Wine lovers appreciate Saratoga's laid-back sipping experience. But I wasn't hunting for a great new Cabernet or Pinot Noir on a recent visit to this peaceful town in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. My daughter and I were lured to Saratoga to watch two of my favorite vintage '80s bands — Echo and the Bunnymen and the Violent Femmes — in concert at Mountain Winery.
The stunning hilltop venue serves up an extensive menu of alfresco concerts from late May through mid-October. The Greek-style amphitheater and complex of stone buildings, where you can enjoy a fancy sit-down or casual pre-show dinner, exude an old-world Mediterranean vibe. Like fine wine, headliners here tend to be perfectly aged. (Think Tom Jones, Pat Benatar and Steve Winwood.) But the annual lineup also includes a few contemporary artists such as Sheryl Crow and Michael Franti.
Before or after a concert, check out the shops, tasting rooms and restaurants that line Big Basin Way, Saratoga's charming main drag. Or hit a nearby hiking trail. The tab for our overnight stay: $235 for a room at the Inn at Saratoga, $180 for two concert tickets, and about $125 for meals.
The 47-room Inn at Saratoga sits above a creek shaded by towering eucalyptus and sycamores. It's also within walking distance of downtown's attractions and a 10-minute drive to Mountain Winery. The rooms are quiet and comfortable, with big French windows and traditional décor mixed with antique accents. Some also have balconies overlooking the creek. Over our included continental breakfast, we traded concert reviews with other guests sporting souvenir T-shirts.
Craving a caffeine fix before the concert, we found Sue's Gallery Cafe, a hip, airy spot where we sipped lattes while perusing owner and artist Sue Kang's lovely handmade ceramics. For dinner, we strolled to the Basin. My tender scallops had a subtle but pleasing peppery kick. Salad and roasted cauliflower satisfied my vegan daughter. Before heading home, we ducked into cozy Big Basin Cafe for a quick lunch of quiche and salad.
The author's daughter makes friends with Hakone Estate and Gardens koi pond residents while feeding them fish food sold in the gift shop. (Dorothy O'Donnell)
After rocking out on one hilltop, we were ready to Zen out on another. Hakone Estate and Gardens, built in 1915, is a Japanese-inspired sanctuary perched atop a steep driveway. We cleared our heads while feeding fish and turtles in the large koi pond, wandering through bamboo groves and exploring the rest of the tranquil 18-acre property.
The lesson learned
Parking at Mountain Winery is $20, cash only, and getting out of the lot after a concert can take a while. Consider Rhythm Shuttle, which will pick you up and drop you off downtown ($15 per person round trip).
If you go
Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga;  741-2822. Wheelchair-accessible seating.
Inn at Saratoga, 20645 4th St., Saratoga;  543-5020. Rates from $235 a night. Wheelchair-accessible rooms.
Sue's Gallery Cafe, 14665 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; (408) 202-8079
Basin, 14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; (408) 867-1906
Big Basin Cafe, 14471 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; (408) 741-1185
Hakone Estate and Gardens, 21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; (408) 741-4994. Limited wheelchair access.
Rhythm Shuttle, (650) 260-3976