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Napa Valley Daytripping On a Budget


Napa Valley has a well-deserved reputation for quality and luxury. Its wines -- Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular -- are known and respected worldwide. But it's also known as pricey. The challenge? Enjoy the riches of this region, one money-saving sip at a time. We recently headed west to come up with a guide to do just that.

BLAZING A WINE TRAIL

Vines cover more than 34,000 acres, and the valley boasts 250-plus wineries, from mom-and-pop vineyards to immense operations owned by international corporations. There's something here for every wine lover.

Venture out on either Highway 29 or the parallel Silverado Trail and you'll hit a string of small towns with wineries. Each has its own personality and specialty. Expect tasting fees that range from $5-$10 per person and are usually credited toward your wine purchase.

WHERE THE DEALS ARE

Consider going off-season -- November through May -- for Napa's best lodging rates. During peak season and on weekends, most hotels and bed-and-breakfasts require a minimum two-night stay.

If you visit during the winter and spring, expect drizzly rain and cooler temperatures. So curl up next to a fireplace with a book and a bottle of wine purchased on one of your winery visits. During drier months, focus on the endless natural splendor to conserve your travel dollar.

Remember: Great food doesn't have to be expensive. Look at lunch menus and experiment with top chefs' other restaurants, not as famous but serving great food. For instance, Tra Vigne was made famous by Michael Chiarello (the TV chef), but his Pizzeria Tra Vigne is considerably less expensive.

When indulging in Napa's favorite pastime -- wine tasting -- buy a coupon book. The Taste Napa Downtown card costs about $20 and gets 10-cent wine tastings at 10 different tasting rooms and retail stores in the town of Napa, as well as discounts on purchases. Check individual winery websites for tasting coupons that you can print out and bring along.

SOUTHERN NAPA VALLEY

Start in Napa at the far south end of the valley. Begin at Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company, get breakfast to go and stroll along the recently spruced up Napa River nearby.

Wine, Food and Art
True foodies will enjoy a visit to COPIA, The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. The 80,000-square-foot center features cooking demos, art exhibits, wine tastings and food forums. Thrifty travelers prepare for a full day of wine tasting by first stopping at the Napa General Store for picnic provisions such as local artisan cheeses, breads, pâté and bottled water.

To cap off a day enjoying Napa's multi-winery tasting rooms, stop for a slice of Tuscany at moderately priced Bistro Don Giovanni. Set in vineyards, you'll get more bang for your buck with a view or alfresco dining, plus it's a hangout for local wine producers you can ogle.

THE NORTHERN EXPERIENCE

On Day 2, head north again on Highway 29 starting in Yountville, a town slightly off the beaten path.

Tasteful Pairings
Hit the chic town of St. Helena, the hub of the Napa Valley, for a value-packed lunch at local favorite, Market. If scrimping time and money, opt for Taylor's Refresher, a retro roadside burger stand with addicting milkshakes.

Beyond Wine
Pamper yourself after a long day spent sampling wine at the region's unique vineyards. At the farthest northern point of the valley, ramble through Calistoga, known for its natural springs, spas and mud baths. Some of the best yet least expensive treatments can be enjoyed at Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort.

Reasonably priced lodging is scarce in the Napa Valley, but you can find values in Calistoga, including overnight lodging at Dr. Wilkinson's individual cottages. The EuroSpa & Inn is also reasonable and includes free wireless Internet and a continental breakfast. El Bonita in St. Helena is another affordable motel.


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