A car is the most logical and convenient way to navigate Napa and Sonoma. Although some thoroughfares can be congested, especially during rush hour and on summer weekends, there are plenty of less trafficked routes. Parking is generally not a problem.
To drive to the Wine Country from San Francisco International, follow signs north out of the airport to Interstate 380, which leads to Interstate 280. As you approach San Francisco, follow signs for the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time you begin crossing the bridge, you're on U.S. 101. Head north for northern Sonoma County. For southern Sonoma County and the Napa Valley, head east on Highway 37 at the town of Novato, then follow Highway 121 into southern Sonoma. At Highway 12, turn north to reach the town of Sonoma. For the Napa Valley, continue east on Highway 121 to Highway 29 and head north.
From Oakland International, the best way to get to Sonoma County is via Interstate 880 north. Follow signs for Interstate 80 East/Interstate 580 West, which takes you across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge. After you cross the bridge, follow the signs to U.S. 101 North. From here, continue north for northern Sonoma County or head east of Highway 37 for southern Sonoma County and the Napa Valley. A quicker option if you're heading to the Napa Valley is to stay on Interstate 80 to Highway 37 in Vallejo. Head west on Highway 37 and north on Highway 29, following the signs for Napa.
If you fly into Sacramento International, take Interstate 5 South to Interstate 80 West. Exit onto Highway 12 and continue west to Highway 29 north for the city of Napa. For the town of Sonoma continue west on Highway 121 and north on Highway 12.
If you're flying into the area, it's almost always easiest to pick up a car at the airport. You'll also find car-rental companies in the major towns around the Wine Country. The winding roads and beautiful landscapes make it a popular place for renting specialty vehicles, especially convertibles. Many agencies have a few on hand, but you have a better chance of finding one at Exotic Car Collection by Enterprise or the locally based City Rent-a-Car. When renting a specialty car, ask about mileage limits. Some companies stick you with per-mile charges if you exceed 100 miles a day.
Most rental companies require you to be at least 20 years old to rent a car, but some agencies won't rent to those under 25; check when you book. Super Cheap Car Rentals, near San Francisco International, has competitive prices and, unlike many agencies, rents to drivers between 21 and 24 for no extra charge.
Car-rental costs in the area vary seasonally, but in San Francisco generally begin at $50 a day and $275 a week for an economy car with unlimited mileage. Rates can be slightly higher in Oakland and substantially higher in Sacramento, often offsetting any airfare savings. This doesn't include tax on car rentals (8% in Sacramento, 8.5% in San Francisco, and 9% in Oakland) and other surcharges and fees.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. Rental agencies in California aren't required to include liability insurance in the price of the rental. If you cause an accident, you may be liable. When in doubt about your own policy's coverage, take the liability coverage that the agency offers. If you plan to take the car out of California, ask in advance about the company's policies.
American Automobile Association (415/565–2141. www.aaa.com.)
National Automobile Club (800/622–2136. www.thenac.com.)
City Rent-a-Car (1433 Bush St., near Van Ness Ave., Van Ness/Polk, San Francisco, CA, 94109. 415/359–1331 or 866/359–1331. www.cityrentacar.com.)
Super Cheap Car Rental (10 Rollins Rd., at Millbrae Ave., Millbrae, CA, 94030. 650/777–9993. www.supercheapcar.com.)
Alamo (800/462–5266. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/331–1212. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/527–0700. www.budget.com.)
Exotic Car Collection by Enterprise (650/238–5338. exoticcars.enterprise.com/sanfrancisco.)
Hertz (800/654–3131. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (800/227–7368. www.nationalcar.com.)
Gas is readily available on all but the most remote back roads. Be prepared for sticker shock, however, since gas prices in California are among the highest in the country. Expect to pay from 10% to 20% more than you would back home.
Finding a place to leave your wheels is rarely a problem in the Wine Country, as wineries and hotels have ample free parking. A few towns—notably St. Helena, Sonoma, and Healdsburg—can get a bit congested during the day, but you can always find a spot a block or two off the main drag. In some communities, street parking is limited to two hours during the day. There are often reasonably priced municipal lots downtown; signs will generally point you in the right direction.
Whether they are four-lane highways or winding country lanes, the roads in the Wine Country are generally well maintained. Traffic jams do occur, though the biggest tie-ups you'll experience will likely be in and around San Francisco. Trying to negotiate morning and afternoon rush hours will add considerable time to your trip. Sunday evenings you'll encounter lots of traffic as you head back to San Francisco, but it's nothing compared with the crush of cars trying to leave San Francisco on a Friday afternoon. Traffic can be equally bad heading north from Oakland to Napa along Interstate 80, especially during the afternoon rush hour. For up-to-the-minute traffic info, visit www.traffic.511.org or tune your radio to 740 AM and 106.9 FM, which broadcast traffic news every 10 minutes.
Once you've reached the Wine Country, the roads become less crowded and more scenic. Expect heavier traffic during rush hours, generally between 7 and 9 am and 4 and 6 pm. Things can also get congested on Friday and Sunday afternoons, when weekenders add to the mix. Highway 29, which runs the length of Napa Valley, can be slow going in summer, especially on weekends, and it can slow to a crawl around the town of St. Helena.
Dial 911 to report accidents on the road and to reach police, the highway patrol, or the fire department. The American Automobile Association and the National Automobile Club provide roadside assistance to members.
Rules of the Road
To encourage carpooling during rush hour, some freeways have special lanes for so-called high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs)—cars carrying more than one or two passengers. Look for the white diamond in the middle of the lane. Signs next to or above the lane indicate the hours that carpooling is in effect. If you get stopped for not having enough passengers, expect a fine of nearly $500.
Don't overindulge when you go wine tasting, and don't drive if you've enjoyed more than a couple of sips. Local cops keep an eye out for drivers who've had one too many, especially on summer weekends. If you can, bring a designated driver. State law bans drivers from using handheld mobile telephones while operating a vehicle, and the use of seat belts in both front and back seats is required. Children must ride in a properly secured child passenger safety restraint in the backseat until they are eight years old or 4 feet 9 inches tall. The speed limit on city streets is 25 mph unless otherwise posted. A right turn after stopping at a red light is legal unless posted otherwise.
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