Think Californian wine is all about Napa? Head North and veer off the typical wine route and you'll find Calistoga, a small winery and spa town that packs a definite punch...
I'm no wine critic, in fact, I know shockingly little about the wondrous liquid that is omnipresent in my kitchen cupboards, accompanies almost every restaurant visit and is responsible for more than one of my banging headaches post-night on the town. With this in mind - and with an assignment to report on Californian food and drink - my attention was obviously pulled to the epicentre of the Californian wine industry, Napa Valley, specifically the small town of Calistoga, alluringly located at the northern edge of the valley.
Fast-forward to my first afternoon in Calistoga and already I feel like I've found my future home. Having arrived around lunchtime, flying into the conveniently located Santa Rosa airport, from which I was collected and promptly deposited at my accommodation with a mere hour of landing (and that's fitting in lunch too). There's a bountiful array of accommodation to choose from in the town - from compact B&Bs to ultra-posh, slickly designed boutique hotels that wouldn't look out of place in any of the worlds fashion capital cities. My first stop is Chateau de Vie, a four-room, B&B just outside Calistoga and a prime example of one of the town's superior quality B&Bs. Within a few hours of checking into the property, I'm settled in the outdoor hot tub, sun beating down on me, glass of wine in hand - made from grapes grown on the two acres of vineyards within the property - and chilled lounge music is being piped from the outdoor speakers. The pool and hot tub (open until Midnight) offer ample oppotrunities for late night stargazing and the picturesque views towards Mount St. Helena.
Another B&B, famous for its three-course gourmet breakfasts - using seasonal ingredients from local organic farms - is the Chanric Inn. Its next-door neighbour, Aurora Park Cottages, offers private cottages to guests and an early morning (freshly baked) continental breakfast - there's a theme here! As well as possibly the most comfortable beds in existence. Mount View Spa is among the poshest operations in town. Boasting a complimentary continental breakfast, wi-fi, outdoor pool and hot tub, this hotel is even a hotspot for the A-list (Adam Sandler and Alan Rickman have stayed here, among others). And the superb on-site spa offers treatments including hot stone, reflexology, deep tissue and sports massage.
Don't be fooled into thinking that it's only about wine here - where there's great wine, great food is sure to follow and Calistoga is no exception. This place is a foodie's dream. In fact, the range of choices begins on Highway 128, before you even turn onto the town‚Äôs main street, where the drool-inducing aromas of Buster's wood-smoked Southern BBQ lure travelers and locals alike who are after some hearty Southern food. Heading down the main drag in town, Lincoln Avenue, the number of restaurants on offer seem at odds with a small country town and the high-quality fare most definitely is.
JoLe, an intimate restaurant adjoining the Mount View Hotel, whose clean aesthetic - think dark woods, beige walls - would sit well in any cosmopolitan city and its innovative and multi-cultral menu reflects this. Most restaurants feature wine lists with a wide selection of local varieties, one of the town's newer restaurants, barVino, focuses on small, boutique wine producers. Customers are encouraged to try several tastes paired with a variety of Italian dishes. Some chefs are even inspired to incorporate wines from the area into their favorite dishes.
Many chefs supplement their ingredients with outstanding produce from the Forni-Brown Gardens in Calistoga. This farm provides the area‚Äôs finest restaurants with organic herbs and hard-to-find prized fruits and vegetables. The farm is open to the public just once a year each spring when customers may buy plants for their own gardens. For those in search of locally grown foods to take home or enjoy on the spot should visit the Calistoga Farmers Market at the Community Center parking lot (1235 Washington Street) on Saturday mornings from May through October. All Seasons Bistro is the fruition of more than 50 years of restaurant and wine-buying experience. The restaurant also has a focus on sustainability and seasonal foods, which means an ever-changing (and eclectic) menu. The more-ish cornmeal encrusted scallops with polenta and the tasty homemade ricotta gnocci (no potato here) in a tarragon and parmesan cream sauce, are personal highlights. Also, the ice cream, which is actually made on premises (the bistro is likely to be the smallest licensed creamery in the US) is not to be missed.
Even what on first inspection appears to be a typical All-American breakfast diner provides some surprises. Situated on Lincoln Street, Cafe Sarafornia is probably the most popular spot for breakfast in the area and - in addition to its generic breakfast fare - the more adventurous combinations, such as the Eggs Benedict with portobello mushrooms, spinach, guacamole and signature white sauce, explain why.
After a hearty breakfast at Sarafornia, I felt galvanised for some serious wine tasting. Although initially daunted by the number of wineries (over 250 in Napa Valley and more than 35 world-class wineries within eight miles of downtown Calistoga alone), I decided to hop on a bike and hit the Silverado Trail, which is undoubtedly one of the most scenic ways to take in at least some of the array of wineries on offer. Although driving from winery to winery is common, if you don't have a designated driver - or haven't opted for a chauffeur - remember, 'tasting' all day adds up, especially if you're not a follower of the 'swish and spit' school of thought (I'm certainly not), which means that hiring a bike is a great option. The roads have bike lanes and the Silverado Trail takes you around enough wineries to easily fill a day or two. And, if you want to act the pro before hitting the wineries, a wine education class at the W.H. Smith Wine Sensory Experience is the perfect way to brush up your palette. With more than 30 years of winemaking experience, you're in good hands.
Graeser Winery is well worth the uphill ride and - the gorgeous wooden-panelled Victorian property aside - having the opportunity to observe the winemaking process from vineyard soil to the final bottling process, is amazing. You can even blend your very own bottle of red wine.
In any other place, counteracting holiday overindulgence is done via a few Alka Seltzers and a greasy fry-up, however, residents of Calistoga have a tried and tested method of soothing the after-effects of a heavy night of food and wine - spas. Pre-wineries, Calistoga's tourism industry was founded on the area's abundance of natural hot springs, which are reputed to be beneficial for a variety of ailments, from arthritis to skin conditions. Combined with the volcanic ash-infused mud, which is supposedly particularly effective in pulling toxins from the body. Indeed, the areas first inhabitants, the Wappo Indians, living in the northern valley 8,000 years ago, bathed in the warm sulfur waters and may have used mud for its restorative values as well. Resorts began promoting mineral and mud baths in Calistoga more than a century and a half ago and now, more than two dozen spas and hot springs-centered resorts dot the landscape.
Boasting more hot springs per capita then any other town in North America, Calistoga is the go-to destination for some old-school, authentic 'taking of the waters'. At Dr Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort (one of the original and most famous of resorts in the area), I arrive to experience 'The Works' - a top-to-toe signature treatment, that involves a mudbath (my first), immersion in a bubbling bath of hot springs water, steam and then full-body massage. Stripping naked - and shirking off my British modesty, along with my clothes - I was led to a steaming bath, full of thick peat mud, into which I slowly sank, with the aid of a spa assistant, until my body was covered and a cold compress was placed on my face. Reverting to childhood, I gleefully squish the thick, sulphur-odorous mud between my fingers and toes and all-too quickly my time in the mud was over. After showering and 15-minutes in a bubbling bath of hot spring water, a brief steam session ensued before a blissful hour-long massage. Emerging from the spa I was energised and refreshed and in the mood for some sightseeing.
A great way to see Calistoga (and its mammoth array of wineries) is by hot air baloon. Calistoga Balloons is the only company (based in Calistoga) providing regular balloon rides in northern Napa Valley, allowing you to take in the likes of Mount St. Helena (the tallest mountain in the valley) and the Old Faithful Geyser, in addition to the seemingly endless fields of vines.
It's my last day, the Californian sunshine is warming my arms and I say farewell to Calistoga in the appropriate way, by silently toasting this wondrous piece of Napa Valley with a glass of strong Cabernet Sauvignon.
WHERE TO STAY
Chateau de Vie
Dr. Wilkinson‚Äôs Hot Springs Resort
Aurora Park Cottages
Mount View Hotel & Spa
WHERE TO EAT
All Seasons Bistro
WHAT TO DO
The Works Spa Treatment, Dr. Wilkinson‚Äôs
Baths at Roman Spa
Spa at MountView Hotel
Wine Education class, W. H. Smith Wine Sensory Experience
Hot Air Balloon Ride & Breakfast
Bennett Lane Winery
For a complete list of Napa Valley wineries see www.napavalleyguide.com
Virgin Atlantic offer a daily flight from London Heathrow to San Francisco (see www.virgin-atlantic.com for booking information) and connecting flights from San Francisco to Sonoma County Airport run daily.
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