CALISTOGA — Long before Napa Valley became a tourist mecca for wine aficionados, there was Calistoga.
It became a tourist destination not because of vineyards and wineries but what bubbled up from the ground — hot water.
Sam Brannan, the San Francisco entrepreneur widely credited with being the man who spread the word of gold being found in the Sierra foothills and California’s first millionaire, saw dollar signs in the hot springs in Calistoga. He opened a spa and hotel in 1862 that is now known as Indian Springs Resort. It is where the rich and famous in California were soon flocking to for rest and relaxation. Brannan’s subsequent building of the Napa Valley Railroad that today is used by the Napa Valley Wine Train expanded the appeal of Calistoga.
Most people tend to focus on wineries, play, food, and shopping in the central and southern parts of Napa Valley. That’s good for you if your destination is Calistoga.
The reason is simple. Calistoga is the quintessential Napa Valley experience that started the world’s love affair with the Napa-Sonoma wine country in the 1970s. That was before four-lane freeways, Costco, fast-food restaurants, Wal-Mart, and tract homes.
You won’t find any of that in Calistoga, a true Napa Valley small town with a population of 5,330 to match. The city has banned fast food restaurants and such. You will find no four-lane roads. And many of the two-lane roads are narrow and hug the lush scenery.
Driving — or more precisely crawling with a lot of stop and go — through the Napa Valley gauntlet known as Highway 29 in order to reach Calistoga is well worth the pain. As an added bonus you pass through St. Helena before you reach your destination. Go this time of year on weekends and it isn’t as bad as the spring and summer.
Calistoga will more than fill your need for wine and play. It will also delight your taste buds and fill your stomach with some of California’s best cuisine at numerous restaurants. Many offer al fresco dining beneath stately trees with views of the surrounding mountains and the low key bustle of the city’s main street where pedestrians outnumber the cars.
Granted the charms of Calistoga’s heart are in a relatively compact space, but it is such a pleasant package that you will want to walk. At the same time given the highway that passes through Calistoga isn’t heavily traveled, you don’t feel as if you’re a sardine. The town’s central district reflects what nature has surrounded Calistoga with — lush greenery that is soothing and not jeopardized by endless development.
Calistoga has shops to browse along Lincoln Avenue as well as an impressive museum known as Sharpsteen Museum.
But for some the main events are the resort spas. Calistoga, after all, does have more hot springs spas per capita than anywhere else in North America.
The spas combine geothermal mineral waters and volcanic ash for mud bath treatments. The belief is they can help “rid the body of toxins and promote overall health and wellbeing” as stated on the Calistoga visitors information website.
That wouldn’t be disputed by the native Napa Valley residents — the Wappo that researchers say arrived in the region some 10,000 plus years ago after migrating from what is today Russia. The geothermal springs they found around Calistoga with the accompanying volcanic ash mud was used by the Wappo to cleanse body and soul. Once their bodies were caked with mud they cleaned it away in the cooler waters of the mineral springs.
You can expect to spend a pretty penny for rooms and spa treatment — the available rooms for the coming mid-week on the Indian Springs Resort website started at $279 a night. The spa treatment menu may require a bit of splurging but I have yet to hear from any acquaintances that have accessed the treatments say anything but the fact it was worth every cent. One friend spent $600 as a “couple’s respite” for him and his wife including — at today’s prices the mud bath ($110 each) and a 50-minute massage in the couples room ($150 per person). They weren’t flush in dough and had to save for the weekend that cost them almost $1,000. It was a weekend they experienced seven years ago and they still talk about it.
It’s a little too rich for my blood. Besides I prefer the mud treatment I can get hiking in the nearby mountains after it rains. The point, however, is it is an experience that just thinking about it even though it was years ago helps them to relieve stress. That’s powerful. And I get it as I do the same thing recalling how I felt sitting atop a Sierra summit above the tree line and soaking in the view.
Those are just a few reasons why people looking for a day or so of rest and relaxation have been heading to Calistoga for 157 years.
As a day trip even minus the spa, Calistoga is a relaxing experience with great food, great scenery, great wine, and great outdoor activities from hiking and bicycling to hot air balloon rides.