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Calistoga, Calif.: Spa Time

rusted Calistoga Water Truck sculpture, image
Photo credit
Photo: Courtesy of Septilion/Wikipedia
Photo caption
The Calistoga Water Truck sculpture welcomes folks at one end of town.

At 7:15 on a cold morning in Calistoga, Calif., with the sun just up and the redwoods west of town playing peekaboo in the mist, I'm not quite ready for the Table of Knowledge. Two days of spa treatments, cycling, and hiking have had their intended effect, and I am still warm from bed as I sit in a happy stupor at the Calistoga Roastery. Elsewhere in town tourists slumber with dreams of mud baths, winetasting, and five-course menus dancing in their heads.

But inside this airy café, three feet from where I sit clutching a mug of hot, strong joe, a group of locals seated at a long table laugh as one of them skewers a newspaper article on "cult wines." Unable to resist, I ask the speaker—Scottish-born Colin MacPhail, winery manager at the respected Larkmead Vineyards—whether his vintages have made the list of "wines to covet."

"We're growers as well as winemakers," he says. "We're too real for cult. During last year's crush, I had T-shirts printed up for the workers: LESS CULT, MORE CULTIVATION." Others at the table chuckle and nod their approval.

The Table of Knowledge—pronounced ka-NOL-edge, one participant tells me, "because there's no knowledge here"—draws a rotating cast of Calistogans and even receives its own mail, which is tucked into the napkin holder. I see one postcard sent by a regular on vacation in Texas who was clearly unimpressed with grapebased tipples in the Lone Star State: "Can't get past the ‘dill pickle' flavor of most of their wines."

The table, however, also serves as a window onto Calistoga itself, especially after the first of the year, when winetasting throngs have melted away, crackling fires and umbrellas have replaced air-conditioning, and the 5,200 citizens of this Napa Valley town reclaim their sidewalks, bike paths, and hiking trails. "Winter is a calm, quiet, wonderful season here," says Michelle Mutrux, chef-owner of the cozy Wappo Bar & Bistro, which serves plenty of soul-warming foods such as cassoulet and braised lamb shanks during the colder months. "It's a great time for the baths, and come February, when the wild mustard starts to bloom in the vineyards, we're always surprised—spring is here even though the calendar says otherwise."

Calistoga in winter is a fine place to slough off holiday excess with the aid of midweek deals at places like Indian Springs Resort and Spa or Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort. The baths have been a Calistoga staple since at least the 1860s, when flamboyant Gold Rush entrepreneur Sam Brannan bought 2,000 acres in upper Napa Valley and developed them into a swank resort he envisioned as California's answer to Saratoga Springs in New York. Apparently not a man to refuse a drink—or pass up a harebrained scheme to overthrow the king of Hawaii (it failed)—he is said to have inadvertently stuck the town with its name by declaring from deep in his cups, "I'll make this place the Calistoga of Sarafornia!" The town now boasts 17 spa establishments, or roughly one for every 300 residents. No wonder folks here look so relaxed.

My own wellness regime begins on a morning when low clouds obscure Mount St. Helena. From my perch on a white leather sofa by the fireplace at the small, chic Chanric Inn, I accept the host's offer of asparagus-prosciutto eggs Benedict—not because they're perfectly cooked, artfully presented, and incredibly tasty, but as no-nonsense fuel for an impending bike ride. I'll start my diet after breakfast.

At the Calistoga Bikeshop on Lincoln Avenue, the main drag where mom-and-pop businesses occupy four blocks of vintage storefronts, I'm outfitted with an eight-speed bike, a helmet, and directions for an easy three-hour ride. Under clearing skies, I leave town on a one-mile bike path that ends at Dunaweal Lane and the vineyards of Clos Pegase and Sterling wineries. I stop briefly to admire the world-class art collection at Clos Pegase, which includes Henry Moore's bronze Mother Earth and a Richard Serra sculpture of massive steel plates angled into the ground, before continuing along quiet country lanes east of Silverado Trail.

I loop back into town, cross the gurgling Napa River, meander through residential neighborhoods, and cruise past a little white house with gingerbread trim—an original cottage from Sam Brannan's resort—adjoining the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. Along Cedar Street, I encounter a scattering of prim wooden Victorians, and a surprise: the golden, onion-shaped domes of tiny Saint Simeon Russian Orthodox Church, established in the 1950s for vacationers from San Francisco's Russian community. In another neighborhood—home to Latino immigrants, many drawn by work tending Napa's vines and sta˜ng Calistoga's spas—I come across the Wappo Market, a convenience store in a dollhouse-cute bungalow with front-porch piñatas twirling in the wind.

Later I arrive at Indian Springs, a sprawling, old-timey resort and spa where the reception area clock—bearing the notice WELCOME TO SPA TIME—is thoughtfully set 15 minutes slow to accommodate clients (like me) who show up late. For several hours I float in a vast, geyser-fed outdoor pool (102 degrees in winter), poach in a mud bath of hot mineral water and volcanic ash, and get pleasantly kneaded by a masseur who delivers big-time on his business card's promise of paradise on earth. Afterward my bath attendant, César Maldonado, tells me to come back to soak outdoors at night under the stars, or when it's raining. "The rain keeps your head cool," he says, "while you sit in the hot water up to your chin." That night, however, ensconced in a cushy booth at Brannan's restaurant, jazz in the background, I can hardly make it through an exceptionally flavorful entrée of seared day boat scallops with English pea risotto and carrotginger vinaigrette before fleeing toward bed.

The next day I take a ramble in Bothe–Napa Valley State Park, about four miles south of Calistoga. Many trails here remain open all winter, though they may stay wet for a day or two after rain. For two hours I walk damp but passable paths along Ritchey Creek, traversing whole hillsides of ferns and stands of feathery redwoods, hoping to spot a peregrine falcon but happy enough to see a hawk taking flight from a nearby snag.

For a posthike spa treatment I decide to go exotic. At pocketsize Lavender Hill Spa, I slide into a bubbling tub of ferociously hot mineral water mixed with coconut milk, white sea kelp, and essential oils of tangerine and mandarin. I'm melting by the time the attendant guides me to a cooldown table, wraps me in a blanket, covers my eyes with cucumber slices, and begins to rub my feet with aromatic lavender oil. Then comes the final touch—an hour's full-body massage using smooth, hot basalt stones.

A zoned-out grin on my face, I leave the spa and drift down the street to Calistoga Pottery. Co-owner Sally Manfredi shows me some of the simple, elegant stoneware that she and her husband, Jeff, have been making since 1977, including vessels with tranquil gray and sage green glazes made with ash from burned vineyard prunings. We talk about Calistoga and why she and Jeff have stayed here all these years. "Other wine country towns have gotten fancier," she says, "but we love the fact that Calistoga has stayed a real, working town—a place where you still see plenty of beat-up pickups. I wish I could explain it better."

She doesn't have to. Even in my bliss-addled state I understand it's a less cult, more cultivation kind of thing.

This article was first published in March 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.