Napa & Sonoma Valleys have long been synonymous with wine growing (and tasting), but after a Bicycling Magazine article listed it among the world’s best places to ride, cyclists began visiting in numbers. The magazine wrote; “Napa and Sonoma are not merely local favorites; they’re legitimate international must-rides. The varied terrain can satisfy everyone from the flat-seeking novice to the hard-core hammerhead. The roads are lightly traveled. The cuisine maintains its gourmet appeal while ranging in price from cheap basics to outrageously expensive feasts. And there’s a wine tasting, it seems, on every mile.”

Having biked from Burgundy to Bordeaux, and Piedmont to Puglia and (almost) everywhere in Europe between, I wasn’t expecting to be as impressed as I was with California’s wine country. My wife and I are somewhere between ‘flat-seeking novices and hard-core hammerheads’ and chose Randonnee Tours new 7 day trip, starting from Napa, just north of San Francisco. We arrived at the first hotel, the historic Napa River Inn, which boasts a riverside location and has lots of shops, galleries and restaurants within steps. Our first ride was a wonderful easy-going loop where we visited the former estate of Rene di Rosa, the founder of Winery Lake vineyards and an eccentric art collector with a huge collection of Northern California’s emerging artists work.

We had lunch at the Boon Fly Café, a classy restaurant with a lively lunch-time crowd. There was a long loop option to Sonoma (the reward would be lunch at Sondra Bernstein’s first restaurant, the Girl and the Fig) but we decided to make it an easy first day. The ride back to Napa earned us dinner at famous international Chef Masaharu Morimoto (a k a the Iron Chef) where we dove into the omakase tasting menu that ‘wowed’ us course after course after course. Next day, riding north of Napa  along a mix  of bike paths and secondary roads, we noted many of California’s best known appellations including Plumpjack Winery, Frog’s Leap, Silver Oak, Opus One to name a few , tempting us to taste.

Arriving in St. Helena, we stayed at the Wydown Hotel, a newly restored historic property downtown, with contemporary design and huge guest rooms. We dined the first night at La Condesa, a casual restaurant with a lively bar and gregarious bartenders eager to please.

Next day, the Howell Mountain – Pope Valley loop ride of 36 miles was a perfect mix of hills and undulating roads with virtually no traffic for much of the way. We considered the afternoon 17 mile option but decided instead to enjoy St. Helena some more. After visiting several galleries, we moved on to Goose & Gander’s casual bar and bistro, where we enjoyed the rustic arugula and pear salad and delicious burgers. The crowd was young and hip and it was a fun night to be hanging with locals.

Next day, we cycled north to Calistoga, with brief stops at Clos Pegase and Sterling Vineyards. From Calistoga, we cycled the additional loop of the Franz Valley, over the Mayacamas Mountain Range and back to Calistoga. We stayed at the Mount View Hotel downtown, but next trip would choose to splurge at the new Solage Hotel on the outskirts of town, with its huge swimming pool and ultra-luxurious spa. We did have dinner at Solbar, the one-star Michelin restaurant there and that was one of our favourite meals of the trip.

From Calistoga, we continued north to Healdsburg. At the entrance to town, there was an option to loop further north which we chose. This was one of my favourite rides of the trip, to Geyserville and back along West Dry Creek Road. In Healdsburg, we stayed at the fabulous Healdsburg Hotel, located in the historic district, with lovely courtyard pool, and wonderful lounges and sitting areas. Our room and bathroom/ shower was luxurious in every way and the hotel staff couldn’t do more to please. We ate the first night at Dry Creek Restaurant, where the knowledgeable sommelier took the time to decant the wine we had brought in (no corkage fee for Sonoma Valley wines).

Next day, we did a scenic loop in the Russian Valley, passing perfect vineyard after perfect vineyard, stopping at the Dry Creek General Store, which has been open since 1881 and is a local institution. We sat on the veranda having lunch and talking to an octogenarian couple who wanted to hear about the cycling, telling us they were avid cyclists in their day. Later, cycling back to Healdsburg, we stopped to taste at the VML winery, which has gorgeous gardens and fountains in an unpretentious setting. Back in Healdsburg, we visited several galleries, resisting the temptation to bring back some of the local art. For our final night dinner, we chose Scopa, a small Italian style bistro filled with local winemakers for yet another perfect meal. Our trip finished the next morning and we elected to drive back via Bodega Bay and Hwy 1 to San Francisco.

 

The longer Randonnee itinerary offers up to 2 more days; one from Healdsburg to Bodega Bay (staying at Bodega Bay Lodge) with the chance to do a loop ride that traces much of what Levi Leipheimer calls ‘the best ride in North America’ along King Ridge Road and back along the coast. The final day of riding is from Bodega Bay to Sonoma, finishing at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. If you have the legs, (and time), this would make a great finish to your trip!

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Randonnée Tours

If you go: here are different options to choose from:

California : Wine Country Cycling 6 days
California : Wine Country Cycling 8 days
California : Wine Country Cycling 10 days

I was in Tabor, in an underground labyrinth of tunnels with 10 stunning ladies (all in high-heels and dressed to nines), when I heard a very loud clunk, followed by an expletive I can’t repeat, a pause and then laughter. If you have ever been under a city, and heard the echoes of 10 women laughing together the sound is deafening, in a good way. After a great first day of cycling, we were on a historic walking tour of Tabor, in the Czech Republic and our guide wanted to finish the tour with a surprise, insisting we put on helmets and go down a staircase, under the main square of the city. She wanted us to see the ancient tunneling system that protected residents in the middle ages from attackers. Sabina, at 5’10 (5’11 in heels) would be the first of the group to bonk her head, but not the last, on our 10 minute subterranean walk. The surprise was that the tunnel we followed lead directly to an exquisite wine bar where our indefatigable guide awaited, with champagne at the ready (a sip of something bubbly is how we like to start our trips everywhere). The laughter continued to dinner and on throughout southern Bohemia and into Austria. Such a wonderful sound, laughter.  Especially from 10 women like these.

Years back, we realized that linking the cities of Prague and Vienna would hold enormous appeal for travelers who wanted to see these cities and have the opportunity to cycle through Czech Republic and along the Danube valley of Austria. We initially re-conned a trip following the Czech greenways, but in many places, that route is on gravel tracks when in fact, the quiet paved roads are delightful to ride. So we did lots of research, consulted with our extensive local contacts including a local cycling enthusiast (who became our local Area Manager for self-guided trips) and Czech-Canadian Veronika, who helped create what has become one of our most popular itineraries in Europe. In October 2012, I did our Avid trip with one of our experienced guides, Dominic Albert, who agreed to join me on a self-guided trip . We thoroughly enjoyed the riding but I was keen to return to experience the regular trip, which took advantage of transfers between Prague and Tabor and from Cesky-Kromlov into Austria,which makes the trip more leisurely.

As luck would have it, we had four intrepid souls (we’ll call them women of Whistler) who did our Piedmont self-guided cycling trip in October, 2013 who wished to return this year, invite some others and cycle in Eastern Europe. Some of them had done cycling trips with us in the past: Sabina  traveled with us to Morocco, Turkey, Croatia, Piedmont, and Cinque Terre trips; Carol, (a wine sommelier and accomplished chef, in her spare time)- Tuscany, Puglia & Turkey; Mary – Piedmont and Cinque Terre; Karen- Tour de France & Puglia trips), but others were newbies to the idea of cycling for a vacation. Jane in particular wasn’t sure about cycling and vacationbeing used in the same sentence. But after a little cajoling, (thanks Connie), ten amazing women signed up for the adventure. This time, the group decided on a guided trip (we operate these under Great Explorations name); Veronika would be the lead guide, and I would be ‘along for the ride’ (lucky me)! Their cycling abilities ranged from hardcore to ever-smiling Jane, who repeatedly reminded me that she hadn’t cycled much in the past 10 years and didn’t want to hold anyone up. I was enough concerned that I had one of our new bikes shipped to our office in Vancouver so she could test-ride the bike she would be on for the trip. She loved the bike and her tensions were eased.

The group had no problem with any of the distances; in fact, on the Cesky-Krumlov loop to Lake Lipno, the entire group did the long ride (77 km; 1340 m gain) and I for one, was enormously impressed, especially when they appeared for pre-dinner drinks, looking like the successful, cultured, interesting women they were.

 

On the final night of the trip, we were in Weissenkirchen staying at the historic Rafflesburg Hof Hotel. Carol and Karen and I had just finished an extra loop, climbing up into the hills above the Danube and came down to see Mary arrive back to announce there was a restaurant opening party happening up above town in the vineyards. I quickly biked over and told the owner that I was with a group of very attractive women (who had biked from Tabor); he didn’t hesitate a moment, just blinked and insisted I fetch them (which I did); we enjoyed complimentary drinks and appees while being entertained by a local string quartet. In the evening sun, with vineyards (and every bachelor in Weissenkirchen) all around us, we toasted an amazing week together.

As I bid farewell in Vienna, I knew this group of women would be traveling with us again and, if invited, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Thank you ladies (Sabina, Mary, Connie, Carol, Heather, Brook, Nancy, Jane, Karen, Nancy); you are all amazing!

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Randonnée Tours

Click here for itinerary: Prague to Vienna

Post-script: here are few of the comments received –

“We had an incredible trip from Prague to Vienna. The hotels and meals along the way were fantastic, and the riding was spectacular with different views and sights ever day. We couldn’t have asked for a better trip.” Carol L. – Whistler, BC

After 5 days of glorious sunshine, riding through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe, I was leaving the town of Kobarid, Slovenia, when the skies darkened and a downpour began. My luggage had been sent ahead to Cividale, where I had intended to reach late afternoon, but I thought to find some shelter to let the storm pass. As luck would have it, I pulled into a charming Inn, called Hisa Franko, owned by Slovenian couple Valter and Anna. I later learned that this Inn and famed restaurant were known throughout Slovenia and Europe. I was met by Vander himself at the door who ushered me quickly inside, taking my bicycle and offering me a table in the glass enclosed dining room, where I could sit and decide on a plan. He suggested I stay the night but I responded that I didn’t have any clothes, just the wet bike kit I was wearing. He disappeared into his house and came back with an Armani shirt, pants, socks and shoes and with that, I decided fate required me to stay over. After reading, and a wee snooze, I came down to dinner for what was to be one of the most memorable meals of my life. Before dinner, Valter showed me the kitchen, which was presided over by Anna, the chef de cuisine extraordinaire. And then it began – a 9 course tasting menu. Valter is a master sommelier with an extensive wine cellar and I lost count of how many bottles he opened to serve. Each was the perfect compliment for the perfect course. I rarely dine alone but the service and soul in this sacred room was such that boredom was impossible. After the last course, I was invited to the next table by a group of visitors from Denmark  on a fly-fishing trip and Vander joined us with a bottle of Prosecco we which we enjoyed until after midnight. It was an extraordinary dinner and evening that I will not forget. But this was getting ahead of myself…

 

I was in Slovenia to develop a new cycling trip as the country has been getting some press lately about its attractions (NY Times, National Geographic Traveler and others). I knew the cycling was great from our guides who had traveled there extensively and I had an overview plan of what we wanted to do. We clearly wanted to start from Ljubljana and finish in the Friuli region of Italy, combining two countries. It made sense to us to begin in Slovenia because the prevailing wind is from the north – who likes riding into the wind? The other important reason is Vrsic pass, which has cobblestones on the hairpin turns on the north side, which are not a problem to ride up, but potentially dangerous when descending – there are no cobblestones on the southern descent, and this days’ ride, descending the Soca valley ranks as one of the best all-time rides of my life. The scenery is that good.

 

When we research a new trip, we look to see what others are doing and obviously try to come up with something that is unique and better than any other trip. I think we have done it and if you read on you’ll see how. The first question to ask a tour operator is how they (and their tour) differs from what is out there.

How are we different?

 The first thing to note in Slovenia, is that quality local bikes are simply not available, so we have brought in our own line of light-weight bikes with proper gearing (shimano 105 with 11-32 and triple). Lance Armstrong was wrong about a few things, and when he said ‘it is not about the bike’ we think that on a bicycle tour, it is, perhaps for many, ALL about the bike. We know that if you don’t enjoy the ride, you won’t enjoy much else.

The second thing of importance here is support. On our guided trips, our guides are simply the best, with proper training and local knowledge that will make the difference in your trip experience. Hotels are obviously a key determinant in the quality of your trip. We don’t hide the names of where we stay. Our Classic trip stays at teh charming Lesar Hotel Angel in Ljubljana, the Hotel Astoria in Bled, Hotel Mangart in Bovec and Al Pomo D’Oro in Cividale. On our luxe trip, we use the Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa in Ljubljana, 5-star Grand Hotel Toplice in Bled; luxurious Dobra Vila in Bovec and at the 4-star wellness resort, Al Castello in Cividale.

Our route begins in Ljubljana – we don’t think a trip to Slovenia should skip this city, which New York Times describes as having “ its fair share of charming Old World Plazas, baroque churches, and dramatic castles, and having a rich cultural scene that would be impressive in a city twice its size”. We have carefully researched the quietest routes in each of Slovenia and Friuli, Italy and with our extensive list of local contacts (you’ll meet some on tour), share our secret viewpoints, wine tasting opportunities, castles and more.

We don’t like to start comparisons by highlighting the value of our trip, but compared to the $4,000+ that, for example the another company charges, our trips offer superb value. We make this promise: you will love your bike and the riding and you will experience Slovenia and Friuli in a way that only this kind of travel can.

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Randonnée Tours

IF YOU GO: Itineraries and additional information

Slovenia & Italy : Cycling 6 days;

Slovenia & Italy : Cycling 7 days;

Slovenia & Italy : Cycling 8 days;

Slovenia & Italy : Cycling 9 days;

P.S. if you prefer a guided trip, click here for Great Explorations trips and dates