Secret Hotels of California Wine Country
You don't have to spend a fortune to visit the fanciest farmland in America. We've found a crop of lovely, family-run inns in Napa, Sonoma, and beyond for less than $200 a night.
Old Crocker Inn
In the late 1800s, Charles Crocker, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, purchased nearly 600 acres above the Russian River and built a ranch and summer home there for entertaining his powerful friends and business partners. The ranch has been subdivided and parts have been sold over the years--much of it is now a residential development and a KOA campground--but five of those acres still bear Crocker's name, in the form of the Old Crocker Inn. Marcia and Tony Babb have been running the inn since 2005, when they moved north from Menlo Park. "You could call it retirement, except that we're working," laughs Tony. The Babbs have thrown themselves into their new career as innkeepers, turning out three-course breakfasts every morning (he cooks, she bakes), and generally making their guests feel at home. The eight rooms are named after historical figures and events. The Golden Spike (honoring the ceremonial spike that joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads) has a Jacuzzi, a fireplace, and pine-and-redwood-paneled walls hung with photographs and newspaper clippings related to railroad history. The Crocker has more of a tree-house feel, with a carved four-poster bed and great views of a pond and valley from a secluded corner of the wraparound deck. Although the property is hidden near the town of Cloverdale, in the sparsely populated and pleasantly remote-feeling Alexander Valley, it's only a 30-minute drive to Healdsburg, known for its upscale restaurants, shops, and wine-tasting rooms. 800/716-2007, oldcrockerinn.com, from $145.
Eighty miles north of Sonoma, along a winding road, the town of Boonville (population 700) was historically so isolated that in the 1880s locals devised their own language, Boontling, to entertain themselves. Though it flourished in the valley for 40 years, it's rarely spoken today--except, that is, on the rare occasions when the town's codgy kimmies (old men) break it out during a lews and larmers (gossip) session. Boonville is still idiosyncratic, but it's also surprisingly chic, thanks in part to Johnny Schmitt, owner and head chef at the Boonville Hotel. With decor inspired by his travels through Europe (where, he says, "it's not unusual to find hip, unfussy inns in the countryside") as well as by his own minimalist aesthetic, the hotel's 10 rooms are airy and uncluttered, some with hemp-grass carpeting and furniture crafted from timber harvested nearby. Towels are unbleached, and the cleaning products used throughout the property are ecofriendly. At dinnertime, Schmitt dons his chef hat in the hotel's romantic candlelit restaurant, crafting entrées like lamb with Gorgonzola-mint sauce using mostly local ingredients (some of them grown in the hotel garden). There are many great wineries in the area--Schmitt recommends the family-run Navarro Vineyards for its gewürztraminer, and Roederer Estate for its sparkling wines--as well as a solar-powered microbrewery, Anderson Valley Brewing Company, where award-winning beers like Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout are made in copper kettles. 707/895-2210, boonvillehotel.com, from $125.
Compared with glitzier Napa Valley towns like St. Helena or Yountville, Calistoga is refreshingly unpretentious, with its old-timey main street (devoid of chain stores) and frontier architecture. It's also home to the best bargain in wine country: the Calistoga Inn, where $75 secures a simple European-style room (read "no private bath") and front-door access to the best nightlife in town. Evenings begin on the banks of the Napa River at the hotel restaurant's dining patio, where chefs cook over wood-fired grills and diners savor roasted Sonoma duck and oak-grilled jerk chicken. Later, the festivities move to the adjacent English-style pub, where both locals and visitors drink house-brewed beer and rock out to live music. The bedrooms are directly above the pub, so pack earplugs (or plan to stay until the party's over, usually around midnight on weekends). It's all part of the culture at the Calistoga, as the receptionist jovially warns people when they make reservations: "We're not quiet, we're fun." 707/942-4101, calistogainn.com, from $75, including breakfast.
For more than 100 years, people have flocked to Calistoga for its natural hot springs and mineral-rich waters, which have been said to cure everything from arthritis to chronic fatigue syndrome. The stucco bungalows at Hideaway Cottages were built in the 1920s and '40s to cater to wellness-seekers and still serve as a home base for such guests today. Scattered on two-and-a-half acres planted with sycamores, elms, and the oldest cork oak tree in the Napa Valley, the 17 cottages are all configured differently--some have sitting rooms in addition to a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen; others have private patios--but all are located a few steps from a swimming pool and hot tub filled with Calistoga's legendary water. The property is just two blocks from Calistoga's quaint main street, and a short stroll from the 55-year-old Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort (owned by the same family as the Hideaway Cottages), where for $119 guests can get The Works: a soak in mineral mud baths, a lavender mineral whirlpool bath, time in the steam room, a blanket wrap, and a 30-minute almond oil massage. 707/942-4108, hideawaycottages.com, from $149, no guests under 18.