How to Honeymoon On-the-Cheap in the Napa Valley Wine country

Since my Stevenson’s Treasure book tour heads to the gorgeous Napa Valley this week (Thursday, Sept. 4, 7:00 PM at the RLS Museum in St. Helena), not far from the mountainside where Robert Louis Stevenson honeymooned on the cheap with his true love Fanny, I thought it might be fun to compare honeymoons, then and now.

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, CA

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, CA

I loved researching the parts of my novel that fictionalize “Louis” Stevenson’s time in Calistoga. Combing the area on foot, staring at old photographs and reading his journal, The Silverado Squatters, one still gets a vivid sense of what the area was like, 135 years ago.  Much has changed, yet much is the same as when the newlyweds arrived in Calistoga on Sam Brannan’s railroad and stayed – for absolutely free – in an abandoned cabin built by silver miners.  One change has been the state of the wine business: after liberally sampling the local wines Louis concluded that “wine in California is still in the experimental stage.” Tourism, however, was already a driving force when the lovers took a tour of the petrified forest, soaked in hot springs and shopped for trinkets. Likewise, the feel and geography of the region are just as Louis and Fanny experienced in 1880: “A pleasant place to dwell in; beautifully green, for it was then that favoured moment in the Californian year, when the rains are over and the dusty summer has not yet set in; often visited by fresh airs, now from the mountain, now across Sonoma from the sea….”

One big change, surprise surprise, is the price of a visit.  For fun I checked into the cost of a honeymoon in the wine country today.  An advertisement for one inn, that like Louis & Fanny’s honeymoon digs is set on a secluded hillside in the northern end of the valley, includes a Honeymoon Package for between $575 and $2550 per night. Dinners at the inn’s restaurant are $225-500 per person and are touted as “a singular dining experience,” an odd turn of phrase to describe a meal that two people might enjoy together.  A romantic hot air balloon ride would set the newlyweds back $418 if, that is, they jump on the “special internet rate.”  Winery-hopping via chauffeured limo, a good idea if the lovers plan to knock back the five-wine-sampler offered at most tasting rooms goes for as low as $325 per afternoon.  A cheaper alternative is the Wine Train, which takes you north by rail from Napa on part of the same train route taken by Louis and Fanny in the spring of 1880 for a mere $218, and that includes lunch.

You get the drift: a wine country honeymoon with trimmings could cost between $2000 and $4,000 per day, not counting incidentals like airfare, gratuities, taking a hot-mud-bath with your beloved, and trolling for boutiques along Highway 29.

Can you do a wine country honeymoon on the cheap?  Sure, sort of.  You can find a clean room in the area for less than $200 per night, especially midweek.  Buy a pizza in Calistoga or St. Helena for twenty bucks, sneak it into your room with a few beers and, well, make your own fun.  Next morning skip the hot air balloon and instead, get your vistas by hiking to them. Head seven miles north of Calistoga on Highway 29 to the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, pull on sturdy sneakers and hike three-fourths of a mile up the trail through boulders and trees.  There you’ll see where The Master of Cheap honeymooned in 1880.  The abandoned miners’ cabin of the Silverado Mine where Louis, Fanny and a dog named Chuchu spent the summer was bulldozed many decades ago, but you can see where it once stood in all its wood-rotted, rat-infested, three-room glory.  Visible on the rock-strewn hillside above the cabin site is the mineshaft that Louis used as a wine cellar.  If you use your imagination you can get an idea of where Louis foraged for firewood, sat at his outdoor desk and wrote his daily journal.  If you feel ambitious, follow the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Trail another four miles to the top of Mt. St. Helena, where on a clear day you can see the San Francisco Bay in one direction and the tip of Mt. Shasta, 192 miles to the north.

Alas, whether you go high-end or cheap, in today’s gentrified wine country you won’t find the cranky, homespun, lovable characters that Stevenson immortalized in The Silverado Squatters.  Nobody today, for example, has a job description like that of Foss, a mustachioed stage driver who with a “huge, impassive, fleshy countenance” drove his team “with small regard to human life or the doctrine of probabilities” at full speed on twisting mountain roads.  You aren’t likely to meet anyone like tobacco-spitting Rufe Hanson, who showed up at the honeymooner’s door at odd times with deer carcasses slung over his saddle and offered them for sale.  Dubbed “the mighty hunter” by Louis, Rufe also chopped firewood for the newlyweds but was “more in anybody’s way than any two people than I ever set my eyes on.”  

One direct link to the past that you can savor are some wineries that were in operation when Stevenson roamed the valley. Although Mr. Shram, whose “serious gusto” warmed the heart of the young writer as Louis joyfully “tasted every variety and shade of Schramberger wine in the cellar” is gone, the Schramsberg winery thrives, with some original buildings still standing. It and dozens of others now comprise the best wine region in the world. (Okay, full disclosure here — I’m a California native!)

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