ADVERTISEMENT

The 10 Most Travel-Inspiring Films of the Year

By Budget Travel Staff
February 14, 2011
The Tourist in Venice, Italy
Courtesy Peter Mountain/Sony Pictures Entertainment/GK LLC, 2010
We love the Oscars as much as the next guy, but there’s no adventure in watching movies from your couch. That’s why we’ve rounded up ten films that will make you want to get out of the house, hop a flight, and see the world.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have winnowed all the films of 2010 down to the ten best, but our own Academy of Trips and Bargains has put together a list of its own. These ten movies showcase some of the most travel-worthy spots around the globe, from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the natural tranquility of Bali. And should these films sufficiently inspire you, we've made planning a vacation easier by including flight prices (for June and July—an ideal time to visit these places) and suggestions for each destination's best hotel, inn, or villa. So get ready for some of 2010's best silver-screen sightseeing.

Ireland: Leap Year

The flick: A bit like a gender-switched version of 1952's The Quiet Man, an American, Anna (Amy Adams), takes a trip to Dublin, Ireland, but when inclement weather waylays her in the countryside, she ends up falling for the roguish charms of a local man named Declan (Matthew Goode). Key scene: The film's happy ending doesn't take place at the end of a rainbow, but it's still gold: The rugged Declan proposes to Anna on a cliff overlooking the crashing Atlantic. And right at the magic hour, no less. 

Why it's an inspiration: Anna travels from the southwestern Dingle Peninsula all the way to Dublin on the northeast coast—a four- to five-hour drive—which allows you to take in everything from Eire's rolling glens to the country's lovely capital city, with its Victorian pubs, flowering gardens, Georgian architecture, and the striking Dublin Castle (included in the film).

Price check: A recent search for flights in June found round-trip, nonstop tickets for $813 from New York (Lufthansa) and $859 from Chicago (Aer Lingus).

Where to stay: The three-star Clarence Hotel, owned by Bono and the Edge of U2 (how much more Irish can you get?), is perfectly situated in the Temple Bar area, the city's cultural quarter. Theclarence.ie, doubles from $147


New York: Date Night

The flick: Beleaguered parents Phil and Claire Foster (NBC sitcom brethren Steve Carell and Tina Fey) find adventure even in a post-Giuliani Manhattan, as their quiet, romantic night out goes awry, starting with a case of mistaken identity that turns into a zany after-hours escapade that includes a frantic car chase in a taxi and a massive political cover-up. Key scene: Okay, the Fosters' trip to a boathouse in Central Park is not under the best conditions—at gunpoint, actually—but it is a good reminder that the park's real-life Loeb Boathouse, with its open-air seating right on the edge of the lake, is an ideal place to rent a rowboat or enjoy a relaxing round of drinks. 

Why it's an inspiration: From the trip through Central Park to a frantic discussion in Times Square to the hilarious cabbie (played by comedian J. B. Smoove) during the chase sequence, the film provides a whirlwind, action-packed tour of some of the most unique sites across New York City. In addition, there's the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center, not to mention all the museums, Broadway shows, and fine dining. If you do decide to visit, don't worry-crime in New York is on the decline (and has been for two decades). So chances are, you won't end up in the same predicament as these two.

Price check: Going round-trip in the summer without any layovers will run you about $359 if you're coming from San Francisco (JetBlue) or $243 if you're coming from Chicago (American Airlines).

Where to stay: You can't leave New York without visiting Bloomingdale's, Central Park, or the Museum of Modern Art, and The Pod Hotel, in East Midtown, is close to all three (it's also not far from Rockefeller Plaza). The fact that it's young and hip, with funky murals, asymmetrical couches, and retro light fixtures is just a bonus. Thepodhotel.com, doubles from $139

 


Verona and the Italian countryside: Letters to Juliet

The flick: While traveling with her fiancé in Verona, the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a fact-checker for The New Yorker (Amanda Seyfried) discovers a decades-old letter from a would-be Juliet to her own Romeo and sets off on an adventure to find its author. Along the way she finds love and a much happier ending than Juliet ever got. Key scene: The pivotal portrayal of the wall at the Casa di Giulietta, where people the world over come to post their amorous requests (and where the leading lady discovers the letter that changes her life). It's is an open invitation to all hopeless romantics. 

Why it's an inspiration: The whole movie is practically a gilded postcard from the most beautiful places in northern and central Italy, including the regions of Siena, Soave, and Lake Garda. These regions are packed with Tuscan vineyards, rustic villas, marble cathedrals, and, of course, glorious Italian cuisine. It's enough to make you realize, come the end of your trip, that parting really is such sweet sorrow.

Price check: Fly to Venice: It's usually significantly cheaper than flying directly to Verona. Plus, it's only an hour-and-a-half train ride from there to Verona (a round-trip ticket costs $16, Trenitalia.com). Round-trip airfare to Venice with one layover can be as low as $958 from New York (Aer Lingus) or $1,346 from San Francisco (Swiss).

Where to stay: Where else but the two-star Hotel Giulietta e Romeo? Named after the star-crossed pair, the 30-room hotel even has two balconies as a nod to their late-night wooing. Giuliettaeromeo.com, doubles from $132

 

Beijing: The Karate Kid

The flick: So karate is technically Japanese—but this remake of the 1984 teen classic relocates the bullied-kid-learns-martial-arts story from L.A. to Beijing. Jayden Smith (son of Will) plays Dre Parker, the awkward 12-year-old who learns the tenets of self-defense from Mr. Han, played by Jackie Chan. Key scene: Real training takes too long—that's why we have montages! The aerial shots of Dre running up and down the Great Wall of China as part of his regimen will make you want to see the enormous world wonder yourself, but likely at a more leisurely pace. 

Why it's an inspiration: The film is a breathtaking ode to one of the most populous (and historically fascinating) countries on earth. Dre visits the Forbidden City while on a field trip, trains along the Great Wall, and strolls the labyrinthine streets of Beijing. Tantalizing shots of the city skyline and the famous Bird's Nest stadium remind us that the city has a modern side as well. The Karate Kid also showcases the mist-enshrouded Wudang Mountains in southern central China, where Han takes Dre to learn about the origins of kung fu at one of the region's many Taoist temples. The cheapest and most direct way to follow in their footsteps is to take a train from Beijing, but it's far—20 hours one way ($25 round trip).

Price check: A search for tickets in June reveals that Air China will take you to and from Beijing nonstop for $1,454, if you're starting in Los Angeles, and $1,514, if you're starting in New York.

Where to stay: In another life, Beijing's two-star Lu Song Yuan Hotel, with its tea room and 19th-century stone architecture, was the residence of a Qing dynasty general. Today, it's a 59-room hotel that places you firmly in China's storied cultural past while providing easy access to sights such as the National Museum of China and Tian'anmen Square. The-silk-road.com, doubles from $88

 

 

Southern California: The Kids Are All Right

The flick: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a married lesbian couple living in perpetually sunny SoCal. Their two children decide to track down their sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo), and his entry into their lives rocks the family unit. Key scene: Ruffalo's character owns a restaurant and an organic farm, and when we first see him, he's harvesting a basket of fresher-than-fresh vegetables. He takes a bite out of a vine-ripened tomato, and suddenly you're wishing you were the one in the sunshine biting into that juicy, red fruit. 

Why it's an inspiration: The near-constant sunlight and luxuriant gardens of the film may make you want to lie back and bask in the Golden State's glory, but there's also plenty of stuff to do and see. The house where they shot much of the film is located in Venice, Calif., a perfect home base from which to enjoy all the wide-flung variety the region has to offer. Venice Beach (one of the country's most beautiful strands) is right there, and if you keep driving along the coast, you'll reach the picturesque beach town of Malibu in about 35 minuts. Hollywood is a 30-minute drive northeast from Venice and if you're willing to venture a couple of hours outside of the city, you can ski in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Price check: Traveling nonstop coast-to-coast from New York to Los Angeles will set you back $299 round-trip (Virgin America), while traveling from Chicago is only $265 (Spirit Airlines).

Where to stay: If you're looking for that organic atmosphere, you can't beat the two-star Venice Beach House: Nearly the entire façade is covered in thick, leafy ivy. Better yet, the bed-and-breakfast is a two-story Craftsman—like the house in the film—and it is only a handful of steps from Venice Beach. Venicebeachhouse.com, doubles from $150

 

Bali, Indonesia: Eat Pray Love

The flick: Based on the best-selling memoir-slash-travelogue that sent millions of readers around the world in 352 pages, this globe-trotting film casts Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert, who, after a brutal divorce, makes the pilgrimage to Italy, India, and Indonesia to nourish her stomach, soul, and heart, respectively. Key scene: Gilbert returns to Bali after a few years and meets with a spiritual healer who had once predicted that she would come back. As it happens, that real-life healer, whose name is Ketut Liyer (pronounced Kee-tut Lee-yer), still lives in the area and is available for consultations (organize a visit through Spirit Quest Tours). 

Why it's an inspiration: This film's inclusion in the Budget Travel Oscars comes as no surprise. It may not be an original choice, but it just wouldn't be right to leave Eat Pray Love off of our list: It's basically a movie adaptation of a travel catalogue! Since not everyone has the time, money, or lucrative book contract necessary to put together a three-nation vacation, however, we'll stick with Bali here. While you might not end up running into the love of your life like Gilbert did, you will at least find lush tropics, astonishing beaches, white-water rafting, and a fascinating local culture.

Price check: There are no nonstop flights to Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport from the U.S., but there are round-trip two-stops from New York for $1,372 and from San Francisco for $1,272 (both Singapore Air).

Where to stay: Eleven separate villas made of bamboo and Javanese teak comprise the boutique hotel of Bambu Indah (request one of the units overlooking the dazzling Ayung River). The entire complex is only 15 minutes from the town of Ubud, where Gilbert found her "Love." Bambuindah.com, villas from $75

 

 

Moab, Utah: 127 Hours

The flick: Oscar-nominee James Franco plays real-life hiker Aron Ralston who was trapped alone in a canyon when a half-ton boulder fell and crushed his hand. After five days with only the minimal food and water he brought with him, he is forced to—urghh—amputate. Key scene: Way before that excruciating scene, there's a far more inspiring one in which Franco mountain bikes his way across Canyonlands National Park's red rock landscape, the music from his Discman on full-blast. 

Why it's an inspiration: Sure, we may not be as accomplished an outdoorsman as Ralston, who flies over the landscape like he was born to, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the same views. Rock formations with multicolored strata, lapis lazuli skies, and enough unspoiled natural beauty that you could walk (or bike) for days and you'd still have seen only a mere fraction of what the region has to offer. In honor of the film, the Utah Office of Tourism has concocted a suggested "127-hour" do-it-yourself itinerary. The five-day/five-night journey begins and ends in Salt Lake City and includes hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Costs will vary depending on what outfitters you use; call Moab Tourism for help planning: 435/259-1370.

Price check: Nonstop flights in June to Salt Lake City will run you about $430 round-trip from Houston (Continental), $365 from Chicago (Delta), and $339 from Philadelphia (Delta).

Where to stay: Built in 1910, the two-star Peery Hotel will transport you back in time with its striking grand staircase, period chandeliers, and individual mail slots for guests. Plus, it's located close to most downtown attractions, like the Mormon Tabernacle, if you decide to take a day off from all that outdoorsy stuff. Peeryhotel.com, doubles from $99

 

Venice, Italy: The Tourist

The flick: With a title like The Tourist, of course we're going to include it on this list. Inspired by scenic Old Hollywood fare like the 1963 classic To Catch a Thief and Charade, the light-hearted thriller throws Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp into a twisted skein of intrigue set in, and around, an equally twisted skein of Venetian canals. Key scene: Depp and Jolie jump in a motorboat and speed off through the waterways, evading their mysterious pursuers. 

Why it's an inspiration: An escape by speeding boat may be a bit much for us average tourists, but what about a calm gondola ride? Or even a stroll along the canals? Despite the lack of streets, Venice is easily one of the world's best cities for walking. Perambulate over countless bridges, through marketplaces, and into its many hidden niches. From the Ponte di Rialto to the pigeons of the Piazza San Marco, it is a place that needs to be seen to be believed, and with the ever-present threat of sinkage, the sooner you can visit, the better.

Price check: The Alilaguna water shuttle will take you from Aeroporto Marco Polo to Piazza San Marco for only $18, but before that a round-trip, one-stop ticket will cost $1059 from Boston (Swiss), $958 from New York (Aer Lingus), or $1602 for a two-stop from Phoenix (Iberia).

Where to stay: The Pensione Guerrato gives you the most historical bang for your buck-not only is it located in a 13th-century palace, but the building still features some of the original medieval stuccoworks. Best of all, the three-star hotel fronts the Grand Canal. Pensioneguerrato.it, doubles from $128 (with a shared bathroom)

 

 

London: The King's Speech

The flick: This English prestige picture follows the real-life exploits of King George VI (Colin Firth), who was forced to overcome a severe stutter, with the help of an Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush),  in order to lead his country into the encroaching fogs of WWII. Key scene: When his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates, George VI must step up to the throne. But before he can do that, he has to first make it through his coronation speech. Ely Cathedral stands in for Westminster Abbey in the rehearsal sequence. Even though it's not the real thing, the film portrays the historical building to great effect. 

Why it's an inspiration: Westminster Abbey is just one of the many must-see places in London, as is King George VI's former home, Buckingham Palace. Really, the capital of the United Kingdom is a cultural behemoth. Offering more iconic landmarks than can be counted on two hands, top-rate museums like the National Gallery and the Tate Modern, and the chance to mingle with our neighbors across the pond, London is indeed calling.

Price check: London Heathrow Airport has the highest number of international passengers of any transport hub in the world, but how much will that transatlantic flight cost you? A recent search for round-trip flights in July found nonstop tickets for $622 from New York (BMI), $787 from San Francisco (BMI), and $1,314 from Dallas/Fort Worth (American).

Where to stay: With its namesake (and great-grandson of George VI) getting married, why not celebrate by staying at the Prince William Hotel. Near Hyde Park in a building that dates back to the 18th century, it's within easy walking distance of a number of attractions, including Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gardens, and Harrods department store. Princewilliamhotel.co.uk, doubles from $153

 

Universal's Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Florida: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

The flick: It's the beginning of the end for one of the biggest pop-cultural touchstones of our time as Harry, Ron, and Hermione rush to find magical objects and vanquish the dark forces of Lord Voldemort. Sure, we know it's entirely fictional, but that doesn't stop us from wishing we could book our own ticket on the Hogwarts Express. Key scene: Definitely one of the darker entries in the series, the latest movie isn't as good at making you want to join that world as some of its predecessors, but the magically aided wedding of Bill and Fleur is the one ray of light amid the darkness. Until it gets interrupted by Death Eaters, that is. 

Why it's an inspiration: The butterbeer flows like water at the wizards' wedding, but if any of you Muggles want to try some of the enchanted libation, there's only one place to get it: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the latest addition to Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando. It's a 20-acre celebration of all things Harry Potter where you can drink (nonalcoholic) butterbeer, shop at Ollivanders wand shop, and take a spin on the park's centerpiece ride: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

Price check: Nothing can beat the fuel economy of a flying broom, but lacking that round-trip tickets in June will cost around $299 from Los Angeles (Virgin America), $177 from Philadelphia (AirTran), and $197 from Washington D.C. (US Airways).

Where to stay: You can't turn a corner in Orlando without bumping into some kind of resort, but the three-star Lake Buena Vista Resort Village & Spa is one of the best values with rooms that start at 1,080 square feet and kitchens. There's also a massive pool with a reproduction of a pirate ship. Lbvorlandoresort.com, one-bedroom suites from $119 (two-night minimum)

 

See more popular stories:

10 Islands to See Before You Die

27 Outrageous Travel Signs

Secret Hotels of Paris

Top 10 Hottest New Travel Gadgets

Keep reading

Just Back From... A Family Vacation in Germany & Austria

Great local meal… Dinner in Heidelberg. It was Christmas, and there weren't a lot of restaurants open, but we went into Palmbrau Gasse, a small quaint place that's one of Caitlin's favorites. We each had flamkuchen, a German-style pizza made with crème fraîche (a type of sour cream) rather than a standard tomato sauce. After a long, cold day of hiking around Heidelberg and the castle that overlooks the town, it was absolutely delicious. Our favorite part… Exploring the ancient German city of Trier, located on the French-Luxembourg border. Originally settled by the Romans in the first century B.C., the town has Roman baths and a colosseum that are still standing. We visited several cathedrals and wandered around the old city, then went to the Christmas market in the picturesque main square. We sampled treats from the many different stalls and, of course, a mug or two of gluhwein (a hot mulled wine). Worth every penny… Prior to the trip, we paid to download a Germany-Austria-Switzerland map for our GPS.  I can't imagine trying to find our way in and out of some of these ancient cities, with their narrow cobblestoned and one-way streets, without it. The map was worth its weight in gold and saved us a lot of time. Total rip-off… Driving into Austria on the autobahn, you are required to buy a window sticker (called a vignette) at the border for €8, which allows you to travel on their autobahn for 10 days. It isn't explained very well at the border, but if you fail to buy it on the way in, they will fine you very heavily (€110) when you try to get back out of the country. Luckily, the friends we visited in Austria warned us beforehand. Fun surprise… In Bavaria, we spent part of an afternoon visiting the Wieskirche (church) in Wies and the Ettal monastery in nearby Ettal. Both were free (except for parking) and boasted absolutely beautiful rococo interiors. Also, both are located in small towns, with no crowds or traffic. The monks at the monastery even brew their own beer, which is available at nearby stores, and was quite good. Overrated… The Neuschwanstein castle tour was a bit disappointing, as it involved a fairly long wait, especially considering it was off-season. And the brief tour itself was not very informative. But with three daughters who grew up watching Disney's Cinderella, we had to see it. Moment when things got tense… We had a scheduled four-hour layover in Manchester, where the airport had an archaic and confusing system for transferring passengers and baggage between airlines. When we arrived, we talked with fellow travelers who had been stuck at the airport due to the blizzards occurring throughout Europe. One passenger was at the airport for her fourth straight day. Our layover eventually doubled to eight hours, but we made it out and arrived in Stuttgart with our luggage intact. Next time I will try to fly the same airline throughout or at least avoid Manchester. Hotel we liked… We avoided hotels because, with a party of six and the small size of many European hotel rooms, we would have needed to rent two or three rooms each night. That would have busted our budget. Instead, for half the cost of the hotels, we rented an apartment in Heidelberg near the old city through homeaway.com and then one floor of a large chalet in Weissenbach in the Austrian Alps through tyrol.tl. Having the extra room to spread out and a kitchen where we could keep food and drinks was a definite plus.

California’s New Wine Trail

Like a lot of folks, I think I know a thing or two about wine. I write about the subject regularly. I live a short drive from Napa and Sonoma counties. A few years ago, I even built my own cellar and stocked it with modestly priced bottles I picked out myself. But when it comes to actually visiting wine country, I'm stumped. I've come to loathe all those hours in the car, pulling up to one ostentatious building after another, paying a big tasting fee, sipping seven different wines, and trying hard to care why one chardonnay went through malolactic fermentation and the other got aged in stainless steel. Then you just get back on the road and contemplate your headache en route to the next tasting room. That's not me. That's not anyone I know, really. So this year I vowed to ditch all of the pomp, circumstance, and potential DUIs. Instead of driving from one isolated vineyard to the next, I set out to see wine country as few visitors ever do: by foot. For whatever reason, walking tours are much bigger in Europe than they are in America, but I've never understood why. There is no more meaningful way to connect with a place than by exploring it, literally, one step at a time. And that was precisely my goal. It was just about noon when I arrived at Sonoma's Best, a picture-perfect country store a few blocks from the main plaza in the town of Sonoma. All wooden screen doors and rustic charm, the store is, as far as I could tell, the ideal place to assemble a gourmet picnic-from olive spreads to prosciutto to ciabatta rolls. It's also the business arm of a small rental cottages operation, Les Petites Maisons. Over the past few weeks, I had zeroed in on Les Petites Maisons as the single-best base for my wine country tour. Initially, I had thought I'd walk Napa Valley, but while its wines were top-notch, its potential walking routes were not. There were too many cars and tour buses on too few roads to make for an appealing route. Then I started looking into Sonoma County, specifically its southeast corner. Instead of busy highways, the area just south and west of the Carneros Hills is a warren of quiet lanes, bike paths, footpaths, and railroad easements-perfect walking country. It's also home to California's oldest wineries. From Google Maps, I could see that the cottages of Les Petites Maisons sat at the center of it all, meaning I could set out each morning armed with nothing but a small day pack, a snack, and a rough idea of where I wanted to end up.           The co-owner of Sonoma's Best, Gayle Jenkins, greeted me at the cash register and led me out back. For whatever reason, I'd expected Les Petites Maisons to be some backwoods Paul Bunyan kind of affair. Instead, the four peak-roofed cottages were like perfectly apportioned little homes, each with a large deck, gas grill, and outdoor fireplace. Inside mine, a kitchenette sat next to a snug living room and a master bedroom that looked more Martha Stewart than Grizzly Adams, with soft light, landscape photos, and coffee-table books. It was still relatively early, so after a bottle of lemonade from Sonoma's Best, I began to walk. There are no established winery-to-winery hiking routes in Sonoma, and that meant I'd had to come up with my own. In the previous days, I'd pored over street maps, topographic maps, and satellite images on Google, and I'd strung together two daylong walking tours, making sure to include stops at four of the most notable local wineries without ever having to hike more than 30 minutes between destinations. My first stop, about 1.2 miles up Gehricke Road from the cottages, would be Ravenswood Winery, founded in 1976 and famous for its big, hearty zinfandels. Although Les Petites Maisons is technically in town, it took only a few minutes of walking for the houses and stores to give way to open country. I'd barely covered a mile before I found myself all alone. Under the shade of an oak tree, I stopped and looked over acres of grapevines. Where there were no vines, the native grass, dry from a long, hot summer, whispered like wheat in the wind. By the time I spotted Ravenswood, about 20 minutes after heading out, I'd worked up a bit of a sweat and more than a little thirst. The tasting room was every bit as unpretentious as I'd hoped for the first stop on my tour. I don't know if it's because I looked overheated, but the guy behind the bar didn't offer me the expected zinfandel. Instead he poured me a sip of cold, early-harvest gewürztraminer that reminded me of a spring morning. Sonoma wine country doesn't lend itself to easy definition, unlike Napa. The Napa Valley really is a valley, a north-south watershed; Napa also has only one economy, wine, with all its attendant tourism. Sonoma County, by contrast, sprawls over twice the area of Napa, with a major interstate highway and Bay Area suburbs dividing the fogbound coast and secluded Russian River valley from hotter inland regions. This diverse geographic range is reflected in Sonoma's wines. While the area is best known for some of the finest chardonnays and pinot noirs in the world, it also produces a dizzying array of other grapes, which means that nearly every winery has at least one or two surprises in store for visitors-gewürztraminers included. After sampling a few more wines at the bar, among them an unexpectedly good rosé of zinfandel, I ordered a plate of local California cheeses-one was from the Vella Cheese Company just down the street-and wandered outside. Ravenswood sits at the head of a small valley blanketed with vineyards. Out on the lawn, a few Adirondack chairs were set up for guests to enjoy the view. Just as I'd settled into one, a fellow visitor leaped out of the neighboring chair. Coiled directly below him was a baby rattlesnake. I'd seen a RATTLESNAKE AREA sign earlier and thought it was a joke. Apparently not. If Ravenswood was an earthy American experience, my next destination, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, was positively old-world. To reach it, I backtracked out of the valley, turned west on Brazil Street, and then south on 4th Street East, which led directly to the winery's well-kept grounds. Founded in 1904 by a Tuscan immigrant stonemason who'd quarried cobblestones for the streets of San Francisco in the nearby hills, Sebastiani is one of the oldest continually operated vineyards in the U.S.; it even chugged through Prohibition by making sacramental and medicinal wines. Like Ravenswood, the winery has grown over the years from a local success into a huge international concern-but the grounds more nakedly reflect its progression, with a vast parking lot for tour buses. As I strolled into the tasting room, several visitors were lounging just outside in chairs around a fountain. I ordered a seven-wine tasting flight that epitomized Sebastiani today: well-made, mid-priced wines, ranging from $13 to $75, in all the marquee California varietals, like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay. In addition to its deep menu of polished wines, Sebastiani has another great virtue (for walkers, at least): It sits right on the Sonoma Bike Path, an old railroad easement that runs 1.5 car-free miles into town. Heading west on the path, I covered several blocks until I came upon a pretty little organic farm called the Patch. Just a few blocks from the town plaza, the five-and-a-half-acre plot has been continually cultivated since 1870. I took a seat on a shady bench alongside the path. Looking overhead, I saw tree limbs bristling with ripe, juicy Black Mission figs, and I pulled one down to eat. Walking, not driving, seemed to be working out pretty well. By the time I reached the Sonoma Plaza, a grassy expanse in the center of town, that cheese plate from Ravenswood wasn't holding me anymore. Not a problem. For a city with only 10,000 permanent residents, Sonoma seems to have a disproportionate number of world-class restaurants-30 or so are listed within two blocks of the plaza-and I had my eye on one in particular, a bistro named The Girl & the Fig. I started with a scallop-and-black-radish terrine, moved on to mussels in Pernod broth, and finished with a chocolate sorbet. By the time dinner was done, I was ready for one more walk: the 15-minute stroll home. Over the years, I've become friends with Jeff Bundschu, the president of the 152-year-old Gundlach Bundschu winery, which, like many of Sonoma's top vineyards, is still family-held. Jeff grew up just southeast of town, and no one is more familiar with both the area's wine and heritage, so I took his recommendation to begin my second day at Buena Vista Carneros Winery, the first winery built west of the Mississippi. The morning was bluebird, and Old Winery Road northeast of the cottages was deserted; the mile-long road dead-ends at Buena Vista Carneros, so there was barely any traffic. Instead of keeping to the shoulder, I walked right in the middle of the road. Although Buena Vista Carneros is renowned among wine lovers, the site itself is rather humble. The old stone buildings, many dating to 1862, are tucked among big trees at the base of a steep hill. I followed the signs into the tasting room, a cool, dark sanctuary with enormous timber beams. A worn wooden bar lines one wall, books on local history are propped up on display, and secluded back rooms lie in wait for private events. In the quiet of midday, I sipped a silky pinot noir and one of the best chardonnays I'd had the entire trip. Before leaving that morning, Les Petites Maisons' Jenkins had tipped me off to a small footpath leading from Buena Vista Carneros to my next destination, a little-known but likable operation called Bartholomew Park Winery. A few hundred yards from the Buena Vista Carneros tasting room, back down Old Winery Road, I came across an open gate with a big sign announcing BARTHOLOMEW MEMORIAL PARK. Just beyond the gate, I entered a kind of hidden garden. The trail led for about a quarter of a mile through groomed lawns with picnic tables and on to the gleaming white mansion that now houses the winery. Run by Jeff Bundschu's father, James, Bartholomew Park is the smallest vineyard I visited, just 37 acres, but it had a perk: 400 acres of adjacent parkland cut with walking trails. As I settled into a few of the rich cabernet sauvignons Bartholomew is known for, the pourer filled me in on the trails. "There's a pond and a trail, fairly steep in sections-the whole thing, round trip, is about two and a half miles," he said. Outside the tasting room, I went in search of Jenkins's final tip. She'd told me that there was an old railway easement that had never been developed just off 7th Street East. If I looked hard enough, I might find this forgotten off-road route and follow it right back to Les Petites Maisons. Ten minutes later, I came across it: a little footpath framed by a blackberry bramble. At first, I thought I must be mistaken-and I didn't want to inadvertently end up in someone's backyard. But as I followed the path, it was clear that it was what I'd been looking for. For about a quarter of a mile, the trail weaved and bent beneath tall pine trees; then, true to Jenkins's description, it dropped me off at the door of my cottage. It was a perfect little secret. And much like walking through wine country, it had just been waiting to be found.

ADVERTISEMENT