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.
Napa Valley Railway Inn
Is it a train? A hotel? Actually, the Napa Valley Railway Inn is both: a hotel with nine guest rooms housed in individual train cars, set on a piece of track from the now-defunct Napa Valley Railroad. In the 1970s, the red-and-blue boxcars and cabooses were airlifted into place and used as souvenir and clothing shops. The Altamura family bought the property in the 1980s and converted the cars into guest rooms. Lori Jones, the Altamuras' daughter, together with her contractor husband, Jason, took over the business in 2005. They renovated and brightened the formerly dark and dingy rooms, adding refrigerators, tiled showers, iron-and-brass beds, and antique armoires. The quietest rooms are on the east side, facing away from the adjacent parking lot (where hot-air balloons take off nearly every morning--a great, but loud, photo op). The hotel is ideally located in the heart of Napa Valley, in the center of tiny Yountville; it's a 30-second walk to the town's many famous restaurants, including Thomas Keller's budget-blowing but unforgettable French Laundry and his more affordable Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery. The downside? There's no on-site staff--guests are asked to pick up their keys at the neighboring gym, and the rest of the time they're entirely on their own. (Lori's cell number is posted in the rooms for emergencies only.) 707/944-2000, napavalleyrailwayinn.com, from $140.
Just north of the town of Sonoma, in Glen Ellen, Beltane Ranch's 105 acres are filled with fruit trees, vegetable and flower gardens, a vineyard that sells grapes to nearby winemakers, and an olive orchard yielding oil that guests snap up for $15 a bottle. No wonder, then, that L.L. Bean and Victoria's Secret have shot their catalogs here: The location is downright idyllic. The yellow, gingerbread-trimmed lodge has a two-story wraparound porch and five wainscoted rooms. The best are on the second floor, where hammocks and porch swings overlook the vineyard and Sonoma Mountain beyond. (Ask for Room 1, which has a wood-burning stove and separate sitting room.) Alexa Wood is Beltane Ranch's third-generation owner. Her great-aunt and great-uncle bought the property in 1936 to raise cattle, sheep, and turkeys. "My family has such roots here," says Wood. "This is where I spent most of my childhood summers, where I raised my kids." Breakfast, which may include sweet-potato latkes or oatmeal pancakes with homemade fig-merlot syrup, is made with ingredients from the gardens. Second helpings are basically mandatory. You can burn off extra calories on the property's tennis court (the front desk loans out rackets and balls) and by exploring the 20-plus wineries within a five-mile radius. 707/996-6501, beltaneranch.com, from $140, including breakfast.
El Dorado Hotel
On the northwest corner of Sonoma Plaza, the historic Spanish-style square in downtown Sonoma, the El Dorado has a hip, W-Hotel-meets-wine-country look that starts in the lobby, with a concrete-mantel fireplace and low-slung leather sofas. The 27 guest rooms are small but stylish, with flat-screen TVs, pint-size balconies with views of the plaza or a quiet courtyard, colorful abstract paintings, and four-poster beds made of brushed steel. (Rooms 11, 12, 16, and 17 have higher ceilings and a bit more square footage.) There are also four detached bungalows, for $20 more a night, each with a private entrance and patio. They're just steps from the lovely pool area, where the surrounding extra-wide chaise lounges are ideal for stargazing. The El Dorado's restaurant and bar are the most happening places in Sonoma--the citrus martini and warm chocolate cake with huckleberries are particularly delicious. 800/289-3031, eldoradosonoma.com, $175.
For people who harbor fantasies of running away and starting their own winery, Landmark has the answer: two guest rooms right in the middle of a working vineyard, where, from your front door, you can watch the grapes growing and being harvested. Seeking an escape from the rapidly suburbanizing town of Windsor (20 miles north), Landmark's founder, Damaris Deere Ford, relocated the winery in 1989 to a spectacular piece of property at the base of Sugarloaf Ridge in Kenwood. She also brought in her son Michael Colhoun and daughter-in-law Mary as partners, making it a real family business. Ford is the great-great-granddaughter of John Deere, and the John Deere company's signature forest green pops up throughout the property, whether on a pair of rocking chairs or on an antique 1946 tractor near the front gate. The white-shuttered, stand-alone Cottage sleeps up to four and is ideal for families--it has a bedroom, a foldout couch in the living room, a washing machine and dryer, a small front porch, and a spacious, fully equipped kitchen. The smaller Suite has two twin beds (which can be pushed together), a fireplace, and a private patio with views of Sugarloaf Ridge and Hood Mountain. Both rooms are a stone's throw from the bocce court and California mission-style tasting room, so guests can sip freely, knowing it's a quick stumble home through the vines. 707/833-0053, landmarkwine.com, from $150 (or $260 for both rooms).