In the Napa Valley, it’s not just sip, spit, repeat. Here are a few refreshing ideas for how to explore one of the most renowned wine regions in the world.
Like a fine wine, downtown Napa—and the Napa Valley in general—gets better with age. Sure, there are always new wineries to explore (we’re looking at you, Prisoner Wine Company), but fresh and exciting ways to experience the area continue to expand. Here, in no particular order, are five great tours to take in the iconic wine region.
Take a gondola along the river
For the uninitiated, the Napa River runs through most of the valley, and its southern section is navigable by small watercraft. You can rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards to check it out, but the best way to see the sights is aboard a long canal boat. Operated by a company named Gondola Servizio, Napa gondola tours started in August 2018 and have become hugely popular.
The trips leave from the Main Street Public Dock in downtown Napa and meander up and down the river, depending on the tides. Gondoliers dress in classic Venetian garb and if you ask (or tip) nicely, they’ll even sing an aria or two. Standard tours last 50 minutes, while longer, custom itineraries are available as well. Company owners say riders are welcome to bring their own wine; guides provide glassware and will open bottles for you for no additional charge. $95 per couple, $10 for each additional person.
Travel through the Valley by tuk-tuk
In Thailand and other popular tourist destinations across Asia, the three-wheeled electric tuk-tuk has become a staple of urban transportation. Here in Napa, the tuk-tuk experience has been fancified since November 2017 by an outfitter named Laces and Limos. The chariot: a tricked-out white vehicle with a waterproof roof.
Tours with this company consist of half- and full-day excursions to lesser-known parts of the region—specifically the relatively new Coombsville appellation just east of Napa proper. The “Classic Tour” includes a pickup in downtown Napa, a stop at a tasting room nearby, a tour of Coombsville, and a visit to one of a handful of wineries in the countryside. The “Basic Tour” adds a second winery and a stop at the Napa Valley Distillery. Tasting fees are not included in the price, but passengers do get discounts. Tours can accommodate up to six people. $65-$90 per person, plus additional tasting fees that range from $20 to $50.
Eat your way through downtown Napa
With Michelin-starred restaurants such as The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood, and others, it’s no secret that the Napa Valley is a foodie destination. While most of the celebrated restaurants are located up-Valley, Downtown Napa isn’t too shabby a food scene, either. One way to get familiar with restaurants there: go on a walk with Rooted Fork Foodie Tours.
The outfitter launched in spring and currently offers two different options—one that incorporates eight food-and-drink pairings at eight different restaurants, and another that focuses on seven different brunch experiences around town. Both tours last about three hours and cover roughly 1-1.5 miles of walking. Individual stops change regularly but often include Sky & Vine rooftop bar (which has Moscow Mules on tap), Alexis Baking Company, Italian restaurants Ca’ Momi and Oenotri, and Hudson Greens and Goods at Oxbow Public Market. Both alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions of each tour are available; guests must be 18 or older to participate (and 21 or older to drink). $90-$95 per person.
Marvel at the marshland wildlife
One part of the Napa Valley that doesn’t receive many visitors: the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area where Napa and Sonoma counties converge at the northern edge of San Francisco Bay. Small-boat tours with Captain “Aussie” Bob at Wombat Charters offer intimate opportunities to explore this region that features more than 15,000 acres of bay lands, tidal sloughs, and wetland habitats.
Wombat launched its tours in 2017, and most run about three hours. Trips are offered in the daytime, when there are more reliable sightings of birds, seals, and otters, and at sunset, when the sky explodes with pink and orange and purple. The outfitter runs two boats on each of these routes—one with a capacity of four passengers, the other with a capacity of six. Riders are welcome to bring wine and snacks aboard the boats. $95-$150 per person.
Learn on a winery eco-tour and tasting
With dual commitments to solar power and sustainable farming (as well as special dogs that can sniff out pests and obviate the need for pesticides), Rutherford’s Honig Winery is one of the greenest properties in the entire Napa Valley. A guided tour through the estate vineyard is an ideal way to learn about the winery’s environmentally friendly practices.
The Eco-Tour & Tasting begins every day at 10 a.m. in the tasting room. Visitors start by sampling the winery’s award-winning sauvignon blanc, then they board a six-passenger golf cart and head out into the vineyard. As the cart weaves between the vines, the guides point out initiatives such as managing water use, providing wildlife habitat, and restoring the Rutherford Reach of the Napa River. The tour also swings by the apiary—one of the most sophisticated winery bee programs in the entire valley, and honeybees signal a thriving ecosystem. The Eco-Tour concludes back in the tasting room to try some current-release wines. $45 per person.
>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Napa Valley