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Travel Tips



Napa Valley








Napa Valley:  This is America's premier wine producing region.  All the big names are here and so are all the tourists.  You can visit the Napa Valley as a day trip from San Francisco but you will do better to spend one night in the valley.


The Napa Valley runs generally north-south with highway 29 running along the west side and the Silverado Trail along the east side.  The wineries with the biggest names and the longest history are along highway 29.  It has more towns and more traffic than the Silverado Trail.  I suggest that visitors to the valley plan on going north on 29 in the morning hours.  If you are in or near Calistoga by 2:00 pm, you can cross over to the Silverado Trail to run back down the valley.  This allows you to miss much of the afternoon traffic that exists on highway 29.  


For tours, try to mix things up between the larger wineries (Sterling, Mondavi & Beringer especially), and smaller producers; and be sure to see one of the sparkling wine makers (Mumm Napa Valley or Domaine Chandon).


In the Napa Valley, Robert Mondavi's subsidiary up the Oakville Grade, La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi has a very nice picnic area, which must be reserved in advance.  Also, Chateau Montelena has a beautiful picnic area, which also must be reserved in advance.  V. Sattui is another picnic choice.


Lodging in the valley runs from the Comfort Inn in Calistoga to the Marriott in Napa and higher prices at the Vintage Inn in Yountville, the Silverado Inn, the Meadow wood Resort and Auberge du Soleil.


Sonoma        Aside from some terrific wineries, visitors to Sonoma should stop on their way to or from San Francisco to see Muir Woods.  This is a state park that protects a stand of giant redwoods.  You need to see this truly remarkable place. 



Bordeaux     This is a must visit for most true wine lovers.  Bordeaux is the largest region in France in the production of A.O.C. quality wines in France.  Winery names in Bordeaux form a who's who for the wine world.  Many wineries have tours but almost all require that you arrange an appointment well in advance.  Some of the chateaux only give tours for individuals in the wine trade.


For a good visit, plan to spend 3 days with about 2 of those days visiting the wine country around the city of Bordeaux (1 day in the Medoc, 1/2 day in Saint Emilion/Pomerol, and 1/2 day in Graves and Sauternes).  The town of Saint Emilion is especially picturesque and you should plan on having lunch there.


Unless you are in the wine trade, you should avoid Bordeaux in the 3rd and 4th weeks of March.  Those weeks are traditionally reserved for showing the new vintage to the trade.  One week is for importers and key restaurant/retail buyers and the other week is mostly devoted to showing the wines to the press.  You may still be able to visit some of the chateaux but many of the better ones will be pre-occupied.


For a modest but comfortable (by American standards) hotel in Bordeaux, I've had repeated consistent good luck with the Hotel St. Catherine.  It is a Best Western affiliate in the heart of Bordeaux.  The hotel is very well located just 25 yards from a pedestrian mall in one direction and 75 yards from a plaza in the other direction.  The only caveat regarding the hotel is that the clerks have not always had strong English language skills.  Always enough to get the job done, but with a bit of a struggle.


The pedestrian mall is a road that has restricted automobile traffic.  It is lined by shops and cafes, and is a great place to walk off the jet lag on a Sunday afternoon.  The plaza comes alive in the evenings as three good restaurants extend their seating out into the square.


Dune du Pyla

During any visit to Bordeaux of 3 or more days (especially if the weekend is involved), you should visit Arcachon which is an hour away on the coast.  Have seafood at one of the close to the beach restaurants and go watch the sunset from the Dune du Pyla.  The Dune is 15 miles from Arcachon so allow 30 minutes to get there from Arcachon.  Take a bottle of wine and glasses to toast the sunset.  It's a spectacular event as the sun sets across the water while you view it from atop a 385 foot tall sand dune.  Do not miss this.  Tennis shoes, no skirts.  You get to the dune from the inland side and are already 2/3 of the way up so getting to the top is easier than it sounds.  A stairway takes you to the top.


TGV Trains

If you are going to be traveling from Paris to Bordeaux, the TGV train is a nice alternative to flying.  The TGV is a French high speed train that is clean and very fast.  The price is not much different than taking an Air France flight but the train is almost as fast and is a pleasant change.


Champagne  This region can be a great day-trip from Paris or a trip that lasts longer.  There are trains that run from the Paris - Est station that will take you within walking distance (or a short taxi ride) of some of the finest Champagne houses in Reims or Epernay.  Travel time by train or automobile is about 1 1/2 hours.  


Reims is the largest city in Champagne (just under 200,000) and, in addition to being the home of some of the finest Champagne houses, has a spectacular cathedral in which the kings of France were crowned for centuries.  Epernay is the other key city.  It is smaller then Reims but has some equally outstanding producers.  


I'd personally suggest Reims based on the other things to do.  Aside from the wineries and cathedral, this city of just under 200,000 has a large pedestrian mall (street closed to automobile traffic) that is lined with shops and sidewalk cafes.  


History buffs may wish to visit the Lycée Roosevelt where General Eisenhower had set up his general headquarters and where the Nazi forces gave their unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945.  This took place in the map room of what was once a technical school.  The map room continues to receive visitors.


Reims is also the home of some wonderful restaurants including Boyer Les Crayères.  This is one of the rare Michelin restaurants in France and is worth the special journey.

Should you decide to stay overnight in Reims, Hotel de la Paix is a well-located, comfortably priced clean and modern suggestion.



Oporto  This is the heart of the Port trade.  Well at least it's across the river from the heart of the Port trade.  This municipality is split by the Douro River.  On the right bank of the river is Oporto, an ancient city with a wealth of sights for a visitor.  On the left bank of the river is Vila Nova de Gaia, the traditional home of most major Port lodges.  Most well-known Port companies have regular tours but it is best to call or write in advance.


Oporto is a tremendously interesting city to visit but (like most places) you do need to guard against becoming a victim of petty crime.  Don't let cameras or purses get out of your sight and don't wander unknown streets alone at night.


The actual vineyards are located many miles upstream in the Douro river valley.  The slopes are steep and the vineyards are terraced.  The views are beautiful and impressive.  If you make it to Oporto, be sure you get up into the Douro valley.