Napa Valley - Attractions
Calistoga is probably the prettiest town in Napa Valley. It retains a small-town feel, albeit with a gourmet-ified edge (would you like your mixed greens with bleu or goat cheese?); even the appellation 'Calistoga' is synonymous with the bubbly bottled water that brandishes its name. Guiseppe Musante began bottling Calistoga mineral water here in 1924, and the same natural hot springs have spawned a collection of spas where you can indulge in the local specialty, a hot mud bath.
You'll begin your treatment semi-submerged in hot mud, then take a shower, then soak in hot mineral water. An optional steam bath and a cooling towel-wrap follow. Variations can include thin mud baths (called fango baths), herbal wraps, seaweed baths and all sorts of exotic massages. Or, you can just watch all the geothermal action at Old Faithful, Calistoga's slightly smaller version of Yellowstone's famed geyser. It spouts off on a fairly regular 45-minute cycle, shooting boiling water 60ft (18m) into the air.
It's said the town's curious name came from tongue-tied Sam Brannan, who founded the town in 1859 with the heartfelt belief that it would emulate the New York spa town of Saratoga, perhaps as the 'Cali-stoga' of 'Sara-fornia.'
Napa is the valley's financial, if not cultural, centre. There are interesting old buildings in the small downtown, plus a few good restaurants. But the main reasons to stop are more practical: Napa makes a convenient centre for exploration of the area's more intoxicating attractions, and a plethora of shops rent bicycles if you'd like to pedal from vineyard to vineyard (yes, California law does prohibit biking while tipsy, so be careful out there).
If you'd rather not work up a sweat while you sample, hop aboard Napa Valley Wine Train, which conducts brunch, lunch and dinner tours throughout the year in vintage Pullman dining cars travelling to St Helena and back. After your ride, check out Copia, a swish wine, food and cultural centre that has brought a much-needed boost to Napa's downtown area. Day passes include access to the extensive organic gardens, art exhibits and wine programs. Tickets for film screenings, cooking classes, outdoor concerts and more are sold separately.
Sprawling Santa Rosa is the Wine Country's major population centre and the cheapest place around to bed down for the night, with easy access to both Sonoma and Napa Valleys. It boasts botanical gardens, performing arts centres, a few strollable neighbourhoods and lots of traffic during the Friday-evening evacuation of San Francisco. Though most visitors come here because of its convenience, there are a couple of pilgrimage-worthy destinations that pack in Peanuts fans from all over the globe.
The Charles M Schulz Museum pays homage to this long-time Santa Rosa resident and his celebrated brainchildren: Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Schroder, the Great Pumpkin and, of course, the hapless Charlie Brown. Schulz was born in 1922, published his first drawing in 1937, and continued producing Peanuts cartoons until a few months before his death in 2000. There's still no confirmation that underage wine-sampling was the cause of all those missed kickoffs. Just down the street, Snoopy's Art Gallery and gift shop has an awesome collection of Peanuts paraphernalia and products. The adjacent Redwood Empire Ice Arena, formerly owned and deeply loved by Charles Schulz, is open to the public most afternoons.
St Helena is yet another Epicurean enclave enticing San Francisco residents and visitors northward, with beautiful scenery and an interesting downtown, right along Hwy 29. It can get uncomfortably busy - and hot - on summer weekends, but has plenty to recommend it. The Silverado Museum is a big draw for literary types, featuring a fascinating collection of Robert Louis Stevenson memorabilia. In 1880, the famous author - at that time sick, penniless and unknown - stayed in an abandoned bunkhouse at the old Silverado Mine with his new wife, Fanny Osbourne. His novel The Silverado Squatters is based on his time there.
St Helena's other claim to fame is White Sulphur Springs Resort, California's oldest resort, a peaceful place with hot springs, a swimming pool and a redwood grove. Even if the strong-smelling waters don't live up to their reputation as a panacea (though anecdotal evidence says otherwise), they're almost certain to cure the cricks and cracks of the seasoned budget traveller willing to splurge.
Yountville (pronounced YAWNT-vil), one of the larger towns in the valley, is a beautiful village that caters to visitors with large disposable incomes and a taste for the truly fabulous. Among its famed high-end eateries is the French Laundry, an elegant establishment lauded as among the finest on the West Coast. It's nearly impossible to get reservations, but should you succeed, you'll be treated to French-California cuisine that has chefs on the Champs Elysees holding on to their toques.
There's also a suitably adorable downtown perfect for strolling off all those courses while shopping for the perfect handcrafted knick-knack. If you need even more exercise (no one comes to Yountville and skips dessert), stop by the modernist Napa Valley Museum, which chronicles the region's cultural history and showcases local paintings.