Why does California inspire you?
For me a visit to California's famous wine country is much more than just an opportunity to explore premium wines. The lifestyle and rolling, vine-clad hills of Sonoma and Napa Valley - home to over 700 wineries - remind me of Tuscany in many ways, although they are very Californian. Imagine a place where you can travel by balloon over a misty valley, nibble artisanal breads and cheeses at the source, and dine in a world class restaurant with that perfect bottle of wine you've just discovered. And yet this captivating experience is all just over an hour's drive north of San Francisco. Time spent here will enrich your palate and indulge your senses - a true getaway. Although some areas have become quite touristy, you can find less travelled, insiders' spots with a little help from your hotel's knowledgeable concierge. Biking, golf and hiking are popular activities here, but the less energetic can spend time at a spa or at one of several wineries that double as art galleries - from pop art at Cliff Lede Vineyards to the Hess Collection's extensive display of contemporary art.
Relais & Chateaux like to suggest Routes deu Bonheur, 'Routes of happiness'. This is Thomas Keller's.
THE ROUTE: from Healdsberg to San Francisco via St Helena and Rutherford
Stay at: Hotel Les Mars
The hotel is a romantic retreat just off the historic Town Plaza in Healdsburg, the quaint, affluent town northwest of Sonoma. This ultra-luxe townhouse hotel oozes European charm with 16 elegant guest rooms furnished with antiques, draped canopy beds and gas-burning fireplaces. Each afternoon wine and cheese are served in the walnut-paneled library. Staff can arrange complimentary tastings at partner wineries.
What you should do: Have Dinner at the Dry Creek Kitchen
Keller recommends dinner at the Dry Creek Kitchen. Celebrity chef Charlie Palmer, who first made his name at Manhattan's Aureole restaurant, is behind this sleek new spot in the Hotel Healdsburg. The kitchen's inventive, modern American cuisine features local, seasonal ingredients often in unexpected combinations. Wine lovers are spoiled for choice here with a list that offers some 600 labels from the Sonoma region alone.
Drive along the Sonoma coastline
Head south on Route 101 to view the craggy Sonoma coastline. With sandy beaches and coves hidden beneath rugged headlands. Sonoma Coast State Park is one of several parks and beaches along this route. If you venture onto the beach, however, beware of sudden "sneaker waves" that can carry off the unwary.
Commune with trees at Muir Woods National Monument
Farther southeast off Route 101, Muir Woods National Monument is part of the National Park Service and of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Its star feature is the 240 acres of towering, old-growth Coast Redwoods .
Keller's Secret Spot: Jenner-by-the-Sea is a sleepy seaside hamlet at the mouth of the Russian River, off Highway 1. This is a place to relax, walk on the beach, and savour the natural setting. Whale watching runs from December through April, and seal watching is available year round.
2. St Helena
ay at: Meadowood Napa Valley
Like a fine cabernet, certain luxuries in life just get better with age. Take the Meadowood Napa Valley. This 85-room grand estate in the hills above St. Helena started as a private club in 1964 and is now one of the area's best resorts. The secluded property encompasses 250 leafy acres of golf fairways, tennis courts, swimming pools and hiking trails. In the main lodge, the timelessly elegant Restaurant at Meadowood, precided over by Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Christopher Kostow has just been awarded its third Michelin star. Many ingredients come from the Meadowood's own property: the vegetables, free-range chickens, even the honey. Spread around the wooded grounds are cosy guest bungalows, many with stone fireplaces and patios.
What you should do: Visit some Vineyards
Harlan Estate Vineyards, 15 minutes away from meadowwood, in the hills of Oakville, produces some of the most sought after red wines in the area. Founder Bill Harlan had a successful career in real estate before starting his own cult wineries. Two different red blends, made with Bordeaux varietals, comprise the output of fewer than 2,000 cases a year. These rare wines can cost several hundred dollars per bottle.
Chappellet Winery is up a winding lane on rugged Pritchard Hill, the is the family-run Winery was one of the first in Napa to grow grapes on high elevations. The specialty is age-worthy cabernet sauvignons with concentration and finesse. Appointments are recommended for the winery's 90-minute tours and tastings.
Stay at: Auberge du Soleil
Nestled in an olive grove in the hills above Rutherford, this boutique resort is a celebrity-favourite. With 31 rooms and 21 suites, the Auberge du Soleil retains its South-of-France flair and wonderful private terrace views. The property's 33-acres are dramatically dotted with sculptures. In the restaurant, Executive Chef Robert Curry's Mediterranean-accented fare is locally sourced, and the wine list has 1,500 selections and a welcome feature is the large number of wines by the glass. Treatments in the spa incorporate ingredients harvested from the local hills such as the massage with an olive oil infusion scented with Meyer lemons.
Cuisine at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry
What you should do: Eat at The French Laundry Of course! Keller's restaurant It has earned three Michelin stars. Be warned with only 16 tables, reservations are notoriously difficult to come by and accepted two months ahead of the desired date. The small town of Yountville has become a culinary destination with several other hot restaurants, including Bouchon and Ad Hoc.
Do some more wine tasting.
In Rutherford, Swanson Vineyards Salon is the upscale, French-inspired hospitality and tasting room of the Swanson winery. Here, by appointment and for a fee, up to eight guests can sample about six wines along with artisanal cheeses and other local products at a tutored tasting. Swanson is the largest bottler of estate-grown merlot in the area, and also produces pinot grigios and cabernet sauvignons.
Keller's Secret Spot: When the traffic backs up on busy Highway 29, Napa's main thoroughfare, go 'off piste' and take the Silverado Trail, on the pastoral, eastern side of the valley. You'll discover about 40 vineyards - from Andretti to ZD - many of which produce small batches of wines that you probably won't find back home. Regularly scheduled tours are offered at Monticello, Mumm Napa Valley, Rutherford Hill and a few others.
Thomas Keller uses regional fare to produce meals inspired by classic French cooking traditions
4. San Francisco
What you should do: Eat at Gary Danko
Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Gary Danko presides at one of San Francisco's top fine-dining spots. Near Ghirardelli Square, the smart yet buzzy dining room, with contemporary paintings and wood paneling, sets the stage for the chef's updated versions of French and regional American cooking. The cheese selection and chef's giveaway treats enhance the experience. Be warned, the Michelin-starred restaurant is usually books up weeks ahead.
Stroll along Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman's Wharf, on San Francisco's northern waterfront, started as the dock for the Italian immigrant fishermen in the 19th Century, who set out to catch the local specialty, Dungeness crabs. Although it is now lined with hotels and tourist attractions, the Wharf is still home to some of the local fishing fleet.
Explore Alamo Square
Alamo Square is a residential neighbourhood of Victorian wood townhouses and a park on a hill with wonderful views of San Francisco. The row of colourful, large houses facing the park on Steiner Street, nicknamed the "Painted Ladies," is often featured on postcards and in films. A wonderful place to visit during the day.
Keller's secret spot: Food lovers should check out the Ferry Building Marketplace, a conversion of the old ferry terminus on the Embarcadero. There's a sustainable farmer's market, as well as shops for cookware and local artisan foods, coffee shops and restaurants. The Wine Merchant here offers wine tastings and classes.
This article appears with the kind permission of our friends at Relais & Chateaux. adapted from their Routes du Bonheur series which include a trip through Australia exploring the favourite places of world-famous Grand Chef Tetsuya Wakuda and a guide to New Zealand from Hollywood actor Sam Neill. Other routes in Europe, the US and Africa are accompanied by Michelin-endorsed road maps. Separate Routes du Bonheur traversing through China, India and Japan will be launched this year. More information on these and on R&C's fabulous 500+ member properties , including
Matakauri Lodge at