Napa and Sonoma: Places to Explore

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Calistoga

False-fronted shops, 19th-century hotels, and unpretentious cafés lining the main drag of Lincoln Avenue give Calistoga a slightly rough-and-tumble feel that's unique in the Napa Valley. With Mt. St. Helena rising to the north and visible from downtown, it looks a bit like a cattle town tucked into a remote mountain valley. It's easier to find a bargain here than farther down the valley, making Calistoga's quiet, tree-shaded streets and mellow bed-and-breakfasts a relatively affordable base for exploring the surrounding vineyards and back roads.

Ironically, Calistoga was developed as a ritzy vacation getaway. In 1859 Sam Brannan—Mormon missionary, entrepreneur, and vineyard developer—learned about a place in the upper Napa Valley, called Agua Caliente by the settlers, that was peppered with hot springs and even had its own "old faithful" geyser. He snapped up 2,000 acres of prime property and laid out a resort. Planning a place that would rival New York's famous Saratoga Hot Springs, he built an elegant hotel, bathhouses, cottages, stables, observatory, and distillery (the last a questionable choice for a Mormon missionary). Brannan's gamble didn't pay off as he'd hoped, but Californians kept coming to "take the waters," supporting a sprinkling of small hotels and bathhouses built wherever a hot spring bubbled to the surface. Many of them are still going, and you can come for an old-school experience of a mud bath or a dip in a warm spring-fed pool.

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