Calistoga: The Resort Town Harkens to the Past with a Contemporary Nod in Hotels, Restaurants, and Recreational Activities
By Kathy Chin Leong
If alive, Samuel Brannan would be 200 years old, and if he cast his eyes on Calistoga, he'd be damn proud. During frontier times, California’s first millionaire possessed tremendous vision when he set out to transform this mud-laden region into a resort town. The owner of some 2,000 acres where Ctoga sits today was confident visitors would be drawn to its hot springs and decadent accommodations.
By Jove, the serial entrepreneur got it right. After he built train tracks from San Francisco to Calistoga, tourists flowed in, and restaurants, lodging, and activities sprang up. Today, this bucolic getaway has embraced the new while honoring its past. Brannan named the area Calistoga combining the words “California” and “Saratoga” referring to the spa town of Saratoga Springs in New York. These days onlookers complain that Napa Valley is too expensive for the average traveler. However, Calistoga features a wide range of places to sleep, eat, and experience to meet the needs of the sojourner on a budget as well as the tourist shooting the moon.
Dotting the northern tip of Napa Valley (also nicknamed Up Valley), Calistoga is blessed with a laid back downtown with Lincoln Avenue as its main artery. Wood clapboard and brick architecture houses mud baths, eateries, wine tasting rooms, and boutiques. Simple and unpretentious, Lincoln Avenue feels like a Wild West movie drop where you can imagine a cowboy galloping up the street at any moment.
On the high spectrum of lodging, unassuming Calistoga provides full service resorts with amenity-filled suites, pampering spas, farm-to-table cuisine, swimming pools and cabanas. Certainly hotels are competing for the customer dollar hoping that services and opulence will win over loyal fans. Solage, Calistoga Ranch, and Indian Springs Resort & Spa are the sweet retreats you book when you aim to indulge in luxury. Brand new is the Francis House, an elegantly restored 1886 mansionl. Rates for all of these dwellings run at least $350 per night and upwards to over $3,000, depending on room selection.
The secret to saving money is to book off season and during the middle of the week. Winter and early spring are great opportunities to snag a deal. The high season, when rates practically double, occurs during the fall wine crush.
Meanwhile, wonderful digs for the wallet-conscious abound. A yurt at Bothe Napa Valley State Park runs $60 to $75 per night. And in the under-$200 category, consider The Bergson bed and breakfast, UpValley Inn & Hot Springs, and trendy Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa – all located downtown. And in the mid-range over $200, check out the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, Embrace Calistoga bed and breakfast, Craftsman Inn bed and breakfast, and more.
In the day, retail hounds can sniff out deals on Lincoln Avenue and locate gifty gems at reasonable prices. A few tried-and-true haunts include Copperfield’s Books, Lee Youngman Galleries for fine art, and Stix and Stones Gallery, to name a few.
When its time to test drive a new winery, note that each of the Calistoga wineries sport a different vibe. Calistoga touts its own viticultural designation known for volcanic soil, and day and evening temperature swings as vast as 50 degrees. Compared to the rest of Napa Valley, Calistoga has the most rainfall so vitners do not worry about water shortages crippling their vines.
Ever popular is Sterling Winery which features the region's only gondola that takes visitors to the top of a mountain to tour and taste. Visit Chateau Montelena which put Napa Valley on the worldwide wine map when it won the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine competition with its ’73 chardonnay. What fans also love about the palatial winery is its precious Pagoda garden and pond open for strolling.
When you want to go off the beaten path, book private tour at the intimate Tom Eddy Winery, which has its own wine cave and scenic views. Not far away, Bennett Lane Winery features an educational demonstration vineyard so visitors can see and taste the differences between grape varietals. There's more to uncover when you access the Calistoga Wine Growers Association at www.calistogwinegrowers.com to learn about its participating members. To play it safe so you are not tipsy while driving, reserve a tour with Beau Wine Tours & Limousine Services and can get handle on wineries benefitting from this unique terroir.
SPA, MUSEUM,Other adult pleasures include spa hopping, so spoil yourself with treatments which capitalize on the region’s natural gifts. Our coolest find: at Spa Solage, its “Mudslide Treatment” will delight even the snootiest, been-there-done-that spa brat. You begin in a private room, cover yourself with a concoction of local, volcanic mud ash, and let the minerals invade your pores. The three-fold, one-hour session next includes a soaking bath and concludes with moments in a stereophonic lounger that transmits vibrations in sync to the music.
For the family, the small but quaint Sharpsteen Museum whisks visitors to the Old West with dioramas and life-sized rooms replicating a country home. Minutes away, Old Faithful Geyser remains a kid-happy refuge where you can bring a picnic lunch, observe the spouting geyser, and witness the strange “fainting” goats in their enclosure.
Opt for a swimming pool day at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs hotel where you have access to four different mineral pools at varying temperatures. You will be so relaxed you won’t want to leave the premises which feature remodeled rooms with kitchenettes. Pick up quality premade salads and entrees at Cal Mart supermarket across the street so you can dine in.
But when you want to dine out, the choices seem endless as the food scene continues to evolve with stellar chefs at the helm. Eateries are anxious to please with creative spins on old favorites and excellent service to text home about.
For breakfast, dive into an array of decadent farm-to-table treats at SolBar restaurant at Solage, or visit Sam’s Social Club for its duck confit hash or memorable candy cap churros with cinnamon and sugar. Historic and casual Calistoga Inn Restaurant continues to satisfy palates with its staple of New American cuisine that touts everything from oven braised lamb shanks to prosciutto-laden, roasted fig pizza.
Top-of-the-line foodies will steal home plate with the best of local cuisine at the Calistoga Harvest Table. This annual dining event features a giant 1,000-foot length of tables decked out in grand fashion with delicacies from a dozen restaurants and over 40 wineries. This year’s extravaganza is slated for Sunday, September 8, and tickets go on sale Monday, July 15 at noon. Be forewarned, last year seats sold out in 102 minutes.
A single weekend isn’t enough to indulge in all the treasures of Calistoga, but you can keep the memory of Sam Brannan alive by visiting often. And you don’t have to arrive by horse and buggy.
When You Go: