Napa’s Calistoga Specializes in Stress Reduction and Small-Town Charm
Story and photos by Patricia Corrigan
Patricia worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for 23 years and has written 19 books. She is based in San Francisco.
A dozen spas pamper guests with mud baths, massages and mineral pools.
Why drive 121 kilometres from San Francisco to Calistoga to have your face, arms and legs “painted” with clay? Because it’s a grand adventure and well worth the trip, especially if you’re ready for some “me” time.
Situated in northern Napa County, Calistoga has a population of just over 5,000 and draws more than a million visitors each year, many of them in search of stress reduction in a beautiful setting. That was my goal, too.
The clay skin treatment was just one way I pampered myself on a four-day trip to this laid-back town. I also booked a 50-minute massage, repeatedly immersed myself in three different warm pools and went on a brief spending spree at the local farmers market. And I ate a piece of sour cream walnut coffee cake one day — for lunch.
Calistoga boasts a dozen different spas with mineral pools and more than 40 resorts, inns, hotels, motels, guest houses, and RV and campsites ranging from the posh to the practical. For information on rates and package deals, check out the Calistoga Welcome Center’s site.
My home base for this trip was the Calistoga Motor Lodge, around 1 kilometre from downtown. Once a modest roadside motel, the property reopened in July 2017 after extensive renovations as a fancy roadside motel that pays homage to the great American road trip. The lobby, decorated in the style of a 1970s living room, offers refrigerated food and beverages and several shelves of souvenirs you may need. Or at least want.
Rooms are decorated like camper vans, and the “camper king suites” include a banquette that converts to a double bed. Bathrooms feature rainfall showers, hooded bathrobes are in every room and 300-thread-count sheets are on the beds, along with an abundance of pillows. All guest rooms have a large-screen TV and a minifridge. Adirondack chairs sit outside each door.
Yoga classes, wine tastings, hula-hoop competitions, art classes and bocce ball tournaments all take place on the premises. If all that makes you want to lie down, look for an empty hammock or visit the spa, a short walk from the lodge’s mineral pools.
Director Chris Hilburn oversees the MoonAcre Spa, which has seven treatment rooms, a mosaic-lined steam room and a bathing room with four clawfoot tubs. Climb into a tub, and you get a rubber ducky to play with while you giggle at the wall signs. One reads “Caution: No lifeguard on duty”; another lists the “pool” rules, including “Only eight swimmers to a team.”
The indoor waiting room and outdoor relaxation garden both are welcoming. The mud treatments take place in an outdoor space dotted with lounge chairs, and bathing suits are required. Lorena Avina, my aesthetician, met me at the mud bar, where she mixed the skin treatments. Then I settled into a chair.
Avina painted my face with white kaolin clay, which softens the skin and provides mild exfoliation. On my limbs, she brushed on a green French clay said to absorb toxins and revitalize tired skin. The afternoon sun was not particularly warm, so Avina covered me with towels, and I relaxed as the clay dried. Then I rinsed off under an outdoor rainfall shower.
Afterward, I meant to put on my good jeans and nicest T-shirt and go downtown for dinner, but I was far too mellow. I headed to the grocery, where I bought a precooked twice-baked potato that the store heated. Another night, at Buster’s Southern Barbeque, I opted for the tasty four-piece pork rib dinner. At Bosko’s Trattoria, the Italian sausage sandwich and a salad made a perfect meal.
Bella Bakery and Cafe sells that mouth-watering sour cream walnut coffee cake, along with other baked goods and sandwiches. The Calistoga Roastery offers delicious lemon raisin scones, advertised as owner Clive Richardson’s mother’s recipe. When I asked him about that, he laughed and said, “My mother had nothing to do with it — she’s a terrible baker.”
Like Richardson, most shopkeepers are friendly and eager to talk with visitors. At Earth and Sky Chocolates, I learned from owner Laura Koerth that she met her husband, Christian Parks, at the French Pastry School in Chicago before they started their company over a decade ago. Their beautifully decorated chocolates are available at several spas in town or you can buy them at the shop.
Sally and Jeff Manfredi, potters and proprietors of Calistoga Pottery, opened their studio and shop in 1980, and they enjoy talking about their wares. Most recently, they’ve been making artfully decorated bowls, similar to one a customer bought in Japan after World War II and brought in to show the couple.
At Wine Barrel Furniture, just 10 minutes from downtown, artisan Paul Block makes chandeliers and table bases from dried grapevines, furniture and kitchenware from wine barrels and colourful flags from barrel staves. Three years ago, he established a community woodbin to collect dried grapevines for people to use for winter fuel. The California Department of Agriculture has recognized Block’s company as the only grapevine recycling business in the state.
Calistoga’s Old Faithful Geyser, is a potent reminder of the underground volcano that provides the town with its famous hot springs. The site also boasts a visitor centre, a small geology museum, picnic tables, bocce ball courts and a small zoo, but the mesmerizing geyser draws most of the attention.
In summer, the plume shoots up to 24 metres; it is lower the rest of the year. Eruptions occur every 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the month you visit. The U.S. Geological Survey has noted that the eruption cycles slow in advance of an earthquake, so keep an eye on your watch.
Some 4.3 million years ago, when the volcano erupted fully, a grove of redwoods 5 kilometres away was buried in ash and fossilized. You can see them at Calistoga’s Petrified Forest.
One afternoon I drove north on Highway 29 to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, where the author of “Treasure Island” spent his honeymoon. Instead of making the 8-kilometre hike to the summit of Mount St. Helena, I spent time communing with the Douglas firs, live oaks and manzanita trees, a stress-reduction practice the Japanese call “forest bathing.”
That wasn’t entirely successful. Highway 29 is a winding, two-lane commuter road, and the locals all were in a hurry, while I wanted to enjoy the views. I spent a lot of time pulling over so others could pass. As one driver zoomed past me in a huff, I called out, “I’ve never been on this road before!”
And that, after all, is why we travel, to Calistoga or beyond.
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