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Charmed by Calistoga

A San Franciscan’s transition from city dweller to country girl

Wine barrels stacked outside of the Chateau Montelena in Calistoga. Photo: Charles Wollertz

When I told people that I was moving to Calistoga last September after 30 years of living in the city, once they recovered from the shock, many mentioned how wonderful Napa is. But Calistoga is more than 25 miles away from the city of Napa, at the northernmost edge of the valley, nestled between the Mayacamas and the Palisades mountain ranges. It’s a small town full of dichotomies: at once a sleepy, quaint spot, and a destination with luxury resorts featuring hot springs, a plethora of wineries and tasting rooms, art galleries, and sophisticated dining and shopping. I was longing for a small-town vibe, a sense of community, and to be closer to nature yet not that far from San Francisco. And now I have it all, plus no parking meters, virtually no traffic or crime, and warm summers.

JUST A SMALL-TOWN GIRL

I live in a small house within easy walking distance to Lincoln Avenue, the main street that runs the length of the town, and where I can be found four days a week working at Copperfield’s Books, one of nine stores located from Larkspur to Calistoga, or picking up coffee and a scone at Bella Bakery or grabbing lunch from the town’s one grocery store, Cal Mart (not related to Cal-Mart in Laurel Village). But wander one block over, and you’ll find yourself in quintessential “small town USA,” on tree-lined streets where charming craftsman-style homes and cottages nestle cheek and jowl alongside low-rent apartment complexes and rustic fixer-uppers.

Calistoga’s steaming springs were created by a volcano that erupted more than 4 million years ago; the remains simmer below the earth, creating the hot springs. The Wappo Indian tribe discovered volcanic natural hot springs in a valley near the base of Mount St. Helena. American settlers soon found the spot, and in 1859, Sam Brannan purchased 2,000 acres of land to develop a California health spa reminiscent of a resort in Saratoga, N.Y. According to legend, Brannan misspoke during a promotional speech and referred to the new city as “the Calistoga of Sarafonia,” and the name stuck. Today one of my favorite local oldest breakfast cafes is called Sarafonia, and visitors and locals alike fill up on ham and eggs, pancakes and waffles, and other classics served in oversized portions at reasonable prices. The wildcat scrambler with sausage, spinach, cheese, and eggs with hash browns is my top choice.

TAKE IT EASY

Many of the town’s lodgings, from the super upscale Solage and Indian Springs to smaller lodgings like Dr. Wilkinson’s, Roman’s Hot Springs Resort, and the new Calistoga Motor Lodge, offer guests and visitors access to their mud baths, hot mineral baths, and swimming pools (the hot-spring-fed giant-sized pool at Indian Springs is not to be missed). Daytrip visitors need to indulge in a spa treatment like a massage or facial to use the resort, usually on weekdays only. Even on warm days, the hot baths and pools work wonders on sore muscles. Mud baths are not for everyone; being buried up to your neck in thick warm, earthy-smelling mud inspires either bliss or claustrophobia; I couldn’t wait to get out, and the mud’s remainders can be difficult to get rid of.

Sam’s Social Club, the restaurant at Indian Springs, serves lunch and dinner on the patio during the warm months and inside its warm steakhouse bar and dining room year-round. I love their grilled octopus, lobster roll, and grilled chicken sandwiches.

RED, RED WINE

Very much a part of Napa County’s wine country, Calistoga boosts several beautiful wineries, some well-known, like Sterling Vineyards and Chateau Montelena, and other, smaller wineries that are fun; virtually every winery in the valley has a tasting room where you can sip some of the winery’s latest vintages. Tastings are rarely free; they vary in price, usually between $25 and $90 per person. At Frank Family Vineyard, you can taste their award-winning wine in the tasting room inside the winery’s original yellow craftsman house, and I like to sit on the patio at T-Vine Winery just on the edge of town and watch the sunlight turn the mountains from purple to gold while I sample the small winery’s old vine Zinfandels.

While Calistoga’s selection of shops and restaurants is tiny compared to those of nearby St. Helena and much busier Napa and Sonoma, I’ve still found plenty of options for casual dining, such as the Calistoga Inn, Hydro Grill, and All Season’s Bistro. For world-class meals at high-end prices, check out Lovina, Evangeline, and SolBar. And of course, all pour great local wine.

THAT SLOW PARADE

In December, I enjoyed one of the town’s most popular and oldest traditions: the annual Calistoga Lighted Tractor Parade, which features vintage and modern tractors and trucks decked out in holiday lights parading down the main street with music playing and Santa waving. I look forward to an equally impressive Fourth of July parade, the Napa County Fair, and the Calistoga Speedway, which hosts sprint-car races all summer long.

Yes, during fire season there are active evacuation advisories, scheduled blackouts, and smoke-filled days, and it can be scary. But I love my new wine country life. Come on up and visit!

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