I thought I knew wine until Larry Turley poured me a sip of his finest zinfandel. I was wrong. I thought I knew haute cuisine until I experienced The French Laundry. Wrong again. And I thought I knew luxury hotels until, many years ago, I was invited to stay at the Post Ranch Inn. Words can’t describe how wrong I was.
The point is, there are certain pleasant epiphanies that resonate with you for a lifetime, but typically they only happen if you open yourself up to the experience. We’ve all stayed at nice hotels during our vacations, but when’s the last time you stayed at a hotel that was so special it was the vacation?
The eight hotels listed below offer that sort of experience. Yes, they’re expensive, but you can’t put a price on a lifetime of fond memories. So treat yourself and your partner to an early Christmas present this year and see what it’s like to experience hospitality perfected.
Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur
I’ve been reviewing hotels for 20 years and I still haven’t stayed anywhere that came close to the Post Ranch Inn experience. There simply aren’t words in the English language to properly describe that ocean view. Typically a high-end hotel’s goal is to impress you with an abundance of service, but the Post Ranch Inn does just the opposite—the management intentionally keeps contact with the staff to a minimum so you can wallow in romantic splendor while blissfully ensconced within your private cottage, soaking in the inherent beauty all around you that is Big Sur.
As a Northern Californian you have the rare opportunity to be within driving distance—and what a beautiful drive it is—of one of the top-rated lodgings on the planet, so don’t let it alone, regardless of the cost. You have no idea how happy you can make someone simply by making a hotel reservation for two at the Post Ranch Inn.
Bernardus Lodge, Carmel Valley
We can’t all be rich, but it doesn’t mean we can’t pretend once in a while. Just being in Carmel Valley is a pleasant experience, but when combined with a stay at the Bernardus Lodge, it becomes a momentous occasion. Bernardus Vineyards & Winery owner Ben Pon spared no expense getting everything just right at his hotel, from the generously sized guest rooms with stone fireplaces and king-size featherbeds with soft-as-silk Frette linens, to heavenly spa treatments and French-inspired Wine Country cuisine at the award-wining Marinus restaurant.
I’ve sent a lot of people here who’ve asked me where to stay for a special occasion, because I know they’ll sigh with satisfaction the moment they enter the beautiful lobby and are immediately offered a glass of chilled white wine. With two tennis courts, bocce and croquet courts, a swimming pool, a full-service spa and salon, and a plethora of nearby wine-tasting opportunities, there’s never a shortage of things to do—if you can ever get out of that bed.
Cavallo Point, Marin
You make plans to hike the Marin Headlands, then you walk into your gorgeous guestroom and realize, nah, I ain’t going anywhere this weekend. I’m staying right here. Then you start taking photos of your guestroom, because it’s exactly what you want your dream home to look like. Welcome to Cavallo Point, which was created by the same folks who dreamed up the Post Ranch Inn, so you know your stay here is going to be… special, and they don’t disappoint. It’s the tipping point of hotel perfection—spotless historic lodgings with modern appointments, phenomenal views of the Golden Gate Bridge, a superb restaurant and cozy lounge, a beautiful full-service spa, and a deep commitment to environmental sustainability.
The lodge also offers an interesting mix of classes and activities such as a cooking school, history walks, and art tours, allowing guests a rare opportunity to interact with the wonderful staff and come away with much more than a special stay by the bay.
Meadowood, St. Helena
Whenever I stay at Meadowood I always make plans to visit the nearby wineries, and then I never do. It happens every time—I can never get myself to hop back in the car and leave this immaculate 256-acre wooded paradise. It has everything one could ever hope for in a luxury Wine Country resort: a secluded location, outstanding service, freestanding luxury accommodations, a challenging 9-hole golf course, tennis on seven championship courts, croquet on two international regulation lawns (with a full-time croquet pro on hand, so bring your whites), private hiking trails, a full-service health spa, yoga classes, two heated pools, two whirlpools, and an award-winning restaurant. Trust me: It will be with deep reluctance when it comes time to pack your bags and drive back home. Meadowood is that special.
The Carter Cottage, Eureka
Hotelier Mark Carter has built, with his own hands, the most romantic getaway cottage in California. It’s a part of his Victorian empire that includes the stately Hotel Carter, Carter House, and Bell Cottage—all situated right next to each other. I still remember the first time I walked inside the Carter Cottage. “This… this is all mine?” Essentially it’s a gorgeously designed mini-mansion with a huge chef’s kitchen, two fireplaces, a grand bathroom with a whirlpool tub for two, a sundeck, and all the privacy you could ever hope for. It’s also the perfect place to stow your luggage as you visit the most romantic place I have ever been to on this planet: a fall visit to Tall Trees Grove within the Redwood National Forest to watch the massive maples turn color amidst the tallest evergreens in the world. Call Mark and make this trip happen.
The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Valley
Let’s cut to the chase: The Ahwahnee is one of the most beautiful and romantic hotels in North America. With its soaring lobby, cathedral-like dining room, outstanding views, and postcard-perfect location at the base of Yosemite Valley, it’s a special-occasion destination if there ever was. While its guestrooms, service, and cuisine are nowhere near the caliber of the other hotels on this list, the moment you first witness the Ahwahnee in all her majestic glory—lightly dusted in snow against a backdrop of soaring granite cliffs—you won’t care. And don’t wait for warmer weather: Yosemite Valley is always best experienced in the crowd-free winter months.
Inn Above Tide, Sausalito
You don’t have to be an Aquarian to feel a sense of sublime serenity at the Inn Above Tide. Perched directly over the bay on well-grounded pilings, this former luxury-apartment complex is one of Sausalito’s—if not the Bay Area’s—finest accommodations. The view clinches it: Every room affords an unparalleled panorama of the San Francisco Bay, including a postcard-quality vista of the city glimmering in the distance. If the soothing ebb and flow of gentle tides doesn’t put your worries at rest, the sumptuously appointed guest rooms with romantic fireplaces certainly will. Sitting on your private deck over the bay, enjoying breakfast while reading the paper and occasionally soaking in the phenomenal view, you can’t help but feel slightly giddy at how amazing it is to be here in this moment.
Napa White House Inn
Okay, so perhaps an ocean-view suite at the Post Ranch Inn is a tad beyond your budget, but allow me to introduce a more affordable getaway alternative that offers a very memorable Wine Country lodging experience: the Napa White House Inn. Located at the blissfully quiet edge of Old Town Napa, this beautifully renovated 17-room Victorian mansion blends urban chic with gorgeous architectural bones, and it does so without a hint of chintz or pretense. Sip pinot poolside, nosh on afternoon hors d’oeuvres, then retire to your spacious suite to light the fire, pour yourself a glass of sparkling wine, and soak in your oversized in-room tub. Rinse. Repeat.
These hotels and resorts above are just a fraction of the romantic retreats throughout Northern California. For more information check out Where to Stay & Play—or better yet, add your own comments and advice to our Romantic Retreats blog below. We’d love to hear from you.