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A View of History and Wineries in Napa Valley

<i> The Grimms are free-lance writers/photographers living in Laguna Beach. </i>

In Napa Valley the most familiar names are wine makers Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Charles Krug and Hanns Kornell.

Other men also have left their mark in California’s premier wine region. Among them are George C. Yount, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sam Brannan and Edward T. Bale.

Most tourists come to this attractive town for its lodgings, restaurants and shops, as well as a tour of Domaine Chandon, which produces champagne. That’s the vineyard at which one may buy a gourmet lunch or dinner. For reservations, call (707) 944-2892.

But you can ignore the wineries and do other things in the Napa Valley. On the north end of Yountville is the Pioneer Cemetery and ancient Indian burial ground. Then look for the obelisk monument and historical marker at the grave of the town’s namesake, George Calvert Yount.

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Spanish Land Grant

A trapper from North Carolina, Yount hunted sea otter among the Channel Islands before he became the first U.S. citizen to receive a Spanish land grant in the Napa Valley. He settled in a log blockhouse in 1836 and later built grist and saw mills to attract other pioneers. He died in Yountville in 1865.

More famous and well remembered in Napa Valley is Scottish-born writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who arrived in 1880 on his honeymoon. He lived two months in the bunkhouse of an old silver mine on Mt. St. Helena, and gathered material for one of his first successful books, “Silverado Squatters.”

You can review his life at the Silverado Museum in St. Helena, another charming 19th-Century town that’s 10 miles north along California 29. The museum was established for a collection of nearly 8,000 Stevenson mementos, including original manuscripts and his writing desk. Visitors are welcome free 1 to 4 p.m. daily except Mondays and holidays.

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The adjacent public library, with more than 2,700 books and periodicals about wine, draws enologists and other wine enthusiasts.

Napa Valley’s most impressive historical museum features the cottage of Sam Brannan, reportedly California’s first millionaire and the man who established the town of Calistoga, nine miles north.

As you leave St. Helena, detour left on Madrona Avenue to Spring Mountain Road where fans of “Falcon Crest” can view the baronial home of Jane Wyman’s TV family at Spring Mountain Vineyards.

Groups are taken daily through the estate’s gardens to see the mansion’s ornate exterior, except when the actors are on location. The $4 tours begin on the hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Restored Mill

Also en route to Calistoga, turn left at the entrance to Bale Grist Mill, a state historic park with a recently restored mill that was built in 1846 by Edward Turner Bale. After sailing to California as a ship’s doctor, he married into a Mexican family and was granted land in the Napa Valley.

Bale’s huge millstones, turned by a 36-foot wooden water wheel, will soon be put back into operation, and you can watch the original grinding process weekends between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Adult admission $1, children 50 cents.

Continue driving a mile north of the mill to hike, picnic or camp at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. Fifty sites accommodate tents and RVs ($10 a night); reserve through Mistix.

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Beyond is Calistoga, founded as a hot springs resort in 1859. Today the town is known for bottled mineral water of the same name, as well as the Crystal Geyser brand.

An old-time treat for visitors continues to be a mud bath, where you soak up to your neck in a warm black mixture of volcanic ash, peat and hot mineral water.

Seven spas in town offer “the works,” which is the mud bath followed by a hot mineral bath, in a steam room. Then a blanket wrap and an optional massage.

Information about the spas is available from the chamber of commerce in the 120-year-old Calistoga Depot. It’s a historic landmark on Lincoln Avenue that’s joined by six restored railroad cars with shops and eateries. The chamber office is open daily except at lunch hour and on holidays.

Sharpsteen Museum

A few blocks away on Washington Street, just past the turn-of-the-century city hall, visit the restored cottage of town founder Sam Brannan. It adjoins the Sharpsteen Museum that’s filled with memorabilia of early Calistoga and Napa Valley. Look for the scale model of the town as a hot springs resort in 1865. Daily hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission free.

For a bird’s-eye view of Napa Valley, go back on Lincoln Avenue to the tiny airport that’s home to the Calistoga Soaring Center. You can soar in a glider or sit behind a roaring engine in the open cockpit of a 1940 biplane.

In addition, you can try sky diving. After 30 minutes of training on the ground, you’re flown to 7,500 feet. There you jump with your instructor, who is attached to the same parachute. Call (707) 942-5592 for flight fees and reservations.

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Napa Valley’s most popular aerial adventure is hot-air ballooning. Half a dozen companies offer the early morning excursions, most of them rising with the sun from Yountville.

Get ballooning details, as well as information about lodgings and restaurants, by contacting the Napa Valley Tourist Bureau in Yountville, phone (707) 944-1557, and the chambers of commerce of St. Helena, phone (707) 963-4456, and Calistoga, phone (707) 942-6333.

Learn Croquet

A well-known woodsy hideaway just east of St. Helena is Meadowood Resort, where guests can learn to play croquet from two professionals on the hotel staff.

A lodge for croquet players overlooks three manicured courts, while other accommodations are clustered in the trees near the tennis courts, swimming pool and golf course. Room rates are $175 and up on weekends; phone (707) 963-3646.

Meadowood also is a favorite for fine dining in its Starmont restaurant, where a prix fixe dinner is $40. Another Napa Valley retreat with prix fixe dining ($47) and highly praised for its gourmet menu is Auberge du Soleil near Rutherford. Below the hillside restaurant are spacious Mediterranean-style rooms and suites that begin at $210; phone (707) 963-1211.

Drive from Los Angeles via U.S. 101 beyond San Francisco to California 37, which skirts San Pablo Bay and joins California 29 and runs through the 40-mile valley.

Round trip from Los Angeles to Yountville is 1,010 miles.


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