Family-friendly California Wine Country for All Ages

There’s no need to book a babysitter the next time you want to visit northern California’s wine country. Napa and Sonoma offer family-friendly travel options for the entire brood.

When I recently told a mommy friend of my decision to take our toddler to Napa County wine region, she gasped, “Don’t people give you dirty looks?” I’m sure many would share this sentiment, until they realize that the vineyard-covered pastoral lands are perfect for kids. Wine country is just that—country. And if your child is as interested in goats, chickens, tractors, and endless space to run free as mine is, you’ll find northern California’s world-class wine region to be the ideal place for a family trip.

Sonoma or Napa County: How to Decide

Though often viewed as the eccentric cousin to sophisticated Napa County, Sonoma County actually pairs haute culture with her crunchy reputation in surprisingly family-friendly ways. In-the-know families flock to the casual towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg (on opposite ends of the Sonoma Valley) for everything from kayaking to tractor-pulls through vineyards.

Most non-California visitors head straight for the Spanish-style hamlet of Sonoma. Imagine families picnicking in the central town square beneath a canopy of shady oaks and eucalyptus, while kids climb the play structures and mom and dad sip Chardonnay. Throw in tasting rooms and galleries ringing the square, a train theme park, and your hotel, all within walking distance.

Farther north, Sonoma County’s darling Healdsburg lures local Bay Area families. Complete with a central town square (that at any given time has about 50 kids playing on the grass), access to Russian River beaches, country roads ideal for biking between wineries, casual eateries, and kid-friendly tasting rooms, Healdsburg seems to have been constructed with families in mind.

But don’t start scratching Napa County off your list just yet. Though you may not want to drag your toddler into the Restaurant at Meadowood for dinner, you should not avoid Napa County (or Meadowood Resort for that matter) until your kids are old enough to drink with you. All of the Napa County towns—Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and especially Calistoga—are home to wonderful city parks, plus restaurants and tourist spots for the whole clan.

Of all the Napa County towns, Calistoga is the family destination du jour. This northern-most Napa Valley village reminds the entire wine region of its country roots, while not quite shunning the subtle glam of the region. Annual festivals like a lighted tractor parade and weekly summer town dances pair well with the contemporary hotels and spas that draw families from around the globe.

When I recently told a mommy friend of my decision to take our toddler to Napa County wine region, she gasped, “Don’t people give you dirty looks?” I’m sure many would share this sentiment, until they realize that the vineyard-covered pastoral lands are perfect for kids. Wine country is just that—country. And if your child is as interested in goats, chickens, tractors, and endless space to run free as mine is, you’ll find northern California’s world-class wine region to be the ideal place for a family trip.

Kid-Friendly Activities

Since the wine region is a far cry from a theme park vacation, parents will need to balance children’s activities with adult ones—especially if you don’t want little Emily all fidgety as you try to relax with a glass of Merlot. So, at least once a day, do something special, just for her. In both Napa and Sonoma there are plenty of ways to entertain the younger set—and mom and dad too.

Farm Tours: Sonoma County seems to have figured it out. Stressing the fact that families shouldn’t have to leave little Sammy home with a babysitter while mom and dad get loopy on the vino, the county sponsors Farm Trails. Your family can pick strawberries, go on a hayride, explore vineyards, or view honeybees, all for a pittance. Visit farmtrails.org for a detailed list of farms, hours, and seasonal activities.

Kayaking: When SOAR Inflatables (Healdsburg, CA) owner Larry said I could bring my nine-month-old child on an eight-mile kayaking trip (or my dog, if I had one), I wasn’t so sure about his sanity. But after trying it out, I can vouch that Larry and his staff offer a fun (and safe) kayaking adventure for all ages. Trips last four to eight hours and require a decent amount of paddling down the Russian River, so make sure at least someone in your clan is in decent shape.

Old Faithful Geyser (Calistoga, CA): More for the kids than mom and dad, Old Faithful is a speedy showstopper. Every 30 minutes, this geyser spurts steamy water high into the air, wowing kids and geologists alike. Pet llamas and goats while you wait for the old girl to blow.

Parks: Sonoma and Healdsburg boast shady central squares packed with kids. Local families favor Santa Rosa’s Howarth Park. Younger kids head straight for the pony or train rides (and the carousel), while families with older children fish, hike, boat, and mountain bike. In summer, the city offers outdoor movie nights. After wine tasting, reward the little guys with a trip to Napa’s new community-built Playground Fantastico, Pioneer Park (Calistoga, CA), or Yountville Park.

Safari West (Santa Rosa, CA): Right in the hills of Santa Rosa, you can embark on a daylong safari and view hundreds of African mammals, including giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, and rhinos, all housed in the wildlife preserve. If you want the complete adventure, stay overnight. Tent cabins include heat, plush beds, and views of the giraffes in the savanna. Plus, you get to hear the animals all night (which isn’t as annoying as it sounds), eat camp-style meals, then sit around a campfire telling ghost stories, singing songs, and roasting s’mores late into the evening.

Swimming: Geyserville’s Lake Sonoma, with 50-miles of coastline, draws families, campers, anglers, and boaters. In summer, cool off in Morton’s Warm Springs’ (Glen Ellen, CA) natural hot springs pools. And, as long as you can get there before 10 A.M. on summer weekends, it is worth the trek to Calistoga Spa Hot Springs Resort (Calistoga, CA) to wade in the four mineral springs pools while mom and dad take turns in the mud baths.

Train Rides: Ride amusement park rides, then take a mini-train ride to pet llamas, goats, and rabbits at Train Town (Sonoma, CA). Or take little locomotive lovers on the Napa Valley Wine Train (Napa, CA). Their family date nights keep children in their own train car with babysitters, movies, and kid-style food, while mom and dad enjoy a leisurely gourmet dinner.

Family-Friendly Wine Tastings

Many wineries not only welcome children, they often offer a little something for the kiddos while you sip and swirl. Make a wine-tasting adventure really kid-friendly by biking between tasting rooms. Spoke Folk (Healdsburg, CA) rents bikes (and baby trailers) to explore the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River appellations.

Sonoma Valley Wineries

  • Cornerstone Place (Sonoma, CA) marries wine, food, art, and gardens to appeal to the entire clan. Known mostly as a landscape architecture gallery, it’s a great place to allow the kids to run free while mom and dad sip at one of the four tasting rooms on site. They serve food as well. Local families are already in on this charming secret.
  • Landmark Vineyards (Kenwood, CA) offers Bocce ball, Croquet, horse drawn carriage rides, summer music festivals, and tributes to John Deere (the owner is a descendent), all while you sip their award-winning Chardonnay.
  • Also check out Larson Family Winery (Sonoma, CA), Rosso & Bianco (Geyserville, CA), and Quivira (Healdsburg, CA).

Napa Valley Wineries

  • Castello di Amorosa (Calistoga, CA) invites families with children over age ten to tour this 12th-century Tuscan castle winery. Explore some of the 107 rooms, 900 feet of caves, Italian frescoes, a drawbridge, dungeon and torture chambers, the medieval church, and a peaceful lake.
  • Chateau Montelena (Calistoga, CA) put Napa Valley on the world’s wine map. Today you can taste award-winning Cabernet while the kids feed the migrating birds in the lake.
  • Robert Sinskey Vineyards (Napa, CA) serves biodynamic wines in a casual tasting room (or on the patio overlooking the valley). Their koi pond, along with the gardens and nearby horses, delights kids of all ages.
  • Other family-friendly Napa wineries include Alpha Omega (St. Helena, CA), Sterling (Calistoga, CA), Artesa (Napa, CA), Clos Pegase (Calistoga, CA), and Domaine Chandon (Yountville, CA).

Napa and Sonoma Area Restaurants and Lodging

Restaurants

Come 5:30, nearly every wine country restaurant bustles with children. I have taken my toddler to most restaurants in both Napa and Sonoma counties, and (with the exception of one exclusive restaurant) we have been welcomed enthusiastically. Below is a sample of eateries that appeal to both gastronaut parents and picky children.

Maya Restaurant’s (Sonoma, CA) colorful walls contain the collection of boisterous families, while a healthy kids menu and the best mole and margaritas in the wine region round out the experience.

Up in Healdsburg, locals whisper about the existence of Ravenous Café (707-431-1302). Sit in the jasmine-scented garden, with the kids and dogs, and dine on vegetarian chili and hearty burgers.

Bistro Don Giovanni (Napa, CA) serves pan-fried chicken or cheese pizza with French fries on top (and no green stuff!) to families, who linger in the garden long after dinner ends.

A new addition to Napa, The Little Gourmet (Napa, CA) calls itself a “kid restaurant that’s grown-up friendly.” Besides serving a peanut butter and jelly pizza, the eatery has a slew of toys, outdoor seating, and healthy salads for mom and dad.

For finicky eaters, Oxbow Public Market (Napa, CA) artisan marketplace showcases arepas at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, croissant sandwiches at Model Bakery, ice cream from Three Twins Organic Ice Cream, hot dogs and burgers at Taylor’s Refresher, and barbequed oysters at Hog Island Oysters.

Lodging

If you are in Sonoma County for a week or more, consider renting a house at Healdsburg-Home Away or checking into Landmark Winery’s Cottages (Kenwood, CA).

Budget-conscious travelers appreciate Sonoma Creek Inn (Sonoma, CA) for its simple queen beds and no-frills attitude. For a dash more, the full-service El Dorado Hotel (Sonoma, CA) offers centrally located poolside bungalows with contemporary decor.

If you want that once-in-a-lifetime experience, reserve a tent cabin at Safari West (Santa Rosa, CA). Or, spring for a weekend at Hotel Healdsburg (Healdsburg, CA), where the luxurious rooms are straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest.

Napa Valley’s Calistoga Spa Hot Springs Resort (Calistoga, CA) caters to families on the hunt for an affordable (albeit modest) room, with unlimited access to their mineral pools.

For families looking to splurge without breaking the bank, the Villagio Inn and Spa (Yountville, CA) sings of Tuscan inspiration. The pool, bikes, tennis courts, and regal champagne breakfast appeal to the whole clan.

The ultimate family splurge in wine country is a trip to Meadowood Napa Valley (St. Helena, CA). Two hundred and fifty acres of woods surround the private cottages, with private balconies that are ideal for sipping wine on after the kiddos conk out. Add to that a children’s program, babysitting, a family pool, two restaurants, a golf course, and hiking trails.

How to navigate any wine region with kids

  • Plan at least one kid-centered activity each day. You don’t want little Caitlin getting too bored while you luxuriate in fine estate-grown Cabernet; so don’t lug her between wineries all day long. Try to limit yourself to two wineries a day.
  • Visit family-friendly wineries. Most wineries allow kids on the property and even entertain the children. Find wineries with animals, caves, or even hayrides. And if all else fails, bring along some toys or a ball for them to play with while you hit up the tasting room.
  • Don’t get tanked. While it may be exciting for you to taste a slew of different wines, it’s obviously not safe to drive your precious cargo with you. Find a bottle you like, purchase it, and after the kids go to bed, cap off a bottle (or two) with your sweetheart.
  • Get a babysitter for a night. That way, you can hit up that four-course prix fixe restaurant, savoring a bottle of Zinfandel without counting the minutes before your kid will ask once again, “Can I go outside yet?”
  • Don’t be apologetic about bringing your kids. Children grow up in wine regions around the world. Just make sure to visit places where they will have as much fun as you will—and in wine country, that isn’t difficult.

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