A literal blast from the past shaped the Calistoga of today. A volcano erupted a few million years ago, leaving behind volcanic ash, subterranean geothermal bodies of water and soil that grapes love. Located 75 miles from San Francisco at the northernmost point of the Napa Valley, Calistoga has been a site for winemaking since the 1800s, and folks have been coming here to experience the hot springs for thousands of years before that, starting with the native Wappo people. In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson spent his two-month honeymoon here, documenting his experience in a travelogue that noted, “Calistoga itself seems to repose on a mere film above a boiling, subterranean lake.” He also commented, “Wine in California is still in the experimental stage.”
Today, 136 years later, those experiments have been extremely successful. Napa Valley boasts more than 500 wineries, with 60-plus in tiny Calistoga, population 5,261. And still bubbling beneath the surface are the hot springs, tamed into natural mineral-infused pools at area resorts. One of the first was the brainchild of Sam Brannan, a native of Saco, Maine, who found financial success in San Francisco in the 1850s and decided to invest in the hot springs to the north. Inspired by similar springs in Saratoga, New York, he founded both a resort and a town in the 1860s. Nancy Levenberg, executive director of the Napa County Historical Society, traces the name to the grand opening of the resort. Champagne flowed; Brannan partook. When he spoke to the crowd, intending to declare the town “the Saratoga of California,” in his inebriation he instead proclaimed it “the Calistoga of Sarafornia.” The name stuck.
Indian Springs Resort and Spa
The best way to “take the waters” in Calistoga is to stay at one of the nine properties with geothermal pools. The style of service varies but generally consists of three parts—mud, waters, rest—with an attendant to lead you through the process. Destinations include the Indian Springs Resort and Spa, which evolved from the resort Brannan founded; the property sprawls across 17 acres and features an Olympic-sized mineral pool. Then there’s the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, a hotel established in the 1920s that offers several oversized mud tubs, separated for men and women. You get naked and lower yourself into a concoction of Calistoga mineral water, volcanic ash and imported peat, which makes for a more buoyant mud. Rest your head against an inflated pillow, close your eyes and feel the deep warmth penetrate aching muscles. The mud soak is followed by a mineral bath—warm, silky, soothing. Finally, you settle into a curtained-off bed, where you lie back and return to room temperature, feeling cleansed and rejuvenated. A bonus: The spa’s four mineral pools are open late into the night, and swimming under the stars is a delight you can enjoy year round since the water’s so warm.
Once you’ve sufficiently experienced the Calistoga mud and mineral waters, it’s time to indulge in another liquid. Wine tastings start at about $15 for a flight and go up with various amenities. Begin with a stroll through downtown, where tasting rooms include Huge Bear Wines, located in a converted bank, and Vermeil Wines, run by a former NFL coach. Wineries further afield include Chateau Montelena, which helped put Napa Valley on the map when its chardonnay placed first in the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, a coup documented in the 2008 film Bottle Shock. Castello di Amorosa is indeed located in a castle, built in the style of a 13th-century Tuscan structure. And the Greek island of Mykonos inspired the architecture of Sterling Vineyards, situated on a hill 300 feet above town. An air tram takes you up to the winery, offering gorgeous views.
It’s easy to plan your own wine tour, especially with a Winter in the Wineries Passport, a $50 pass that includes tastings at 15 wineries. Time slots do fill up, so consider booking tours in advance. If you’re staying in town, the Vine is a shuttle that will take you to and from 17 Calistoga wineries, eliminating the need for a designated driver.
One cannot live on wine alone, and fortunately Calistoga has excellent dining options. Start with a breakfast at Cafe Sarafornia, with tables inside and out. Solbar at Solage resort has fantastically creative seasonally inspired fare for brunch, lunch and dinner, with an excellent wine list. And Sam’s Social Club at Indian Springs is helmed by chef Shaun McGrath, a native of Western Massachusetts. The facility, open since 2015, is also a brewery that makes use of local organic hops—yet another source of liquid refreshment in a town rightly renowned for them.
- -Head for the skies with a hot-air balloon ride with Calistoga Balloons. See from above everything you’ve explored below, with a sunrise thrown in, and end with a Champagne brunch at Solbar.
-The cozy-yet-thorough Sharpsteen Museum features a restored cottage that belonged to Brannan and detailed dioramas of 19th-century Calistoga.
Cafe Sarafornia 1413 Lincoln Ave. (707-942-0555) cafesarafornia.com; Calistoga Balloons 1458 Lincoln Ave. (707-942-5758) calistogaballoons.com; Calistoga Spa Hot Springs 1006 Washington St. (707-942-6269) calistogaspa.com; Castello di Amorosa 4045 St. Helena Highway (707-967-6272) castellodiamorosa.com; Chateau Montelena 1429 Tubbs Lane (707-942-5105) montelena.com; Huge Bear Wines 1373 Lincoln Ave. (707-341-3414) hugebearwines.com; Indian Springs Resort and Spa 1712 Lincoln Ave. (707-942-4913) indianspringscalistoga.com; Sam’s Social Club 1712 Lincoln Ave. (707-942-4969) samssocialclub.com; Sharpsteen Museum 1311 Washington St. (707-942-5911) sharpsteenmuseum.org; Solbar at Solage 755 Silverado Trail (866-942-7442) solage.aubergeresorts.com; Sterling Vineyards 1111 Dunaweal Lane (800-726-6136) sterlingvineyards.com; Vermeil Wines 1255 Lincoln Ave. (707-341-3054) vermeilwines.com; The Vine (707-963-4229) ridethevine.com/calistoga-shuttle; Winter in the Wineries Passport Calistoga Visitors Center, 1133 Washington St. (707-942-6333) visitcalistoga.com/winter-in-the-wineries