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Calistoga, Calif.: A Weekend Getaway

Escape to Napa Valley's favorite spa town to be soaked, pampered, and renewed.

view of pond at Sterling Vineyards from above, image
Photo caption
At Sterling Vineyard, the sky tram sails above the ornamental lake and lush surroundings.


I'm standing, naked, in 18 inches of hot gray taffy. Not a pleasant sight. And the taffy doesn't look too appealing either. OK, it's not taffy. I'm taking a mud bath at Indian Springs, Calistoga's oldest spa, established in 1862 by the town's founder and California's first millionaire, Sam Brannan. I feel like a squeamish Woody Allen teetering on the brink of panic.

"You can lie down now," says Miguel, the attendant, who is patience personified. I'm suddenly shamed and sink downward into the long rectangular tub. As Miguel slathers me in gooey volcanic ash, I surrender to the mystery of where my body ends and the taffy begins.

Calistoga is that kind of place. It invites you to surrender. From the main street, with its covered, Western-style sidewalks, to its unique wineries, award-winning restaurants, and the healing waters of its spas, Calistoga is a town of ooze and aahs.

The Wappo Indians were the first to discover the mud. They called the valley Ta La Ha Lu Si ("beautiful land" or "oven place"—depending on which book you read). In 1883, some 20 years after the town's founding, Robert Louis Stevenson described Calistoga in his book The Silverado Squatters as "pleasant," but added that it "seems to repose on a mere film above a boiling subterranean lake." It's no surprise to learn that Calistoga is located in one of the largest geothermal areas in the world. It's a town fermenting, both above and below ground.

Thirteen spas provide the ooze. The traditional Indian Springs offers massages, eucalyptus-drenched steam rooms, and mud baths mixed from ash. The Lincoln Avenue Spa has an intriguing menu of herbal muds, ranging from sea mud (with kelp) to green tea mud and mint mud. Calistoga Spa Hot Springs provides kitchenettes and boasts four outdoor mineral pools that vary from 80 degrees, for children, to 104 degrees, for adults. Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort has both a traditional spa and a less traditional facial salon, as well as salt glow scrubs and seaweed masks for the body.

When you're tired of fermenting in mud, experience some of that more palatable fermentation—wine—by taking a tour of the vineyards just south of town. Before leaving, try brunch at Café Sarafornia, but get there early. If you catch Charlie Westfield, the owner, at a quiet moment, ask him to recount the rebellion of Calistoga residents against the encroachment of Taco Bell and other franchises. Their victory has given shopping and dining a genuine local feel.

For your tippler's trek, drive or rent a bicycle and cycle a half mile south of town to Dunaweal Lane. A sky tram at Sterling Vineyards whisks you up the hillside, over the ornamental lake and the California oaks, to what looks like a Greek monastery. Check out the wine-inspired 17th- and 18th-century prints and the collection of antique winemaking instruments.

Clos Pegase, just across the road, is a different kind of trip. It was designed in the Minoan style, around a 300-year-old California live oak. Eric Thompson, my guide, mixed wine, Shakespeare, and Greek mythology in a vintage performance that ranged from a history of the neoclassical statues placed throughout the 21,000 square feet of volcanic caves to racy insights about Jean Dubuffet's nude painting and Clos Pegase labels. Enough said, you'll have to take the tour. Afterwards, scan the walls for works by Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, and Francis Bacon, among others.

A couple of miles north of Calistoga, along Tubbs Lane, you'll find Old Faithful Geyser. Advertised as one of just three in the world that erupt on schedule, it blasted off every 14 minutes when I was there and shot 360°F water up to 60 feet in the air. About six miles west of town, the Petrified Forest provides another geological snapshot of the town's fiery underpinnings. Some 3.4 million years ago, a catastrophic volcanic eruption flattened and buried a redwood forest. It was uncovered in 1870 by Charles Evans Peterson, a Swedish settler thereafter nicknamed "Petrified Charlie." The 22 points of interest on the interpretative trail take 20 minutes to walk, but the sight of massive stone tree trunks angled deep into the earth invites you to linger and contemplate.

Drop into the Sharpsteen Museum on Washington Street for an engaging series of dioramas depicting local history from Brannan's original Hot Springs Resort to late-19th-century Chinatown.

After your long day of exploring, Calistoga's dining choices will not disappoint. Catahoula Restaurant occupies the ground floor of the newly restored Mount View Hotel. Chef Jan Birnbaum has received critical praise for his Southern-inspired fare, such as pork porterhouse with grits and redeye gravy. The All Seasons Café also has a tantalizing menu, which indeed changes with the seasons. Its autumnal picks included a butternut squash ravioli.

If you're looking for something family style, the Smokehouse Café offers a stick-to-the-ribs menu and homemade corn bread. It's located at the railroad depot, the second oldest in Califor-nia, built in 1868 by the Napa Valley Railroad. The Depot now houses a number of small shops.

Calistoga is chockablock with interesting stores. On Cedar Street, Italian-born artist Carlo Marchiori exhi-bits his wares at the Galleria D'Arte Ca'Toga. Mostly French, on Lincoln, is stuffed with French antiques and modern Provençal pottery. And a few doors up Lincoln, the Candy Cellar lures you in with prizewinning fudges—caffé latte and Calistoga mud.

Ah, yes. How did the naked guy finally fare? The eucalyptus-scented steam was bracing, and who would turn down the chance to lie naked in a blanket wrap with a slice of cucumber over each eye? Though I looked ridiculous, I felt reinvigorated. What more can you ask of a perfect weekend?

Photography by Jim G.


This article was first published in July 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.