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Seven ways to enjoy yourself on St. Helena's Main Street

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Main Street in St. Helena is Napa Valley’s Fifth Avenue. In less than two blocks in the heart of town you can eat and drink with Falstaffian gusto, try on cowboy boots, gold jewelry and other snazzy boutique-y things, buy art that you won’t regret later, ogle multimillion dollar real estate listings, see a show at St. Helena’s version of cinema paradiso, and experience history.

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Like Fifth Avenue, Main Street is at times clogged with cars (particularly on summer weekends) but most agreeable for those on foot. Wine country nomads with credit cards will find there are lots of ways to spend money and enjoy themselves on St. Helena’s street of dreams. Here are seven of the best:

GRAB AN ENGLISH MUFFIN

To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, the Model Bakery (1357 Main) is the very model of a model American bakery, dishing up breakfast, lunch and fresh baked goods. It is most famous for its English muffins but one friend we know goes into poetic flights of fancy when describing its chocolate cookies. Years ago when he was working in St. Helena he had an inside connection at the bakery who would call him the instant the cookies came out of the oven. He’d run over and eat them while they were still warm to the touch. (A second Model Bakery is at the Oxbow Market in Napa.)

STROLL AND SHOP, AND STROLL AND SHOP

Some may not think of St. Helena as the place to go for cowboy (or cowgirl) boots. Think again. We saw some sick boots in the window at Amelia Claire (1230 Main). That’s sick as in lovely to look at, which also describes the cornucopia of housewares, lamps, glassware and antiques at Napa Valley Vintage Home (1201 Main). Another shop we enjoyed—one of many—was the Kokopelli Gallery III (1309 Main). One fetching display showed off “fimo animals,” small handmade objects of colored clay in the form of elephants, frogs, lizards, owls and turtles.

BUY A PIECE OF ART

When people travel they often like to buy a piece of art as a way to remember the place they visited. Sometimes this is genius, sometimes an awful blunder. Because sometimes after people go home and the intoxicating spell of the faraway land they were in has faded away, they take a fresh look at what they bought and say, “Was I drunk? What was I thinking?” Our experience at the I. Wolk Gallery (1354 Main) was that you could trust your impulses there and shop with peace of mind. The work we saw was impressive, including a series of gouache on paper portraits of Ernest Hemingway and other writers.

STARE AT A WINDOW AND DREAM

If you like traveling in Napa Valley or even if you live there, you may dream of someday owning a home in wine country, sitting on the garden patio of your hilltop estate sipping a glass of Shafer’s Relentless while watching the sun set on your acres of Cabernet and Pinot vineyards. At Coldwell Banker (1289 Main), you can indulge such fantasies freely because, as with real estate offices everywhere, they have posted their listings on the front window with the aim of tempting you to come inside and talk to a broker about how to realize that dream. Fyi: Robin Williams is again trying to sell his Napa Valley estate at the bargain price of $29.9 million. Grab it before someone else does.

WATCH A TALKIE

There used to be a time when small towns all across America had movie theaters on their main street. Well, in St. Helena, they still do. It’s called the Cameo Cinema (1340 Main), and they’ve been showing films there since the days of Rudolph Valentino and the silents. Now they show first-run Hollywood talkies there (starring the likes of George Clooney and other contemporary Valentino-esque figures) and hold special events and film festivals. At the concession stand you’ll find popcorn with “100 percent real butter,” fruit juices (organic, naturally), gelato ice cream and vegan snacks, to boot.

WALK THROUGH HISTORY

As venerable as Cinema Cameo is, it is hardly the oldest institution on this new-old block of Main. Goodman’s Department Store, established in 1892 (1331 Main), is a lovely and colorful building whose motto is “Life is good!” The weekly St. Helena Star (1200 Main, Ste. C) has been publishing since before St. Helena was even a town. Grab a paper as you’re walking by; it has the latest news and events on what’s going on. Head down a narrow alley between two buildings and walk over to St. Helena Catholic Church (1340 Tainter), a stone church built originally around the same time as Goodman’s, both of which sprang up to serve the needs—secular and spiritual—of what was then a small but ambitious wine-growing region.

EAT, EAT, EAT!

All this shopping and strolling and looking and buying has no doubt stirred up a considerable appetite. Main Street can take care of that. For lunch at Archetype (formerly French Blue, 1429 Main), we had a baby back rib sandwich ($19) and a poached yellow fin lavash wrap ($18) in a lovely enclosed patio. Ana’s Cantina (1205 Main) with its dollar bills stapled to the ceiling looked like a fun and funky bar. Across the street La Condesa (1320 Main) has live music. Market (1347 Main) and Cook St. Helena (1310 Main) also seemed worthy of further investigation, not to mention all the spots—Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen (1327 Railroad) and Goose and Gander (1245 Spring), to name but two—that are not on Main but only steps away. One afternoon (or evening) on Main Street will hardly exhaust all its possibilities, and after we left we resolved to come back soon. When you go, you will too.

Try the visitors' website for the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce and Visit Napa Valley for more ideas on how to enjoy yourself on Main Street, including places to stay.

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