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Great American Drives

Whitney Lawson The Chesapeake Bay Bridge

Photo: Whitney Lawson

San Francisco to Calistoga, California

A day of spas, with a side of Syrah

Distance 80 miles
Driving Time 2 hours

The Appeal

San Franciscans seeking a holistic holiday have been decamping to Napa Valley’s northernmost town for 150 years. Over that time, Calistoga has managed to remain (for Napa) remarkably unfussy, especially when compared to its tony neighbors St. Helena and Yountville; pickup trucks still cruise the main drag, and most local restaurants are Riedel-free.

Driving Tips

Forgo the slightly faster eastern route across the Bay Bridge for the more mellow one through the Marin headlands. Minutes after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll be racing luxury cars on four-lane Highway 101. By the time you reach Route 12, connecting Sonoma and Napa counties, you’ll start seeing tidy trellises of vines whizzing by. Far too soon, the road meets Route 29, Napa’s main artery, clogged with limos transporting responsible tasters.

Hit the Spa

The classic Calistoga mud-bath experience—sinking into an aromatic mass of muck heated to 105 degrees—is not for the prim. This town has more kitschy mud emporiums than one would care to count, let alone visit. But among the long-standing lot, the private Golden Haven Hot Springs (1713 Lake St.; 707/942-8000; treatments from $49) is one of the most professional and up-to-date. Lavender Hill Spa (1015 Foothill Blvd.; 800/528-4772), considered to be one of Calistoga’s cleanest, caters to couples wanting to get their feet wet; two cheery yellow cabins in the garden have double tubs, padded head-to-toe. Lavender Hill’s hour-long Volcanic Mud Bath ($99 per couple)—more bath than mud—involves soaking for 30 minutes in mineral water sprinkled with volcanic ash, salts, and lavender oil, then transferring to a massage table to be swaddled in a blanket and given a vigorous foot rub.

Where to Eat

Open since September, barVino (1457 Lincoln Ave.; 707/942-9900; dinner for two $60) is the watering hole local oenophiles were waiting for. The owners have forged relationships with 25 small-batch wineries and put an emphasis on education: servings come by the taste (two ounces), glass, and half-carafe. Each pour is accompanied by a handout detailing the wine’s makeup and producer, with space for notes. The modern interior winks at wine making: cork walls, rough-edged oak tables, a booth upholstered in burgundy red. Chef Ross Kilkenny, who trained at New York’s River Café, prepares simple small plates (local cheeses, calamari with lemon-infused olive oil) that stand up to the wines.

Stretch Your Legs

The Silverado Trail, tracing the eastern edge of the valley, may as well have been built for biking, with a dedicated lane, gentle hills, and wineries that serve as perfectly spaced pit stops. Rent at Calistoga Bikeshop (1318 Lincoln Ave.; 866/942-2453; from $25 a day), and be sure to stop at Clos Pegase (1060 Dunaweal Lane; 707/942-4981), a winery designed by Michael Graves; the sculpture garden includes works by Mark DiSuvero and Richard Serra.

Don’t Miss

People often compare Napa Valley to Tuscany—the olive groves, the artisanal food, and now, a castle. Fourth-generation winemaker Daryl Sattui spent the past 14 years building Castello di Amorosa (4045 N. St. Helena Hwy.; 707/286-7212), a 121,000-square-foot medieval-style castle, constructed from hand-carved chestnut beams, basalt, sandstone, and 200-year-old brick. He was nothing if not thorough: among the 107 rooms are a church, stables, and a dungeon, complete with torture devices. (The entire project cost $27 million.) Says Sattui, a self-proclaimed "madman" with an affinity for pocket squares, "I just wanted to build out all of my ideas." Thus, 100 of those rooms are of no use to the public. Politicians and San Francisco socialites—George Pataki, Dede Wilsey—have hosted events in the frescoed Great Hall. Beginning this month, visitors can taste Castello wines (Merlot, Pinot Grigio) in the underground cellar and then take a 45-minute castle tour. For a couple of hours, you’ll forget you’re in Napa—and the 21st century.

Overnight Option

Calistoga Ranch (580 Lommel Rd.; 800/942-4220; www.calistogaranch.com; doubles from $525) is like summer camp for pampered adults, with copper-trimmed cedar cabins serving as beautiful bunks. No cars are allowed on the 157-acre property, so everyone—including robed couples en route to the Bathhouse spa—is escorted about in golf carts. Morning yoga takes place in the wine cave, and after a soak in the spa’s mineral pool, guests stay warm under handwoven chenille throws in front of outdoor fireplaces. The 90-minute Cabernet Classic—grapeseed scrub and grapeseed-oil massage ($210)—makes creative use of the Valley’s most famous crop.

—Nina Willdorf

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