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Wine may be the trendy tipple in the Napa region, but Calistoga owes its name to whiskey. After buying up 2,000 acres in the area in the mid-1800s, Sam Brannan (first millionaire of the Gold Rush and the preeminent Sutter’s Fort merchant) accidentally named the town while under the influence of a bit of grain-mash hooch, garbling “the Saratoga of California” into the “Calistoga of Sarafornia.” Brannan wanted to transform the lush countryside with its natural hot springs into a resort like the famous New York town he tried to reference. While the name stuck, it wasn’t until chiropractor John “Doc” Wilkinson moved in 1946 and invented the modern spa industry that the mud baths really got pumping. Calistoga fell out of favor as neighboring towns like St. Helena developed into chic, high-end hamlets, but recent improvements including earning its own American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation in 2009 (which allows it to label locally-produced bottles as being from “Calistoga”) and gaining a Michelin-starred restaurant have given in-the-know travelers a new reason to look at this quaint old community. Calistoga is the perfect blend of down-to-earth attitude and sophisticated luxury, just right for the traveler who wants to experience the best of Napa Valley without the Beverly Hills-in-the-fields-feel of more developed destinations.
WHAT TO DO
Chateau Montelena (1429 Tubbs Ln., 707-942-5105, montelena.com) a vine-covered stone winery set on a hill, is credited with putting Napa on the map as a world-class wine region for winning the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 with its 1973 chardonnay (check out the movie Bottle Shock for the full story). Stop by its upstairs tasting room, and then take a walk around the lake and Chinese garden, with its shady weeping willows. Head across the hill to Castello di Amorosa winery (4045 N. St. Helena Hwy., 707-967-6272, castellodiamorosa.com) for the architecture as well as the wine. This reproduction of a 13th century Tuscan castle is filled with medieval kitsch that makes it feel like a set for HBO’s sword-and-gore epic Game of Thrones.
Skip the tub of hot mud and head to The Bathhouse at Spa Solage (755 Silverado Trail, 707-226-0820, solagecalistoga.com) instead to try the three-part signature Mudslide treatment. The experience begins when you pick custom essential oils to add to a blend of local volcanic ash, South American clay and a special anti-oxidant serum that make up the Mudslide mix. Step into a dry-sauna treatment room (for singles, couples or groups up to five) and cover yourself in the concoction, then let yourself relax as it bakes dry. After showering (your choice of indoor or outdoor facilities), you’ll slide in an oversized tub of local geothermal mineral-rich water. Finish it off with a rest in a “relaxation chair” that runs musical waves through your body. Then hang out, order a cocktail and take a dip in one of two co-ed pools or indulge in the heated, clothing-optional men’s and women’s pools.
Down scenic Highway 29 towards St. Helena, you’ll spy a small sign for Bale Grist Mill (3369 Saint Helena Hwy. N, (707-942-4575, parks.ca.gov). Take the narrow paved road up to the parking lot of this California State Park and you’ll be rewarded with the site of a beautifully restored mill originally built in 1846, complete with a working 36-foot water wheel. This was once the social hub for area farmers who hung around to chat while their goods were ground. Inside, the rangers will fire it up on weekends and let you mash grains (you can even buy a bag of recently-ground polenta, rye or wheat to show off back home). Then hike the two-mile roundtrip path to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, called “the history trail” for the pioneer cemetery along its way. The scenic and easy walk takes you through groves of redwoods, oaks, manzanitas and madrones and passes seasonal creeks and wildflowers. Take a picnic basket for an afternoon adventure.
Unless you’re a science buff, it might take some education and imagination to get the most out of a visit to the Old Faithful Geyser (1299 Tubbs Ln., 707-942-6463, oldfaithfulgeyser.com). First, you need to know that this is one of only three geysers in the world that has rights to the “old faithful” designation, meaning it goes off regularly (about every 30 minutes in this case). Then you have to imagine an underground river flowing over hot magma, turning it to steam that shoots up through the earth at temperatures that can reach 350 degrees. With that in mind, the rush of water spouting up 60 to100 feet through a small lake will seem almost as impressive as that of its more famous Yellowstone cousin (whose eruptions average about 130 feet) and is definitely worth an hour of your time. And while you’re waiting for Mother Nature to do her trick, you can pet the Tennessee Fainting goats and other free-wandering critters.
WHERE TO EAT
Owned by a husband-wife team Matt and Sonjia Spector (the chef and pastry chef respectively), JoLe (1457 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-5938, jolerestaurant.com) has carved out a reputation for itself in the highly competitive Napa restaurant scene—no easy task for an unpretentious little spot in the Mount View Hotel on Calistoga’s main street. The menu focuses on a farm-to-table ethos in a clean, modern atmosphere with dark wood tables and silver lighting. Using organic and locally sourced ingredients, the kitchen turns out an ever-changing lineup of top-notch small plates (on a recent menu were scallops with octopus, quinoa, harissa and olives; bacon and chorizo stuffed dates with roasted cauliflower; and a mascarpone cheesecake with stewed huckleberries for dessert). With so many delicious and innovative options, the tasting menu (with four, five or six courses) with wine pairings is really the best way to go.
Buster’s Southern BBQ & Bakery
There aren’t many places in the Napa Valley where ten bucks will get you lunch, much less a good one, but Buster’s (1207 Foothill Blvd., 707-942-5605, busterssouthernbbq.com) is the exception. Just past the main turnoff for Calistoga from Highway 128, this wood-sided shack is a favorite with locals and passing bikers (there’s just as many hogs in the parking lot as there are on the grill). You won’t get any frills—just rich, smoky, sizzling meat coming off the outdoor wood grill, plastic silverware and paper plates, and picnic tables to enjoy your messy meal. While the tri-tip sandwich served with garlic bread is a favorite, few proteins have been spared from the savory BBQ sauce—you’ll find ribs, chicken and more. Sides such as macaroni salad and a tangy-sweet cole slaw make it the perfect place to grab something to go before heading out to the Bale Grist Mill for a picnic.
WHERE TO STAY
Solage Calistoga Resort
Opulent minimalism? Eco-chic indulgence? Give it any tag you want, but Solage Calistoga Resort ($350-$700; 755 Silverado Trail, 866-942-7442, solagecalistoga.com), which opened in 2007, is the ideal spot for a quietly lavish escape. Each cottage has a pair of Electra cruiser bikes resting out front, perfect for making your way to the 20,000 square-foot spa (named the No. 1 spa in America by Condé Nast), visiting the geothermal pools or taking the short ride into town. But if pedaling is just too much, grab the Mercedes convertible (free for four hours) and hit the Silverado Trail. And be sure to try the on-site restaurant, SolBar, which was recently awarded a Michelin star. With indoor-outdoor seating and friendly service, it belies its haute-cuisine credentials with a laid-back vibe that makes it just as comfortable to have sliders and beer on the patio as a fine dining experience in the modern interior. Chef Brandon Sharp (a former sous chef at San Francisco’s Gary Danko) uses fresh, local ingredients to create a satisfying menu divided into “light” and “hearty” plates. Or stop by for a terrific breakfast like the Mount Washington eggs—two poached eggs on a split buttermilk biscuit with hollandaise sauce, smoked ham and braised greens. —T.S.