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Sipping and saving in Napa

A visit to the famous Napa Valley vineyards in southern California doesn't have to cost a fortune, Brooke Donald reports.

With a wedding planned for California's wine country in the middle of the recession, my fiance and I worried not just about what we were spending, but also about our guests. After all, the July event is in a region where US$400-a-night hotel rooms and US$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 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, 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.

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. The Silverado Trail in Napa is also a popular path for cyclists. The road stretches about 40 kilometers 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 US$100 a person and a mud bath for US$49 a person.

While in Calistoga, visit Sterling Vineyards where an aerial tram gives unbelievable views of the Napa Valley. The US$20 fee includes tram, self-guided tour and tasting of five wines.

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.

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 - US$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 US$10-$28.

Taste free

No reason to pay for your drinks - US$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. The Website has coupons for two-for-one tastings at some wineries.

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 97 kilometers away.

Staying there

The Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn hotels in Windsor are modern, clean and have pools, free WiFi 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 restaurants.


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