Calistoga - The 71Miles Travel Guide

8:02AM May 9, 2007 19 Comments »

At a Glance: John’s Favorites


The last-remaining authentic small town in the Napa Valley, Calistoga hasn’t fallen victim to gentrification—well, not yet. Originally founded in 1859 as a hot-springs resort in the shadow of giant, volcanic Mt St Helena, the Old West town is famous for water, not wine: Calistoga’s most visible industry is spas.

But not the fancy-pants kind. Here spas are synonymous with mud-bath emporiums, where you submerge yourself in giant concrete tubs filled with actual hot mud, made with volcanic ash mined right here. The effect is glorious: you emerge feeling totally detoxed and refreshed (never mind the few-remaining flecks of dirt on your scalp).

Firmly rooted in the pre-Disney era, Calistoga also has some fabulously kitsch, roadside-Americana attractions that are the perfect foil to the grandiosity of Napa’s down-valley wineries. Among them, a petrified forest where yard gnomes greet your arrival, and a wimpy hot-water geyser surrounded by an oh-so-cute little petting zoo. You’d *never find such things in chi-chi St Helena—they’re just too pedestrian. Which is exactly why I love Calistoga—it’s accessible. You don’t need any specialized knowledge to grasp the local culture.

But go see it now. Things are changing fast. Three years ago, a disappointing thousand-dollar-a-night resort opened in the hills above town, and another new high-end hotel is slated to open in July (though this one promises to be better). Spa owners are racing to keep up with the newbies, and the funky old-California culture will soon disappear. But for the moment, things look just as they always have.

Plan to see the hills. The valley walls come together in Calistoga, and the Palisades—the volcanic, black-rock cliffs lording over town—are mesmerizing. But even if you don’t hike or bike them, they make a gorgeous backdrop for unwinding poolside with a cocktail in hand. What better way to spend a weekend?

Why Go?

  • Dig the primal sensation of submerging yourself in hot mud.
  • Bicycle between nearby wineries without fear of a DUI.
  • Get a dose of summertime heat, far from the fog.
  • Take the kids to Napa’s only family-friendly destination.
  • Discover the unfussy side of Wine Country.

How Far?

  • 90 minutes from the Golden Gate.


  • Limited restaurant choices; drive 10 minutes to St Helena.
  • Weekend traffic on Hwy 29; approach from Santa Rosa.

See & Do

Spas and mud-bath emporiums are the town’s main draw, but the close proximity of Napa Valley’s wineries means you can get exfoliated and massaged, then have your fill of luscious cabernets, all in the same day.

Love kitsch? Don’t miss Calistoga’s old-school roadside-Americana tourist attractions that predate the advent of special effects. The Old Faithful Geyser erupts several times an hour, but while you wait there’s a super-cute petting zoo with goats, and expansive grounds with picnic tables in a small palm oasis with stellar views of giant Mt St Helena. West of town, the Petrified Forest of ancient redwoods got buried when Mt St Helena erupted three million years ago. Today the trees have turned to rock, and you can see them on a short walk through the woods. Pose for pix with the yard gnomes out front.

Read reviews of Calistoga’s spas and mud-bath emporiums.

Who knew there were gazelles and giraffes in Wine Country? At Safari West, hop aboard an open-sided jeep on a three-hour tour of the ersatz African savanna. Kids go nuts here. You can even spend the night in a canvas-sided platform tent, right in the preserve (see Hotels, below). Fear not: this isn’t a zoo. There’s plenty of room for the antelopes to roam, and the only animals in cages are birds and lemurs. In fact, the wildlife is so well cared for, that they breed. Come during baby season and ooh and ah at the little ones. Reservations required for all visits.

The grandest roadside attraction is the over-the-top Castello di Amorosa, an eye-popping recreation of a medieval castle that doubles as a boutique winery. For full details, read the review on the Napa Valley Wineries page.

The primo outdoor activities are biking and hiking. Rent a bicycle at Calistoga Bike Shop, complete with saddle bags, and bike to nearby wineries. Or head to the fantastically hard, Oat Hill Mine Trail, one of Northern California’s most technically challenging mountain-bike trails.

Take in top-of-the-world vistas from atop 4340ft-high Mt St Helena. The 5-mile hike to the top is a bitch, but on a clear day you’ll be rewarded a knock-your-socks-off 200mi viewshed. No kidding. Start at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, eight miles north of town.

On a hot day, take the kids swimming at the pool at Bothe-Napa State Park, where you can also hike through oak woodlands and redwood forests. Bring a picnic. Or go horseback riding in the park on a guided trip with Triple Creek Horse Outfit.

Calistoga Restaurants

There’s a shortage of good restaurants in Calistoga. For more selection, head south to St Helena; see my recommendations in our Napa Valley guide.

The best (by far) is All Seasons Bistro ($$$–$$$$), which doubles as a high-end wine shop. The seasonal Euro-Cal menu has an unpretentious, earthy sensibility, as in the pheasant two-ways, a combination of confit and roasted breast meat atop a bed of sauteed cabbage, finished with a syrupy pan reduction. Dee-lish. The owner is passionate about wine, and does an excellent job pairing vintages with the food. Some complain about the casual room’s disparate design details, but the cooking is so solid that you need never raise your eyes from your plate. Book a window table.

The same folks operate the Hydro Grill ($–$$), open continuously from breakfast till well past dinnertime, thanks to a hopping bar with 20 draft microbrews and a menu of single-malt scotches. The cooking is unfussy and straightforward, ideal for families. On my last visit, I had one of the best grilled artichokes I’ve ever eaten. Served with a salty-lime aioli, it was spot-on. The cornmeal-crusted chile rellenos are lighter than elsewhere because they’re baked, not fried. Great seasonal salads and half-pound burgers too. A swing-jazz band plays on Sunday and Wednesday evenings.

For down-to-earth, hearty cooking like fried calamari, grilled ribeye and scalloped potatoes, and solidly good pub grub, head directly to the Calistoga Inn and Brewery ($$–$$$). The always-fun outdoor beer garden is shaded by tall trees and overlooks the Napa River; it’s great for lunch on a warm day—and what a party scene! Inside, the white-tablecloth dining room is decorated with Americana furnishings and the owner’s pottery collection. I like this place for its simplicity and utter lack of pretense, and though the cooking won’t win any awards, it’s just fine for a no-surprises meal. Good beer too.

The most romantic spot for dinner on a warm night is the brick garden patio at Wappo Bar & Bistro ($$$). Alas, the overly ambitious menu of east-meets-west cooking falls short in its execution: flavors are muddy and vague. And don’t expect any adhesion to classical preparations of traditional dishes listed on the menu, such as coq au vin and paella; both were disappointing and veered way too far from the simple elegance of their true namesakes. The way to make Wappo work: Order appetizers instead of entrees, and drink a lot of wine. Be prepared for sometimes-bullish service. Make reservations.

Budgeteers: Fill up on standard yellow-melted-cheese, refried-bean Mexican cooking at Puerto Vallarta ($), which also makes good burritos. For pizza and beer, head to Checkers ($$), but don’t order anything fancy, lest you be disappointed.

Restaurant Prices

  • $ = entrées under $10
  • $$ = $10 to $15
  • $$$ = $16 to $22
  • $$$$ = $22 and up

Calistoga Motels & Hotels: Budget & Midrange

There are some lousy motels in Calistoga, with thin walls and amorous couples banging the headboard next door. Choose carefully. I’ve not recommended the chain properties because you’ve seen ‘em a zillion times elsewhere and don’t need me to tell you about them.

Town’s best value, the Calistoga Inn & Brewery ($–$$) has tiny rooms with shared baths and no TVs. They’re bare-bones basic, but well kept and clean, and best of all they’re inexpensive. Request a room not over the bar.

Dr. Wilkinson’s Motel ($$–$$$) has mid-century brick-walled rooms surrounding a central courtyard. Recently renovated, rooms have big, comfy beds and lots of space. For a straightforward motel, this is my first choice (even though they don’t use down pillows).

The motel rooms at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs ($$–$$$) are outdated, but two giant swimming pools, a kiddie pool with a waterfall, and an enormous adults-only Jacuzzi make this the top spot for families who want to spend the day playing in the water.

I like the Brannan Cottage Inn ($$–$$$) for its historic vibe. Built in 1860 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cute-as-a-button whitewashed bungalow has simple rooms with a few period pieces, but they’re not overly frilly. Each has its own private entrance. There’s no pool, but guests have privileges at a nearby motel. Breakfast included.

Hotel Prices

  • $ = standard double under $100
  • $$ = $100 to $200
  • $$$ = $200 to $300
  • $$$$ = $300 & up

Calistoga Cottages and Cabins

Rooms at Indian Springs Resort ($$$–$$$$) are in freestanding bungalows that look like a mid-century Florida retirement community, but inside they’ve got all the basic creature comforts, most notable a great bed with Frette linens. The hot-springs-fed Olympic-size swimming pool is a godsend for parents.

The freestanding cottages at Cottage Grove Inn ($$$–$$$$) sit side by side, with lush flowering landscape outside. Each is decorated differently, but all have a wood-burning fireplace and a wet bar. They tend toward the girly in their design motifs, but each has a wood-burning fireplace, a wet bar, and rocking-chair front porch, making this a romantic retreat for an anniversary.

Safari West ($$$) rents canvas-sided tent cabins on platforms in the middle of a wild-animal park, in view of roaming giraffes. They’re great for families on an adventure, but don’t otherwise have many comforts. The point is to feel like you’re on safari, and it works. One night is sufficient.

Calistoga B&Bs and Hotels: The Top End

The following three B&Bs are gay owned; the straight-to-gay guest ratio is about 70-30.

Surrounded by a horse farm on a wooded hillside just outside town, the lovely Meadowlark Country House ($$$–$$$$) has cushy B&B rooms with ultra-comfy beds dressed with high-thread-count linens and feather-light duvets; most rooms have two-person Jacuzzis, making this an ideal retreat for couples. The splurge-worth garden cottage has a fireplace, vaulted ceilings, living room with high-end furnishings, and a full kitchen. Outside there’s a clothing-optional pool—the only one I know of in Wine Country—surrounded by flowering gardens. Best of all, the innkeepers live in a separate house, leaving you total privacy. Breakfast is at a shared table.

One of my favorite places to stay in the entire Napa Valley, the elegant Chateau de Vie ($$$) sits at the edge of acres of vineyards, with drop-dead views of Mt St Helena. All five spacious rooms have the requisite high-end amenities—fine linens, thirsty towels, thick robes, and top-flight bath products. The attentive, personalized service can’t be beat. Breakfast happens whenever you get up. (In the words of the owner, ‘Why should you have to get up to meet our schedule. You’re on vacation, not us.’ Now that’s service!) Afternoon wine and cheese, and a vineyard-view lap pool and jacuzzi sweeten the deal.

The (much) more modest Chanric Inn ($$$–$$$$) has six uncluttered rooms in a renovated 1875 Victorian house. All have clean lines, with contemporary ebony-colored furniture and putty-colored walls. The look is sleek, but the living room isn’t livable; it’s more of a showroom for the owner’s mid-century furniture than a hangout space for guests. Rooms are small and tight; if you require space, ask when you book. The chef-owner prepares a sumptuous breakfast in the garden, but it lasts way too long; unless you want to spend two hours eating, tell him to cut it short. The house is near the road, but the sound insulation is good. The old-school kidney-shaped pool, up the hill behind the house, has knock-out views.

Hotel d’Amici ($$$–$$$$) has four sunny rooms, with comfy beds and crisp linens, upstairs from a restaurant in the middle of town. Note: it calls itself a hotel, but there’s no on-site staff, so reservations are essential. There’s no elevator either; be prepared to haul your bags up the stairs.

At the Mount View Hotel ($$$–$$$$), town’s only true hotel, the rooms look like they were designed by a cracked-out Laura Ashley—intermittently frilly and stark—and they have the vague odor of a summer house that’s been shut for a month. But throw open the sash and ignore the odd design elements, and you’ll have a reasonably comfortable room smack dab on Lincoln Avenue, walkable to everything in town—a real plus once the sun goes down and the wine corks start popping.

The emperor has no clothes at the Calistoga Ranch(eria), a thousand-dollar-a-night trailer park. Really. To get around zoning laws that had designated the land a mobile-home park, the resort built its rooms on wheels. And they look like storage units—cedar-sided boxes, way too close together and all laid out in rows. The place feels like a gated suburban community. Okay, so the rooms’ furnishings are ultra-comfortable and chic, and suite rooms are connected by gorgeous decks with high-end outdoor furniture. But service is the hallmark of any true luxury hotel, and here it’s lacking: On my arrival a valet offered me coffee, which I initially refused, but when I went back to accept the offer, another valet said, ‘Sorry, we only have water, but if you go to the bar…’ For a thousand bucks a night, I expect to hear, ‘Yes, sir, right away,’ not, ‘Get it yourself.’ The grounds are limited, and you have to walk on a single macadam driveway to get around the property. The so-called vineyard-view swimming pool actually overlooks a few rows of grape vines that were planted as landscaping. Oh, brother. Better to choose Meadowood or Auberge du Soleil, both classics in the Napa Valley luxury genre, and leave the rancheria to SoCal celebs who don’t know any better.