Top things to do in Calistoga
By Penny Sadler
Late summer is a great time to visit Calistoga in California’s famous Napa Valley wine country. The weather is perfect, the vineyards are green, and there are plenty of outdoor events and festivals to keep you busy. Not to mention a Tuscan castle, a French chateau, a Venetian mansion, the largest petrified redwood trees in the world, and luscious food and wine. Last, but far from least, you have to go to Calistoga and experience the thermal waters and mud baths, for which it is famous.
Many visitors to Napa Valley never make it to Calistoga. When asked they’ll say, “No, didn’t make it that far.” Or they go to Calistoga to visit a winery or two, but base themselves in Rutherford, St. Helena, or one of the towns closer to the San Francisco Bay area, where a good number of travelers to the wine country begin their journey.
But you, dear reader, will not make that mistake. I’m going to give you ample reason to stay and play in Calistoga.
Should you choose to stay overnight (I do recommend it), the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs is a lovely hotel with only fifty-eight rooms, newly remodeled, and located just off of Calistoga’s main street, Lincoln Avenue.
One of the nicest features of this hotel is the outdoor mineral water swimming pools — all four of them! They even have a pool for swimming laps. At night, sit by a cozy outdoor fire and enjoy the crisp mountain air and a glass of wine from one of Calistoga’s excellent vineyards.
My room was recently remodeled in light-as-air colors making the already large room appear even more spacious. The bathrooms have also been remodeled and feature a huge shower, plenty of countertop space, and good natural light. There was a small kitchenette with a cooktop, fridge, and all the necessary utensils.
For a more boutique hotel experience stay at the Mount View Hotel and Spa. The Mount View is rated a top hotel boutique spa by Zagat, and is a member of the Green Spa Association. A fun feature of this hotel is the wine suites, each hosted by a local vineyard. Of course, a bottle of wine comes with the room, hand-picked by the corresponding wine maker. Other amenities and services include continental breakfast served in the room, crazy comfortable Plush 7 mattress, Illy coffee maker, iPod dock, and standards like a hairdryer, ironing board, and flatscreen TV.
Start your day at one of several coffee shops on Lincoln Avenue. For a small town I was amazed how many places are open early. Try Bella Bakery, a casual and friendly place offering a selection of coffees and standard breakfast items like quiche, muffins, and assorted pastries. Other options include Calistoga Roastery and San Marco Bakery and Cafe.
If a full breakfast is more your style, also on Lincoln Avenue is Sarafornia. The quirky name comes from a story about Sam Brannan (one of the founding fathers of Calistoga). The story goes that he was a bit of a boozer and while in his cups boasted of the fabulous hot springs resort he would create in Calistoga. “I’ll make this place the Sarafornia of Calistoga,” he claimed, when he meant to say the Saratoga of California. No one knows if that’s a true story — but it’s a good one! You can also belly up to the bar for a cup of coffee and a chat with the regulars.
Lunch or dinner
Buster’s is a no frills BBQ joint. It’s one of the first places you come to when you arrive in Calistoga. I’m not usually much of a BBQ eater, but stopped because of a sign that said “live jazz.” No live jazz that night, but great tri-tip and BBQ sauce. There were several locals there picking up their orders who gave me testimonials on the spot. Turns out Buster’s was also discovered by a National Geographic writer recently – in case you need another reason to go.
The Petrified Forest in Calistoga is the result of an eruption of Mt. St. Helena over 3,000,000 years ago. The volcanic eruption probably lasted for years and was followed by many more eruptions, each one depositing another layer of sediment and ash, transforming the giant Sequoia redwoods little by little.
The petrified forest is a museum of giant redwoods, and many are still being excavated. There’s a trail which you can walk in about thirty minutes if you rush through, but why would you do that? I recommend taking the guided tour with the docent who is extremely knowledgable and can take you to see a lava flow in a part of the park not available for unguided exploration.
I had a bit of a hard time finding 4100 Petrified Forest Road and found it helpful to call 707-942-6667 for directions.
If you want to see something truly unique make time for a tour of Ca’ Toga at 3061 Myrtledale Road. The home and grounds are a museum created by world renowned artist Carlo Marchiori. A Palladian villa, Ca’ Toga combines the Venetian dialect of the owner, Carlo Marchiori with a play on the name of his adopted city of Calistoga.
A visit to Ca’ Toga is an art, history, and architecture lesson. Allow your mind to expand — no limits. Think outside the box. This is what Carlo encourages.
If you can not make it to Ca’ Toga, pay a visit to the nearby gallery on the corner of Cedar and Lincoln. There is a great collection of acrylic paintings, waters colors, ceramics and bronze sculpture. Take home a unique and whimsical piece of art from the mind of genius Carlo Marchiori, a true Renaissance man.
Carlo said he studied art history because it was the easiest and most fun way to learn. Otherwise history is a bit dull, filled with facts, dates and events. Who can remember that? But, history comes alive through art. I agree with Carlo!
Villa Ca’ Toga is open for tours Saturdays only, one tour that begins at 11:00 a.m., from May through October. For reservations and tickets: write firstname.lastname@example.org The gallery at 1206 Cedar Street is open Thursday through Monday.
There are many great wineries to visit in Calistoga, it’s just a matter of deciding what grabs your fancy.
If you fancy a 100% authentic reproduction of a medieval Tuscan castle, go to Castello Amorosa. The Castello offers guided tours of the castle and the vineyards along with tastings. I highly recommend the reserve tasting. If you have kids, Castello Amorosa is one of the few truly child friendly wineries in the area.
A great way to sample some wine and see Calistoga from another perspective is to go to Sterling Vineyards. One of the prettiest wineries in Napa Valley, the ride in the gondola that takes you from the parking lot to the winery above, is reason enough to go.
Sterling offers a self guided tour with wine tasting stations along the way. The tour eventually leads you to a large outdoor terrace (shown in the photo at the top of this post) with spectacular views of Napa Valley. Turn and look back to admire the contrast of the white washed Greek architecture and bell tower against a blue California sky.
Sterling is one of the few wineries offering food and wine pairings. A big plus in my book. Open seven days a week until 5:00 p.m.
Chateau Montelena became internationally known in 1976 when its Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting, scoring higher than six other California Chardonnays and four distinguished white Burgundies, in a blind tasting. The Chateau is over 100 years old and modeled after a French chateau by the original owner. Located on the far north end of Calistoga, Chateau Montelena is open daily.
RELAX AND REJUVENATE
There are almost as many spas in Calistoga as there are wineries, but since I recommended staying at the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, I’m going to recommend the spa there too. The convenience of being able to just amble back to your room after a treatment, or relax by the outdoor geothermal pools makes it a no brainer.
The spa offers mud baths, mineral baths, and a variety of massage treatments. I highly recommend a massage treatment and if he’s there when you go, ask for Jonathan. My background is in the beauty business and I have experienced many different types of massage and body treatments. Without a doubt, this was one of the best massages I’ve experienced.
Jonathan’s technique was firm and relaxing. He was thoughtful with the amount of pressure applied, and time. One thing I appreciated was he always kept one hand in contact with me. One of the marks of a professional massage therapist is that one hand is always in contact with the customer. Many massage therapists disconnect when they need more lotion or oil, and then you’re a bit startled when they touch you again. Not so relaxing.
Before your massage, soak in one of the mineral tubs filled with Calistoga’s healing waters. These waters are rich in mineral sulfates, phosphates, chlorides — one of the top reasons people visit Calistoga. Just do it. After your soak you will be taken by an attendant to a quiet area where you can rest and cool down before your massage treatment.
If you’re a modest type wear a bathing suit for your thermal bath. There could be other guests and there are of course, spa attendants, and really there’s no privacy in the room where the tubs are. If you choose not to wear a bathing suit, you will wrap yourself in a big spa towel and walk from the ladies locker room to the mineral tub, remove your towel and hand it to your attendant. Not for the shy!
Or simply go for the fab massage!
Something to be aware of: The spas do not recommend partaking in any treatment or services if you are under the influence of alcohol — and that includes wine! So if you plan on wine tasting (you must), and having a spa treatment (you should), plan accordingly!
Other spas in Calistoga include Roman Springs Spa, Mount View Spa, Spa Solage, and Indian Springs Spa.
There you have it. More than enough to fill 24 hours or more in the eclectic and charming town of Calistoga.
For more information: Visit Calistoga
Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of Penny Sadler.
Disclosure: Penny’s visit to Calistoga was sponsored by Visit Calistoga.
About the Author:
Penny Sadler is a writer, photographer, blogger, and freelance makeup artist. Her background in film and television has given her an eye for detail in storytelling be it in visual or written form. She loves traveling, prosecco, Italy, and is a wannabe flautist. Penny writes for several online magazines as well as her personal travel site, Adventures of a Carry-on.