Calistoga is Not Just Another Pretty Town in Gorgeous Napa Valley

Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena are all lovely towns along the Silverado Wine Trail. Still, Calistoga has been the preferred base of operation for scores of Napa Valley visitors who come to enjoy the scenery and visit the many wineries. The simple reason is that in addition to fine wines and food Calistoga offers the best mud and mineral baths, and there is nothing like a good soak to start or end a busy day on the wine trail.

Long before the grape made Napa Valley famous, Calistoga was a 19th century resort town where people came to relax in the mineral-rich geothermal hot springs that were noted for their purifying and rejuvenating properties.

Ah, the wine country 

Fabulous wineries, gourmet restaurants, Kollar chocolates, and tantalizing mineral baths, it all sounds so decadent and elegant, and it is – except for the mud bath.

There is no way to describe the experience of a Calistoga mud bath in terms of style and grace, so we will not try. Instead, we offer the unvarnished saga of a most unusual self-indulging ritual that has pleasured thousands of enthusiasts for over 100 years.

There are many stories in the mud bath chronicles – this is ours

Locals recommended the Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort as being clean and a good value. The old (and original) 1952 neon street sign outside Dr. Wilkinson’s is a rare piece of local nostalgia, and the interior of the bath-house is timeless 60s, but the inside of the building and the mud treatment rooms (albeit no frills) are spotless – except for the mud of course.

We signed up for the mud and mineral bath with half-hour massage 

When we arrived for our appointment, the receptionist that greeted us was very pleasant, and sensing our hesitation, was most gentle and encouraging. She explained that we would be separated for our treatments, but that we would meet back in the waiting room after our therapy. We now knew that this was not to be a romantic experience.

We said adieu, and an attendant of the same sex led each of us through a separate door and into a small and neat locker room where we were asked to disrobe and don a robe. We were then led into a very public room where we were asked to shower, and place ourselves (gracefully and sans clothing) atop a tiled cement tub full of volcanic ash and peat. Let’s call it mud.

At first you more or less float on the surface of the mud-like substance. It is hot, but not uncomfortable, and within a few seconds, you begin to sink a few inches – ever so slowly. Moments after, the attendant dutifully covers whatever is still exposed of your body with more hot mud.

At last, you are where you want to be – immersed and levitating in mud up to your neck. A couple of slices of cucumber for your eyes, a small towel for your glistening head, and you are in what some would describe as nirvana.

You bask there for about 15 minutes. Then you are removed from the mud and gently pointed to a nearby shower for a thorough cleansing. All the time, the attendants are spraying the cement floor to keep it neat and tidy and mud free.

Next, it’s into an aromatic mineral whirlpool bath for a comfortable bubble and soak. Following the delicious purification, it’s off to the steam room.

By now, you are feeling like a happy limp noodle, and to capture and prolong that feeling you are wrapped in a warm blanket and led to a small clean room with a gurney-style bed. You are left to relax with a cool glass of water for 15 or 20 minutes while your body adjusts to room temperature. Rumor has it that many people fall asleep as they return to normal.

Next, you are given a massage. Do not miss this step. After what you have just been through and in your new state of sublime delectation, the massage will feel like the best ever – and it just might be. The guys and gals at Dr. Wilkinson’s really know their stuff.

The return trip to the locker seemed somehow “bouncier.”

The entire therapy session took one hour and 45 minutes.

Due to the nature of the activity, we were not able to take photographs during our treatment, but the sculptured caricature in the therapy lobby says it all. 

The mud bath venture is not for everyone, but if you don’t eschew mild adventure, it is an experience you will not forget. You may even decide to join the legion of mud loyalists who return to Calistoga for a tune-up on a regular basis. For more information and rates look at Dr. Wilkinson’s website at http://drwilkinson.com or call 1-707-942-4102.

The Calistoga History Museum

Another Calistoga original is the Sharpsteen Museum. This history museum is worth a visit. It was the brainchild of Ben Sharpsteen, the Academy Award winning animator, producer, and director at Walt Disney Studios. It features a 30-foot “diorama” created by Mr. Sharpsteen and depicts how the resort town of Calistoga appeared in the 1860s.

Next to the museum, there is an authentic cottage from the early resort years with rooms filled with costumes and furnishings from the period. It is very well done.

There are other exhibits in the museum that explain the physics of the local geothermal hot mineral waters and wells that gave Calistoga its reputation as a first-class therapeutic resort. If you would like to learn more about the museum, its website is http://Sharpsteen-museum.org. Telephone 1-707-942-5916.

The valley wineries

We spent the afternoon driving around the beautiful Napa Valley. We managed to squeeze in several of the 200+ wineries along circular-route 29 between Calistoga and Napa – a wonderful journey that will be the subject of subsequent articles.

Dinner at Brannan’s

After a day of exploring Napa Valley, we were ravenous. We made dinner reservations at Brannan’s, and were looking forward to a hearty meal – we were not disappointed.

The country-chic and soulful wood interior of Brannan’s is a great place to relax, entertain friends, and watch people. Centrally located in downtown Calistoga, it’s fun to watch the walkers as they pass Brannan’s tall windows along Lincoln Avenue.

The night we attended there was an excellent trio playing solid standards that were obviously pleasing the sizable crowd.

These are pictures of some of Brannan’s excellent bill of fare. We started with a Spinach and Beet Salad with goat’s milk feta cheese, pistachios, and lemon-honey vinaigrette dressing. The main consisted of Seared Diver Scallops with English pea puree, and garden pea risotto. Desert was a Meyer Lemon Tart with almond crust and strawberry coulis.

Our waiter made certain that the paired spirits were proper for the course.

Everything was yummy.

If you go

Fall is an excellent time to visit the Napa Valley. The crowds and traffic subsides when the kids go back to school.

In the best of times, Napa Valley can be a short one-hour drive from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge and up Highway 101 to the Napa 37 East turnoff. Follow the Napa signs until you reach Highway 29 and the heart of Napa Valley. The first town you encounter on Highway 29 is Napa, and the last in the valley chain is Calistoga. Whatever you do, do not stop short of Calistoga, or you will miss some of the premier attractions, wines, and restaurants in the Valley.

For more information about Calistoga and a calendar of upcoming events, be sure to visit the Calistoga Visitors Center at http://www.calistogavisitors.com/

To see a complete gallery of our photos of Calistoga click here.

Looking for a great place to stay while in Calistoga? Check out our review of the Cottage Grove Inn.

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff – Vintage photo of the mud tubs courtesy of Dr. Wilkinson’s.

You can see the world with Google Maps. www.maps.google.com

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