Friday, November 10, 2006


Major birthdays that catapult you unwillingly into a new decade are not for the faint of heart, especially mine, so I decided to face this emotional milestone head on and asked my husband, Richard, (in lieu of important jewelry) for a weekend in Tuscany to work through the pain. Showing great restraint, he only laughed for five minutes. We’re both freelance writers (translation: we’re out of work a lot)… important jewelry, not to mention jet-setting to Italy, are just not in the (birthday) cards. But, he did have an alternative-- a trip to America’s Tuscany. Napa! So, we jumped into our car and headed north to wine country.

The day we hit town was perfect. Sun shining. Temperature warm, but not hot. We arrived at noon and decided to have lunch before checking into the inn my husband had found on the internet. Brix wasn’t far and within minutes we were sitting on the restaurant’s lovely veranda overlooking the mountains, beautiful vineyard and vegetable garden. I had the Panko crusted calamari, nappa cabbage salad with sambal aioli. I had no clue what “Panko” or “sambal aioli” meant, nor the difference between nappa cabbage and the cabbage I buy at Safeway, but the slightly spicy flavoring worked beautifully with the calamari coupled with a glass of cool “crisp” pinot grigio. Richard had a grilled wild King salmon, sweet corn and bacon salad with a bleu cheese vinaigrette (ingredients I understood). Happily sated, we paid the bill and drove to the Milliken Creek Inn.

What can I say? The minute we pulled up to the rambling gray clapboard building, I announced to everyone within earshot: “I could live here.” Entering the small lobby only confirmed that feeling… this was no Motel 6. Dark wood plank floors, chocolate brown leather club chairs and mahogany tables filled the room. Vintage suitcases and trunks were displayed on the floor and wonderful black and white photographs hung on light taupe-y gray walls surrounded by white high-gloss woodwork. There were sisal rugs and rattan accents, not to mention a beautiful dark wood piano --- all very British Colonial, very “plantation.” OK, so it wasn’t a Tuscan farmhouse, but as a former on-air design consultant for HGTV, I wouldn’t have changed a knick knack, a flower or a chair angle.

As we waited to meet the inn’s owners, a hip “rock ‘n’ roll” couple, the young woman at the check-in desk brought us a glass of perfectly chilled pinot grigio (my second of the day, but who’s counting?). We sat in the rich leather chairs sipping our wine, as she told us that the wife, the daughter of a diplomat, had been a hotel interior designer in far-off, exotic places such as Jakarta and had decorated the entire inn herself. Her husband, a jazz musician, often played for guests at the nightly wine tastings. While she talked, I kept looking at my wrinkled linen trousers, travel-worn polo shirt and Keds and wished I was wearing a satin slip dress, little Jimmy Choo strappy sandals and a wonderful wide-brimmed straw hat. I visualized my husband in a linen suit and Panama hat and wondered if the rest of the inn would continue to feed my fantasy. It did.

After meeting our hosts, we toured the grounds. We strolled in a stunning circular garden surrounded by huge glazed pots filled with vibrant plants then onto green lawns rolling down to the creek sprinkled here and there with white Adirondack chairs under white umbrellas the sight of which filled me with a burning desire to play croquet. It passed, and we went to our room to freshen up.

Have you ever entered a room and immediately wanted to redecorate your home? Well, I did the minute I saw it. The king-size bed was covered with fine white Frette linen. Of course, I didn’t know what Frette linen was, but I do now… a “million” thread count making them so soft silk feels like burlap in comparison.

Like the lobby, the room’s wood furniture was a deep brown, the artwork black and white photographs. In the bath, a long mahogany table stood behind the high-gloss chocolate brown wall that divided the mini-suite. Two white porcelain bowls sat on top like pieces of sculpture. The contrast was dramatic. Between these sinks stood a tall, white orchid. Plush white towels were rolled in baskets and thick cream and white robes hung on the closet door waiting for us to wrap ourselves in them after using the air-jet spa tub imported from Europe. With all those spotless white linens and towels, I could only imagine how much the inn spent on Clorox.

Perched proudly atop one of the mahogany tables in the sitting area was a freshly baked chocolate torte from the world famous French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, a nearby town. Though I could already taste it, I decided to save it for “later.”

At 6:00 we went back to the lobby for the evening wine tasting. A small vineyard was featured and as we sipped the wines and sampled the many selections of cheese and fruit, we met some of the other guests… a couple from Cincinnati, another from New York, a businessman from Oregon. We all sounded like characters from “Sideways” as we discussed the “character” of the wines while our host serenaded us on the piano. It was the perfect way to start the evening.

After the tasting we drove the short distance to Celadon, a restaurant with a decidedly “Pacific rim” flare. Hip, trendy, arty. Inside, a long shelf held a collection of celadon pottery. Large celadon urns filled with plants stood like sentinels on the patio. We decided to eat outside at a table for two abutting one side of a fireplace surrounded by glass. We ordered a bottle of pinot noir and shared an endive and pear salad with bleu cheese, candied walnuts with a honey-mustard vinaigrette. One of the evening’s specials was a seared marlin with a kaffir lime sauce (“kaffir?” I was afraid to ask). Neither Richard nor I have ever had marlin, but he decided to try it. I stayed with the grilled chicken breast over garlic-mashed potatoes with an artichoke, green olive and tomato ragout. Delicious… but chicken is chicken. The marlin, however, was a wonderful surprise. It looks like tuna, but is milder and more buttery. The kaffir lime sauce I discovered was a heavenly blend of citrus and cream.

Back in our room it was now “later,” so we ate the chocolate torte filled with caramelized bananas, along with cookies left on our pillow then strolled back to the lobby for a nightcap. Sipping port on the deck beneath the stars was the perfect ending to a perfect birthday.

In the morning we bathed in the spa tub, wrapped ourselves in our plush robes and sat down on our private patio to eat quiches and a selection of fresh baked rolls (again from the French Laundry), served with sliced fruit. We read the paper as we sipped rich coffee and thought of moving in permanently.

All in all, a sleepover in Napa is not a bad way to enter a new decade. It might not be Tuscany, but I can’t speak Italian anyway.