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Napa's Newest Appeals

The choicest inns, the best new feasting places in the valley where it's almost always high season.


ST. HELENA, Calif. — It's only spring in this rich little valley north of San Francisco, but this year's first crush has already begun: the crush of tourists.

Almost 5 million people drove up California 29 into the Napa Valley in 1998, drawn chiefly by their palates. But after the last morel has been savored and the last drop of cabernet drained, epicures and oenophiles need a place to stay.

With just 2,770 rooms in the valley, routinely full every weekend year-round and every day from May to October, demand is high, driving up prices. And most of the prettiest parts of the valley are zoned for agricultural use only, which means that new hotels must be located within municipal boundaries, generally along noisy, traffic-clogged Highway 29.

Those able to pay $345 and more for a room at Auberge du Soleil or Meadowood, two Napa Valley hideaways boasting the vaunted Relais et Chateaux affiliation, will surely be satisfied. And visitors who don't care where they stay so long as they get a taste of the valley will do well enough in cookie-cutter rooms for less than $100 at chain motels along the highway.

On average, room rates range from $185 to $225 (by comparison, the average in San Francisco is $148; in New York, $214). For about this amount, you'll get most of the amenities, and charm, at any of the valley's modern inns and old-timey B&Bs. But you won't necessarily get location, which, as far as I'm concerned, is crucial to the success of a Napa Valley getaway. Indeed, in the $200 price range there are some lovely places to stay, with pools, hot tubs, topiary gardens and afternoon wine tastings, that are just too close to the highway for complete comfort.

I know, because I spent six days in March sampling accommodations in the Napa Valley, overnighting in some and simply inspecting others. I leaned toward small inns and B&Bs, which range from $99 to $350 in the high season, roughly from Easter to Thanksgiving. Here is my list of 10 favorites, starting in the south and finishing in the north. (See the sidebar for tips on making reservations, budget choices, more classic B&Bs and chain hotels.)

The Oak Knoll Inn, in Napa, is happily situated on one of the country roads that crosses the valley, connecting Highway 29 to the Silverado Trail, which parallels 29 to the east. Trefethen Vineyards and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars are nearby, and the view from the inn's pretty swimming pool is of trellised grapevines as far as the eye can see. The inn was built by a winery owner in 1984 and now is run by Barbara Passino. It has four huge rooms in two wings, fronted by a deck where, weather permitting, Barbara serves such unusual breakfast specialties as strawberry-rhubarb pizza and low-cholesterol chocolate tacos. The rooms have vaulted ceilings, brass beds, wood-burning fireplaces, marble-floored baths and French doors.

The evening wine-tasting ritual sometimes has local vintners in attendance. When guests book accommodations, Barbara offers to arrange itineraries to suit them, including appointments at wineries and dinner reservations.

Those who wish to sleep within walking distance of Yountville's fine restaurants will fare well at the new Yountville Inn, a 51-room clapboard and field-stone complex that looks like a condominium community. You can see Highway 29 from the parking lot, but the seven buildings that house the guest rooms face inward and have a secluded feeling. I booked the least expensive room available and was surprised by its size and amenities, including ProTerra toiletries in the bath, an electric fireplace and a private patio reached through French doors. A pleasant pool is separated from Washington Street by a stone wall, and there's a handsome lobby where continental breakfast is served.

Sam and Nancy Scott, who are originally from L.A., started coming to Napa 30 years ago, when Highway 29 was little more than a country lane. Like so many others, they dreamed of retiring to the valley to open a homey little B&B. What separates their Cross Roads Inn from the herd is its unparalleled location halfway up 1,400-foot Atlas Peak, four miles east of Yountville. The contemporary, split-level inn is reached by a steep, winding drive and offers stunning valley views. The four palatial guest rooms are decorated in pretty country style and have big spa tubs outside the private baths to catch the view. Nancy serves full breakfasts (in room), afternoon tea and cocktails. After dinner in town, guests return to brandy and chocolates, best enjoyed on the deck.

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