If you haven’t noticed, there’s an awful lot of surplus cash sloshing around the Bay Area these days, which means that ‘getaway’ places like the Napa Valley have gotten a lot more crowded as folks try to shed some of their excess dollars. Okay, perhaps I am being a bit snarky, but it has gotten awfully fancy and terribly crowded in spots like Calistoga, St Helena and Yountville. The latter has always been a tad swank, but the former were all the more charming for being a little sleepy around the edges. Not so much these days.
Yountville underwent a radical transformation in the years following Thomas Keller opening The French Laundry in 1994, and has since become ground zero for his luxury dining empire. The local hotels prospered as Keller opened various eateries—all along the price spectrum—from Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery to Ad Hoc, and as a result other restauranteurs have flocked to the area. Restoration Hardware is even in the process of building a giant showroom at the north end of the town.
There is something very manicured about this little town and its business district – which is essentially one main street. However, wander around on foot and take a few side roads or two, and you’ll soon find a touch of yesteryear in the Victorian cottages, the church, and a couple of old market buildings which haven’t been razed to the ground to make way for yet another tastefully designed spa hotel. (Oops, sorry, I’ll try to hold back the snark again.)
And look for hotels housed in original Victorian buildings which transport you right back to the roots of this little town. The question is, how to live like a millionaire without actually being one?
1. Look for Yountville hotels with quirky rooms
When I was looking for our abode, it seemed everything was over $400 per night for a room. However, poking around on the Four Sisters Inn site, I found Maison Fleurie. Billed as French country charm and decorated with a south of France sensibility, I spotted the Petite Queen guestrooms, which are priced at $170-190 per night, including breakfast. Our room was in the main building, a charming old Victorian house, complete with original trim and narrow doorways. There’s a pool (which disappointingly doesn’t open until the end of May), a jacuzzi and a sunny upstairs deck. We had a comfortable night and were walking distance – really just a stone’s throw – from all the action. And bonus points, we got to enjoy this amazing view from our bedroom window.
2. Experience Thomas Keller on Your Budget
Aside from the impossibility of getting a reservation, a meal for two at the French Laundry can set you back in excess of $2,000 with wine pairings. Who has that kind of dough? But, if Keller’s dough is what you’re after, then head on over to Bouchon Bakery for croissants, bread and all sorts of sweet treats. I’ve heard their coffee is great too. Naturally, there’s a line out the door within about 15 minutes of the bakery opening, so go early.
Keller’s affordable Ad Hoc, at $52 for four courses, including cheese, is well worth it (separate write-up to follow), and they are more than happy to accommodate dietary restrictions with a bit of notice. My request for a gluten-free meal included this wonderful chocolate brownie with caramel sauce and ice cream. Exactly like the one Monkey got, just sans gluten.
3. Eat At the Fancy Hotels, just don’t stay the night
Across the road from the Maison Fleurie is the Bardessono Hotel and Spa, home to their restaurant, Lucy. Craving a latte, fruit and some bacon, we hopped over the street to enjoy their lovely outdoor dining area and feed our desires. It was fun to pretend for an hour that we were staying here, and the breakfast wasn’t too expensive.
Just down the road from Yountville is the exclusive Auberge du Soleil, which will set you back a pretty penny if you choose to stay there. However the restaurant is open to all, and set up on a hill, the views of the Napa Valley are spectacular. And for an even more affordable way to enjoy the setting, eat at the Bistro and Bar. We didn’t eat there on this occasion, but we will return!
4. Go to Yountville for just one night, or skip the hotels
Of course, an easy way to save money is limit the length of your stay. While some hotels will insist on a two night minimum at the weekend, we didn’t run into that with Maison Fleurie. Yountville is very easy to get to from many places in the Bay Area, and being just a village, you can certainly get a feel for it in 24 hours. Of course, the other option is to day trip or look for an Airbnb.
5. Have a picnic and go wine tasting
Rather than spend all your money on restaurants and marked-up booze, instead, pack a picnic and check out the local wineries. You will find a ton of amazing, yummy things to eat at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa (about 15 minutes drive away) – and it will help line your stomach for all the wine tasting you have planned. The sandwiches at the Model Bakery next door to Fatted Calf Charcuterie looked pretty darn good. Don’t forget to check out the Napa Valley Distillery in the Market while you’re there.
While Yountville may not feel like the real world, we all need a little escapism from time to time, so suspend disbelief and go enjoy yourself!