NAPA VALLEY IS known for its vineyards, its views, and its food. So I arrived, like many visitors, with an ambitious itinerary. Once I checked into the five-star Meadowood Napa Valley resort, however, I had no desire to leave.
I’m told this is a common occurrence. Located in the small, picturesque city of St. Helena, California, the Meadowood Estate, with 36 rooms and suites, feels like a private escape but offers everything travelers seek: pools, tennis courts, exquisite food, an award-winning spa, and even the Wine Center, where curated tastings reveal Napa’s distinctive terroir. The guest buildings are painted a sage gray to fit into the landscape. Likewise, the interiors lend the sense of an elevated lodge, each with a fireplace, white vaulted ceilings, and thick, white canvas curtains rising to reveal the verdant wooded hill below.
It all contributes to a kind of rustic grandeur. This is luxury Napa-style, which is to say, richly appointed but understated and in pleasing harmony with nature. On one particularly crisp morning during my stay, I stepped onto my balcony, sipped my coffee, pulled the plush robe around me, and breathed in the crystalline air. I savored the quiet — it’s just a one-hour drive from my urban Bay Area home but it feels like a world away. I then enjoyed a nearby hike before retreating to the spa for an herbal steam and an expert, stress-melting massage.
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“We’re very lucky to be our own valley inside of the valley,” says Meadowood’s general manager Patrick Nayrolles, who seeks to preserve the sense of seclusion the estate offers. In spite of its 250 acres and the 900 members who belong to the Meadowood Club and use its tennis courts, pools, and spa facilities, the place feels intimate, even a bit outside of time, and that’s part of the draw. It’s the kind of place where your body uncoils — the kind of place that makes you forget to check your phone.
Club regulars make quiet progress back and forth in the lap pool. Guests walk the grounds with a cup of coffee in hand. Hiking trails and a stone labyrinth on the property invite contemplation. The sound of nature — a stillness that is somehow lush, with every trill cushioned by the surrounding trees — is punctuated here and there by the satisfying puckering sound of a tennis ball hitting a racket.
At the Terrace Café, guests dine alfresco and make conversation with the servers, whom many clearly know. The menu showcases the incredibly fresh and colorful bounty of the area. I particularly loved a gorgeously green gem lettuce salad with avocado-lime vinaigrette and crispy rock shrimp tacos with tomatillo aioli. At the Wine Center, Sarah Bray, associate director of wine education, shares in-depth lessons on wine in the region and beyond, tailored to guests’ knowledge and interests. (Her class “Wine and War” gave me a fascinating new view of history.)
This is luxury Napa-style, which is to say, richly appointed but understated and in pleasing harmony with nature.
In trying to describe the unique appeal of Meadowood, I realize that the resort is especially good at seemingly contradictory things: achieving a sense of exclusivity while also being welcoming, providing seclusion in the midst of a thriving community, and feeling like a secret treehouse and a five-star hotel. The expanse is sweeping, yet the vibe is simple, intimate, and from what I understand, relatively unchanging.
That may be because business at Meadowood is a family affair. When I meet Amanda Harlan Maltas, director of communications and daughter of Meadowood’s owner Bill Harlan, she comes to the table at the Terrace Café having just witnessed a wedding proposal on the property. “On a Monday morning!” she exclaims giddily. “What a way to start the week!” Harlan Maltas’ enthusiasm for the future of Meadowood is contagious, in large part because her knowledge of the business is personal and deep.
Though not a blood relative, Nayrolles, too, has a personal connection to Meadowood. As the son of a hotel manager, Nayrolles had a peripatetic childhood — in France, the Bahamas, Portugal, Morocco, Sardinia, and Switzerland. Then, in 1986, Nayrolles’ father was tapped by Bill Harlan to become general manager of Meadowood. He agreed to do it for two years until his planned retirement, but he fell in love with the property and stayed for eight.
When Nayrolles himself returned to Meadowood as general manager in 2016 after stints abroad, he recalls, “I knew some of the staff, whom I found again.” For example, the chef, the tennis pro who taught lessons to guests, and even members of the cleaning staff have been there for years, sometimes decades.
Meadowood excels at casual elegance, but the property is a treasured site for special occasions. It’s a place where couples come for anniversary weekends or to reconnect for the first time after having kids, Nayrolles says. That’s one reason he places such an emphasis on service as well as the staff. “Staff is number one,” he says. “I want them to be treated like the guests. They are what makes us who we are.”
The big story told about Meadowood in the past couple of years is that of the Glass Fire, which damaged part of the property in 2020 during one of the worst wildfire seasons in California’s history. The Restaurant at Meadowood — the famed 3-Michelin-star destination run by Chef Christopher Kostow — was all but destroyed in the fire; it will reopen in the coming year.
I worry it’s cliche, but I wonder if the tragedy has also offered unexpected opportunities for growth at Meadowood. As I’m considering whether it’s gauche to ask, Nayrolles stops me. “I know what you’re about to say,” he says. “But it’s true, it’s true.” The fire, he concedes, has provided a chance to reconceive some of the property’s features. Once the initial shock subsided, there was even a sense of excitement: “Let’s build what we want to persist for the next 40 years,” says Nayrolles. Even 40 years is small potatoes to Bill Harlan, who is known for what he calls his “200-year plan”: a commitment to never rushing and to giving guests something authentic, built to endure.
Time and the elements have forced a reimagining of some aspects of Meadowood, including in the literal sense — new designs for the Restaurant and other structures incorporate naturally flame-retardant materials like stone and concrete. But the fundaments are constant: respect for tradition, exceptional service, and a commitment to honor the land. Nayrolles recalls the serene feeling he had driving through the gates in 2016 after so many years away. “For me, it was exactly the same property I’d left 30 years before. That’s how Meadowood is.”
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Yoshihiro Makino Photographer
Yoshihiro Makino, born and raised in Tokyo, is an architecture and interior photographer based in Los Angeles. Makino is drawn to cultural co-influences in design, seen between Japan and other countries. His work takes him around the world, capturing spaces and portraits for a vast array of editorial, private, and commercial clients.