Napa & Sonoma, California
We've just finished two weeks of travel through the Wine Country. As we live close by, we often visit for day trips but until our recent retirement, really hadn't stayed overnight in the area.
We chose to visit in early May. Spring is still very cool and windy, so layers of Polarfleece along with sunblock and a hat/cap are needed! There are relatively few tourists - the season starts Memorial Day through harvest time in mid-October - which is good because the roads are mostly two-laners and traffic can be hideous at summer's height.
If you are driving, the back roads are a much prettier way to see Calistoga/Napa - you can drive up 101 to Geyserville, for example, to visit the Russian River wineries or eat in Healdsburg. Then take 128 East, which is the 'back way' into Calistoga & Napa. Visiting this early means the hills are still green from winter rains, and the views across the valleys are terrific. Many wineries and some restaurants have great views and because it's not so busy, have more time to chat with visitors.
Yes, staying here is expensive. Hotels and restaurants are just as costly as San Francisco is, which means you are paying a lot of $$$. But there are some lower-cost hotels, not top-quality but adequate. Eating - well, if you don't drink (like us) you can get away with $30-150/person for a meal. If you do....it'll cost you more although you can always bring a bottle of wine and just pay corkage.
We can highly recommend the tour at Castello di Amoroso, the medieval reconstructionist castle built by the head of Sattui Winery. If you have an appreciation for medieval brickwork/stone masonry, it's truly a wonder.
Just outside the city of Sonoma (in the Wine Country, the major cities have the same name as the county does, just to confuse visitors, LOL) is Cornerstone Gardens. It's 9 acres of professional landscape designs. Some of them were whimsical, some were interesting, some were sculptural. They change periodically so it can be fun to stop by and see what they've done this time. There's a few stores in the mix, including refreshment stores so you can buy a soda and pastry, and sit down to relax (warning: in summer it gets HOT up here).
Here's a few fun photos from Cornerstone:
The Blue Bottle Tree by Claude Cormier, Claude Cormier Architects, Montreal, Canada - a dead tree bedecked with 80,000 sky-blue Christmas ball ornaments!
The variegated Iris pallida and a white rose. The roses were stunning in the gardens, all in bloom:
This was a tongue-in-cheek installation of a very long row of bright pink pinwheels, spinning away in the stiff breezes, at the edge of a manicured green lawn:
A sculptural garden bed of agaves, surrounded by soft grasses, rosemary, and CA poppies:
Have no idea what this was - there were no labels on anything, which was a little frustrating - but it's beautiful:
Vineyards are everywhere, and this one was right outside Cornerstone's landscape installations: