Old Faithful, a Tuscan castle and mud in your bathtub (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA) (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
Calistoga has been described as being on the cutting edge of yesteryear.
So maybe you won't go to the Serengeti this year, or Tuscany or even Yellowstone, given recent economic events. But that doesn't mean you can't have a taste of Africa, or Italy or the predictable explosion of Old Faithful without booking a five-figure vacation flight.
In fact, you can visit a close approximation to all those places less than an hour from Sonoma-in and around the town of Calistoga. Throw in some world-class wineries and a rejuvenating dunk in hot mud, and you'll feel like you've had a real vacation.
Story has it that Calistoga was named by the man often billed as California's first millionaire, the colorful, enigmatic Samuel Brannan. Following the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills, Brannan launched several successful business ventures, including San Francisco's first English language newspaper. Intrigued by the northern Napa Valley's natural hot springs, he bought 2,000 acres to develop a spa similar to New York's famed Saratoga Springs. Supposedly, he meant to say, "I'll make this the Saratoga of California," but what came out of his mouth was, "the Calistoga of Sarafornia." The name Calistoga stuck.
Today the town's relaxed ambience belies a colorful history. Originally home to the indigenous Wappo people, the area boasted several native villages, natural hot springs and oak forests. After the Spanish arrived and expropriated everything in sight, it came under the control of Mission San Francisco de Solano, located in what is now the city of Sonoma. Eventually the mission properties were either disposed of or secularized and the government created large ranchos. Anglo settlers, including Brannan, began arriving in the 1840s. The area's fledgling economy consisted of mining for silver and mercury, agriculture (including grapes) and the reputedly healing properties of the hot springs which lured increasing numbers of spa customers.
Brannan started the Napa Valley Railroad Company in 1868, providing an easy connection for San Francisco ferry passengers visiting the spas. In 1880 the author Robert Louis Stevenson and his bride, both in ill health, came to Calistoga for the fresh mountain air and the healing waters. They couldn't afford the going rate for hotel rooms of $10 a week and chose to spend their two-month honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp on the slopes of Mt. St. Helena. Today the area is part of the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.
While nothing of the mining camp remains, it is identified on the five-mile hike that leads to the 4,300-foot summit where, on a clear day, you can see Mt. Shasta 192 miles to the north. The Silverado Squatters, Stevenson's memoir of his stay, provides a personal account of late 19th-century life in the area. The Robert Louis Stevenson Silverado Museum, located in nearby St. Helena, contains 9,000 pieces of Stevensonia, including letters, manuscripts, early editions and the desk where he composed Treasure Island.
Other remnants of pioneer and mining life are scattered along the Oat Hill Mine Trail and in the Bothe Napa Valley and Bale Grist Mill State Parks. The Oat Hill Mine was the most productive of several local mines, accounting for one-third of America's production of quicksilver (mercury) until the late 1960s. A road, constructed primarily by Chinese laborers, connected Calistoga to the mines. Today, visitors can hike the deeply rutted, 8.3-mile trail to catch sweeping views of the Napa Valley below.
For history buffs there's the Sharpsteen Museum of California History, a project of Academy Award-winning animator Ben Sharpsteen with several exhibits portraying life in the late 19th century, including a 30-foot diorama depicting Calistoga as an elegant 1860 resort.
Today's Calistoga has been described as being "on the cutting edge of yesteryear," and carries the Chamber of Commerce tagline, "Hot Springs, Cool Wines and Warm Welcome." The National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated the town as one of twelve "Distinctive Destinations."
A compact downtown includes most of Calistoga's historic buildings, and it's more than tourism rhetoric to say that a walk from one end of town to the other is a stroll through history. Samuel Brannan's train depot, itself a State Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is thought to be the oldest surviving railroad station in California. Also interesting is a small gray building behind the quaint City Hall, the town's original jail, built in 1910. You can buy a walking map for self-guided tours of town at the Sharpsteen Museum or the Visitors Center.
The main drag is Lincoln Avenue, which also hosts many of the spas that originally put Calistoga on the map. The most famous of the spa treatments is the mud bath, an immersion in mud infused with volcanic ash and heated to just shy of painful. It is said to pull toxins from the body and pain from arthritic joints. If you can get past the initial immersion and surrender to the mud, the experience can be, at the very least, profoundly relaxing.
Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort has been packing people in mud baths for decades and probably has the lead in therapeutic credibility. The good doctor is long gone but he's regarded as a visionary who created the spa industry in California.
At the upper end of the spa spectrum are the luxurious Calistoga Ranch and its sister property Spa Solage, both operated by Auberge Resorts.
Calistoga accommodations range from high-end luxury resorts frequented by the rich and famous to the spas, boutique inns, historic hotels, bed and breakfasts, affordable motels and campgrounds. The Visitors Center has a complete listing.
Dining options range from haute cuisine to take-out and choices include Mexican, Chinese, Italian, American Bistro, California cuisine, Japanese, authentic Southern barbecue, comfort food, gourmet deli, pizza, hearty breakfast fare, healthy spa cuisine and more. Almost every eatery has an impressive wine list, and the highest-rated restaurant in the area, Solbar at Solage, now has a coveted Michelin star. For in-between meals there are ice cream parlors, coffee houses and an old-fashioned candy store. Many of the restaurants act as venues for the Downtown Blues Festival that takes over the town on October 24 and 25.
Art aficionados will want to stop at renowned mural artist Carlo Marchiori's Ca'Toga Gallery, where his paintings, sculptures, watercolors and ceramics are on sale. A little-known secret is that Marchiori has opened his Palladian Villa residence for public viewing. Tours, by reservation only, offer a glimpse into the artist's private world. A large salon and six other rooms are completely decorated in trompe l'oeil frescoes. Pools, statues, fountains and Roman ruins decorate the grounds.
Anchoring the northern end of the Napa Valley, Calistoga is surrounded by vineyards and more than 30 wineries. At the historic "Judgment of Paris" international winetasting competition in 1976, Chateau Montelena's surprise win over more famous European wines put Calistoga on the international wine map.
Two wineries for the "must-visit" list are located a few minutes south of town: Clos Pegase and Castello di Amorosa. Clos Pegase, a marriage of wine and art, is the result of an international architectural design competition won by the visionary Michael Graves over 96 design teams. The postmodern winery merges modern and ancient architecture with a strong emphasis on ancient Mediterranean themes, especially those of Crete. Besides being home to some award-winning wines, the building and grounds house an extensive wine-related art collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities spanning 4,000 years and assembled by owners Jan and Mitsuko Shrem. The award-winning wine was originally produced under the direction of winemaking legend Andre Tchelistcheff.
Less than 10 minutes away is the stunning Castello di Amorosa, 30 years in the planning and building, and one of those works of extraordinary architectural excess that has to be seen to be believed. The 121,000-square-foot winery, whose design mimics a 13th-century Tuscan castle, includes 107 unique rooms, 8,000 tons of hand-squared stones, eight levels (four below ground), 900 feet of caves, a completely hand-painted Great Hall, a drawbridge over a moat, a dungeon and torture chamber, a consecrated chapel and impressive wine barrel rooms with ancient brick Roman cross-vaulted ceilings. The 15,000 cases of hand-crafted wines produced here are available only on site. A visit to the castle alone is worth the drive.
Calistoga is not just another Wine Country town. The tease of the Serengeti and Yellowstone are real. In addition to bicycling, gliding, ballooning, skydiving and flying over the area in a bi-plane, you can indeed visit a wild animal park, a unique petrified forest or a geyser that regularly throws 350-degree water more than 60 feet into the air.
Safari West, often referred to as the "Sonoma Serengeti," is nestled on 400 acres northwest of town. Home to more than 600 exotic mammals and birds from over 85 different species, it is a unique destination for animal lovers who covet that safari experience. Giraffes come right up to you, gazelles and zebras run free. If you sleep over, you'll hear their cries. Visitors can come for a day tour or an extended stay in authentic African luxury safari tents and dine at the Savannah Café, which offers safari ranch-style meals with California wine.
A few short minutes away, the .4-mile Petrified Forest trail weaves through the world's largest petrified trees dating to the Pliocene Epoch, which is to say older than 3 million years. A redwood forest leveled by a volcanic blast was buried in ash and underwent a transformation from wood to stone as silica slowly replaced the trees' organic molecules. Their size, scope and variety are, in fact, unique.
The nearby Old Faithful geyser performs approximately every 40 minutes and for three minutes throws a tower of superheated water, carrying thousands of gallons of water up to 100 feet in the air. Barometric pressure, the moon, the tides and the earth's tectonic stresses determine the height the geyser shoots and the time between eruptions.
If Samuel Brannan were alive today he might feel his vision for an elegant tourist destination had been vindicated. Then again, if he were here he wouldn't be able to afford it. In a bitter divorce the court ruled that his wife was entitled to half his estate in cash and he was forced to sell his holdings. Brannan lost everything, became overly fond of alcohol, was partially paralyzed from a shooting accident and died a pauper, unable to pay for his own funeral.
(From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
WHAT TO KNOW....IF YOU GO
Lodging, restaurants, wineries, events - Calistogavisitors.com
Petrified forest - petrifiedforest.org
Calistoga history - sharpsteen-museum.org
Robert Louis Stevenson memorabilia - silveradomuseum.org
Robert Louis Stevenson State Park - stateparks.com/Robert_Louis_Stevenson.html
Clos Pegase Winery - clospegase.com
Castello di Amorosa - castellodiamorosa.com
Hiking - northbayhikes.com
Bothe Napa and Bale Grist Mill - napanet.net/~bothe/
Wild animal - park/safaris safariwest.com
Old Faithful geyser - oldfaithful.com
Ca'Toga Gallery and villa - catoga.com