10 Reasons Saratoga Should Be Your Next Day Trip

By Virginia Miller  |  May 30, 2014
Credit: Virginia Miller

It's less than an hour away, but a weekend or day in Saratoga feels so far removed. This idyllic Northern California town - with its laid-back yet chic main street - is nestled at the edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, amid oak and redwood trees, gorgeous estates, expansive vineyards and rolling hills. Like the nearby town of Woodside, Saratoga's wild nature and inspiring setting is home to many a musician, winemaker and tech millionaire. But there are a range of options for recreating. You can head up for dinner and an evening concert in one of the most magical music venues in the country. Or make a weekend of it with horseback riding, Japanese gardens, art and more. Here are our favorite things to do in this Silicon Valley gem.  

  • Credit: Virginia Miller

    Dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant 

    As you sit under the changing colored lights of Plumed Horse's dining room and the champagne cart rolls up, you quickly realize this is one of the great fine-dining restaurants of the Bay Area.
    Chef-owner Peter Armellino serves the best abalone dish we've ever had: Davenport shellfish, grilled and accented by California caviar, smoked oysters and fennel bisque. Another stunner: black pepper and Parmesan souffle doused in lush uni and Dungeness crab fondue. À la carte dishes run $17-54, while nine-course tasting menus are $125, plus $98 with wine pairings.

    The wine selection is equally impressive, with a range of treasures: from a young, balanced 2012 Kistler Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast to amazing French burgundy 1994 Domaine Robert Arnoux 1er Cru Vosne-Romanee. Madeira lovers, take note: the impressive selection here dates back to 1863!

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    Go horseback riding (with wine tasting and a picnic)

    Head to the family-run, scenic Garrod Farms/Cooper-Garrod Vineyards in the hills of Saratoga, where you can hop on a horse and take a leisurely ride through the stunning vineyards and farmland in the valley of the Santa Cruz Mountains. There are also classes on English- or Western-style riding, picnic tables and a charming, historic house where you can taste wines from grapes grown on their 28-acre organic vineyard since 1893. We especially like the berry and allspice notes in the balanced 2010 Cabernet Franc ($29 per bottle). Trail rides are $45 per hour or $90 for private rides.

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    Eat in a cozy wine bar

    Sent Sovi means "sweet taste," but it's also a charming cottage along Saratoga's Big Basin Way where a long-lauded Peninsula restaurant lives. Chef David Kinch of two-Michelin-star Manresa ran the place before chef-owner Josiah Slone bought it in 2003. Sit in the front dining area for a fine-dining experience, or head to the year-old Sent Sovi Wine Lounge in back: a chilled out wine bar pouring a strong selection of local and French wines paired to some of Stone's favorite dishes and shareable plates. Try fennel-green tomato gazpacho shots or ridiculously good scallop croquettes.

    There's also an impressive new series, called "Fauxlonial," that plays off "fusion" cuisines (a steal at four courses for $35). We were just blown away by the stir-fried rack of lamb tossed with spring onions, peas, asparagus and porcini mushrooms. Tender and juicy, it's an Asian-style wok dish with French finesse. We'd consider driving back down from San Francisco just for this dish. Slone also makes one of the most perfect, juicy duck confit dishes in the Bay Area. It's cooked sous vide, then it goes into an immersion circulator and then it's braised with panko bread crumbs. Wow. Hours are Wed.-Sat. from 5-10 PM.

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    Catch live music on a vineyard

    One of the most magical concert venues in the country, Mountain Winery is a historic winery perched atop a hillside with dramatic views over the valley and the Bay. At night, the outdoor concert venue sits amid a shimmering sea of city lights as far as the eye can see, surrounded by hills, mountains and lights strewn through the trees. After a picnic on the grounds or a meal at the Winery restaurant paired with wines from the property's vines, take in a show from musical legends. This summer and fall the lineup includes Merle Haggard; Boyz II Men; Earth, Wind and Fire; Ben Harper; Chicago; The Blind Boys of Alabama; Lyle Lovett; The Go-Go's; Joan Rivers and Sarah Brightman - just to name a few.

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    Relax in nature, Japanese style

    Who knew some of the most inspiring Japanese gardens in the country were tucked away in the Saratoga hills? Hakone Estate and Gardens was created first as a family retreat in 1915 by San Francisco philanthropists Oliver and Isabel Stine. There's a meditation garden, bamboo forests, a tea garden and a moon-viewing house, built without nails in 1917, where the moon reflects the pond from the veranda. The grounds are a Bay Area treasure - not to mention the filming site for scenes from movies like Memoirs of a Geisha.

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    And sleep in Japanese style!

    There are few marks of luxury greater than a Japanese toilet. The pictured mini-suite at Saratoga Oaks Lodge has one, along with a sunken tub and a front patio gazing up at the oaks and redwoods. One of just two hotels in town, the converted motel is conveniently located on the main street, Big Basin Way, within walking distance of all the restaurants in this feature (besides Saratoga Bagels, below). It's also right next door to Cinnabar Tasting Room with its welcoming front patio and live music. Rates are $139-$245 a night.

  • Try some of the Bay Area's best Indonesian food

    Tiny, humble Indo Cafe is tricky to find. You have to walk through the UPS store on Big Basin Way to get there. It's worth seeking out for affordable, heaping platters of comforting Indonesian dishes. We like fresh Indonesian salad piled with jicama, cucumber, carrot, potato and fried peanuts and the chicken curry puffs, essentially panko-fried potato croquettes, a Dutch-Indonesian specialty. (Did you know Holland is known for having the best Indonesian food outside of Indonesia?) Rice combos and platters, like the one pictured here, are also comforting meals, complete with meats and rice cooked in coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass.

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    Take in the arts at an Italian-inspired villa

    At over 100 years old, Montalvo Arts Center looks like a California-style Italian villa, but it's renowned for its Sally and Don Lucas Artists Residency Program for artists, food arts, musicians, poets and other forms of the creative arts. They run programs, panels, parties and tastings, many of them centered around food. Concerts in its dreamy outdoor venue, complete with recently added lawn seating, include the likes of Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal Trio, Lila Downs, comedian Wanda Sykes and Natalie Cole.

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    Grab a great bagel

    It isn't New York, but Saratoga Bagels are above-average bagels from a friendly little strip-mall shop. There are a range of appropriately chewy-crisp bagels, best smeared with the popular tomato-basil spread.

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    Stop. And take in the views.

    Here's a look over Silicon Valley while horseback riding in the hills with Cooper-Garrod Vineyards/Garrod Farms. From this pretty and pastoral vantage, you'd never guess the tech center of the U.S. lives down there.