Set in the hot, dry, blue‑sky wine country of the Napa Valley, the tiny spa town of Calistoga— California’s Provence—has drawn visitors ever since 1823, when the Spanish explorers arrived to find the Wappo Indians bathing in local thermal springs and sitting in mud baths of volcanic ash mixed with water. Today, stressed‑out bliss seekers luxuriate in Calistoga’s healing thermal waters.
Calistoga’s epicenter is Lincoln Avenue, a picturesque four-block main street with boutiques, tasting rooms, restaurants, a serious bookstore and a Pilates studio.
Meeting history in Calistoga
Here you can stroll, dine, shop, immerse yourself in thermal waters or mud. You can even take a Pilates class in a second-floor studio with a leafy view.
The town has kept its Wild West‑style: It looks like a place where you could hitch a horse. In the distance, both ends of the four-block main street offer unspoiled views of vineyards and mountains.
In the l850’s, entrepreneur Sam Brannan, who made his fortune selling shovels during the Gold Rush, decided the town would be the ideal place to build a spa to rival New York’s tony Saratoga Springs. Combining the words California and Saratoga, he chose the name Calistoga.
Brannan failed. The distance from San Francisco by horse and buggy was too great, and the limited railroad service ended. Then, in the l920’s, the thermal waters and low prices began to attract European immigrants who knew something about taking the waters.
A vibrant, walkable downtown awaits
Today, the place (no longer inexpensive) attracts spa-goers, wine-lovers and those who appreciate a small, walkable town in the large Napa Valley. There’s a subtle sensuality that seems to bubble up from the thermal springs. Strolling along Lincoln Avenue, people look relaxed, couples have a second honeymoon aura; women have a post‑facial glow.
Start your morning at the Calistoga Roastery, with, as the sign says, “The coffee that wakes up the wine country.” At this local gathering spot, British-born owner, Clive Richardson, greets his loyal regulars. He introduces me to National Public Radio’s venerable Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition, who visits Calistoga several times a year.
“This place is more interesting than a small town has any right to be,” says Richardson as he smiles.
Fueled by coffee, I check out the Azuza Shoe Store, 1422 Lincoln Avenue, for an exceptional collection of super-stylish shoes that are built for comfort. Great sales, too, in this small-town store with big city stock.
Tasting the wines of Calistoga
As you’d expect in this northern part of the Napa Valley, there are lots of world‑class wineries. They specialize in Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet, as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Most have tasting rooms and some have art collections and enchanting grounds for strolling and picnicking.
Sterling Vineyards is the Valley at its most dramatic—a cable aerial tram transports visitors to mountaintop tastings. It’s worth it to pay the extra amount ($85) for the private reserve tastings in rooms casually lined with Ansel Adams nature photographs. There you can taste limited edition reserve wines along with amuse bouche pairings: Blackberry Quail with Summer Corn, Beef Tenderloin with Mushrooms & Risotto, Mango & Kiwi Panna Cotta.
Two and a half miles from Calistoga is Chateau Montelena Winery, whose 1976 Chardonnay stunned the wine world when it took first prize at a Paris blind tasting. (The oenophile upset inspired the film Bottle Shock, with the late Alan Rickman.)
It is housed in a grand chateau surrounded by islands linked by zigzag bridges spanning a lake with swans and flower gardens. Built in 1882, the name refers to Mount St. Helena, the lodestar of Calistoga.
By contrast, the Vincent Arroyo Winery is endearingly casual. Less than two miles from Lincoln Avenue, this small production winery is known for its Petite Sirah but it produces many other wines, including Sangiovese, rarely found in the valley. It’s also known for its winemaker’s dinners. Call ahead of time for a complimentary tasting.
And, of course, where there’s wine, there’s food. Calistoga lives up to the high standards of California cuisine, with its ultra-fresh vegetables, locally made goat cheese, and Mexican influences.
While in Calistoga: Close-by places to stay, spa and eat
Opened in the 1930s, this resort and spa added 75 new rooms to its spacious grounds in 2115. This is the most resort-ish property on Lincoln Avenue, with olive trees, cacti and flowers. Indian Springs Spa is situated on three thermal geysers, and the spa uses only on‑site, thermally warmed volcanic ash for its mud baths.
You don’t have to stay at a spa to use its facilities; you can sign up for a mud bath, mineral whirlpool bath, body polish, massage or facial but make sure you book hotels and treatments ahead of time. Spa guests who don’t stay overnight may or may not be allowed to use the property’s Olympic-size pool, depending on how crowded the place is.
Calistoga Spa Hot Springs offers four geothermally heated mineral pools. Surrounding them, motel-style, are the guest rooms, which offer cooking facilities. With the recent multi-million-dollar renovation of the rooms and spa facilities, the word “motel” has earned its own upgrade.
Early California design is wittily interpreted at this elegant historic landmark. Although each room is different, the service is uniformly friendly and competent. There’s a pool, outdoor Jacuzzi, award-winning restaurant and spa although no onsite mineral springs. However, the massage therapists are top-notch. Just next door is Johnny’s Sports Bar, a local favorite.
North of Calistoga, on Highway 29, the physically ambitious can climb nearby Mt. St. Helena. It takes four hours to the top and the terrain is rough. If you don’t want to venture that far, you could walk a mile through fir and coastal redwood trees and come upon the site of Robert Louis Stevenson’s shack (no longer standing), where in l880 he wrote The Silverado Squatters.
Lovina was opened in 2018 by some noted San Francisco chefs who took over a picturesque corner restaurant that quickly made a name for itself as one of the best in town. The kitchen elevates standards like grilled cheese sandwiches, and mushroom risotto with asparagus and truffles by sourcing the best ingredients in this paradise of produce. Try the warm duck confit with kale salad, or the Buffalo Gelato, with Buffalo mozzarella, sesame nori, basil, ice wine vinegar and sea salt. Or the surprising plum and cucumber salad, with sumac, yoghurt, serrano chili, lemon.
The unsurpassed garden setting—a terrace above the Napa River—is one reason why people are drawn to this popular restaurant. For lunch, try the heirloom tomato bisque with basil pesto and parmesan croutons. There are robust burgers, and a tasty Vietnamese chicken salad. And for dessert, a delectable Meyer lemon ice box pie with a graham cracker crust and blueberry port sauce.
All over town, meals at midweek and off‑season (November through March) are much less expensive. Unless the rains come, the weather is usually pleasant throughout the year, although nights can be cold.
When to go
Every month has its festival or seasonal marker. Fall is peak season because of the grape harvest. But even February has its reason to celebrate. It’s the Mustard Festival when yellow mustard flowers carpet the hills and an annual fair shows off the mustard makers’ creations.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The ease of exploring this small town, with its low-rise stores and galleries
- The pure, dry air is immediately noticeable
- People are friendly, and are of all ages
- The spas, with their thermal waters, are treatments in themselves
- Calistoga is about an hour and a half from San Francisco. Tthere is no direct way to get there, except by car.
- If you want to take the picturesque back roads, beware of the GPS: it will inevitably steer you to the highway. If you disobey, it will command you to turn around.
- Soon after arriving, drop by the Calistoga Welcome Center on Washington Street. The friendly folks there will offer sound advice and brochures.
- If you want to visit neighboring towns and properties like Auberge de Soleil, you’ll also need to arrange transportation.
- To safely enjoy the wine-tastings offered by the many local wineries, you need a non-drinking driver. Free shuttles are on call to take you to some but not all. See information about The Calistoga Shuttle.
IF YOU GO
Visit Calistoga – Office website of the California Welcome Center
Disclosure: The author’s visit to Calistoga was sponsored, in part, by a few businesses. However, any opinions expressed in this post are her own.
Photo credits: All images by Jacqueline Swartz, unless otherwise noted.
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