The French Laundry may be closed for extensive renovations, but chef Thomas Keller had time to be my guide on a spring trip through Northern California. Well, sort of: Keller had collaborated with my hosts, the Relais & Châteaux hotel group, to design a Route du Bonheur (French for "road to happiness") itinerary, an epicurean adventure with stops at various R&C hotels in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Routes du Bonheur is a concept Relais & Châteaux created to help travelers plan visits to their hotels and restaurants throughout the world. Not a bad idea: Get a notable chef to design the gastro road trips between incredible spots. Take some of the work out of travel planning.
Fast forward to day two, which started off with breakfast in bed at Hotel Les Mars in Healdsburg. I was reluctant to leave Les Mars, but it was my turn to drive the red convertible BMW had loaned us for the trip, and that was enough to lure me from my room.
As was our destination. Meadowood. I knew about the resort and its fabled and much-lauded restaurant the way I know about places like Song Saa and Babylonstoren and El Celler de Can Roca. They're places of legend, in other words, and when you get the chance to go, you go.
The drive through California wine country is beautiful, all twisty lanes, gentle hills, and thick forests. We pull into the Meadowood complex and drive what feels like five minutes between the entrance gate and the lobby building—passing tennis courts and cabins and swimming pools and, well, meadows and woods. There is a lot of property around here.
When we reach the grey shingled reception building, we find a lobby as welcoming as can be, with deep sofas and armchairs arranged around a stone fireplace, tall vases filled with even taller blossoms, an array of snacks to help guests recover from that long journey from gate to entrance. The vibe strikes that balance that I love in Northern California—relaxed and unfussy, yet put together and cared for.
Our first stop is lunch at The Grill, where we start with flavored milks from the wellness menu. My favorite was walnut, medjool dates, vanilla, cinnamon and sea salt. Hazelnut, dark cocoa, cayenne and Himalayan salt was also delicious. Both are recipes worth stealing, though I suspect mine won't ever be half as tasty. Kale chips with honey mustard followed, then squash soup accented with granola-like savory grains, mixed lettuce and blood orange salad, and fried artichokes.
After lunch, it is time to play. Literally. We walk past the golf course, the tennis courts, the health spa, the gym, and the pool. That makes it sound like it a zippy stroll, right? It isn't. As I said, they don't stint on acreage around here. Nor on the facilities. The nine-hole golf course recently underwent an extensive renovation. The new spa under construction, which is poised to open any minute now, clocks in at 14,000 square feet. The current spa will become the fitness center, offering spin, sculpt, and cardio dance classes, weights, Pilates, and yoga. The lap pool is for serious swimming; the round family pools are not. The tennis courts, seven in total, are regulation-sized. (I swear I worked up a sweat just typing this paragraph.)
Scattered around the property, in the hills amid the trees, are 85 guest cottages clustered into lodges with names like Hillside, Oakview, and Woodland. Mine, #54, is in Treeline. The cottage is a four-room affair: patio, living room with fireplace, bedroom, and bathroom. The furnishings are understated—white paneled walls, wicker chair and headboard, taupe textiles on the sofa—which makes the green outside all the brighter, even on this overcast day.
I sit on the patio and try to dig into my novel, but I'm distracted by the birds. That Meadowood gives everything such easy and earnest names underlines what I'm beginning to realize this place is about: the ultimate in leisure pursuits, a place where simple pleasures — meals, sports, sleeping—are as refined as can be. If the rest of my time in Napa and Sonoma will be spent exploring towns and wineries, my time at Meadowood is about staying put and seriously chilling out. This is a place to come and ignore everything outside that entrance gate, which looms ever farther away. Meadowood, friends, is summer camp for serious grownups.
Oh, sorry, it's time to change into my whites for croquet.
That's right, croquet. On the full-size regulation court in the center of the property.
And we are not only going to play, we are going to get a lesson from resident croquet pro Mike McDonnell. This, as might be expected, is the highlight of the afternoon. We gather on the court, order a round of Pimm's Cups, and pose for a lot of photos. (Everyone looks so good in white!) Then Mike sets to work putting us through our paces on the six-wicket course. There are six of us, counting Mike, and we quickly decide this will work best as a boys vs. girls match. There are jeers, there are cheers, there is a lot of dirty play, which is par for the course in this most noble sport. In between wickets, Mike, who plays with the ease of someone who's been doing it since he was five, regales us with stories about his life as a musician touring with some of the biggest acts in rock and roll. I inquire about the status of the croquet internship program at Meadowood and whether or not Mike is currently accepting applications. And specifically whether or not he will accept mine.
In a final and dramatic upset, the girls win. The boys pretend to sulk.
We go back to our cottages to do the things pampered grown-ups do in their down time before the next pampering activity begins, which in this case is dinner at the Restaurant at Meadowood, the innovative three Michelin-star restaurant led by chef Christopher Kostow and director Nathaniel Dorn.
You hear three Michelin stars, and you know what you're in for: a once-in-a-lifetime meal, a study in perfection, an attentive feast where your every whim is anticipated before you even finished forming the desire.
And that's pretty much what we get. The room is like the resort itself: the finest version of a treehouse imaginable, filled with warm woods, uncomplicated flowers, and refined ceramics. We sit down to begin what will be a procession of fourteen courses paired with eight wines. I notice there's a birch tree growing in the middle of the dining room, which is shaped like an octagon.
I compliment the Philipponnat brut we were served by the fireplace in the reception area, and moments later I'm delivered the rest of the bottle and a glass straw. Aaaaand we're off. Kale leaves are served on the open pages of an old hardcover, a wax sheet of paper indicating today's date. We get a thoughtful presentation of oyster with borage. Fermented potato with caviar and nasturtium. Mackerel escabeche. Whelk ravioli. Soup is poured from a conch shell. Chef Kostow comes to the table to personally finish the foie gras course. Kohlrabi with rye porridge is plated on a bed of flowers. Poultry tea is served infused with herbs in the cup, a beautiful savory tea. The wines are French and Californian, premier crus and rich chardonnays and cabernets. At the end of the meal, I'm presented with the menu of what I've eaten and drunk throughout the night, delivered in an envelope with a wax seal. I've saved it, as they probably expected that I would.
How do you end a night like this? We end up in the kitchen, where we get a backstage view of the artful precision and scientific organization—the rose petals in oversized glass jars, the orders taped to the pass with notes and annotations—that makes meals like this seem effortless.
I find room for one last glass of wine by myself by the fireplace, then walk it off on the 15-minute journey back to my cabin. And that's the last thing I do until I'm roused by a knock at the door. It's the breakfast basket filled with scones and jams and hot coffee, and I'm ready to start the day.
You could make all the arrangements on your own or through Relais & Châteaux, but Fathom readers who book through Smart Flyer will get special perks (like breakfast and upgrades) that are not available on DIY bookings. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
But Wait, There's More: Fathom Guide to Napa and Sonoma
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