff-free tasting. That would be Sutter Home Family Vineyards – the people who introduced America to white zinfandel in the 1970s – in St. Helena.
Stop by the charming tasting room on Highway 29 in St. Helena (277 St. Helena Highway) and taste up to four wines free from the eight-wine tasting menu, which includes a zinfandel port. And if you want to go cost- and alcohol-free, ask for a tasting of Fre, which is a line of wines that have had the alcohol removed; http://www.sutterhome.com, open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
The Napa Valley is famous for fine dining and you can watch some of the city’s top chefs plying their trade at the Napa Chef’s Market, a free weekly event on Thursday nights in downtown Napa. Traffic is rerouted so the market is like a big street party with live music and scores of stalls selling food, drink, art and other items. There are two cooking demonstrations, at 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. where you can watch the food being made and then enjoy a taste when it’s done.
The valley may be best known for its grapes, but there are other things grown here, too. See the rest of the region’s bounty at the Napa Farmers Market (500 First St., next to the Oxbow Public Market), held on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m., May 1-Oct. 30. The pickings get better as the weather grows warmer; hit the market in late summer to see it at its best.
More than 75 wineries have art on display all year long. Some of the places to see free art anytime include The Hess Collection’s contemporary art museum, featuring works from the private collection of owner Donald Hess (4411 Redwood Road, Napa, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.), and The Baron Wolman Gallery at Markham Vineyards (2812 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena, open daily 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.), with photographs by Wolman, Rolling Stone’s first chief photographer.
The Land Trust of Napa County offers free hikes most weeks between April and November exploring the wild side of the valley. Go online to see the hikes planned for this year. Advance registration – http://community.napalandtrust.org/page.aspx?pid=300 – is required and some of the hikes are quite strenuous.
Also free is Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, which includes a five-mile hike one-way to the top of Mount St. Helena, offering panoramic views of the valley and beyond. The park is about eight miles north of Calistoga on Highway 29; limited parking, no bathrooms.
The cabin where Stevenson and his bride dodged those pricey rack rates of 1880 is long gone, but a monument about a mile up the trail marks the area where the couple stayed.