Dreaming of visiting Napa Valley’s legendary wine country, but not sure you should bring the kids? Won’t they get restless while you go on and on about wine? What if they start pulling each other’s hair and in their best annoying voice start asking if it’s time to GO HOME?
Admittedly many opt to leave the kids at home when visiting wine country, but if you are travelling from abroad you probably don’t have that option.
While I want family holidays to be something we can all enjoy, for years our vacations have centred around the kids and what THEY want to do. This year I felt the kids were old enough (10, 11 and 13) to let mum and dad do something we enjoyed.
And what better place to try out this new theory than Napa Valley? In 1976 Napa helped to catapult California wine to the world stage with the Tasting of Paris where a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cabernet beat their French cousins in a blind taste test. One French judge was so horrified she tried to change her score when she found out the California wines had won. This was all good news for Napa and indeed all California wines. In the nearly 40 years since, Napa wine and related industries have grown to add $50 million to the US economy each year.
** Make sure to check out my suggested itinerary for families visiting Napa Valley and my list of Napa family friendly wineries.**
Family friendly Napa: 7 things to do
1. Go wine tasting! (Yes, really)
You CAN go wine tasting with the family — and the kids may even like it! The key is picking wineries that have a welcoming attitude towards families. I found several (you can see my full list of family friendly Napa wineries here). Some even have special activities for kids to capture their interest while mum and dad try the wine. But don’t try to do more than 2 wineries in one day, or the kids WILL kill you.
If you haven’t been wine tasting lately, you’ll be blown away by the experience options available. It’s not just the old-fashioned roll up to the counter and try a few vintages before you buy. Now you can have everything from a “seated” tasting in a picturesque setting to a tour (wine in hand) to a cask tasting. Many wineries also pair food with their favourite wines. It’s all pretty amazing. Expect to pay between $15 to $40, depending on the experience. Some can be more.
My children usually behave well if they know something fun is in store (such as swimming at the hotel, a train ride, or a cycle or kayak trip). You could go one step further and make official bribes (Napa has a Michael’s craft store which my girls love). And if all else fails – most wineries have wifi the kids can log on to while you sip away.
2. Ride the Napa Valley Wine Train
What could be more intriguing for a child than having dinner on a train! The Napa Valley Wine Train, which goes from the city of Napa to St Helena, gives up-close views of the Valley’s vineyards while waiters serve a multiple-course gourmet meal on a restored vintage rail car. We took the Gourmet Express early evening train, which conveniently serves dinner very soon after you board the train (a good option for families). If you don’t want dinner, there are other trips to choose from including a lunchtime Western BBQ themed open-air train ride, and a couple of options that include stops at wineries. I thought dinner would be a nice experience and I was right! The girls sat together across from us and played Clue (the American version of Cluedo) while they drank their virgin Pina Coladas. Mum and dad enjoyed the meal, wine and the views. It was fabulous.
3. Enjoy a Wine Country Picnic!
No visit to Napa Valley is complete without a wine country picnic. There are several places to buy high quality deli items, including Via Satuii, Farmstead, and Dean & DeLuca. Many wineries also allow picnic on their grounds (some save this privilege for wine club members – so make sure you check beforehand). We stopped at Via Satuii which has a variety of choices and lots of picnic benches outside. It fit in very well with our plans because HALL Wines, a must-visit for its out-of-this-world Cabs, is right across the road!
4. Visit Farmers Markets & Specialty Shops
Farmer’s markets are a fun way to experience local culture, art and produce. There are several to choose from, but don’t miss the Oxbrow Public Market, in Napa. It has some pretty cool specialty shops and places to eat, including the Model Bakery (buy the cookbook, it’s my new favourite go to for American cookies), Kara’s Cupcakes (the girls loved these) and Gott’s Roadside (burgers, taco and shakes!).
5. Cultivate little foodies at the Culinary Institute of America
The Culinary Institute of America trains the country’s most talented chefs and the campus in St Helena occupies the gorgeous Greystone Cellars building, once owned by the Christian Brothers. You can earn an associate degree in culinary arts there, but even better is that they offer a food enthusiasts programme, which includes weekend demonstrations. All ages welcome and two children under 12 can accompany a paying adult for no extra charge. We learned how to make Spicy Thai Chicken and Coconut Soup, which comes with a glass of Chardonnay. Needless-to-say the children are not provided with a taste of the wine, but instead get a glass of sparkling apple juice. You can also tour the facilities, eat in the cafe or visit the shop which has a children’s section. If you have any little Master Chef fans – this is a fun option.
6. Shop at the Outlets!
International travellers will especially want to pick up some bargains at the Napa Premium Outlets. Kids, teens and parents will like Adidas, Gap, CAbi Factory Store, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, J Crew, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Gymboree, Skechers, Coach and more. Bring an extra suitcase with you and stock up!
7. Take a Balloon Ride!
For a holiday to remember, start with an early morning hot air balloon ride with Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides. A hot air balloon ride is the ultimate way to admire wine country. Kids as young as 8 can participate. It’s a bit pricey, but an adventure for the entire family.
Where we stayed: The Meritage Resort and Spa
One of the keys to a successful trip to Napa involving children is to find a family friendly place to stay. You might want to avoid romantic / couples focused hotels. A resort with lots of amenities will give kids something to look forward to after a visit to a winery. For us, The Meritage Resort and Spa ticked all those boxes – with a family swimming pool/water play area, bocce ball and a 6-lane bowling alley!