In Search of Value: El Bonita Motel, St. Helena, CA
Backstory: Drive up through the heart of Napa Valley’s wine country on Hwy 29 and, just before you enter the perfectly groomed town of St. Helena, you’ll pass on your left what looks like a well-preserved 1950s-era motor court. Every weekend literally hundreds of people cruise by the El Bonita, with its single-story white facade, classic neon sign, and oval swimming pool set amid a tree-covered lawn, and no doubt wonder what it’s like to stay there. After all, it looks nicely kept, and it undoubtedly costs a mere fraction of the oh-so-charming retreat they’ve already booked elsewhere in the valley.
I recently spent six nights at the El Bonita while attending a conference in the area. While it might not be the last word in romantic Napa Valley lodgings (that would be the Auberge du Soleil, up on the hill to the east of town), the El Bonita was a pleasure to come back to in the evening, not to mention one the few — I’d even say the only true — value lodgings anywhere north of the town of Napa itself.
The motel began life in the 1940s as a religious retreat, and was converted to a motel in the 1950s. Since then it’s undergone several upgrades, and today it offers spotless, well-appointed rooms starting at — are you ready? — $94 a night. Breakfast included.
The Rooms: Nothing fancy here, but the 42 rooms are very clean, and come with mini-fridges, microwaves, ironing boards, and (naturally) wine glasses and a corkscrew. Most rooms have a sitting chair in addition to the comfortable beds, and those in the rear building, Homestead, have either patios or balconies. The 2½-acres of grounds are dotted with picnic tables. Suites are also available, which would be ideal for families. Unlike the fancier places in the valley, these are not rooms for lingering in, but rather make an excellent base for those who will be out and about all day.
More Reasons to Stay: The pool is an oasis during the scorching days of late summer and fall, the most popular times to visit wine country. There’s a sauna and outdoor hot tub as well. St. Helena is ideally located in the middle of Napa Valley, cutting down on drive time to Calistoga or over the mountains to Healdsburg and Sonoma County. The El Bonita is also a very short walk from superb restaurants like Tra Vigne, Press, and Go Fish, while the shops of downtown St. Helena are about 20 minutes by foot. It’s also nice to be able to walk around the flower-bedecked residential streets behind the motel, especially at twilight and in the early morning, admiring the well-kept homes and wondering what it would take to move here permanently.
Insider’s Tip: The Poolside wing is closest to the highway, while rooms in the Homestead and Garden wings are farther back from the road. We noticed, though, that the heavy traffic tapered off to barely a trickle after dinner, and the noise wasn’t a problem unless you wanted to sleep in late.
The Deal: Rooms start at $94 per night in low season (November through March 20 or so). It’s worth noting that while winters can be damp and chilly, spring is often gorgeous and far cooler that the dog days of summer and fall, not to mention infinitely less crowded. Rates are also considerably lower Sunday through Thursday, as if more incentive were needed to avoid the weekend hordes.
Caveat: Although a free continental breakfast is included, we thought the quality was sub-par. With the money you save by staying here, you can afford to walk down the road a couple of hundred yards to Dean & Deluca and pick up some spectacular fruit, pastries, and coffee, then enjoy them on your patio.
Details: El Bonita Motel; 195 Main St.; St. Helena, CA 94574; 800/541-3284.