From Andrew Harper
There are few more delightful areas than Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, with its quaint towns, fine restaurants, stylish shops and landscape covered by a quilt of manicured vineyards. The Napa Valley forms a graceful crescent, its wide, fertile plain flanked by verdant mountains. This is where one will find iconic names such as Robert Mondavi, Shafer, Schramsberg, Stag's Leap, Caymus and many more. Sonoma County comprises four wine-producing areas: the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys to the north; the Russian River Valley to the west; and the Sonoma Valley to the south. In the recent past, our two favorite additions have been Napa's unique Poetry Inn and the peerlessly sophisticated Les Mars Hotel in Healdsburg.
Northern California is a very special place, a fact of which its residents are keenly aware. While they tend to take a fairly dismissive attitude toward their southern neighbors, their northern half of California from Monterey to the Oregon border is not without its faults. Bay Area traffic is a nightmare, San Francisco is home to exactly four taxicabs, and the grim agricultural corridor surrounding Sacramento will not be hosting an efflorescence of charming boutique hotels any time soon. Still, one could do worse than live less than two hours from a pristine Pacific coast, hundreds of powdery Sierra slopes, a primeval grove of redwoods or one of the most acclaimed wine regions in the world. The area is home to an embarrassment of perennial Harper favorites: the Post Ranch Inn, Bernardus Lodge, Auberge du Soleil, The Lodge at Pebble Beach. When Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast aren't within immediate reach, a few days in a Healdsburg vineyard followed by a lazy drive down the Pacific Coast Highway make for a more than adequate substitute.
To say that Southern California is a vast desert remade into an elaborate amusement park is only partly accurate. The region that sprawls from the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border was, not more than a century ago, still largely filled with sage and chaparral; now it's covered with the world's busiest freeway system, golf courses and front lawns greened by out-of-state water supplies, and subdivisions and shopping malls stretching as far as the eye can see (not too far, on smog-addled Los Angeles summer days). And yet, they keep coming. From 1950 to 2000, the population in the area nearly doubled -- and the 186-mile stretch of coastline from Santa Barbara to San Diego has been developed into a nearly unbroken megalopolis inhabited by a staggeringly diverse population of 15 million. Tourists continue to flock here, too, and for good reason. Southern California's beaches live up to their glowing Hollywood image. The financial strength and cosmopolitan charms of Los Angeles are in the world's top tier, and the very first Disneyland retains its hold on the global imagination. Southern California's climate is unbeatable; the car-friendly landscape allows motorists to range far and wide; and there's something about the shorts-and-suntan lifestyle that really works.