Napa Valley Dining – Culinary Travel in California’s Wine Country

We think of California’s Napa Valley as one of the great wine centers of the world, but its other great boast is food. The Valley lies in the midst of some of the world’s most creative farmers and livestock growers, surrounded by an ocean of fish and the world’s most abundant variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, artisan meats and rare foodstocks. In the restaurants and markets of the Valley, all this bounty arrives every day astonishingly fresh, often merely hours old.

Situated in the heart of all this abundance, it’s no surprise that Napa Valley has become one of America’s great culinary centers. Chefs love the area for the freshness and variety of its foods. The five million visitors who come to sample the wine country treats every year have created a bustling culinary scene.

It could be said that the better part of knowing a wine is knowing what food it goes with.

Your knowledge of wines is not that extensive? Then let the people who prepare your food make the selections from the bewildering array of wines and recommend what goes best with your food. If you’re on a culinary adventure, there’s no better way to sample the Valley’s flavors than through the recommendations of the local eateries – they’ll all have good wines.

Yountville is considered the center for fine dining. Best of the best here is surely French Laundry, top-rated again by Michelin for 2010 as one of the few three-star restaurants in America. But Napa Valley is bursting with fine eateries. If you don’t know your way around study some of the many guides and reviews. These are available everywhere: your hotel, your custom tour service, the wineries and attractions you visit.

And don’t forget the locals for advice. Uncork29 for example offers a good list of restaurants rated by locals. They rate ZuZu in Napa even more highly than French Laundry (try the Moroccan Barbecue Glazed Rack of Lamb with Mint & Red Curry Oil).

Choose particular meals or foods you want to try and venture out to the restaurants famous for them. Of course add your special requirements into the search. If you’re looking for some quiet or romantic time, look for ratings on restaurants that include decor, view, etc. If you want some outdoors activity consider a bicycle tour of the valley, stopping at wineries and restaurants along the way.

As a visitor to Napa Valley, you can do more than just consume your dining experiences, you can create them as well. You can learn to cook, and learn to shop like a chef. You can take home newfound culinary skills to keep your Valley experience alive long after your trip.

Culinary demonstrations and schools abound in Napa Valley. The Culinary School of America in St. Helena offers recipes and samples, and teaches both food and wine skills in restaurant demonstrations of just a few hours, ranging up to week-long courses and more. The school also leads in cooking with local foods and sustainable farming practices.

Or how about Gourmet Retreats in Calistoga? Taught by a trained chef, here you can pick up culinary skills in as little as five hours or stay for five days. As with most offerings in the Valley, it’s up to you. And you don’t have to stay where you learn. Getting around Napa Valley is very easy, with trains, buses, tour companies, and rentals of every kind. You can base in one place if you choose and venture forth daily to your attractions.

Would you like to learn to shop for your food in the farmers market, and then learn how to turn the ingredients into a culinary delight? Cooking With Julie in Napa offers just this experience. You select from the season’s finest and freshest local produce, fish, meat, cheese, fruits and artisan foods. Then you turn these into a 3-course lunch with wine. Not a bad life skill for one day’s adventure.

Napa Valley is NOT going back to school. You have permission to relax, enjoy, consume. But it will be hard not to pick up tips and tricks about wine and food from your stay in the Valley. You’ll take a better way of culinary living home with you, to enjoy until your next visit here, when you come back for more.

Discovering the Arts of Yarra Valley

While Australia has a wide definition and coverage when it comes to art and architecture, certain cities and regions have distinct and rich arts and culture that is worth discovering. In Yarra Valley in Victoria, there’s a combination of traditional or historical and contemporary art forms that any tourist or art lover will enjoy discovering and exploring.

Yarra Valley is more known for its rich wineries and tourist attractions. And as far as arts and culture go, it is not as definitive and highly recognized as other cities in Australia. But what differentiate the arts in this region are its historical and indigenous roots. From old, historic homesteads and estates to nature parks and indigenous gardens, architecture is preserved, cultivated, and enjoyed by tourists and locals alike.

Popular places to visit are the TarraWarra Museum of Art, the Healesville Glassblowing Studio, Gallery34 in Yea, and the Open Studios. Here you can find a mesh of traditional visual medium and modern art. The architecture of the TarraWarra Museum of Art already says a lot about its art. The building itself was built with a contemporary design but the pillars and enclosures are symbolic of traditional and archaic roots. Established in 2000, the museum displays Australian contemporary art and other works that date back to the mid-20th century.

The art of glassblowing is presented to you by artists Tali Dalton and Tim Bassett in the Healesville Glassblowing Studio. It is more of a tourist attraction than an art gallery wherein people can view sculptures and chandeliers and learn about the process of glassblowing. People can also enjoy making their own paperweights and other trinkets made in glass through classes and tours.

For a taste of modern art, the “New-york style” Gallery34 in Yea features a stylish interior design and contemporary art space. Selected artists and artisans from the region are given the opportunity to exhibit their works to the public. To enjoy a tour of the artistic side of Yarra Valley, you can participate in art walks and visit the Open Studios. Witness modern artists in their elements as their personal studios and workspaces are opened and artworks are displayed. Over 40 local artists will be featured in the Open Studios, giving tourists the opportunity to discover modern art in Yarra Valley.

While many artists, curators, and the people themselves embrace contemporary art, the historical roots still bleed through in modern architecture and art, representing a strong influence of indigenous culture. This may be a limitation to what contemporary art can be at this day and age, but the identity of Yarra Valley art is what makes it unique and interesting to tourists.

Furnace Creek Inn Brings Luxury to Death Valley

It is said that Death Valley gets 1.8 inches of rainfall each year and, in our fist visit to this “parched” landscape, it felt like we got it all on our first day. It was enough, anyway, to wash out a bridge and require us to take a 40-mile detour just to get to Furnace Creek.

So much for the image. We don’t remember Ronald Reagan saying anything about rain when he hosted the Death Valley Days TV show all those years.

Of course, the timing of our trip was just luck of the draw, and there’s no doubt that most people will enjoy a “normal” Death Valley adventure in which they’ll experience hot, sunny weather most of the time. In summer, the operative word is hot – as hot as the record high of 134 degrees – which is why winter is an ideal time to enjoy a near-Death Valley experience in the 70’s or 80’s.

For our November visit, we drove to Death Valley by heading north from Las Vegas and, as best as we could tell, this seemed to be the easiest route into the Valley. In theory, Furnace Creek is just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But the bridge washout changed all that and sent us further north and then back down into the Valley on a different, longer route.

And so our first exposure to Death Valley was a little disconcerting as we traveled in darkness and rain, making our way along a stretch of narrow, sometimes winding, two-lane roadway that certainly seemed like a road less traveled – hardly another car in sight for 40 miles. We did eventually get to Furnace Creek where roadways were covered with standing water and the rain continued to fall.

With great relief, we at last found our destination: the Furnace Creek Inn. Just like the desert oasis that the Furnace Creek area is reputed to be, the inn became our “oasis” from the downpour and a long afternoon of driving.

The Furnace Creek Inn is an upscale, historic hotel was opened in 1927. Originally just a small resort, the adobe bricks were hand-made by local Native Americans, and the resort was built on a hill with panoramic views of Death Valley and the 11,000-foot mountains nearby. By 1935, the hotel had 66 rooms altogether and was on its way to attracting larger numbers of tourists to this unusual destination.

After a restful sleep in our well-appointed suite, we awakened to a different Death Valley. Gone were the storm clouds and rain, and taking their place were rays of peek-a-boo sunshine which added warm colors and sparkle to what clearly was a magnificent desert landscape. It was as if Nature was illuminating the desert, the rock formations and the surrounding mountains with a set of stage lights that changed the coloration with each passing cloud.

Experiencing this for the first time, we could understand why Death Valley has captured the hearts of so many visitors who sense an almost spiritual connection with this land. If someone suggests you should get your head examined for going to a place called “Death” Valley, the truth is this just might be a place to get your head straight. It’s completely unique.

We hopped in the car and drove into Furnace Creek to look around a bit. The Borax Museum does a great job of telling the story of those early miners who found large deposits of borax – used in fiberglass, detergents and other products – which were hauled to Mojave on huge wagons pulled by teams of 20 mules. For us baby boomers, the old Death Valley Days television show will forever link Death Valley with Borax and those darned mule teams.

The museum is located in the Furnace Creek Ranch, where you’ll find accommodations that are less expensive than the inn and a little more family-oriented. The ranch includes 224 recently refurbished rooms as well as several restaurants. A large RV park is located in the area and, nearby is an 18-hole golf course where it is said golf balls don’t react the way they usually do to gravity – believe it or not, the valley’s elevation 200 feet below sea level affects gravity and barometric pressure.

There is a lot to see up and down the valley – after all, Death Valley National Park consists of 3.3 million acres. Just in case you wondered, there are 900 species of plants, six types of fish, five amphibians, 36 reptiles and 51 mammals that are native to the region. And that’s not counting the 346 species of birds that migrate through the area.

Just south of the Furnace Creek Inn is the “Artist’s Drive,” an eight-mile stretch of road that takes you through washes and mud hills with fascinating colors and natural rock formations. A little further south is Badwater, one of the most visited spots in Death Valley and the area’s lowest elevation – 282 feet below sea level. This pool of water is said to have a salt content five times what you find in most seawater.

North from Furnace Creek are the sand dunes, which can raise up to 85 feet in height and are forever changing. If you walk on the dunes today, your footprint will be gone tomorrow.

You may have heard of Scotty’s Castle, a favorite stop in Death Valley that is located about 55 miles from the Furnace Creek Inn. The story goes that Walter “Scotty” Scott convinced Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson to build a Moorish castle – although some wonder if Scotty discovered a secret gold mine that financed the construction. In any event, the result you see today is a castle with more than eight buildings, all housing beautiful furnishings and spectacular tile work created by a variety of artisans. In fact, many of the rooms at Scotty’s Castle include the original d├ęcor. Among the items still on display is the Welte pipe organ with its more than 1,221 pipes, some up to 16 feet in length.

There are some great historic trails about 25 miles north of the resort at a place called Stovepipe Wells. This became an important stopping point for settlers in the Old West because the well here provided water for these travelers to continue their journey.

Throughout Death Valley you’ll find spectacular salt formations. The Devil’s Golf Course is one particular area to see these unusual shapes – the salt formations there are shaped like pyramids pointing toward the sky.

In between drives to explore the valley, we made time to just relax and enjoy the Furnace Creek Inn. With spectacular, carefully manicured grounds and an expansive swimming pool that is heated year-round, the inn could be located anywhere and be an attraction unto itself. We enjoyed the many meandering pathways through the groves of palm trees, as well as the many different viewpoints the property has of Death Valley. Tennis courts were at the ready. Horseback riding was nearby.

The rooms and suites at the Furnace Creek Inn include high quality furnishings and antiques that seem to mirror the historic and ornate hotel lobby. A fine dining room and restaurant are on property and the feeling you take away from the resort is one of elegance and charm – quite frankly, not exactly the image we had of Death Valley.

But then again, no one talks much about the rain at Death Valley, either.


WHERE: Death Valley is in the southeastern part of California, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Driving to the Valley eastward from Highway 395 can be an arduous journey, but there are other options. We recommend that you visit the Furnace Creek Inn website at for specific driving directions from several different starting points.

WHAT: Death Valley is famous for its extremely hot weather and low elevation, and also for the hardships early settlers endured while traveling through the valley. Today, Death Valley National Park showcases much of the area’s unique natural beauty.

WHEN: Any time of year, but to avoid super-hot temperatures, visit during the winter months.

WHY: Great beauty, unusual land formations, surprisingly good accommodations.

HOW: For more information on Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, phone (760) 786-2345 or visit