Travel

Plan a year ahead to got to Yellowstone

Q. My husband and I are planning on taking our extended family to Yellowstone next summer. Any suggestions on where to stay and which city to fly into, while keeping expenses reasonable? We hope to stay one week and see as much of the park and the area as possible. Any recommendations for things to do?

Every time we write about this topic we're inundated with e-mails from readers with dissenting opinions, so we'll let Linda Miller of Yellowstone National Park take the heat.

While Miller acknowledges that each of the park's gateway airports (West Yellowstone, Bozeman and Billings, Mont.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Salt Lake City; and Jackson and Cody, Wyo.) has its appeal, she prefers Jackson. But she recommends that you visit the park's extremely comprehensive Web site, www.nps.gov/yell, to compare all the options as you plan your itinerary.

“Jackson is very interesting: sort of small-towny, yet very elegant in its own way,” Miller said. “And the drive through the Grand Tetons on the way to the park is a great thing. Even if they didn't stop, but just drove through it, they'd see the mountains and the views. … It's just incredibly beautiful.” It's about a 50-mile drive from the airport, and you'll enter the park through the south entrance.

Must-sees include Old Faithful, of course, and the rest of the park's geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles; the spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; and Lake Yellowstone, North America's largest high-altitude lake. Miller recommends contacting the park's concessionaire, Xanterra (866-439-7375; www.travelyellowstone.com), whose agents not only book lodging but will help you plan your visit, suggesting activities and making reservations for tours and guides.

As for lodging, you're smart to plan now if you want to stay inside the park. The most popular hotels fill up a year ahead, especially if you're looking at July, August and even September, Miller said. Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel are the most desirable spots – the inn especially, with its distinctive architecture and dining room that overlooks the lake. “It's a special place,” Miller said. She warned against using commercial booking agents to make reservations; if you do it through Xanterra, there's no booking fee.

Q. Can you recommend any touring groups or sources for touring the Napa Valley? We are interested in a small group tour that would include transportation and accommodations.

Lots of options here, but our mistake was starting at the high end. After talking with Jackie Richmond of Napa's Wine Country Concierge, we wouldn't want to see the valley any other way. Richmond, a longtime Napa resident who knows vintners and innkeepers, takes care of everything: lodging at area inns, drivers and guides, reservations at select wineries and dinner reservations at such iconic spots as the French Laundry.

Her clients are picked up in the morning in stretch limos, SUVs or vans, visiting about three wineries before tucking into an afternoon spa treatment.

“I tend to send them where there's more of an experience than where they're just sucking down the wine,” she says. “… I've got some great connections here.” Of course, her expertise will cost you: Her minimum fee is $500, exclusive of drivers' rates ($150 an hour plus tip), winery fees ($35 per person per winery, on average), lodging ($250 a night minimum) and food (sky's the limit).

Details: 707-252-4472; www.winetrip.com.

But back down to earth. Kimberly Sargle, media representative for the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau, said visitor center reps can assist callers in hiring guides at all price points (707-226-7459; www.napavalley.com). For booking hotels: Napa Valley Reservations Unlimited (707-252-1985; www.napavalleyreservations.com). And for wine tours, recommended options include Beau Wine Tours (800-387-2328; www.beauwine tours.com), Pure Luxury (707-253-0296; www.pureluxu ry.com) and California Wine Tours (800-294-6386; www.cal iforniawinetours.com).

Here's another tip from Sargle: Fly into Sacramento, Calif., rather than San Francisco. “The Sacramento airport is much easier to get in and out of.”

Bonus tip: Try to visit midweek. “Sunday through Thursday is fantastic. … It's much less crowded, and you can have a one-on-one experience with the vintners.”

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