As the new year begins, strive to take better care of yourself. That doesn't necessarily mean another diet or exercise routine. Rather, resolve to relax. Find a beautiful corner of Northern California and get away from it all, at least for the weekend, and you'll re-enter your life with a fresh, peaceful energy. From the hundreds of extraordinary resorts throughout Northern California, we've chosen three of the finest to explore. Located in Carmel Valley and the Napa Valley, they're shockingly expensive and luxurious down to the last detail. But, hey, you're worth it, right? So kick the laptop and the cell phone to the proverbial curb. Your vacation is about to begin. BERNARDUS LODGE
415 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley;
(831) 658-3400; bernardus.com
Rates run $275-$1,870 a night.
Over the gray-green Santa Lucia mountains, misty ribbons of coastal fog disintegrate as they melt away in the sun. Horses graze behind white fences, golf carts zoom along greens that belly up to the foothills, and mansions and ranch houses sprawl across the pastoral land that's prime for growing wine grapes. This is Carmel Valley, 13 miles east of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
In keeping with the overall upscale country-life aura in Carmel Valley, Bernardus Lodge welcomes visitors with 57 suites, a full-service spa, an award-winning ivory-tablecloth restaurant and its own vineyard. Drive up to the compound, state your name and a friendly guy will park your car and see to your luggage; in the reception area, accept a welcoming complimentary glass of Bernardus wine by the fire before wandering to your room.
Spend the next few days sleeping in, burrowing deep in down bedding. Embrace the peace that has crept in, catalyzed by stunning views of the mountains and salt-kissed air gently rolling in from the coast. Dine on foods harvested straight from nearby earth and water, sunbathe in a fragrant meditation garden and before you know it, your senses will be jolted awake.
Get Scrubbed With Seeds-Request a full-body Harvest Crush treatment ($195 for 80 minutes) at The Spa at Bernardus, where you'll drift through a candlelit hallway to a fire-warmed great room. After you exchange all your clothing (yes, all-naked is necessary) for a cushy spa robe, help yourself to a cup of herbal tea-the chamomile-citron elicits an inspiring sense of calm-and wander into the sun-splashed garden or warm up by the indoor fireplace. After moving to a private treatment room, you'll be rubbed from head to toe with grapeseeds, known for their antioxidant benefits and skin-polishing capabilities. Followed by a shower and grapeseed oil massage, the treatment does wonders for dry skin and weary minds.
Snack Organically-From the bottle of wine (from Bernardus Winery) and cheese plate that arrives with first-night turndown service to the "wine grotto"-an in-room stash of drinks and goodies included in the room rate-snacks abound. And many of them are organic, delivered from Earthbound Farms' Farm Stand a few miles up the road (7250 Carmel Valley Road; 831-625-6219). Some wine-grotto staples: chocolate chip cookies, lemon cookies, sesame-corn tortilla chips, artichoke salsa, fresh fruit. Enjoy the in-room treats, then when you're out and about, pop into the Farm Stand to ogle the fresh vegetables and tour the organic herb gardens.
Visit the Neighbors-Ten miles west on Carmel Valley Road, The Covey restaurant at Quail Lodge-a sister property to Bernardus-acquired a new chef, Mario Ortega, in July 2005. Items on past dinner menus: caramelized dayboat scallops with black-truffle vinaigrette; sautéed Monterey Bay red abalone; ricotta ravioli with basil and baby tomatoes; warm duck confit salad with figs and Point Reyes blue cheese; housemade pasta with wild mushrooms; rack of lamb with gnocchi parisienne; and wild striped bass. When you make your reservation, ask to be seated at one of longtime waiter Ernie Felipe's tables-preferably overlooking the lake and fountain. Ernie knows The Covey's menu like the back of his hand, and he brings the right blend of enthusiastic, solicitous and friendly service.
Spot the Prawns-From August through April, Bernardus Lodge's renowned restaurant, Marinus, serves Monterey Bay spot prawns, a local delicacy trap-caught far offshore in the Carmel Canyon. Served several ways-with caviar and garden herb salad, for example, or stuffed into ravioli that lie in fragrant seafood broth-these tender shrimp burst with the flavor of the sea. For dinner, start with the spot prawns and a glass of Chardonnay from Marinus' 30,000-bottle wine cellar. Move on to such specialties as coriander-seared yellowfin tuna, Niman Ranch filet mignon or a vegetarian entrée of heirloom tomato confit, artichoke fondant and Japanese eggplant with basil purée. Chef and culinary director Cal Stamenov, whose cooking style allows foods' natural flavors to dominate, changes the menu often, depending on what's in season locally.
Whack It Through the Wicket-Its velvety grass trimmed smooth, the croquet lawn at Bernardus beckons competitive spirits to grab a mallet and enjoy a game. Guests dining at outdoor tables become spectators as you whip everyone on the lawn. If croquet doesn't appeal, check out a racket and head over to the tennis courts or try your luck on the boccie court. For the games-impaired, the heated lap-length pool looks mighty inviting, sparkling in the sun during the day, lit up from below and steaming at night. AUBERGE DU SOLEIL
180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford;
(707) 963-1211; aubergedusoleil.com
Rates run $500-$3,500 a night.
The drive along the Napa Valley's Silverado Trail reveals vineyard after vineyard, some flat and neatly trimmed, others bushy and wild as they hug the hillsides. Up the mountain, sparkling ribbons tied to the grapevines catch the sun as they scare away birds. Among the vineyards, beautiful and imposing wineries stand, inviting visitors to taste some of the Napa Valley's finest.
Heading north, the route becomes more verdant, lush with shrubbery and trees. Up a small, shady road in Rutherford, Auberge du Soleil invites guests into its Mediterranean-style oasis. It's no wonder this retreat has been named "best in the world" by so many travel entities, including Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report. This "inn of the sun," set into the hillside among olive groves, houses 50 one- and two-bedroom suites, a tranquil spa, an art collection and the renowned restaurant, which opened in 1981. The inn, which opened four years later, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year with renovated suites and a new chef. Spend the weekend at Auberge and come away feeling pampered and and infused with energy.
Dine on the Deck-When Auberge du Soleil restaurant opened almost 25 years ago, it caused quite a stir; it was considered Napa Valley's first real fine-dining restaurant. Although many fine-dining restaurants have opened since in the Napa Valley, Auberge remains one of the most popular. Its deck affords perhaps the most stunning valley view, the perfect setting for lunch or a sunset dinner. Executive chef Robert Curry's menu showcases the bounty of local farmers and purveyors, along with ingredients harvested daily from the organic garden at the Culinary Institute of America in nearby St. Helena. A four-course dinner ($79 a person) might include such delights as hamachi sashimi with cucumber radish salad; olive oil-poached black bass with green garlic sauce; lamb loin with potato risotto, shaved artichokes and nicoise olives; and hazelnut custard with brownie sponge cake, chocolate sorbet and créme brúlee mousse. Ask head sommelier Kris Margerum to help with a wine choice; the wine list details 1,500 selections.
Take an Artful Walk-Amble along the paths throughout the Auberge property and admire more than 100 outdoor sculptures that grace the olive groves. The St. Helena-based I. Wolk Gallery maintains an outlet at Auberge, displaying paintings, works on paper and small-scale sculpture. After you have explored the gallery and wandered the groves, take your inspiration to the Auberge concierge and ask to borrow some art supplies. Auberge loans easels, paints and brushes, pencils and pastels to guests at no charge.
Sip an Elixir-The Spa du Soleil, created for guests' use only, maintains its own herb garden, from which spa director Peggy Francis plucks herbs to concoct elixirs to cure what ails you. The Mind Over Muddle combines fresh raspberries and seasonal herbs to stimulate mental clarity, focus and concentration; the Virtual Buddha mixes fresh peaches with herbs to awaken creativity and joyful serenity. Sip your drink and slip into the 103-degree, infinity-edge warming pool that overlooks the hillside and valley, and wait until your spa therapist summons. This feels indulgent.
Unwind Together-Recently unveiled, the Melisse Suite at Spa du Soleil invites couples and small groups to enjoy a private spa experience. Go for the twosome and reserve a Lover's Fireside Retreat ($2,000 for three hours). Start with an elixir by the fireplace as you gaze at the panoramic view of the Napa Valley. Enjoy side-by-side spa treatments-each of you receives two one-hour treatments of your choice-then sip a glass of sparkling wine and devour a chef's tasting plate. Finally, soak in a private hot pool that overlooks the vineyards. To extend your postmassage bliss, wrap up in your Spa du Soleil robe and wear it back to your room. It is yours to keep.
Be Suite-For an extended weekend, splurge on a suite ($950 and up) for your stay at Auberge. Larger, perhaps, than the first home you owned, these include 1,200-plus square feet of indoor and outdoor living space. French doors open to a private terrace with views of the olive grove and the valley; lounge in the sun and enjoy the wine and fruit you received at check-in. Then, unwind with a bath in the oversized soaking tub; choose from your own collection of bath oils and candles. Later, if your partner chooses to retire early to the down-covered king-size bed, lie on the big couch in the living room and read by the fireplace or watch a movie on the plasma television. (Two grace the suite-bedroom, living room-and a third, flat-screen television hangs above the bath.) Wander into the kitchen and raid the fridge; complimentary snacks are replenished daily. No frill is spared here; Auberge makes it tough to go home.
580 Lommel Road, Calistoga; (707) 254-2800;
Rates run $450–$1,025 a night.
At the foot of Mt. St. Helena in the Napa Valley, the city of Calistoga is best-known for its geothermal hot springs. It draws people who long to stew in large vats of steaming mud and others who prefer simply to sip wine, browse the shops on Main Street and head back to their hotel for a languishing soak in warm mineral water before dinner.
On the outskirts of town, a secluded canyon burrows into the Mayacama mountains. Nestled into this canyon, beside spring-fed Lake Lommel, Auberge Resorts has opened a fascinating new resort that quietly beckons guests seeking an earthy yet elegant experience.
Calistoga Ranch, a member-owned lodging club and a 46-room hotel, opened in May 2004 and welcomes only owners and hotel guests. The resort blends the outdoor and indoor living experience so completely that it’s easy to forget you’re not on a campout. The hotel’s guest rooms are free-standing cedar-shingled bungalows in the woods, inaccessible by car. To eat dinner, folks head up the mountain. The bathhouse lies slightly further up the hill.
But this definitely isn’t Scout camp. No one’s roughing it here. Leave your car with the valet; you’ll hereafter be shuttled around in silent electric carts. Living among nature’s heady scents and coddled by high-end (but simple) amenities, you might find yourself meditating beneath blazing bright stars or sinking into a tub of Calistoga’s healing mineral water, rethinking your ever-busier life. Calistoga Ranch embodies what it means to escape.
Climb to the Top—Pick up the trail off the main road and take the nearly half-mile climb up to Calistoga Ranch’s lookout point. This little hike pays off with lovely views of the surrounding mountains and vineyards. Watch for deer, rabbits and hummingbirds—they’ve all been spotted along the trail. When you get to the top, extend your arms and inhale the scents of oak and pine, cherishing your weekend escape.
Scrub with Oatmeal and Brown Sugar—All wood and set among the trees on the banks of Lake Lommel, The Bathhouse at Calistoga Ranch pays tribute to Calistoga’s centuries-old legacy with its Healing Waters Soaking Pool, a natural, 102-degree mineral pool. Take a soak before heading into one of the treatment rooms for a 90-minute Oat and Brown Sugar Body Scrub ($195). Brown sugar and oats, combined into a dry paste, exfoliate and soften your skin. Step into the forest for an outdoor shower (only the deer might be watching), then back to the treatment table for a head-to-toe walnut oil massage. You’ll smell like a cookie when you leave and feel equally delicious.
Shower in the Trees—Standing outside beneath a steaming shower, gazing up through the pines and 100-year-old heritage oaks to the sky, you’ll perhaps feel very naked—that is, until you remember that no one can see you on your back deck. Most Calistoga Ranch guest lodges come equipped with a private outdoor shower (along with an indoor bathtub/shower). This is just one way the resort blurs the distinction between indoors and outdoors; another is its front-deck living rooms with cozy furniture surrounding a fireplace. With a rustic-meets-the-Ritz feel, Calistoga Ranch’s guest lodges exude luxury (down bedding, stereos, minibars, high-speed Internet access) while treating guests to the earthy elements of water, wood and air.
Stretch in the Cave—Carved into the mountain across from The Lakehouse, the 3,800-square-foot wine cave not only provides wine storage for the restaurant and for lodge owners, but it’s also a venue for weddings and other special events. Call ahead and request a private yoga session in the cave ($130), and you’ll be treated to a personalized, deeply calming experience. Spend the next 90 minutes stretching and posing, allowing your yoga instructor to customize your practice—learn tricks for stretching chest muscles tight from years of cradling children or hips cramped from hours spent in an office chair. Even with these reminders of home, in this echoey chamber, cool and dim with its rock walls, you’ll feel miles away from reality.
Eat by the Light of the Moon—At The Lakehouse Restaurant, open only to Calistoga Ranch guests and owners, reserve an outdoor table for a night when the moon glows large. Take your seat at a table on the heat lamp-warmed deck. Devour French-inspired cuisine and fine Napa Valley wine as the moon rises over the lake. Executive chef Robert Leva creates such signature dishes as Liberty Farm duck with English peas and rhubarb; sautéed halibut with braised leeks, caperberries and verjus; and grilled prime rib eye with braised artichokes and oxtails. Whatever your meal, lean back and drink in the view of the lake, the stars, the moon. And, if the time seems right, make a wish. lS