Old Faithful Geyser was showing off: spewing his endless stream of hot mineral water high into the blue sky. He is definitely the oldest “character” I met on a recent trip to Calistoga, Calif.: about several million years old, if you go way back to his humble geothermal beginnings deep underground. In the late 19th century he was released from his primordial prison and has reigned intermittently ever since. A friend and I sat and watched him for a while as we munched on a selection of take-out delicacies from Sushi Mambo. Not a bad way to begin a four-day immersion into the heart, soul and taste buds of this charming town.
Sam Brannan, California’s first millionaire, was no fool. He arrived in the area in the mid-19th century and had a vision: to milk the natural hot springs of this fertile area and create a spa town. Long before that, the native Wappo people knew of the healing powers of the mineral waters, and Brannon soon cashed in on that knowledge.
Calistoga rests at the northern tip of the 35-mile-long Napa Valley. About 5,400 residents populate its 2.5 square miles, which are blessed with the perfect micro-climate and mineral rich earth for grape growing. The result: 50 wineries. Mix those natural ingredients with a host of delightful individuals and what you get is a laid-back, homey 50s-feel town with genuine hospitality.
Solage Calistoga on the Silverado Trail was my “home” for the first night in town. It is a member of the Auberge Resorts Collection and is a vision in white, natural wood and grapevine artistry intermingling in individual cottages. Each has sliding doors opening to a private patio with a singular view of a protected native woodland. Two bicycles stood by my front door. I preferred to take advantage of the Solage’s spa with its three pools filled.
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Wellness continued at the Solage Spa with the triple threat: First came “Mudslide,” where I was slathered head to toe in silky smooth clay mixed with a tincture of lavender and left to “bake” in a large sauna. At just the optimum time, I’m whisked away to another room and “steamed” in a porcelain tub filled with scented mineral water. The third room produced the “Primordial Sound Meditation”: lounging in a zero-gravity chair, wrapped in blankets and headphones, I both felt and heard the music as its vibrations stimulated the chair while the same “sound” from the headphones lulled me toward sleep.
Not to be outdone, Solage’s restaurant Solbar treated me to various taste bud sensations. The lovely Laura guided them toward the sweet pea soup with its crunch of finely chopped cucumber, introduced them to the buffalo mozzarella made fresh every day on a nearby buffalo farm and satisfied them with the poached halibut smothered in handpicked wildflowers.
NIGHT No. 2: BRANNAN COTTAGE INN
The Victorian inn, built by Sam Brannan in 1862, was in sharp contrast to the modern minimalism of Solage, but no less appealing. Its charm and warmth is matched by that of its hospitality director, Eden Umble. The inn has six rooms, each with hand-designed wall paper, heated bathroom floors and grand old bedsteads. Lilacs plucked from Eden’s garden scented the room, while a 300-year-old tree leaned against the porch just beyond my window. A continental breakfast is served in the piano room, while a mid-afternoon tea is taken in the airy living room awash in warm yellow tones. Eden has teamed with Kathleen Bakula, the high priestess of Mobili-Tea — a mobile high tea service. A variety of teas, sandwiches and sweets are presented with vintage china and linens.
The last three nights of my visit were spent at The Bergson, a boutique hotel of 21 suites and rooms, replete with authentic French furnishings hand-picked by its owner: feathered beds, fireplaces, oversized mirrors, balconies and patios, reminiscent of the French countryside.
A short walk away, at the Spa at EuroSpa & Inn (a sister property to The Bergson), Brittany Kennedy transformed my tired face into a mini-work of art: a facial that botox would envy. I and my newly freshened face then strolled over to the Calistoga Inn for lunch: the Prosciutto de Parma, asparagus, arugula, shaved granny smith apples, midnight moon cheese and banyuls vinaigrette went very well, indeed, with warm strawberry and rhubarb crisp topped with whole vanilla bean ice cream.
Lincoln Avenue is a gem: the commercial and social backbone of the town. Not a brand store in sight (a good thing) but chock full of unique stores and great restaurants: the aforementioned Calistoga Inn; Sam’s Social Club with its rustic American cuisine and craft beer brewed in-house; Veraison, farm-to-table, contemporary French with the best Alaskan halibut and butterscotch pudding I have ever tasted. (Note: They were served separately).
Not to be outdone is Evangeline, on nearby Washington Street, a New Orleans-style restaurant where I sat in the patio area, dined on a delicious duck confit and chatted with the dynamic and well-respected mayor of the town, Chris Canning. He told me about the Vine Trail that is currently being built along the entire length of Napa Valley from Calistoga to American Canyon and, when finished, will be one continuous bike trail.
A conversion in the vineyards
Despite all these restaurants, I still hadn’t had a sip of wine, which seemed a bit of a sacrilege in the famous Napa wine country. That was soon to change. I came to Calistoga for the “waters” and ended up in the vineyards. I visited two, each of which transformed me from teetotaler to wine lover, practically overnight.
The conversion began at the Eisele Vineyard, with Sonia Guerlou, the hospitality manager. As we walked in the vineyard and then underground to see the hundreds of oak barrels and finally to the tasting room, her passion for the precious grape was so infectious that soon I was tasting their famous Cabernet Sauvignons with a swagger of ingenue enthusiasm. Francois Pinault, owner of Chateau Latour in Pauillac, France, purchased the well-known Eisele Vineyard, whose first vines were planted in 1881. The 38 acres of perfect mix of cobbles, gravel and sand produce 5,000 cases a year. Robert Parker, the high priest of wine critics (Wine Advocate) gave the 2013 Cabernet a 100 point score — the first time in the history of this property.
The next afternoon, I experienced my first wine and food pairing at an authentic Italian castle: Castello di Amorosa, all 121,000 square feet of it, built over a 14-year period by craftsmen under instruction of its owner, Dario Sattui, on his vast vineyards just outside Calistoga. After a tour of the mind-blowing castle with its turrets and ancient torture chamber artifacts, as well as its endless underground labyrinth of coopered barrels of wine, the impressive sommelier, Mary Davidek, invited a group of 12 to dine at her baronial table. With each glass of wine (and there were several), she paired the most exquisite, complementary food (some of which she made herself). With a 2014 Pinot Noir, a medley of mushrooms; a 2012 La Castellana with Cotswold Cheese and a crusty baguette. Her creamy tomato and butternut squash soup was outstanding with a 2011 Il Passito Sauvignon Blanc.
Sadly, my last day in Calistoga had arrived and it turned out to be an eclectic mix of mind, body and artistic adventures.
After all the body massages, it was time for a mental one. Early in the morning I had a one-on-one life coaching session with Page Monte. Born and bred on a farm in Napa Valley, Page is an inspirational teacher of life balance and prefers to share her down-to-earth wisdom while exploring the hills and valleys surrounding Calistoga. She manages to explore some hidden spots of the mind as well.
By mid-morning I arrived at the Sharpsteen Museum. Among the well-documented memorabilia: exquisite baskets by Wappo Indians; a 30-foot-long diorama that depicts Calistoga as an 1860s resort town; and the Academy Award received by the museum’s founder, Ben Sharpsteen, which he won for his work as an animator, producer and director for Walt Disney Studios (1929-1959).
That afternoon, I visited the NBC Pottery Studio of husband and wife potters, Nikki and Will Callnan, in the tiny town of Angwin, a stone’s throw outside Calistoga. The charming couple’s one-of-a-kind pottery graces tables of Michelin Star restaurants and apparently that of Martha Stewart, who recently ordered 20 of their rustic, hand-thrown plates.
At the end of the day, just because I probably wouldn’t have a mud bath again for a very long while, I indulged one last time at the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs. Tish and Efrain may have spoiled me for life. This is how it went: Tish helped me into a deep tub filled to the brim with hot, oatmeal-textured gray mud. The sensation was, well, sensational, but I for one couldn’t stay there for long (low blood pressure). So Tish then gently extracted me, showered me and lead me to a soft bed in a quiet cubicle where I promptly fell asleep. She then walked me over to Efrain, who for an hour kneaded, stretched and massaged my body until I wasn’t sure if I had any muscles left at all. After that, I succumbed to the free shuttle that the town of Calistoga provides and returned for the last time, to my cozy nest.
A fine finish to my quartet of days in this remarkable town at the top of Napa Valley, and on my list of favorite places to be.