Napa Valley may be one of the premier wine regions on the planet, but Calistoga has no hint of the haute tourist scene you'll find elsewhere in this bucolic region of California. Instead, it retains its small-town charm. Kids ride bikes to an ice cream shop that sells decades-old baseball cards, and old-timers sidle into the cheery Café Sarafornia to swap tales about the grape harvest. Shop name changes aside, the town is much as it was after Samuel Brannan, who had made a fortune during the Gold Rush, capitalized on the area's mineral hot springs, bringing tourism to the northern lip of this fertile valley. The tab: $500 for two nights at Brannan Cottage Inn, $35 for breakfast at Café Sarafornia, $110 for dinner for two at the Calistoga Inn and $165 for massages and pool access at Indian Springs Resort.
The historic Brannan Cottage Inn (109 Wappo Ave., Calistoga;  942-4200, www.brannancottageinn.com), built by Brannan, recently reopened after a renovation. The 154-year-old Italianate Victorian (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) still showcases a wide wrap-around porch overlooking the garden's massive palm tree (planted in 1878), but also has tech-friendly rooms and radiant-heated bathrooms floors. Breakfasts are spare — local pastries and coffee from Yo el Rey Roasting — and best enjoyed while a guest plays the lobby's antique grand piano. In December, for each reservation for its Warm & Fuzzy package, the inn will make a $20 donation to the Valley Fire Relief Fund, which aids neighbors affected by September's devastating wildfire, the third worst in state history.
Calistoga's dining scene is rarely as innovative as that of its Napa Valley sisters, which could be the allure. Café Sarafornia (1413 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga;  942-0555, www.cafesarafornia.com) values simplicity. Buster's Southern Barbecue (1207 Foothill Blvd., Calistoga;  942-5605, www.busterssouthernbbq.com) pumps out spicy meats at affordable prices for quick lunches. The grandmother of the town's dining scene is the Calistoga Inn (1250 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga;  942-4101, www.calistogainn.com/restaurant.html). Dine along the Napa River while musicians strum guitars under the patio lights. Dishes include classics such as a pork porterhouse paired with corn and mushroom risotto, house-made gnocchi, Caesar salad and garlic-crusted calamari. But the real treat, after a day of sampling wines, is the tasting menu at its on-site brewery.
Long before couples flocked to tranquil Indian Springs Resort (1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga;  942-4913, www.indianspringscalistoga.com), the Wappo Indians used the mineral springs and volcanic ash mud to cleanse and heal. The resort grants spa patrons access to the 17 acres of grounds and hot springs-fed pools after buying a treatment and paying a $30 fee on weekends (complimentary during the week). Although the Olympic-sized mineral pool is delightful, others might prefer (as we did) the Adult Pool or the Buddha Pond.
The lesson learned
Wine tasting doesn't have to be fancy. Although you must reserve in advance to visit the 35-year-old Vincent Arroyo Winery (2361 Greenwood Ave., Calistoga;  942-6995, www.vincentarroyo.com), we didn't have to pay a hefty tasting fee to sip its famed Petite Sirah and Port, or chill in a rocking chair and gaze at the vineyards. At its core, Napa Valley is a simple farming community.
MORE WEEKEND ESCAPES