The Thoughtful Wanderer

With soaring gas prices and the mortgage and airline crises, day trips and weekend getaways are becoming much more attractive as vacation options. Fortunately, we live in a beautiful area where we can have a rejuvenating mini-escape without breaking the bank.

With diligent research and a little advance planning, you can feel as though you are worlds away without losing an entire day getting there. This column is dedicated to doing the research for you by finding great escapes within easy driving range. At Benicia Magazine, we know you are discerning travelers, so our focus will be to fulfill high expectations for maximum enjoyment while trying to stick to a moderate budget.

A recent last-minute desire to get out of town found me in search of lodgings somewhere north. My criteria was simple – I was traveling alone, and wanted a quiet bed a breakfast inn, but with common areas in which to meet and converse with other guests; a comfortable bed and nearby restaurants. After three hours on the phone and internet (the Mustard Festival had just begun) I found a promising inn in downtown Napa – the Churchill Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn just one block from the river.

I arrived on a Friday afternoon, weary from a busy week. At first glimpse of the impressive Victorian mansion, my spirits were immediately revived. I wasn’t expecting such a jewel in this quiet, mixed, residential neighborhood. Once inside, I felt as though I had stepped back in time to a more gentrified era. Built in 1889, it was the first residence in the Napa Valley to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior woodwork is stunning, with 17 layers of original, untouched redwood ceiling moldings and fluted redwood Corinthian columns. The grand parlor, lobby, library, dining room, breakfast sunroom and wraparound veranda are each a treasure in which to sit and read, play games or immerse yourself in the history of the period.

Breakfast at Churchill Manor is a treat. There’s a small buffet of fruit, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, granola and yogurt; and a gourmet entrée with fresh fruit topped with special sauce. The poached pear with pear cream sauce & amaretto, and asparagus omelet with tomatillo sauce and side of sausage was excellent. The Inn’s specialty is baked apple french toast, served in the sunny breakfast room with murals of the local landscape overlooking the garden. You can eat alone or share a table.

A second visit did not disappoint; this time with spouse and 4 friends in tow. We were even surprised by a chamber concert – a piano trio – hosted at the Manor by the Napa Music Association, which presents concerts every other month free to Manor guests. Although the Inn doesn’t serve dinner, you won’t go hungry. Upscale restaurants abound within walking or easy driving distance. Freshly baked cookies are offered in the afternoon, and in the evening, a sumptuous display of light appetizers, wine and cheese are served in the lobby where you can mingle with other guests.

With all the usual entertainments in the Napa Valley, I’ve neglected downtown Napa from my weekend plans. There is so much that’s new…rebuilt river wall & bridges, building renovations and a promenade along the river under construction. It’s definitely on the upswing, drawing visitors for good reason.

I explored the waterfront historic area on both visits. There are independent coffee houses, restaurants with outdoor dining and shops just one block from Churchill Manor. If you go, check out the new Oxbow Market, which is full of organic and unusual purveyors of fine-but-informal food, including Taylors Refresher, of St. Helena fame. It’s a stone’s throw from Copia, the center for wine, food, and the arts. There are many places to do some wine-tasting within a mile of Churchill Manor which makes walking an attractive option.

For a mini-escape only 25 minutes from Benicia, Churchill Manor is well worth a visit.