A Perfect Birthday Weekend in Napa – Check out this offbeat itinerary for your next wine country visit!

California Road Tripping Travel

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We had to stop for a picture in front of the famous Napa Valley sign

It was July and Daniel’s birthday was coming up. I wanted to do a surprise weekend away, but our schedules were a little weird. (Wait….when does a nightshift nurse NOT have a weird schedule?) Anyway, we really only had two days and one night to work with. Where could we go within a few hours of our hometown of Chico, California? We’d been to the coast recently and it was summertime so camping without a reservation could be tricky. Where else? I was wracking my brain for something creative. Well…..why not wine country?! Decision made! I set to work planning our two day adventure, told Daniel to pack a few things with no specifics, and we set off, he had no idea where we were going.

Daniel and I in Sisu, my faithful 2016 Subaru Outback, headed to Napa for some birthday surprises.

Daniel loves geology, so our first stop was to the Petrified Forest in Calistoga. This petrified forest was first discovered by intrepid Swedish homesteader by the name of Charles Evans (“Petrified Charley”), who while raking his pasture, discovered the top of an old hollow log that was as hard as stone.

The main building at the park houses a nice gift shop with local artisan crafts and many different types of rocks and crystals for sale.

The park’s website describes the area best: ‘the Petrified Forest, in Calistoga, California holds one of the finest examples in the world of a preserved ancient forest. This unique site at the gateway to the Napa Valley was created following a violent volcanic explosion 3.4 million years ago. Seven miles northeast of the property lies the remains of an extinct volcano that today we call Mt. St. Helena. The incredibly powerful blast knocked down the forest of prehistoric Redwood trees (Sequoia langsdorfii) in a SW-NE orientation. Thick layers of volcanic ash billowing from the volcano rapidly buried the trees, creating an anaerobic (oxygen deprived) environment which discouraged the presence of the bacteria that decompose organic material. For thousands of years the formation of mineral-rich water percolated through the ashy deposits, saturating the pores of the organic tissues of the Redwoods with silica, filling the cellular spaces. During this process the saturated water evaporated, and the excess minerals were deposited in the cells and tissues, creating a three-dimensional fossil through the process of permineralization, and perfectly preserving even the most minute detail of the wood.’ It’s really pretty cool!

Historic marker at the Petrified Forest

The park is a California Registered Historic Landmark, recognized as being the only petrified forest in the state of California. That’s pretty interesting!

A large example of a petrified log!

There are several trails on which you can do a self guided tour at your own pace or opt for one of the thrice daily scheduled guided tours which last about 40 minutes. We enjoyed wandering the trails by ourselves, reading the various signs and discovering the treasures hidden within the park. The pathways are uneven dirt and gravel, some uphill and some downhill. Wear decent shoes for the happiest experience. My cowboy boots looked pretty cute, but they were probably not the best choice in footwear for this adventure!

Excavation tunnel for one of the petrified logs

We spent a couple of hours wandering through the park, enjoying the natural setting and then set off on our next stop: Castello di Amorosa.

Castello di Amorosa is just a few miles down the road and is really a special and spectacular experience, I’d say….if you can go to one winery in Napa – this would be the one. I booked the Guided Tour with Premium Wine Tasting Package ($45 each) with the chocolate tasting add on ($6 each). This initially sounded expensive to me, but it turned out to be so worth it!

Entry to Castello di Amorosa with castle in the background

Pro tip: book this tour well in advance, it routinely sells out. When we arrived on the morning of our tour, the entire day was already sold out. The tour goes as follows: a professional wine educator leads guests on an educational 60-minute guided experience through the castle, including the torture chamber, armory, and grand barrel room. The tour will ends in a private-to-the-group tasting bar where you enjoy a tasting of five premium wines. Do it! You won’t regret it!

Castle complete with moat!

We were in AWE of this place! It was incredible to hear the history of how this amazing castle was built with such detail and specificity. I’ll let you learn all about that on your own tour, but needless to say, it left us both speechless and quite impressed. Not to mention, this is a really romantic place! Perfect for a surprise birthday trip, in our opinions.

Entry door with Daniel peeping through the window
Chapel ceiling

The details throughout the castle were mind boggling. Much of the craftsmanship had forged by Italians then shipped to the United States. You can see details everywhere you look!

Dining hall with expansive murals

The winery specializes in small batch Italian style wines and offers several events throughout the year including Halloween and Christmas parties for their wine club members.

Common area in the castle, perfect for sipping a glass of wine and admiring the good fate that brought you here!
Details everywhere you look.

Our tour had about 25 people, just the right number for a cozy experience. We were able to ask questions yet still linger in our favorite spaces, taking pictures or just sneaking a kiss in a romantic corner of the castle.

Dark, intriguing hallways lead to the torture chamber, armory, grand barrel room, and tasting rooms.

Our guide led us to the Grand Barrel room, which was an impressive space in its own right, then enjoyed tastings from barrels of wine that were currently being aged before bottling. We certainly felt as thought we had been transported to another time and space.

A barrel taste in the Grand Barrel Room

The tour ends in an impressive gift shop with offerings from wines and glassware, to snacks and other souvenirs of this lovely experience. We purchased a few snacks to enjoy on the grounds and some of Daniel’s favorite wines and my favorite grape juice to enjoy later. Another thing I really loved about this winery is that they offered me an amazing non-alcoholic grape juice. I don’t drink alcohol so wine tasting can sometimes be a lackluster event for me. This was an unexpected bonus and extra special treat! Customer for life! There is something for everyone at this gem in Calistoga.

Sooooo…..what’s next, you ask? We still have some time this afternoon for some fun. When in Calistoga, the mud calls! We were staying at the Golden Haven Hot Springs Spa and Resort and I booked a mud/spa/massage package in addition to our room for a relaxing afternoon. This funky little resort in the north end of the Napa Valley, offers great accommodations and reasonably priced spa treatments. We think the mud baths are something everyone should experience at least once in their lives!

Daniel and I in the couple’s mud bath room.

The mud bath is quite an experience! For about 20 minutes, you’re lying in tub filled with warm, soft mud; it feels as though you are suspended in space. All the pressure points on your body are relieved, your muscles can’t help but relax. After the mud, an attendant comes and tells you how to rinse off, then you enjoy some time in a warm mineral whirlpool. After the whirlpool, you’re off to a quiet room for a mineral wrap. The attendants wrap you in pleasantly scented warm blankets, turn the lights low, and leave you to rest, nap, and unwind for about 20 more minutes. We capped off our spa experience with a couple’s massage.

My favorite non-alcoholic grape juice from Castello di Amorosa

Back to the room for a little glass of vino and dressing for dinner. We were headed to Checkers in Calistoga for our evening meal. This is a lovely little place on the main drag, walking distance from our evening’s accommodations. We enjoyed meandering around all the shops of this quaint village, working up an appetite for our dinner.

Daniel enjoying his pasta carbonara!

It was a great day full of surprises! Tomorrow is Daniel’s birthday and I had something REEEEEALLY special planned for him in the morning. Little did I know, he had a surprise for me, too!

Sign leading the way towards our sunrise experience.

We woke before the sun and headed to Domaine Chandon, a lovely sparkling wine maker in Napa, and the departure point for our Napa Valley Balloon adventure. This adventure is pricey at about $239 each, but so worth it! The price includes a one-hour sunrise balloon ride, post-flight breakfast with champagne back at the winery, and photos. Neither of us had ever experienced a balloon flight and what better day than a birthday?! I was beside myself with excitement that I was able to keep this a surprise until Daniel’s birthday! I am a terrible surprise keeper.

Balloons filling

Check in was easy and Napa Valley Balloons boarded the passengers into vans and transported us from the winery to the departure point at a nearby golf course. Watching the balloons inflate as the sun started peeking up over the horizon is mesmerizing. We boarded the balloons which each held about 20 people and settled in for our ride. There was a quiet hush as we ascended over the valley, the air cool, the scenery breathtaking. There was an indescribable peace in the air, interrupted only by the firing of the balloon as we ascended higher above the vineyards.

Other balloons launching for the sunrise.

We had a bird’s eye view and even did a little touch and go over a small pond at the golf course. Amazing how the pilots can do this!

A photo taken by the balloon’s GoPro. Pretty cool!
Romantic, peaceful, breathtaking. Amazing experience.

I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire ride. Daniel and I whispered to each other in the quiet of the ride, enjoying the moments and feeling as though we were the only ones flying. Little did I know, he had a surprise for me, too. With his arms wrapped around me and suspended in this wondrous sunrise, he proposed, slipping a ring on my finger….a truly memorable moment.

Balloon views

We flew for about an hour, ascending and descending, and finally landing in a vineyard not far from where we began.

Landing in the vineyards
Balloon landing in the vineyards, taken from the GoPro on the balloon

All in all, it was an epic birthday morning with surprises for both Daniel and me. We boarded the vans back to the winery and enjoyed breakfast and a champagne toast with our fellow balloon mates. What a morning! If you are on the fence about booking a balloon adventure, I say….absolutely do it! It will be an experience you won’t soon forget, even if you aren’t proposed to! Napa Valley Balloons gave us a first class experience that we highly recommend.

I had one more surprise planned before we headed home after our quick birthday getaway in Napa. I had been hearing about ‘love locks’ and read that there was a love lock bridge near the Napa Valley Wine Train, so I ordered this really cool lock from amazon.

Napa Valley Love Lock Bridge

What’s a Love Lock Bridge, you ask? On the bridge, lovers can take a simple padlock decorated with their names, initials, or a special date and lock it to the bridge fence. Then the key can be either tossed into the abyss (or swale, in the case of the Napa Valley Love Lock Bridge) below the bridge or saved as a keepsake. We saved ours and we each have a key on our key chains as a memory.

Daniel writing our names on our lock

The practice is thought to have started in China where it is tradition to “lock your soul” together. Love lock bridges are now extremely popular in Europe where locks can be seen hanging from a handful of bridges across the continent. Though in some places this practice is controversial due to possible environmental impact, this Napa bridge was constructed especially for this purpose – no plants, animals, or historic bridges were harmed in the making of this memory.

Our love lock

We added our lock to the bridge and spent some time reading the others that had been placed there, so much love and emotion in this wonderful place. I had no idea we would be engaged that morning, and this was just the perfect ending to such a special occasion.

Engaged! A surprise weekend for Daniel’s birthday that ended up in a surprise for me, too.

Have you ever planned a surprise trip for the special person in your life? What did you do? Like, share, subscribe, and leave us your comments. We’d love to hear from you!


I'm an only child who grew up on a sailboat, a lover of adventure, a mom, wife, an RN, and a friend of all dogs.


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