Calistoga, located on the north end of Napa Valley, was once an upscale resort town. Founded by California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan, it was home to a hot springs resort popular with well-heeled San Franciscans escaping the city. Eventually its popularity declined -- as did the properties that made it famous. Later, as Napa Valley grew as a tourist destination, Calistoga remained a slightly out-of-the-way outpost with a frontier feel. With fewer options for dining, accommodations, and wine tasting, it couldn’t compare with its southern counterparts like Yountville and downtown Napa.
However, in the last few years, new restaurants have joined new tasting rooms and renovated hotels to revitalize the homely hot spring town and return it to the list of Napa Valley's more chic destinations. Here are four reasons why you should make your base in Calistoga on your next NorCal trip.New Restaurants
No longer do visitors needed to drive south to St. Helena or Yountville for a meal worthy of a wine-country vacation. Joining the town’s collection of taquerias and pizza parlors are two new restaurants that would be equally at home in San Francisco. Located on the grounds of Indian Springs Resort, Sam’s Social Club pays homage to the town’s founder. The restaurant serves breakfast and brunch (think: house-made granola and Belgian waffles), lunch (thin-crust pizzas and burgers), bar snacks (deviled eggs and fried Brussel sprouts), and dinner (where the chef’s talents really shine, with dishes like grilled octopus or house-made pasta). French Creole Evangeline serves -- you guessed it -- French food with a Cajun kick. It’s fun and unfussy, just as you’d expect from a bistro with New Orleans roots. Food ranges from gulf shrimp cocktail and oysters to soft shell crab po’boy sandwiches, and crispy braised pork shoulder with grits. When you’re wined out from tasting all day, sip on an Abita from Louisiana or a classic Southern concoction like a mint julep or Sazerac.
New Tasting Rooms
There are a half dozen tasting rooms in town, including Maldonado, Romeo, and Huge Bear. One of the newest options is also one of the best. Tank Garage, owned by two of Napa Valley’s legendary winemakers, James Harder and Jim Regusci, has one of the most unique settings in the valley -- inside a renovated 1930s gas station. Antique gas tanks sit in front of a functional garage door (opened on nice days), while a motorcycle and gas-can guitars are on display inside. The wines -- mostly red blends -- are affordable, very drinkable, and have fun names like St. Jimmy, after a local bootlegger. There's also Domaine, a Napa Valley tasting room with a twist. The wines are sourced from around the world so you can branch out from Napa without leaving the valley with a tasting that might take your taste buds from Italy or France to Australia or South Africa.
The Brannan Cottage is one of a few remaining cottages (and the only in its original location) from the town’s 1860 Hot Springs Resort. The six-room inn was fully renovated at the end of 2014, adding updated amenities and a signature mix of Victorian elegance with modern technology -- you'll find a headphone jack right next to an antique-style push-button light switch. Frette linens, gas fireplaces, and flat-screen TVs up the luxury level, even while prices start at a reasonable $299 per night.
After a 2012 fire and a $2 million renovation, the historic Calistoga Inn reopened in late 2013. The 17 European-style rooms have queen beds and shared bathrooms and complimentary breakfast is included. The inn is one of the best values in the valley, with rooms starting at $119 per night.
Indian Springs Resort, home of the aforementioned Sam’s Social Club, underwent its own renovation in the last year as well. The resort has been a popular wellness destination for more than 150 years, thanks to the spring-fed mineral waters found there. The $23 million renovation added 75 guest rooms to the existing 41, plus a restaurant and event spaces. The new rooms have beachy-chic décor, fireplaces, and private patios, with rates starting at $375.
A Historic Setting
While Calistoga has seen a lot of development in the last three years, many of its historically significant attractions remain, and there are plenty of ways to explore the area’s past. Check out the 1846 water-powered grist mill, complete with 36 foot water wheel, at the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. Seven miles north of the city, Robert Louis Stevenson Park was the setting for Silverado Squatters, the author’s autobiographical account of his 1880 honeymoon in the park. For a well-rounded look at the settlement of the upper Napa Valley, from pre-history to Sam Brannan’s days and beyond, spend an hour or two at the Sharpsteen Museum.