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Napa and Sonoma Sybaritic Weekend

Mother and Daughter Visit the Valley

We started our trip in style: with caviar. Mother's plane had landed in San Francisco on Friday evening. At 11 the next morning, we headed to the bar of Tsar Nicoulai Caviar Café to feast on glorious roe with names like gold pearl trout, wasabi whitefish and American golden.

We had planned an epicurean weekend that began in San Francisco and was followed by a drive to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys for all the glorious scenery, food, and wine we could pack into three days.

We spent the first night at the recently renovated well-located downtown Pan Pacific. (See Yearly Index, Winter 2002-03, San Francisco) for an article about the hotel's Pacific restaurant). Our newly remodeled room had several notable features including a flat screen LCD TV that did double duty for internet access. Those who travel with their own computers will be pleased with the LOC digital wall safe into which a standard laptop can fit. Old mattresses were replaced with new "celestial 120 cushion firm" ones and a pillow preference program was initiated. Two other items stood out: the bathroom magnifying glass was stronger than others we've seen and the ergonomically-correct desk chair makes working on the road comfortable.

The hotel has just instituted a new Business First program with special features, such as early arrival and late departure privileges; complimentary in-room coffee and tea service delivered at pre-specified times; individually selected snacks like wine or fruit; laundry, dry cleaning (at market rates) and free clothing storage between visits; and complimentary luxury car service.

A group of Matisse etchings on loan from a local gallery hung on the wall behind the check-in counter. The works were part of a series of rotating exhibits borrowed from local dealers.

Pan Pacific, 500 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94120. Tel. 415-771-8600. http://www.panpacific.com

Hungry, we headed from the hotel, through downtown to the Ferry Building. Reopened in 2003 after $100 million renovation, the Beaux Arts complex on the edge of the Bay was recently transformed into the city's culinary center. It is also part of San Francisco's ongoing rediscovery and redevelopment of its waterfront, one of the city's greatest assets.

The Ferry Building, a marketplace filled with sensory pleasures from delicate apple tarts to bouquets of bright pink Gerber daisies draws foodies who buzz around the halls tasting the samples that every shopkeeper offers. Artisanal cheeses and olive oils, among other products, are sold at open stalls. An outdoor Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market sets up four days a week.

Another draw is the cafés and restaurants: stop in at the Slanted Door for fresh, Vietnamese shrimp spring rolls or the Hog Island Oysters Company for traditional, hearty oyster stew.
Sturgeon, Sashimi and Caviar, Tsar Nicolai Caviar Cafe

The Parisian-style Tsar Nicoulai Caviar Café is a highlight of the building's sites for dining and buying. The company that owns the café is an environmentally responsible domestic producer of caviar. We spent a leisurely morning at the dark wood bar chatting with co-owner Dafne Engstrom, who taught us about the farming and eating of caviar.

"It dances on your tongue," said Engstrom, pointing to the silky, brandy-marinated trout eggs.

She told us to roll those glorious pearls on our tongues and clean our palates with champagne and then served us a series of dishes from the café's menu. The presentations were stellar. Edible marigolds circled a triumvirate of various caviars. The next course, thick, meaty sturgeon and ahi sashimi, sat in a dish perched on a small glass bowl filled with live fish. We continued with poached egg, chive cream and Osetra caviar, followed by fantastic smoked sturgeon sandwiches with shitake mushroom sauce on currant bread, a rich combination that mixed sweet and savory.

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar Café, 1 Ferry Building #No. 12, San Francisco, CA. Tel. 415-288-8630. http://www.tsarnicoulai.com
Sonoma Mission Inn Spa

Filled to the gills, we took a short walk along the waterfront before driving for an hour-and-a-half to the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. We found that the grand old resort in the town of Sonoma had only improved with time. The original soaring bell tower and the 1927 signature pink buildings were still there, but had undergone a recent renovation. It had been years, and several owners, since we'd visited and the changes made a difference. Our suite on the second floor of a Mediterranean-style villa had a capacious, curtained Jacuzzi tub in the middle of the floor, a comfortable sitting area and a balcony where later in the day we enjoyed, compliments of the inn, a bottle of superb local wine and six superior cheeses produced in the area. Sonoma wines, one white and one red, are served between 5 and 6 p.m. each day in the lobby.

After settling in, we headed straight to the spa to soak in its mineral waters. Travelers have been coming here for the water's curative properties since 1840 when a San Francisco doctor built a small facility on the site. It was replaced with the Boyes Hot Springs Hotel, which burned down in 1923 and was rebuilt in 1927 as the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.

The indoor and outdoor bathing ritual has been reinvented at the spa, borrowing from Roman, Turkish and Scandinavian traditions. The resort touts the curative properties of the waters, which have potassium, zinc, iodine and other minerals. The water feels calming and leaves the skin silky.

We started the ritual at the indoor spa, jumping into an exfoliating shower to scrub off dead cells. Next we soaked in the 98 degree warm bath in the center of a Roman-style rotunda. We continued with a cool shower and then lounged in the herbal steam room, inhaling the eucalyptus that seemed to clear the sinuses and lungs. A dry sauna that produced a good sweat followed. We also enjoyed hour-long aromatherapy deep-tissue massages.

At dusk, we came back to enjoy the pools "en pleine" air. As the sunset faded, we were able to star-gaze from the clover-shaped and heated "watzu" pools, both protected by shrubs and soaring palms that kept the area tranquil and private. We couldn't leave the Sonoma Mission Inn without eating their famous lemon-cottage-cheese pancakes at The Big 3, the resort's diner. We were skeptical, despite the dish's reputation, but they were honestly the best pancakes we've ever had: light, creamy and tangy.

Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, P. O. Box 1447, Sonoma, CA 95476, Tel. 707-938-9000. http://www.fairmont.com

We then set out for the town of Napa, driving through the green hills to COPIA, a cultural center and museum of gastronomy. Opened in 2001, the center has a store, farmer's markets, restaurants, tours, classes, movies, festivals, concerts, interactive exhibits and special events. Although the outside of the building is unattractive --it's industrial with a large parking lot in front -- it's worth getting past the façade and venturing inside, which is well designed. There are permanent installations about food with displays on the silly and serious from Pez dispensers and vintage food containers to genetically modified "frankenfoods" and the politics of hunger.

There are also temporary exhibits, such as the lush photographs of cross sections of fresh fruit and vegetables we enjoy. If you have time, make a reservation to eat at Julia's Kitchen, a paean to Julia Child, and be sure to stroll in the gardens.
Napa Valley Wine Train

The depot for Napa Valley Wine Train is just two blocks from the museum. It was here that we boarded the train for a three-hour afternoon ride in 1930s style cars with large windows, which afforded us great views of the vineyards, manor houses and B & Bs. The evening ride is a more formal one and the view of the sunset at that time of day is said to be spectacular. We feasted on a three-course lunch to the gentle sway of the train, followed by a visit to the tasting car in the back of the train, where we could choose four flutes for a modest $5. Our trip did not stop at a winery, but other options include tours at different vineyards each week.

Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry Street, Napa, CA 94559. Tel. 800-427-4124, 707-253-2111. http://www.winetrain.com

After getting off the train at about 3 p.m., we went to Oak Knoll Inn, 15 minutes away in Napa Valley, where we were greeted by owners John Kulhmann and Barbara Passino with champagne before we had scarcely finished parking. The couple bought the four-guestroom inn several years ago after deciding to change careers and after a more than year-long search for the right location and structure. The property is one of the few whose zoning is grandfathered. Protected for agriculture, this area has few homes. From the inn, you enjoy special and glorious views of the fields and mountains that make you forget about all the development that has overtaken much of Napa in the last 10 years. We were shown to an elegant room with field-stone walls that kept the air cool, a high cathedral ceiling, fireplace, and country French décor. The room's pale pink, coral and fuchsia floral arrangement reminded us of all the luscious gardens outside.

Before the cocktail hour we swam in the pool, which is surrounded by fragrant rose bushes. At 6:00 we gathered with the other guests for a wine tasting. The daily tasting offers a wonderful chance to enjoy the incredible amber light on the vineyards next door. We also learned about wine, schmoozed with the other guests and grazed from an enormous platter of olives, cheeses, breads and vegetables. A representative from Cosentino Signatures Wineries in neighboring Yountville poured us chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon wines, which were all delicious. On other evenings vintners from the many hundreds of wineries in the area make presentations. Two of the couples staying at the inn had come a long way and had stayed at Oak Knoll many times, a testament to the loyalty of John and Barbara's clientele.

After a full day of dining we went to dinner, merely as a formality and mostly for the ambiance. After ordering a snack on the terrace at Brix and watching the sun go down, we explored the restaurant's beautiful garden.
Oak Knoll Inn

Before returning to San Francisco in the morning, we breakfasted on the patio to the sounds of birds. It was one of those meals that was so over the top that when you finish you think you won't be able to eat for a week. Barbara's celebrated chocolate crepes stuffed with a berry medley were followed up with Mexican eggs in phyllo, orange and red salsa, black beans and a corn muffin baked in a clay pot topped with a tiny rose. It's those kinds of thoughtful and creative details and the attentive service as well as the comfort and spectacular setting that make the Inn so special.

Oak Knoll Inn, 2200 E. Oak Knoll Avenue, Napa Valley, CA 94558. Tel. 707-255-2200. http://www.oakknollinn.com

Summer 2004