Places to Play: Calistoga, California

bikes under a tree next to a vineyard in Calistoga, California

By J.C. Thomas

It’s easy to fit all of California’s wine country into a single vision, certainly a charming one. Picture miles of gentle rolling hills covered with neat rows of grape vines, interrupted only by chic cities offering tasting rooms, luxury resorts, spas, and some of the finest dining anywhere in the world. Spend more than a day or two exploring the region, though, you’ll discover there are many more dimensions to that image of the Napa Valley.

Calistoga, at the northern end of the valley, is quite distinct from its neighbors. Driving toward Calistoga on Route 29, or perhaps the parallel Silverado Trail, you notice that the gentle hills characteristic of Napa become steeper and more rugged. The stands of trees lining the road get denser, the road windier, and the vibe noticeably more rustic.

In the main part of town centered around Lincoln Avenue are tasting rooms, boutiques and independent restaurants, as well as a few (currently closed) geothermic spas specializing in mud baths. The earth is alive here, just miles from the dormant Mount Saint Helena volcano, and Calistoga boasts natural hot springs and its own “Old Faithful” geyser. Of course, its soils yield world-class wine grapes too, and Calistoga claims its own distinct AVA. Dozens of local wineries welcome visitors to sip while savoring the beautiful surroundings.

Take a slight sojourn westward on Petrified Forest Road, and within minutes you’re in totally different terrain. Calistoga makes a great base for a family-friendly vacation as it’s close to some top non-wine attractions in the high elevations that straddle the valley. There’s the Petrified Forest with peaceful trails and geological treasures, and Safari West, home to hundreds of exotic animals.

Calistoga is quintessential California wine country, but also, so much more. Here are just a few highlights of this remarkable destination.

(Note: Various restrictions are in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Call or check online for up-to-date policies.)

Where to Stay in Calistoga: Mount View Hotel and Spa

Calistoga has a rich history as a vacation destination, with its hot springs and natural beauty drawing travelers since the mid-1800s. Mount View Hotel and Spa, built in 1919 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a local landmark and the stately centerpiece of the town. The handsome Mission Revival-style structure sits right in the center of Lincoln Avenue. In the past it was the gathering place for local big wigs, and today the hotel puts guests just steps from tasting rooms, a nostalgic ice cream parlor, top-notch restaurants and quaint boutiques.

Inside and out, the Mount View Hotel embraces early 20th century elegance. Its lobby is an ode to Art Deco opulence with a museum-worthy collection of period fixtures, plush swivel seats around a stone fireplace, vintage cocktail ware in glass cases, and a gleaming wrap-around check-in desk. Behind the desk is the original cash register from the hotel’s opening day, an antique treasure that transports your imagination back to the jazz age. It will stay there while you’re presented with an old-fashioned brass key to your guest room or suite, a rare touch of refinement in the time of ubiquitous plastic keycards.

The Art Deco inspiration continues inside the guest rooms and suites, but with a modern take unafraid of bold colors and power-clashing textures. A room or suite might star a mustard-yellow velvet couch set against a wall of jet-black wallpaper with geometric embossing, and headboards upholstered in a glossy Greek-key print. The old building’s curves and crown moldings lend their own visual interest, while contemporary furnishings and fixtures fit in seamlessly to add modern luxury.

Mount View Hotel and Spa offers a choice of king, queen, petite queen and two-twin-bed guest rooms; luxury suites with a king or one or two queen beds, some with a balcony overlooking the street; and artist cottages with a private patio and Jacuzzi. All have plush mattresses and feather beds, high-definition flat-screen televisions and eco-friendly aromatherapy bath products. Next to an illy espresso machine, find a glass carafe to fill with Calistoga’s natural spring water at the filling station off the lobby. Mount View Hotel is one of only a handful of properties fed by local hot springs. You can soak in the skin-soothing spring water too, in the hot tub adjacent to the fabulous pool behind the hotel.

A cheese and charcuterie plate at Veraison restaurant at the Mount View Hotel in Calistoga, California

Along with its expansive pool area, the hotel has a full-service spa and two restaurants – Veraison and Johnny’s – on site. It recently added Indie Blue Salon for artisanal coffees and wines. Veraison, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, takes inspiration from French, Italian and Spanish cuisines along with wine country ingredients. Its menu offers a traditional list of starters, mains and desserts, but also tempts diners to share a few selections over a few glasses of local wine. Consider the beautiful cheese and charcuterie plates with three, five or seven selections, and pristine oysters on the half shell. Mains might include Cajun-spiced grilled shrimp over pillowy, cheesy grits, black cod with littleneck clams, or venison loin with mashed sweet potatoes, spinach and a sour cherry compote. Be sure to end with the Sisters Cookie Plate, a selection of freshly baked treats sourced from a nearby monastery.

Johnny’s is a casual spot offering elevated American comfort food alongside sports on big-screen TVs. Snack on sliders, crispy olives or fried pickles. On the side you can choose from fries, tots, rings or sprouts, or make it a meal with toppings of cheese, chili, bacon or egg. On the more substantial side of the menu are hoisin glazed pork ribs, a Cubano sandwich, tacos and Johnny’s smashburger. Both restaurants offer patio and indoor dining. During the pandemic, all diners are seated outside and can order from either menu.

Also of interest, Mount View Hotel and Spa’s environmental and philanthropic commitments are considerable. The hotel donates 50% of its profits to charity.

Things to Do in Calistoga

Calistoga Bike and Wine Tour

Getaway Adventures, a top Sonoma and Napa Valley tour company since 1991, has a popular bike-and-wine tour in Calistoga. The tour takes you to a series of local wineries for a tasting (not included) and promises plenty of information about winemaking from an expert guide. The bike ride through the beautiful countryside, totaling approximately 12 miles over mostly flat terrain, is just as appealing as the vineyards and tasting rooms.

Wine tasting tables under a walnut tree next to vineyards at Tedeschi Family Winery in Calistoga, California

The bike and wine tour is family-friendly, with bikes, “add-a-bikes” and pull-along trailers available for all ages. Meet at Logvy Community Park in Calistoga to get fitted with an appropriate bike and helmet, then cycle down quiet back roads at an easy pace. The wineries featured on the tour vary, but might include the wonderful Tedeschi Family Winery. Here, your group will sit under the shade of a gnarly walnut tree, right next to the grapevines, and sip award-winning wines such as a 2019 dry rose and 2014 late-harvest sauvignon blanc. Vintage tractors add rustic charm to the photogenic scene. Lunch is included with the tour, usually a buffet but currently a boxed lunch to enjoy in a scenic spot.

Safari West

On more than 400 acres of woodlands just outside Calistoga is Safari West, an awesome animal attraction inspired by the Serengeti. It’s home to over 900 animals representing 90 exotic species, among them cheetahs, giraffes, a southern white rhino, zebra, wildebeest and numerous antelopes and gazelles. Lively lemurs – white-ruffed, red-ruffed and ringtail – are a major highlight. The birdlife at Safari West is remarkable too, with vibrant scarlet ibis, rainbow lorikeets and several species of hornbills, among many others.

A ring-tailed lemur in a tree at Safari West, one of the best things to do in Calistoga, California

Safari West isn’t a typical stroll-around zoo, though. It offers safari tours in custom open-air vehicles with rooftop seating, as well as guided safari walks, behind-the-scenes experiences and beer- or wine-tasting safaris. You can even stay overnight in a luxury safari tent for an unforgettable adventure.

Petrified Forest

For any nature lover, giant redwoods are enormously impressive. They’re the biggest trees on Earth and can live for hundreds of years. The giant redwood specimens of Calistoga’s Petrified Forest are more than 3 million years old, turned into inanimate stone over thousands of years spent buried under volcanic ash. The rare phenomenon is the result of a massive volcanic eruption during the Pliocene Epoch, which felled the ancient forest but left it preserved deep under ash until 1870, when a homesteader dubbed “Petrified Charley” uncovered a fossilized log.

A jumble of petrified wood logs off the trail in the Petrified Forest, one of the best things to do and see in Calistoga, California

The site is one of the most important in the world for understanding ancient forests, and it’s also a very pleasant place to spend an hour or two outdoors. The main trail, a hilly half-mile, takes you through the living forest and past many petrified specimens. Some are open to inspect and climb on, while others are fenced off with their stories told by signage. The 1-mile roundtrip Meadow Trail offers views of Mount Saint Helena, the volcano responsible for the destruction, and ultimate preservation, of the forest.

Old Faithful Geyser of California

There are only three “faithful” geysers in the world, and one of them is in Calistoga. Old Faithful Geyser of California is a natural geothermal phenomenon, but one only revealed by human intervention. Its mighty blast of steam only starting escaping the Earth’s crust after a late 19th-century well-digging venture took a surprising turn, but it’s been doing so on a regular schedule ever since. The geyser blasts high into the air every 15 to 45 minutes, night and day, and is a major tourist attraction. Entrance to the geyser includes access to a geology exhibit, picnic area and petting zoo.

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