The trouble with paradise is that it lends itself to sin. So any realist who seeks the hazy ideal of “wellness” in Napa Valley – California’s foodie and oenophile version of Eden – should probably pack stretchy pants for the return flight home.
Mind you, that doesn’t stop the valley’s resorts and businesses from promising to ease gluttons’ guilt with an expanding array of hikes, yoga and even hi-tech total body resistance exercises (TRX for short). But how likely is it that visitors will opt for sweaty workouts over the region’s Michelin-starred eateries and legendary cabernet sauvignon?
I decided to investigate. I’ve never developed abs of steel nor buttocks of plutonium – I prefer to pursue a roly-poly lifestyle – but on a recent trip to Napa, I vowed to try any exercise that raised its head and, for once, attempt to be a good sport.
First up: I accompanied a group of fitter, younger women into the cellar of St. Helena’s Vineyard 29 for a fitness session called ProWorks29. We marched down the barrel-lined hall of the estate winery into what looked like the sort of vaguely sexy torture chamber usually reserved for James Bond. Nylon tethers dangled ominously from the ceiling.
Our ultrabuff female instructor showed us how to ensnare our feet or hands in these TRX straps, and, using our body weight, create resistance as we did lunges and push-ups. While my lithe companions were instantly capable, my own appendages felt like steamed leeks.
There’s a baffled look that soon appears on the face of any fitness instructor who’s confronted by the hopelessly inept. Eventually one tires of seeing it. Thus, I soon extricated myself from my tethers and shuffled offside to feign interest in others’ progress.
We retired to a terrace with a spectacular view of the vineyards, where we began a punishing session of ballet barre work and Pilates. At least, it looked punishing – I almost immediately went AWOL, wandering away to scope out our day’s first wine tasting. Can I help having a mind for booze and a body for slacking off?
After a brief tour, Vineyard 29 staff hosted another tasting in the cellar, where I triumphed over my fitness-loving confreres in the Fiscalini cheddar-eating category. As they traded notes on their gruelling workout, I drank appreciatively from the well of the Aida Zinfandel.
Fortunately, our next activity – croquet at an elegant resort called Meadowood Napa Valley – appeared to require no skill, just a white outfit. I was intrigued. Croquet is something I associate with childhood cottages, where inevitably one’s mallet “accidentally” met a cousin’s scabby ankle.
The resort’s croquet coach outlined the rules and oversaw our game. At one point he noticed one of my cockeyed swings, asking incredulously, “What was that?” I ignored his breach of politesse, focusing instead on the hilarious trash talk of a competitor. Needless to say, my team lost. I consoled myself later, at Hurley’s Restaurant in Yountville, with delectable braised wild Texas boar with truffle-scented soft polenta.
Since the entire universe is infatuated with yoga, I enrolled in my first group class at Silverado Resort and Spa, a sprawling compound with two golf courses. Once the spa’s earnest yogi learned that I was the only beginner in a roomful of experienced yoga practitioners, she started us off slowly. Woefully unco-ordinated, I struggled with the most basic moves and I soon became aware that I was slowing the class down. I gathered myself up to leave.
“Don’t quit! Yoga is for everybodeee …” she wailed as I firmly shut the door and made a beeline for consoling blintzes at the brunch buffet. My friends claimed that after I left, the pace picked up and it wasn’t long before they were all upside down, nearly spinning their heads into pencil points.
Maybe I’d have stuck it out a little longer if the class had taken place at Solage Calistoga. Its yoga and “movement” studios face the splendid courtyard’s towering oak tree and desert plants. I might also have done laps in its 40-metre pool, or used one of the hotel’s cruiser bikes for a short jaunt into town. But, alas, there was no time after my “detoxifying mudslide,” at the Solage Spa, which involved applying warmed, scented mud to my body, letting it harden, then soaking it off. And I obviously had to squeeze in some sunbathing. There’s only so much a body can handle in a day, I like to say (although I have no intention of proving it).
Health-enhancing activities come in all sorts of guises, which is how I justified an olive oil tasting (hey, it’s a good fat) at Round Pond Estate’s winery and mill. Its products were ambrosial drizzled on strawberries, assorted greens, cheeses and crackers.
The wine I sampled at Round Pond’s nearby tasting room loosened me up for a hike in Napa’s inviting hills. The tour I took with a company called Verve offers customized excursions from a driver/hiking guide who was not only an attractive off-duty fire-fighter (is there any other kind?), but an expert in the art of sabrage.
Oddly, he also carried a spade with him. It wasn’t until we were huffing uphill along the historic Oat Hill Mine Trail that he revealed why: deadly rattlesnakes.
At long last, I’d found a reason to put a spring in my step.
If you want to sweat
Meadowood Napa Valley Croquet is for guests only and costs $20 (U.S.) apiece for a game, $60 (U.S.) a person for a lesson. Rooms start at $575 (U.S.).
ProWorks29 Customizable fitness classes at Vineyard 29 are $150 (U.S.) a person for groups of six to 12, and must be booked at least two weeks in advance. Call 1-707-963-9292 for details and reservations. vineyard29.com
Silverado Resort and Spa Yoga classes are free for guests. Rooms start at $169 (U.S.) silveradoresort.com
Solage Calistoga The 60-minute detoxifying mudslide costs $98 (U.S.) Rooms start at $350 (U.S.) solagecalistoga.com
Westin Verasa Napa Don’t pack your running stuff: a $5 (U.S.) a day program will outfit you with running shoes and New Balance sports gear. There’s also a running concierge at the hotel. Rooms start at $169 (U.S.) westinnapa.com
If you want to indulge
The Grill Sit outdoors and crunch into deep-fried baby artichokes with Meyer lemon aioli, ideally paired with local bubbly. At Meadowood Napa Valley, meadowood.com
Hurley’s Restaurant More casual than some of its more famous Yountville neighbours, Hurley’s offers hearty, inventive food and a carefully chosen wine list with a Napa Valley focus. hurleysrestaurant.com
La Toque Chef Ken Frank’s Michelin-starred restaurant makes superb use of local, seasonal ingredients like quail and nettles. At Westin Verasa Napa, latoque.com
Lucy Restaurant & Bar Lucy’s adjacent garden grows exotic ingredients like raccoon spinach and chocolate mint for Chef Victor Scargle’s gorgeously curated plates. At Bardessono Hotel, bardessono.com
Round Pond Estate Olive oil tours and tastings are offered three times a day by appointment only for $35 (U.S.) a person. The wine’s great, too. roundpond.com
Solbar Dining under desert skies doesn’t get any better than at this Michelin-starred restaurant, where Chef Brandon Sharp’s ingenuity makes regional bounty sing. At Solage Resort & Spa, solagecalistoga.com/dining
Velo Vino Tasting Room Clif Family Winery’s tasting room offers an outstanding wine and food experience called The Rifugio ($40 U.S. a person) that pairs unusual foodstuffs like its own toasted sesame and pistachio dukkah with wines like its 2009 Kit’s Killer cabernet sauvignon. cliffamilywinery.com
Verve Napa Valley Custom tours, a minimum of five hours long, start at $90 (U.S.) an hour in a luxury SUV, and $180 (U.S.) an hour in a Mercedes coach. vervenapavalley.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Air Canada, and was a guest of the hotels and the restaurants. They did not review or approve this article.
(Editor's note: Due to an editing error the cost of the fitness class ProWorks29 was listed as $15, the actual cost is $150. This version of the story has been corrected.)