Napa's hidden paradise
It's a relief just to drive into the secluded valley that shelters the Meadowood resort in Napa Valley, California's most-visited wine country, an hour north of San Francisco. For all that the valley has to offer--scenic vineyards, limousine winery tours, gourmet-quality restaurants, and, of course, some of the best wine tasting in the world--the wide, flat valley of endless vineyards has become something of a wine theme park, complete with trams and long lines and too-often-jaded employees who have long since lost the personal touch.
All of that you leave behind at Meadowood.
Once my partner, Christopher, and I gave our names to the friendly guard at the booth watching over the roadway at the entrance to the property, Meadowood kicked into full-service mode. By the time we had reached the lobby--another half mile or so down the road--the desk clerk greeted us by name and had our check-in materials ready, complete with confirmation of the special services we'd requested for the next day.
A brief orientation is in order: Unlike most resorts, where one large structure or a network of interconnected buildings contain all the rooms and indoor facilities, Meadowood consists of more than a dozen separate buildings nestled into the woods or hugging the side of the golf course. The lobby is a building unto itself--a quiet, inviting parlor with bookcases and a grand piano (with a polite hands-off sign) and comfortable furniture. While I'm sure the staff would do their best to meet your needs if you wanted to hang out, there's no lobby bar, so no real reason to stick around unless waiting for a taxi or limo, or for your room to be ready. What, no limo lined up for a tour of the local wineries? Meadowood's helpful staff can set that up for you.
The hillside great room
We arrived early on the Sunday we were to check in, so our room wasn't ready--an intentional ploy on our part, to give us time to check out the property before settling into a room so comfortable that we might not be inclined to leave it. A short slope up from the lobby building is the larger structure that houses Meadowood's two restaurants and one bar. The nearly nameless Restaurant at Meadowood is upstairs, with an elegant atmosphere and two-tiered prix fixe menu for dinner: four courses without wine included at one price, or five courses with appropriate wine selections for each course, for a (much) higher price. While the Restaurant's award-winning chef and the seasoned wine expert on staff at the resort create brilliant menus, no doubt, we decided against the substantial investment in the Restaurant on this visit. As we were determined not to leave the green and serene property, it seemed a better use of our resources to become regulars at the lower-level restaurant, the Grill at Meadowood, which is where we then headed for lunch.
The Grill may be below the Restaurant, but since the building is on a hill, the Grill has a commanding view of the Meadowood golf course and croquet lawn. We ended up eating at the Grill for five out of the next six meals: The view and excellent service satisfied our desire to feel pampered and isolated from the daily cares of the world, and the diverse menu satisfied our desire for a diverse selection of fresh, well-prepared food. Christopher got hooked on the tiger prawn appetizer and ordered it three times; my favorite was the low-fat, high-taste seafood plate from the "healthier" section of the menu. (It's a rare treat to find the regular entreés and the "healthier" entrees equally appetizing.) The only selection that wasn't up to par was the steak: For a classy restaurant calling itself "the Grill," the beef was neither tender nor particularly tasty. The blue-cheese polenta that came with it would have been a shame to miss, but it didn't make up for a disappointing cut of meat.
Breakfasts at the Grill offered a choice of an eclectic buffet--with cereals, fresh muesli, fruits, baked goods, and other goodies--or a tempting selection of traditional American breakfast combinations. We stuck to the buffet simply for fear of completely overloading our food intake--although our going back for buffet seconds may have undermined that plan.
Great food, both healthy and delicious
That first afternoon, after lunch in the Grill (which was easy to charge to the room we had yet to see), we wandered the grounds for a while, stopping in the tennis shop, watching more-athletic guests battling on the several tournament-quality tennis courts, checking out the extensive health club and spa, scoping out the two swimming pools, and wandering across the near end of the golf course and the quadruple-size croquet lawn. While we did not avail ourselves of the golfing or tennis options, it was clear that both sports were popular with the other guests and were given enough breathing room on the extensive grounds so that no one felt like they were breathing down anyone else's neck. Indeed, the "compound" quality of Meadowood--which serves as a local private club as well as an overnight resort for transient guests like us--enhances the feeling that you're removed from the world, tucked away in an evergreen Shangri-la, in more of a village than a hotel. Except around the pools, which attracted all the children on the premises, the only sounds are tennis balls hitting rackets, clubs and mallets knocking golf and croquet balls, and the birds--occasionally joined by a passing car on the way in or out or the murmur of other guests' conversations. Meadowood even does its best to enforce relaxation around the pools: Cell phones are banned from poolside.
As for our room, which was ready precisely when promised: Words can barely do it justice. We took up residence in one of the several separate buildings--our cluster perched on a wooded slope--that contain just five units each: two studio suites stacked on each end and a larger multiroom suite on the ground level connecting them. (We never heard a peep from our neighbors.) Our studio suite included a comfortable king-size bed; a generous sitting area arranged around a fireplace (the TV wisely hidden in a cabinet to one side); a long counter filled with complementary beverages (coffee and tea) and snacks-for-hire; a jam-packed minibar refrigerator; a separate office-adaptable area (which we ignored but which would be valuable to more executive types); and a big closet. The private terrace with chaise longues added another kind of retreat, with enough room for meals if you wanted to order room service. (We liked the Grill enough that we never got around to room service.)
And then there was the handsome bathroom: the size of a New York apartment, with a generous-size tub as well as a separate shower big enough for two people (if they're friendly-like). A bubble bath was definitely in order one night.
Even though we were in Napa at the end of the hottest heat wave in recent memory, the days were comfortable and the nights cool. Both evenings we elected to light the fire that was carefully constructed for easy ignition in the fireplace, relaxing to the flames with some local wines. Remarkably, the next day all signs of ash had disappeared, and a new, graduated stack of paper, kindling, and logs had taken its place, ready for the next match.
To be honest, the room was priced at a level more than twice what we would ordinarily pay for a hotel, but Meadowood is not just a hotel, and this was not just a room. It was a temporary submersion into the lap of luxury, as if we'd conned our way into a rich relative's private country getaway. My only complaint about the room: For that price, a stereo system should have been included. We travel with our own CD collection--as I think many do these days--and had to set up our own temporary stereo from a portable CD player and battery-powered speakers we'd brought. It was either that or the radio (commercials would have broken the mood) or a few odd selections of ad-free satellite music available through the tinny TV speakers. At a Holiday Inn I expect a clock radio and a TV with built-in radio; from a resort like Meadowood, I had expected a little better sound system. It's a small thing, I know, and with all our other senses sated with a warm, crackling fire and downy bedding, readily available beverages, and light switches with dimmers, all that might have been missing would have been our pick for romantic music. Thank goodness for Radio Shack speakers.
Our croquet instructor, Jerry
Our first full day was filled with activities, beginning with a private croquet lesson. I can't say enough about Jerry, Meadowood's croquet pro--ranked 11th in the world during our visit (having just been bumped out of the top 10). He's a big guy with a big personality, with that rare combination of charisma and attentiveness. He's been teaching croquet to novices at Meadowood for 13 years, and he's lost not an ounce of enthusiasm for instruction. For our one-hour lesson he was fully focused on us, full of good humor and interesting conversation, and just as happy to show off all his trick shots as he was to give me remedial lessons in how to hold a mallet. Jerry is reason enough to visit Meadowood, and if you thought croquet was for snobby rich people and old folks, he'll pleasantly prove you wrong. I won't attempt to relate the rules of the game except to say, as Jerry quickly told us, lawn croquet isn't the nasty little game you once played in your backyard. Well, it can be nasty, but more-professional rules are a bit less cutthroat--and allow for quicker action--than the common variety. We had a ball with Jerry and then enjoyed another hour on the lawn, playing each other in a quick variation called "golf croquet," which seemed appropriate for Meadowood.
Chris and me on the croquet course
From croquet we headed to the health club, me for a full-body massage and Christopher for a "gentleman's facial." I knew immediately I was in professional hands--literally--and had the best massage I've ever experienced: thorough and therapeutic and yet not harsh, all at a measured pace that made it both seem blissfully endless and over way too soon. Christopher reported an equally satisfying experience with his facial consultant--the same woman who works on Eric McCormack when he's in Napa--and emerged with his face glistening and youthful. He immediately bought some grape-seed oil to pamper his own skin according to his consultant's instructions. These are just two of the many health and beauty options available at Meadowood, all of them priced within the range we'd expected. (Cheaper, actually, than a more corporate resort we'd visited in Hawaii the year before, and with better service.)
We also took advantage of the steam room in the impeccably clean locker room and showers--although I avoided the dry sauna after being told it was about 185 degrees in there. (Is that possible?) We also worked out in the gym both days we were there, impressed with the array of equipment available. One small point of contention: I disagreed with Meadowood's decision just to open the windows and leave off the air-conditioning in the workout room on our second day. Though it wasn't hot, there were large windows on three sides, and there was the occasional breeze, there were also times when the air was still and began to warm up in way that is not conducive to exercise. There's much to be said for the consistency of temperature and air movement that air-conditioning provides, especially in July, even on a mild day.
The competition-sized lap pool
We had lunch around the competition-size lap pool, which was divine, beneath the Northern California sun, in our freshly relaxed states from the massage and facial (the working-out actually came later). We swam, lay out, dozed off. The child count was higher than we might have wished--the "family pool," down a grassy slope from the larger pool, was not successful in attracting any of the families, but we simply accepted that where there is a swimming pool, there will be children splashing now and again (except, perhaps, in some Hollywood Hills pools, which attract another kind of kids). The children mostly avoided the hot tub, off to one side of the lap pool, so we brewed there for a while as well.
Evenings, after our leisurely Grill dinners, we walked the grounds and enjoyed cocooning in our room. We did spend a comfortable hour or so one evening in the resort's lodge-like bar, which serves as the foyer to the Restaurant, but we soon retreated to our king-size sofa, king-size fireplace, king-size bathtub, and king-size bed. What value luxurious accommodations if you don't spend any time soaking them in?
Our final morning at Meadowood, we took to the 1.6-mile trail that snakes its way out of one side of the resort, climbs the U-shaped ridge around the glen, and follows a hill through the trees all the way around to the other side of the resort. It was a good hike--both in the sense of good exercise and good scenery. From the top of the ridge the view of the glen is amazing, and on the western side of the ridge you get a good look at the back end of the golf course. We met no one else along the way, so we highly recommend the adventure for those willing to put a little muscle into their relaxation.
Some of what we did not get to do at Meadowood included guided tours of the local wineries and bicycle trips along designated routes through the valley outside the glen. The latter in particular sounded fun, and we considered ordering one of Meadowood's available picnic lunches and taking off on two-wheelers for a few hours, but there simply wasn't time in our two-day stay. I can easily imagine a week or more at the resort passing with both relaxing languor and shocking speed. ("What, we have to leave already?")
The local scenery
You'll note that at no time have I noted the resort staff's response to our being a gay couple. That's because there was no noticeable response. We were treated with the same generosity and attention as any of the other guests or club members. Meadowood is making a concerted effort to reach out to gay and lesbian travelers, and their staff is either sufficiently sophisticated or sufficiently well-trained so that there were no double takes. Christopher spent a bit of time guessing which staff members were "family" and which were not, but except for a clutch of young male golf pros in the bar by the pools I encountered who I thought were clearly straight (or at least trying to appear so), I wouldn't hazard many guesses either way. Well, OK, there was the 20-ish towel boy who we were sure was gay and looking for us to be his relationship role models, but the rest of the youthful staff was simply friendly and largely model-pretty. Not a bad thing.
Christopher and I are as inclined as the next gay couple to pick gay-owned resorts for our vacation accommodations, just to be sure we can fully relax. But I can't think of any gay-exclusive resorts that could compete with Meadowood on its level of luxury accommodations, amenities, and activities. If they're happy to have us and truly make us feel welcome, I'm happy to patronize them. And Lord knows, Christopher and I would be happy to return to Meadowood.