What turned out to be a weekend of relaxation, quirky finds, delicious food and all the things to do in Calistoga, started when I sat down last December to make my New Year’s resolutions. O
2018 was a challenging year – my body was still recovering from giving birth to my twin daughters the year before, my wonderful mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly, and my girls developed from busy babies into rambunctious toddlers. That year, I gave so much of my body, my time, and my heart to others, while healing and grieving on top of it all. I knew going into 2019 that my focus would have to be taking it all back. Inspired by the indomitable Congresswoman Maxine Waters, I decided to reclaim my time by taking my first ever solo vacation to Calistoga, California.
I had a short but important list of requirements for a quick solo trip: within 2 hours driving distance from home (Sacramento), a cute and walkable town, options for spa treatments, and plenty of wine and good food. I wanted to get away, but not too far, as a compromise to my husband who had enthusiastically agreed to hold the fort while I was gone. Walkability was important and also related to another of my requirements – I knew I’d be drinking lots of yummy wine, and booze and driving just don’t mix. Finally, I really wanted to take good care of myself on this trip, so I needed a spot that included top-notch food and wine, and somewhere I could get a nice long massage. Read on to find out all the things to do in Calistoga that met all of my needs, and then some!
Getting There and Getting Around
Calistoga is a small city situated in the northern part of the Napa Valley, just past St. Helena on Highway 128. The drive from Sacramento is a gorgeous tour of the world famous wine country, with rolling green hills, acres of gnarled old vines, and bursts of yellow from California poppies. It was hard to keep my eyes on the road and off of the impressive estates and charming Victorians that kept popping up along the route. It’s a good thing I paid attention though because there’s only one main road into Calistoga; blink and you might miss it!
Turning onto Lincoln Avenue feels like taking a step back in time while keeping one foot in the present. Wooden storefronts and hitching posts straight out of the Wild Wild West line the main street, interrupted by modern boutiques and wine tasting rooms. You’d almost expect to see horses tied up outside the saloons and shops, rather than the sedans and SUVs of today’s visitors. Despite the late February date, the weather during my visit was sunny and cool, and plenty of folks were walking or biking to get around.
One of the biggest draws of Calistoga for me was the Calistoga Shuttle, an inexpensive, on-demand shuttle service providing door-to-door transport throughout the city. Making it easy to explore all the things to do in Calistoga. Before my trip, I simply downloaded the Ride the Vine app and completed my profile. When I was ready to head out, I tapped “Request Ride,” set my pickup and dropoff addresses, and confirmed the ride. I never waited longer than 10 minutes for a shuttle, often much less, and one-way rides are only $1 (or free if you’re staying at a local hotel, just ask for a pass). Convenient, cheap, and 1000x better than driving while wine tasting!
Speaking of a hotel, after much debate I booked a night at The Bergson Hotel just outside of the main strip. It doesn’t have an attached spa, which was almost a dealbreaker, but I really liked the location away from the hustle and bustle of Lincoln Ave while still being walkable to the rest of town and the many things to do in Calistoga. Plus, my room had a fireplace and an enormous Jacuzzi tub, both perfect for a much-needed relaxing getaway! With a quiet location, excellent customer service, and a hearty continental breakfast spread, I’d definitely recommend The Bergson for a solo vacation or a cozy couple’s retreat.
Wine and Food Things to do in Calistoga
Let’s get to the good stuff – drinking delicious wine and eating delicious food. Calistoga is small but mighty when it comes to living up to the standards set by its Napa Valley neighbors. There’s a decidedly more casual atmosphere, which reflects both in the variety of wine and food experiences and (happily!) the price points. Let me walk you through my epicurean adventures:
Arriving on a Friday morning around 11 am, I headed straight for the well-known Cafe Sarafornia, an old-timey diner serving up stick-to-your-ribs fare at a reasonable price. Cafe Sarafornia is most known for its breakfast, served all day (my kind of place!). I ordered the self-proclaimed “Best Huevos Rancheros in Napa Valley,” and while I haven’t tried every single dish of huevos rancheros in Napa, I can confirm it is one of the best plates I’ve ever had. With my breakfast quickly devoured, I enjoyed a delicious cup of strong black coffee while people-watching from my cozy window seat.
My first stop after breakfast was, of course, a winery. After all, Calistoga is in one of the most famous wine regions in the world – why not cut right to the chase and start with the top thing to do in Calistoga?
I parked my car at my hotel and walked next door to Tank Garage Winery, which was not only extremely conveniently located for me but was also highly recommended by my friend Nicole, who works in the Napa wine industry and is, therefore, my most trusted wine advisor. I owe her big time because Tank Garage did not disappoint, both in wine quality and atmosphere.
Built out of a 1930s gas station, complete with vintage gas pumps, Tank Garage has a definite edge to their style that is reflected in their wines. I’m no sommelier, but I pride myself on a pretty good palette and an appreciation for big, bold reds, which I happily found at Tank Garage. After a chat with the fantastic tasting room staff and a closer look at the gorgeous 1947 Indian Chief motorcycle on display, I walked out with two bottles of delicious red blends that I may or may not decide to share with my husband.
Next up was a scheduled tour of the Castello di Amorosa winery, which is housed in an enormous castle modeled after 13th-century Tuscan architecture and built using the kinds of tools and methods employed in medieval times. In other words, it’s a Game of Thrones fan’s dream come true, right here in California!
A small group of us tourists followed our guide from the top of the turrets down to the heart of the labyrinth of underground wine cellars, several floors beneath the castle. Along the way, we learned the fascinating story of how winemaker Dario Sattui came to build the Castello, which you can read about on the Castello di Amoroso website. The tour ended with a private wine tasting in one of these wine cellars, complete with brick walls and soft candle-like lighting. It was really a unique experience, and I have the pictures of the torture chamber to prove it!
Once my tour of the Castello was over, I had a few hours to kill before my dinner reservation, so I summoned the wine shuttle and asked the driver for recommendations. He suggested Brian Arden Wines based on my love of red wine, and off we went.
Thankfully I had just missed the busiest part of the day and had the tasting room all to myself. I chatted for a long time with the tasting room staff (this is A Thing I Do, apparently) and tasted some fantastic wines, settling ultimately on a classic Napa-style cabernet that I thought would make a nice “thank you” treat for my husband for toddler-wrangling. I learned that the winemaker, Brian Harlan, and his wife are both fellow Sacramento natives, which made the world feel a bit smaller (in a good way!). I could’ve stayed talking with the women in the tasting room for at least another hour, but the sun was setting and I wanted to squeeze in one more winery before heading back to my hotel to change for dinner.
Back on the shuttle, my previous driver Brad recommended T-Vine Winery since it was on the way back to my hotel, and was known for solid reds. I remembered that T-Vine and Tank Garage are “sister” wineries, so that solidified it as a great decision. Arriving at a mostly empty tasting room, I once more set to making friends with the tasting room staff and my fellow wine tasters, a lovely couple who work in the wine industry. While not as bold as Tank Garage’s offerings, I enjoyed T-Vine’s different, more mellow varietals. I was especially pleased that they offered a Carignane, which you don’t normally see outside of a blend.
BI wisely called it a day after T-Vine and shuttled back to my hotel to check in and take a power nap before my dinner reservation at Evangeline. Choosing my dinner spot was probably the most challenging part of planning my trip — for such a small town, Calistoga has a ton of good options ranging from casual dining to former Michelin-starred restaurants, all within walking distance from my hotel room. Did I want to go for a farm-to-fork swank at Solbar, or upscale American fun at Sam’s Social Club?
After meticulously reviewing the menus at my top choices, Evangeline’s laid-back take on French bistro cuisine captured my heart (and my taste buds). I took the briefest of looks at the menu before settling on the steak frites. Such a simple dish, and yet packed with great, smoky flavor. I adore my toddlers, but it was a nice change of pace to just sip my drink and enjoy my meal in peace without having to retrieve someone’s sippy cup every five seconds. The brisk walk back made a long soak in the Jacuzzi tub a necessity, and I fell asleep to the roar of my fireplace. Aaaahhh.
Keeping the Faith(ful)
I woke up on Saturday with some time to kill before my spa appointments, so after enjoying a robust continental breakfast at The Bergson, I packed up my things and headed a few miles outside of town to check out the Old Faithful Geyser. I had no idea what to expect, but goats and sheep were definitely a surprise!
Turns out the geyser is only one of the things to do that visitors can enjoy at this venue. The grounds also include an animal farm, bocce courts, a museum, and numerous picnic tables and cabanas with a perfect view of the geyser. I visited on a rather gloomy morning, but I could easily picture it being a fun place to bring a group of friends and kids to picnic and play. Information placards are spread around the grounds to educate visitors on the geyser, the geological history of the surrounding areas, and most importantly, the guard llamas.
Sadly, the llamas were feeling shy that day, but I did get to say hello to some horned sheep and a couple of surly-looking goats. If somebody called me a Tennessee Fainting Goat, I’d be pretty grumpy, too!
I stopped in the Old Faithful Geology Museum on my way out. Just about every inch of the walls in that tiny room are covered in text and pictures detailing everything you could possibly want to know about geysers, earthquakes, volcanoes, and more. Did you know that Old Faithful has “predicted” at least three major California earthquakes? The more you know…
Overall, this stop made was one of the quirky things to do in Calistoga that made this weekend a unique trip.
#treatyoself with a Spa Day
Bidding my furry friends adieu, I made the short drive back into town for a spa day. Calistoga is world-famous for its mud baths and mineral water, so when in Rome, right? In my case, it was literally Roman…I’d booked a mud bath and a full-body massage at Baths at Roman Spa, located at the Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort. This journey into the lap of luxury was courtesy of my wonderful husband, who gifted me a “spa fund” to spend on the relaxing activities of my choosing. Sorry ladies, he’s taken!
First up was the mud bath, followed by a rinse-off and then a soak in geothermal mineral water. Not going to lie, I was pretty nervous about being instructed to strip naked and wiggle myself down into a tub full of mud, but I gathered my courage and stepped in.
I don’t even know how to describe the experience, other than by saying it felt like I was floating in a warm, heavy cloud. The material in the tub was more like wet soil than mud, and it was actually quite pleasant! I could practically feel the toxins oozing out of my body from all the wine tasting the day before. My attendant visited regularly to refresh my water and give me instructions on the next step, which was a quick shower before the mineral bath. Feeling a bit like a plant getting repotted, I showered off the muck and hopped into the bubble bath. Sheer bliss.
So Long…for now!
Thanks to the wonderful wine, food, and relaxation I experienced on my trip, I headed home to my family with my metaphorical gas tank feeling full. If you’re in need of a quick getaway to recharge (or reclaim!), I can’t recommend all these things to do in Calistoga enough. I will definitely be back soon!
If you’re exploring more of California wine country there are so many areas to explore. Whether you want a walk-able adventure in Downtown Napa, a dog-friendly Napa Valley adventure, or check out some of my favorite wineries in Napa and Sonoma.
Meet the Author
Jen is a working mother of twins who knows that “having it all” is a lie, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. Her motto is, “Life’s too short to drink bad wine.”