Relax and Explore Calistoga in the Napa Valley

The town of Calistoga, California, sits at the base of Mount St. Helena at the northernmost end of the famed Napa Valley. It's population of just over 5,000 is an eclectic mix of farmers and bohemians that has created a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. 

The stunning beauty of Calistoga is dominated by the surrounding mountains that seem to cradle the little village of old stone storefronts and expansive, verdant vineyards. When I visited in the fall, vines carpeted the valley floor with autumnal colors and the mornings were cool and crisp, with the smells of damp leaves and pine permeating the air.

I was fortunate enough to stay at the Solage Resort, which is a collection of Napa-chic studios, each of which is comfortable and private yet only a quick stroll away from their Michelin-starred Solbar restaurant, spa, bocce court, thermal baths and the stunning near-Olympic-size pool. Each room comes with cruiser bikes to ride into town or to the many nearby wineries.

As I walked the short distance to town the first morning there I strolled among enormous, twisted-limbed valley oak trees and tall native grasses. A light steam rose from a small stream that meandered its way along the property, and nearer to town, just behind the Indian Springs Resort, billowing clouds poured up into the sky. When I asked a woman walking her dog about the source of the steam, she said, "This whole place is full of volcanic geology. I don't know all the details, but go to our 'Little Old Faithful,' which is a geyser at the north of the town, and they can tell you more." 

I found out later that she was referring to a geyser near the famed Chateau Montelena winery, whose chardonnay famously won the Paris taste test in 1976.

Once in town I was struck by the quaint main street with its 100-plus-year-old buildings that butt up to hills that are covered with lush blue-green pine trees. The scene made me think I was on some picturesque old Western movie set. Smells of freshly cooked breakfasts poured from the many little cafes and resorts to provide a homey, welcoming feel.

The town's name is purportedly derived from the botched utterance by one of the city's founders who intended to call the town "the Saratoga of California" but instead blended the two names into Calistoga. The town was settled by gold-rush millionaires who flocked to the healing waters of the hot springs and mud baths. Visitors still find many of the healing powers of Calistoga front and center. Signs for mud baths, spas, massages and various health treatments are found in nearly every storefront. I was tempted to explore more, but I had a date with a hot-air balloon.

When I met up with the young, friendly crew and my fellow adventurers we jumped into a van and headed out to the launch site. We drove to the middle of an opening that was surrounded by a sea of colorful vines. It was cold and I wished I'd brought a heavier jacket, but that concern was remedied as soon as we jumped into the balloon's basket and huddled surprisingly close to the loud burner that kept the balloon filled with warm air and allowed it to rise. Within minutes we were hovering hundreds of feet over the valley, gliding over vineyards and low hills. 

"Over there you can see the geysers," our pilot pointed out as a spray of steam and water shot into the air below us. "And those are called the Palisades," he said, gesturing toward a long, fencelike strip of jagged rocks that flanked the western mountains, fading into the south, beyond which the Napa Valley stretched out, covered in a fine mist until it faded from view.

Visiting the Napa Valley means having access to some of the best food and wine on the planet. Historically Calistoga has been often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors to the south. Yountville and St. Helena provide access to elegant shopping and haute cuisine. However, this is changing. One of the leading drivers of this change is the Solage Resort, whose stunning layout and Michelin-rated restaurant is lead by Brando Sharp, the executive chef who has molded the Calistoga aesthetic into something fresh, healthy and exciting. My beet salad was full of flavor and highlighted local ingredients prepared in a mouthwatering manner. 

After lunch I intended to take a short nap before heading over to experience a mud bath at the Calistoga Spa, but a group of fit men and women with one of the spa's many fitness guides, Donavan, asked me to join them for a hike into the mountains. I was happy I had once we took the modestly challenging hike a couple miles up the Oat Hill Mine Trail. The trail traces the original road that had been cut out of rock by the pioneers who populated the area in the late 1800s, many searching for quicksilver and other precious minerals. 

Although the various settlements are no longer much more than just a few cornerstones here and there, the deep ruts cut into the rock-lined road speak of the thousands of travelers who braved what at times is a harrowing trail. Near the top we stopped and turned back. Although I had seen an aerial view from the balloon just a few hours earlier, this new view of Calistoga was awe-inspiring with its rolling hills raising into the blue sky, the checkerboard vineyard blocks carpeting much of the valley floor and a few vineyards hidden within the hills. Browns and vibrant greens created a mosaic of the history, agricultural and nature of this place. 

After the hike I grabbed an apple from the waiting room at the spa before I was led to the "mud room." A bowl of silty mud sat on a nearby table. Unlike many mud-bath experiences in Calistoga — such as the classic Roman spa where one sits in a tub of actual mud — the experience at Solage is different. I was provided with my own private bowl of specially prepared "mud" that I was instructed to spread over my body. I felt like a kid, wiping mud over my warm skin and lying back when I finished to let the moist mud soothe my hike-stressed muscles. Time flew by, and soon I received a knock at the door to let me know my 40-minute session was over. I showered and was led to a warm bath, followed by sitting in a cushy version of a lounge chair that vibrated to soft music. Smells of eucalyptus and mint soothed me as I floated between sleep and bliss.

Then I was ready to go taste some wine. During my early morning wanderings I had noticed multiple wine-tasting bars on the main street and could have spent my entire day just going from one to another, getting a good sense of the wines of the area, but I had an appointment at Sterling. Just south of Calistoga this winery sits atop a hill in the center of the valley. I took a tram to get to the tasting room, and once up I explored its unique architecture and views. It had only been seven hours since I had left one of the most comfortable beds I'd ever slept in, and I had already witnessed three spectacular perspective views of the northern end of the Napa Valley. I felt like I was getting to know this place.

And then there was the wine. There is an art to tasting wine, and I was guided through the process with patience and infectious enthusiasm. 

"The grapes for this wine were grown right over there," my wine guide, Sarah, said as she pointed down to the valley below. She told me how the wine had been made and we explored the wine's flavors and aromas, the cabernet smelling of dark cherry and sweet cigar tobacco. Coming back down on the tram I noticed so many other wineries that I wished I had the time to visit: Twomey, Clos du Bois, Larkmead, Castello di Amorosa — an authentically built 13th-century-style Tuscan castle — and the famed Schramsberg sparkling wine cellar. I'd need to return.

The choices for dinner were nearly as endless as the options for visiting wineries. I was tempted to just eat again at Solbar, knowing that the food and wine service was rated highest in the area, but I ended up eating at a small place called Jole. My dinner was a series of small plates, each with intense flavor. A standout was the fig and burrata salad with chili vinaigrette.

Staying in Calistoga was like being a kid in a candy store. However this candy is for those who desire adventure and unpretentious elegance. I couldn't sum up Calistoga any better than Chris Canning, the town's mayor. When I asked what one word describes his town, without hesitation he said, "Relaxed!" and then as mayors are known to do, added, "We are laid-back, approachable, eclectic, whimsical and fun." 

I couldn't agree more, and I'll be back.


Originally published in Creator Syndicate, 2015