If you’ve already conquered Thomas Keller’s casual Ad Hoc and his exclusive French Laundry (or are still on the months-long waiting list for the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant), another Wine Country foodie adventure awaits—a vacation designed by the master chef himself.
Keller crafted a five-day, four-night excursion through Sonoma and Napa Valley that highlights the best places to dine, wine and stay. As part of Relais & Châteaux’s Route du Bonheur, or “Road to Happiness,” series, the trip lets you adapt the chef’s itinerary to your tastes. In time for Napa’s harvest season, our Forbes Travel Guide editors traveled down Keller’s road, and here is where we stopped along our own happy food- and wine-filled journey.
Stop 1: Hotel Les Mars
Start the trip in Sonoma County’s Healdsburg, a charming town that overflows with wine shops and restaurants, at Hotel Les Mars. The intimate Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel resembles a country chalet. The 16 rooms are individually decorated, and our spacious accommodations came with wood-beam vaulted ceilings, a canopy bed draped in toile with maroon grape bunches, 17th- and 18th-century antiques, rich wood furniture and a stone fireplace. After a day of walking Healdsburg’s lovely streets, retreat into the gray marble bathroom for a soak in the BainUltra hydrotheraphy tub, which lets you customize the temperature, bubble intensity and more while enjoying the Chalk Hill wine welcome amenity.
Where to Eat: The hotel’s Chalkboard restaurant, which opened in June, is just the place to retire to after a day at the wineries. There are upscale touches, such as white Carrara-marble-topped tables, but the ambience is casual and fun—groups fill the space with laughter and chatter. Executive chef Shane McAnelly turns out seasonal small plates from the open kitchen. The shot of chilled, zesty English pea soup topped with crab wakes up your taste buds; the oversized Dungeness crab tater tots with dollops of crème fraîche and chives are pure comfort food; and the eggplant Parmesan with housemade mozzarella has a great smoky flavor.
Pit Stops: Next door to the hotel is Shed, a one-stop shop for gourmands. The two-floor space is shaped like a modern barn, with an all-glass façade and steel sides. Inside, you’ll find a coffee bar, a café, a general store, an event space and more. Take a soba-making class, grab coffee and a kouign amann (a crunchy, caramelized butter cake) or get a glass of local wine or kombucha (fermented tea) on tap at the fermentation bar.
Be sure to make the 10-minute drive to Copain Wines for a tasting, which is complimentary for Hotel Les Mars guests. Copain’s wines have the seal of approval from Keller himself—he uses the excellent P2 (a pinot noir-pinot gris blend) in The French Laundry. It makes sense; the wines have a lower alcohol content, so they pair better with food. That’s why the winery serves a plate of apples, figs, local cheese and rosemary crackers with its tasting. Afterward, pick up a bottle of the bright, floral P2 for yourself.
Stop 2: Meadowood Napa Valley
After being in the midst of the action, the tucked-away Meadowood Napa Valley will be a nice change of pace. The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel’s chic private cottages offer understated luxury with a palette of beige, white and black; white walls with white wood wainscoting; and white exposed-beam ceilings. Get cozy in front of the white-brick gas fireplace in the living room, or sit out on the porch and relax amid the trees on the 250-acre property. Reserve one of the newly redone Oakview Rooms, where you can sit in a nook with a cup of Illy coffee and gaze out of the wall corner made of windowpanes.
Where to Eat: There’s one reservation you must make on this leg of the trip: Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Restaurant at Meadowood. Chef Christopher Kostow is creating some of the most innovative cuisine in the country. Prepare for a dizzying parade of up to 23 courses of contemporary, seasonal American cuisine. While the menu changes daily, expect knock-your-socks-off dishes with presentations to match. They range from the delightfully simple—the “Pillow on Pillow,” a square filled with warm, creamy fromage blanc served on a jagged glazed white plate—to the whimsical, whipped yogurt with black sesame, pickled plum purée dots and a nest of shiso chiffonade, all of which sits in a bowl propped up by large rocks. The unusual dishes (a potato-like roasted cucumber; lamb paired with sunflower “tripe”) will make you do a double-take.
Pit Stops: Drive five minutes into downtown St. Helena. Skip the line at beloved Gott’s Roadside stand (visit the less-busy downtown Napa outpost in foodie mecca Oxbow Public Market if you crave a Niman Ranch Angus burger) and eat your way down Main Street. The Model Bakery is known for its thick English muffins, and you should certainly have one toasted with butter. But add the filling apricot-oat bar to your order. The rolled oat crust holds local apricots and a topping of oat streusel and coconut almond. Then stop into Woodhouse Chocolate for sinful handmade treats, such as the brown butter ganache (creamy milk chocolate and browned butter in a white-chocolate fleur-de-lis shell) and pecan caramel (a candied pecan smothered with gooey brown sugar caramel). Lastly, stop in Olivier Napa Valley to sample its specialty olive oils. If you fall for a flavor (we’re partial to the bold extra-virgin Manzanillo), bring it home—the staff will cork a bottle, seal it and wrap it in a plastic bag for safe traveling.
Stop 3: Auberge du Soleil
You’ll feel like you’re in Provence at this Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel. For the most luxurious accommodations, book a roomy suite in the newly redone Maison Calais La Plage, which comes with a living room, separate bedroom, terrace and 1.5 bathrooms. The sunny space beams with gold, terra cotta and cream hues, and mixed patterns (a striped Southwestern-inspired armchair, a hand-embroidered leaf-patterned headboard mimics a 16th-century tapestry). Touches like large built-in bookcases with 55-inch plasma TVs in the living room and bedroom make it homey. But the bathroom’s heated limestone floors and standalone shower that filters in light from the outside make it indulgent. Venture outside of your cottage to explore the hotel’s outdoor sculpture garden and lay out in the stylish poolside cabanas.
Where to Eat: Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Auberge du Soleil Restaurant offers one of the best seats in Napa—nab a terrace table for a stunning valley panorama. But the view isn’t the only draw. On chef Robert Curry’s Mediterranean-influenced menu, try the refreshing Maine lobster starter with mango, snap peas, black sesame, curry and cilantro, and follow it up with the perfectly-seared ahi tuna with mini falafel, tzatziki and mint. And don’t skip the bread basket—the subtle rosemary-Meyer lemon slice from Della Fattoria bakery in Petaluma, Calif. will have you asking for seconds.
Pit Stops: Take advantage of Auberge’s in-the-know concierges to get access to the most exclusive local wineries. Forman Vineyard proprietor Ric Forman, a Wine Country veteran, led us through the caves before we sat down with Margaret Harre, who entertained us with culinary stories and top-notch cabernets (the tasting is complimentary for Auberge guests). You’ll also get a gratis tasting at Quintessa, which only produces its namesake red—a meritage blend of some or all of the varietals grown on property, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and carménère. The tasting includes your own personal guide, who will tour the wine-making facilities and bring you to a hilltop so you can sip Quintessa while taking in a view of the 170 acres of vineyards. For a heavier meal, head to the impeccably manicured grounds of the family-run Kelham Vineyards. Sit under a flowing white tent with a fantastic charcuterie platter teeming with Brie, cheddar, herbed almonds, grapes, roast beef, Serrano ham and more while the Kelham family shows you how to pair the food with the strong cabernets.
Of course, Keller’s Route du Bonheur should end in Yountville, home to The French Laundry. Pop into the chef’s new Finesse, The Store, to purchase seeds from The French Laundry’s garden or a keepsake clothespin (a silver copy of the wood clip attached to napkins at the famous restaurant). Finally, visit Bouchon Bakery for one of Keller’s popular oversized macarons. The coconut version with shredded coconut filling provides a happy end-of-the-road finisher.
Photos Courtesy of Thomas Keller, Chalkboard, Meadowood Napa Valley and Trinette Reed and Auberge du Soleil