GRAPE ESCAPE: The lodges at Calistoga Ranch are rustic yet chic retreats.
photography courtesy of Calistoga Ranch
WHY CALISTOGA: Located on the northern tip of Napa Valley, Calistoga doesn’t seem all that different from its late 1800s origin. San Franciscan Sam Brannan, who owned much of the town in its earliest days, was entranced by Calistoga’s underground thermal springs and wanted to transform the sleepy burg into a cosmopolitan getaway, intending to make it the Saratoga Springs of California. But in true Calistoga fashion, a drunken Brannan publicly announced, “I’m going to make it the Calistoga of Sarafornia!” The name stuck. Brannan’s bourbon-induced hiccup seems to have influenced Calistoga’s whimsical nonchalance. While communities to the south like St. Helena buzz with high-dollar eateries and fashionable boutiques, Calistoga lazily lurches forward with its small-town ambience. Just don’t snub your nose at this easygoing town. While she may not be showy, Calistoga boasts some of Napa Valley’s most refined lodging, delicious restaurants, and storied vineyards. As Brannan discovered, Calistoga’s charms lay underground.

WHERE TO STAY: While Auberge du Soleil might be one of Napa Valley’s most beloved (and priciest) retreats, its newer sister property, Calistoga Ranch (580 Lommel Rd., 707-254-2800, www.calistogaranch.com), is every bit as luxurious. Tucked within a private canyon off the picturesque Silverado Trail, the 46-room resort features contemporary cedar-shingled bungalows with outdoor living spaces, and a world-class spa. Calistoga Ranch also offers private dining overlooking Lake Lommel.

DINE ME: Though Calistoga Ranch’s Lakehouse is only available to resort guests, executive chef Eric Webster’s fare alone is worth a night’s stay, including such savory creations as roasted lamb loin with spinach gnocchi. Dining in historic downtown Calistoga offers more casual, though no less tasty, options. Start off the day with a hearty breakfast at Café Sarafornia (1413 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-0555). Dinner at Brannan’s Grill (1374 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-2233, www.brannansgrill.com) is one of Calistoga’s finest, including some of the best calamari—lightly fried with artichoke, fennel, and haricot verts—that I’ve ever tasted. For lighter fare, indulge in the small plate offerings at Bar Vino (1457 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-9900, www.bar-vino.com).

WINE ME: What you really come to Napa Valley for is the wine, and Calistoga doesn’t disappoint. Founded in 1862, Schramsberg (1400 Schramsberg Rd., 707-942-4558, www.schramsberg.com) is one the oldest vineyards in Napa Valley, and its sparkling wines are celebrated worldwide. (Its ’69 blanc de blanc was served at President Nixon’s state dinner for Premier Chou En-lai of China in 1972—a first for an American sparkling.) Make sure to reserve a tour of Schramsberg’s wine caves. Though Sterling Vineyards’ (1111 Dunaweal Ln., 800-726-6136, www.sterlingvineyards.com) wines are a bit mass market and typify fruit-forward California juice, you won’t want to miss its one-of-kind aerial tram ride to its hilltop winery. And then there’s Chateau Montelena (1429 Tubbs Ln., 707-942-5105, www.chateaumontelena.com), whose ’73 Chardonnay beat several French whites in a head-to-head competition in Paris in 1976, making worldwide news. Montelena still produces highly coveted whites, and touring its lovely grounds is a tranquil way to spend an afternoon.

Here’s Mud in Your…
For the uninitiated, a Calistoga mud bath can be a bit challenging. The warm, gurgling volcanic clay seems counterproductive. After all, we take a bath to cleanse ourselves of dirt and grime. At least, that’s what Mom taught us. But if you can tame the maternal voices in your head, a mud bath can be soothing and therapeutic, ridding your body of nasty toxins and impurities. And Calistoga has some of the finest mud baths in the country, thanks to its natural underground hot springs. Still boasting its original 1952 neon roadside sign, Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort (1507 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-4102, www.drwilkinson.com) is retro chic and one of the best. Jon “Doc” Wilkinson mixes pure volcanic ash, Canadian peat, and mineralized hot spring water for maximum heat penetration and buoyancy. Napa Valley lavender is added for a dash of aromatherapy. After 10 minutes of bubbly enjoyment—including a mud mask and cucumber slices for the eyes—shower and end your session with one last mineral water soak and a massage. After all, mud gets in the darnedest places. You’ll need all the help you can get.

FASTFACTS
Calistoga Ranch
580 Lommel Rd.,
707-254-2800.
www.calistogaranch.com.
Rates : deluxe lodge, $525–$700 per night; one-bedroom lodge, $925–$950 per night; estate lodge, $1,800-$2,500 per night.
How To Get There
American Airlines (www.aa.com) flies daily nonstop to San Francisco International Airport. From there it’s a one-hour scenic drive to Napa Valley (north on Highway 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge, west on Highway 37, and then north on Highway 29). Calistoga is at the northern end of the Valley.