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Napa

After many years as a blue-collar burg detached from the Wine Country scene, the Napa Valley's largest town (population about 80,000) has evolved into one of its shining stars. Masaharu Morimoto and other chefs of note operate restaurants here, several swank hotels and inns can be found downtown and beyond, and nightlife options include the West Coast edition of the famed Blue Note jazz club. A walkway that follows the Napa River has made downtown more pedestrian-friendly, and the Oxbow Public Market, a complex of high-end food purveyors, is popular with locals and tourists.

The market is named for the nearby oxbow bend in the Napa River, a bit north of where Napa was founded in 1848. The first wood-frame building was a saloon, and the downtown area still projects an old-river-town vibe. Many Victorian houses have survived, some as bed-and-breakfast inns, and in the original business district a few older buildings have been preserved. Some of these structures, along with a few newer ones, were heavily damaged during a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in 2014.

Napans are rightly proud of how the city pulled together following the quake; visitors will find little lingering evidence of the temblor. Another cause for celebration is the return of Copia, the homage to food and wine spearheaded by the late vintner Robert Mondavi. Copia, now the Napa campus of the Culinary Institute of America, whose West Coast headquarters is in St. Helena, kickstarted Napa's renaissance in the early 2000s but then closed for eight years. It hosts cooking demonstrations and other activities open to the public and has a shop and a restaurant.

If based in Napa, in addition to exploring the wineries amid the surrounding countryside, plan on spending at least a half a day strolling the downtown area.

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