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NAPA: The Lap of Luxury for Grape Lovers

August 14, 1988|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

ST. HELENA, Calif — Innkeepers of the Napa Valley are putting the squeeze on grape lovers.

Sorry, love, no longer is this the land of the $50-a-night B&B.

Once upon a time the entire valley welcomed the vacationer on a budget. This was when one could snuggle in an atmosphere of Chippendale and Chablis for less than the cost of a reasonable Burgundy.

Now the couple with stars in their eyes and a crush on the grape are lucky to get in a few winks for under $100.

Take, for instance, Oakville Ranch, a resort perched high on a hillside overlooking the valley. I'm not saying you get ripped off, but with rates starting at $250 a night it does seem a trifle steep, even for a hideaway with a secured gate, an immense fireplace, loads of books, gallons of the grape, a swimming pool, a couple of tennis courts and an open bar.

Although Oakville has room aplenty--indeed it could accommodate a dozen couples--the neighbors insisted on preserving the pastoral atmosphere (and who can blame them?).

As a result, Oakville, designated a B&B, is permitted to offer only three rooms, which is possibly one reason for the steep rates.

The master bedroom with a $300 price tag features a four-poster and a Jacuzzi. In addition to the open bar the proprietor provides a continental breakfast, although at $300 a night one might expect eggs Benedict with perhaps a dollop of caviar, a stack of blueberry pancakes and a side of bacon. At the very least. Instead, guests make do with such fare as muffins, croissants and (ho-hum) a Danish.

But never mind, the setting is inviting, what with lush gardens and meadows that resemble a windblown Van Gogh. Ivy smothers flagstone walls and a 1.3-mile private road leads to Oakville's locked gate.

Similar privacy is offered at Villa St. Helena, a Mediterranean-style manor tucked away in the Mayacamas Mountains that face Napa Valley. During the '40s and '50s Villa St. Helena was a hangout for Hollywood celebrities. Only recently, scenes from "Falcon Crest" were filmed on the 20-acre estate. A nearly milelong private drive leads to its door. And while the villa is spread across more than 13,000 square feet, it, too, is targeted as a B&B. With only three rooms set aside for guests, the rates range from $115 to $195 a night. (Didn't I say Napa's innkeepers are putting the squeeze on grape lovers?)

Other vacationers traveling the Grape Route are gushing over Meadowood, an upscale country club-style resort featuring lodges and individual cottages scattered across 256 acres in the hills near St. Helena. With its frame clubhouse, Meadowood appears like a transplant from coastal Maine. Rather than vineyards, this spiffy retreat with its gabled buildings is surrounded by pine, redwoods, oak and madrona trees on a hillside complete with golf, tennis, riding, bicycling, fishing and the West's slickest croquet court. Indeed, Croquet Lodge focuses on a neatly manicured expanse of lawn where players in crisp whites pit their skills with mallet and ball.

When the chill of fall and winter sets in, guests snuggle under down comforters and sip wine before private fireplaces. Fruit baskets are part of the package, along with coffee makers, terry-cloth robes, a daily newspaper and refrigerators stocked with snacks.

The rates start at $110.

Similar luxury is provided at Napa Valley's celebrated Auberge du Soleil, another hillside refuge that appears to have been plucked from some peaceful plot in Provence. Opened in 1981, Auberge du Soleil is the pride of Claude Rouas, formerly of Maxim's in Paris and the proprietor of San Francisco's renowned restaurant, L'Etoile.

As an indication of Rouas' success as an innkeeper, accommodations at Auberge du Soleil are reserved up to four months in advance for weekends. Like Meadowood, cottages feature wood-burning fireplaces, complimentary wine and refrigerators stocked with fruit, pate, chocolates and cheese.

Guests awaken to the silence of the valley below while breakfast is served on terraces that take in Napa's tranquil scene. Trellises trail wisteria, and balloonists appear on the horizon.

Lunch and dinner are served in the elegant Auberge restaurant and on the terrace with a garden view. The menu lists such specialties as veal stuffed with mushroom mousse, a buffalo tenderloin, rack of lamb with cognac, breast of duck with papaya lime chutney, quail stuffed with wild mushrooms, plus an almond puff pastry smothered with fruit and quenelle of dark chocolate mousse with blueberry sauce. This and more.

Auberge du Soleil beckons the vacationer with a penchant for pause in a setting that soothes the soul. Self-indulgence places a hardship on the pocketbook, what with rates spanning the scale from $210 to $480 a day for room and breakfast. Add to that lunch and dinner, and one wonders if Cannes couldn't be cheaper.

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