Touring Napa's lap of luxury

02:24, Jun 24 2013

How comfortable are you with luxury tourism?

Last week I had three idyllic days with my mother and father in the Napa Valley, which is just over an hour north of San Francisco by car. I stayed at a relaxing country club, had a series of wonderful meals in scenic Napa locales, read my book while looking out at the hills, drank beer on the couch and watched basketball and slept in a king size bed.

It should be noted that two-years ago when LP and I visited the Napa Valley we slept in a van on the side of the road, had a cheeseburger for lunch, and a dinner of bread, cheese and salami that we bought from the supermarket. This visit had its own, very real and valid charms, but they were a bit different to the ones I was devouring last week.

My parents were very much my benefactors in last week's trip. We had a great time.

There's really not that much to Napa Valley. It is a 50km stretch of wine country, framed by the Mayacamas Mountains. It ranges in width at different points between 2 and 8km. About three-quarters of its population of 136,000 live in American Canyon and Napa City at the southern most point in the valley. There are two roads that go through Napa, the newer Highway 29 and the winding, scenic Silverado Trail.

Our trip I imagine to be indicative of what a lot of visitors do in Napa. We drove around, taking in the Napa Valley's rolling hills and endless vines from our car and cooing at the stately homes and palatial wineries, all styled with elegant variations on a certain European-ness. We had beautiful meals in understated restaurants. We had a leisurely afternoon at a winery. We played golf at a Johnny Miller designed championship course. (It was terrifyingly hard.) We walked through towns stocked almost exclusively with boutique markets, art galleries, furniture shops and upscale home-ware outlets.


Napa, population 76,000, is the major hub. We stayed just outside of the city and spent much of our time there, whether for meals or errands. (You know, to pick up Duck Terrine, mineral water and some nice bread, that kind of thing). It has lovely pockets, but is much more working class than what you're going to encounter further up the valley.  

North of Napa, there's only a few towns. St. Helena is not in itself flashy, but the shops tip your hat that this is a place people only go to spend money conspicuously. There's a Dean & Deluca market just outside of it, a chain of supermarkets scattered only in the country's ritziest destinations. Every time I step inside a Dean & Deluca I want to quit writing and devote my life to being a man of wealth. 

I might say that St. Helena was the most obviously wealthy small town I had ever visited, if it wasn't for Yountville.

Yountville is rarefied. It's pristine. It's crisp and clean. It's peaceful, filled with content, well-to-do people walking slowly through its manicured gardens, markets and five-star restaurants. If you're ever there, make sure to have a macaroon from Bouchon and take a walk past the French Laundry, with its almost CGI-level-perfect vegetable gardens that you can imagine some world-class chef daintily plucking the evening's munitions from each day. Every time I'm there, I keep thinking about how I wouldn't be surprised if someone asked me to leave simply for dragging the general level of perfection down with my presence.  

The Napa Valley is peaceful and relaxing with a great attention to detail and is a great place to stare at the hills and smile at your companions and comment among yourselves what a nice place this is, but this certain luxury and soaking it in is largely all it has to offer. I loved this a lot, because deep down I enjoy being indulgent and a little lazy. But can everyone relax in this inactivity, cut off in a comfortable bubble separated from thousands of much more gritty realities facing Americans? 

I mentioned that my parents were shouting this, because it is not the sort of holiday economically accessible to me. I should also say, that we lived brilliantly for three days, but we were nowhere near as high on the hog as someone could get in the Napa Valley. On each of my visits here, I've been more consciously aware than anywhere I've ever been of how much money is around and of layers of economic comfort so far removed from my own my head hurts. It's tourism and it is very comfortable and it is stepping out of your world, but it is disquieting in a small way to consider from back in the confines of your own life.

So it is not the wonderful time I had in Napa that I'm over-thinking, than Napa itself. I don't harbour any ill will toward the economic stratosphere it represents. I try not to begrudge anyone an extreme amount of wealth, even if I can't escape that it makes me feel slightly self-conscious about my own economic situation. There's got to be better catalysts for economic fairness than resenting and protesting against everyone with an outwardly more expensive standard of living.

I just wonder if visiting Napa Valley is less tourism and more like visiting a rather expansive day-spa retreat with a wine-industry attached?

Either way, it is pretty great...

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