With a wedding planned for California's wine country in the middle of the recession, my fiancé and I worried not just about what we were spending, but also about our guests. After all, the July event is taking place in a region where $400-a-night hotel rooms and $240 fixed price meals can intimidate even the most budget-savvy traveler.
But there are values in the vineyards, as we've found through multiple trips to Sonoma and Napa counties the past few months to plan the "Big Day." So whether it's a day trip or a longer escape, the luxury of the wine country doesn't have to sip you dry. Here are some tips.
Pick a place and an adventure: Having a home base can save you money and time. Hotels give reduced rates on multiple night stays and sometimes even bundle experiences in that area. Book a room and you also get a spa package, gas card or other extras. There are also cottages that offer weekly stays, and with a kitchen and several bedrooms, that may end up being cheaper for families.
Centering yourself in one area also saves gas and having to pack and unpack, a situation that never lets you feel fully relaxed. While wine country is vast, you can experience a lot of it while still staying at one location and focusing your interests.
If back country roads and out-of-the-way wineries are your thing, the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys in northern Sonoma County will be your speed. Rent a bike at Spoke Folk Cyclery in Healdsburg, $30 a day, $10 an hour — grab one of their maps and a sandwich from a deli on the square or the nearby Safeway grocery and pedal on largely flat, quiet roads to the picnic areas at Everett Ridge (great view) or Lambert Bridge (lovely garden — so lovely we're getting married in it) wineries.
The Silverado Trail in Napa is also a popular path for cyclists. The road stretches about 25 miles and takes pedalers from Napa through, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. Wineries dot this route and there are plenty of places for a picnic.
If you prefer soaking more than cycling, head to Calistoga for a mineral or mud bath at Golden Haven Hot Springs Spa and Resort. The resort has affordable packages when compared to other spas in the area, including one night's lodging and mineral bath starting at less than $100 a person and a mud bath for $49 a person. While in Calistoga, visit Sterling Vineyards, where an aerial tram gives unbelievable views of the Napa Valley. The $20 fee includes tram, self-guided tour and tasting of five wines; under 21, $10 and under 3 is free.
The Sonoma hamlet of Glen Ellen lets you walk in the footsteps of "Call of the Wild" writer Jack London, who attempted to build his dream home on this tree-studded property with gorgeous vineyard views only to have it burn down before he could ever live in it, $6 parking, $5 for seniors.
Eat fresh: Sonoma and Napa counties are foodie paradises and the pricey restaurants prove it. But get the same fruits, vegetables and meats the chefs do with visits to the local farmers markets. You can find fresh baked bread to top off with slices of juicy tomatoes and fancy cheeses that will melt in your mouth. Oxbow Public Market in Napa even has a wine bar, jazz night and one merchant is even offering a cooking class.
There are deals to be had at the high-end restaurants, though. Cyrus in Healdsburg, for example, has an eye-popping — for budget travelers at least — $130-a-person eight-course menu, but you can eat a la carte at the bar to soak up the atmosphere and the gourmet food for around $10-$28.
Taste free: No reason to pay for your drinks — $5-$15 a winery adds up — if you can get them for free. Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guernville has free tours and complimentary tastings. The cellar tour is 50 minutes and gives you a peek into the antique vaults and history museum and shows how champagne is made.
August Briggs on the southern edge of Calistoga also has free tastings of four to five wines. Frank Family Vineyards, also in Calistoga, offers free tastings Monday-Thursday. The Web site NapaValley.com has coupons for two-for-one tastings at some wineries and other freebies.
Enjoy an outdoor show: There's more to wine country than wine. Several festivals going on throughout the summer in Napa and Sonoma counties offer free music and other performances outdoors. "Napa City Nights" is a free concert series at Veterans Memorial Park in Napa. The park also hosts movie nights, as does the Windsor Town Green. Shakespeare also comes to life in performances at the Windsor green. Check the chambers of commerce or tourism Web sites for the town you'll base yourself in for more listings.
Shop outlets: It's fun to browse items in the cute shops that line many town squares throughout wine country and you can often find bargains at thrift stores and consignment shops. But for brand names, head to the Napa Premium Outlets and the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets.
Getting there: The Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa serves the area, but San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport are only about 60 miles away from wine country and have more flights daily on more carriers.
Staying there: The Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn hotels in Windsor are modern, clean and have pools, free Wi-Fi and free breakfasts. They're also right off the 101 freeway, making them a great base for exploring Sonoma County. The California Association of Bed and Breakfasts has a long list of options. Besides breakfast, many B&Bs also have complimentary evening wine and cheese tastings that will save you from spending money on appetizers at a restaurant.