Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Nip around Napa

Hop on two wheels to explore the affordable reaches of this picturesque wine mecca

Riding along the Silverado Highway in Upper Napa Valley is like walking down the street flanked by two ridiculously good-looking people. You simply don’t know which one to gawk at first.

To the east, the stately Palisade foothills rise sharply, jagged edges contrasting with the perfectly blue California sky. To the West, the vine-lined hills roll gently, emerald grape leaves glowing in the sun. It’s all a girl can do to keep her handlebars straight and cast the occasional eye on the road ahead of her, well-travelled as it is by the rusty pick-up trucks of local farmers, the BMWs and Audis of San Francisco regulars, and the bikes of intrepid tourists like herself.

Cycling holidays are a hot commodity in Europe, and in recent years they’ve made their way across the pond to the Napa Valley, a wine region that boasts consistently good weather and spectacular views.

The advantages over car-based sightseeing are clear. It allows travellers to slow the pace and really get a sense of the countryside they’re travelling through. As John F. Kennedy once declared, “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”

And there’s also an important fitness component: cycling at a moderate clip (about 20 kilometres an hour) will burn somewhere in the region of 500 calories an hour in a person who weighs 140 pounds, or 700 in a person who weighs 195 pounds.

Roughly 50 kilometres long with an area of 175 square kilometres, the Napa Valley has no shortage of places to explore. But when it comes to cycling, the best part to visit is the Upper Valley, home to the quaint towns of St. Helena and Calistoga (at the very north end of the valley). The Lower Valley, which encompasses the surprisingly built-up city of Napa, may have the most hotels, B&Bs and restaurants, but the Upper Valley is unmistakably the less touristy and more scenic of the two.

Pedal power

Brad Suhr, co-owner of the Calistoga Bike Shop (1318 Lincoln Avenue; tel: 707-942-9687; www.calistogabikeshop.com), located in downtown Calistoga, says he’s noticed a rise in the number of visitors who have chosen to try bike tours over the last two years. “It’s become a very popular thing to do,” he says. Because the valley floor is completely flat, cycling in Upper Napa Valley is accessible to virtually everyone, Suhr adds. “For meandering around, your fitness level doesn’t have to be very high. There are at least 12 wineries within a four mile radius of our store.”

It’s financially accessible, too: the Bike Shop’s one-day self-guided tour costs just US$80 and includes the use of a posh bike (the US$1100 Jamis Commuter), tasting fees at six local wineries, wine pick-up service (saving you from lugging around the extra weight of any bottles you purchase) and roadside assistance.

Cycling has become so popular, in fact, that in early 2009, the city of Calistoga convened a Bicycle Advisory Committee designed to promote a safe cycling environment in the city. Since then, the Committee has charted out two suggested cycling loops (go to www.calistogavisitors.com/recreation.php and click on Road Cycling in the Napa Valley), which it considers the “safest and most scenic.”

Suhr posits that cycling won’t replace driving altogether — wineries in Lower Napa Valley and the Sonoma region, and those tucked up in the Palisades are too far away for the average cyclist — but emphasizes that seeing the valley from a bicycle seat is an experience like no other. “It’s the way I would want to spend at least one day of my time in Napa Valley.”

Hotel handouts

This approach has come to some of the local hotels as well, including Solage Resort (755 Silverado Trail; tel: 866-942-7442; www.solagecalistoga.com), which offers free bike access to all its guests. “We really wanted to add some whimsy to the property and support our green initiative at the same time,” explains Renee Risch, director of membership, referring to the cruiser bicycles that stand at attention outside every room. “It was a great solution to have our guests come in and leave their cars behind.”

For those interested in making a day of it, the resort also offers picnic lunches and re-useable glass bottles filled with water that has been filtered on-site and flavoured with a sprig of mint from the resort’s herb garden.

Staff at Solage avail themselves of the bikes, too. Throughout the day, housekeepers, landscapers and in-room dining servers can be seen zipping across the resort’s nine hectares, their baskets laden with supplies, their posture as perfect as a schoolmarm’s.

Calistoga dreaming

Calistoga itself is a charming municipality of roughly 5200 people that has worked hard to maintain an unassuming, small-town feel. The region is only accessible by two-lane roads — no highways — and fast food outlets within the city proper are forbidden by law. Its wide main street is flanked by low-slung buildings, which house restaurants, cafés and tasteful shops.

Calistoga’s history has been shaped by two substances: water and wine. The Upper Napa Valley has natural hot springs, which, in 1862, led California’s first millionaire to open the luxurious Hot Springs Resort. It was designed as a sort of Saratoga Springs of the West (perfect for anyone needing a long hot soak after a day of cycling). The prestige of the establishment put Calistoga on the map. And there are now half a dozen spas in town catering to sybarites.

Water made the region famous again in 1924, when Calistoga Sparkling Mineral Water was founded (in 1970 the company changed hands and is now known as the Calistoga Water Company).

Wine has been produced in the region for well over a century but the industry didn’t receive much notoriety until 1976. That year, at a blind taste-test in Paris designed to pit French wines against Californians, two Napa Valley vintages took first prize in both white and red categories. Those wines were a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena (1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; tel: 707-942-5105; www.montelena.com) in Calistoga, and a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap (6150 Silverado Trail, Napa; tel: 707-944-9433; www.stagsleap.com), near Yountville. “Not bad for kids from the sticks,” Montelena’s general manager Jim Barrett is famously reported to have said upon hearing the news.

Calistoga’s fame as a tourist destination means that there is no shortage of places to eat or drink, but even here, the city’s unpretentious vibe prevails. In the morning, caffeine fixes can be satisfied at the Calistoga Roastery (1631 Lincoln Avenue; tel: 707-942-5747; www.calistogaroastery.com). If you need reading material, toss 50 cents into the cigar box labelled “Calistoga Tribune” and help yourself to a copy of local newspaper.

At night, try Jolé (1457 Lincoln Avenue; tel: 707-942-5938; www.jolerestaurant.com), located on the main drag, which endeavours to use organic, locally farmed ingredients wherever possible. If you’re looking for gifts, you can’t beat Wine Garage (1020 Foothill Blvd, #C; tel: 707-942-5332; www.winegarage.net), which promises upwards of 200 vintages of great-tasting wine, all under $25 a bottle, and prides itself on a “no wine snob attitude.”

Stretch your dollar

Wine country can be pricey, but there are definitely things you can do can to limit costs. First off, you can share a flight. Typically, a single tasting flight is more than enough for two people. By sharing, you’ll spend less — and you can even use the savings to visit more exclusive wineries.

Pack a picnic and enjoy the sunshine with an al fresco lunch. Some hotels and B&Bs will pack picnics for you, and many of the vineyards offer tables or soft lawns for outdoor dining.

And for delicious locally grown produce, head to the Calistoga Farmers’ Market (Sharpsteen Plaza, 1235 Washington Street; tel: 707-942-8892; Saturdays, May 2 to October 31, 8:30am to 12pm) or the St. Helena Farmers’ Market (Crane Park, Grayson Avenue off Highway 29; Fridays, May through October, 7:30am to 12pm). You’ll find tourists and locals alike chowing down.

The Upper Napa Valley is beautiful year-round but the fall is generally thought to be the best time to visit. In September and October the wineries are in full harvest and production mode (known as “crush season”), and the valley is abuzz with activity.

A word of warning: whenever you choose to go, imbibe responsibly. “We enforce the rules of the road for bicycles the same as we do for motor vehicles, including DUI” (driving under the influence), says Corporal Gary Enyart of the Calistoga Police Department. Although, he confesses with a chuckle, “I’ve never actually made an arrest on bicycle before.”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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