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(Photo: Indian Springs)

Calistoga: A European Spa Town, California-Style

Warm spring water was medicine before there was medicine, healing before healers, and luxury before soft sheets and indoor plumbing. And it’s abundant here in the pools of Calistoga, the small town girding the northern border of the Napa Valley. Calistoga’s hot springs have drawn visitors for 4,000 years, but the town’s current identity mingles European spa town inspiration with wine-country swagger and a gold-rush twang.

The prescription in Calistoga, as with the European spa towns that have long attracted leisure-set travelers, is simple: Take the waters. In Europe, the task is often both literal (to ingest the bubbling, sometimes sour water of the springs of fabled spa towns) and immersive (to stand, sit, float, and relax in mineral pools fed by natural hot springs). And while Calistoga embraces this dive-in ethos, it takes a decidedly different—and more delicious—approach to imbibing local waters.

Calistoga Is … Water

Calistoga’s rich history of healing reaches back to the native Wappo people, who used the hot springs and steaming mud for healing and rituals. Fed by geysers that ascend through thousands of feet of ancient seabed—picking up calcium, sodium, potassium, carbonate, sulfate, and chloride on the journey to the surface—the hot water surfaces in dozens of geysers and wells around Calistoga.

In the 19th century, inspired by European and East Coast spa culture, this Napa Valley town grew quickly as a relaxation destination. The local hot water was advertised as a cure for ailments as varied as rheumatism, obesity, and liver disease.

These days, spas and hotels line Calistoga’s main street and nestle into the surrounding hills, offering a water-focused approach to health that harnesses the town’s geothermal riches. Large pools, like the blissfully warm Olympic-size pool at Indian Springs Resort, offer guests the chance to float, soak, and relax in the healing waters.

Calistoga Is … Wine

Like the celebrated spring water of Vichy and Evian, the nectar of Napa has myriad health benefits. Drinking the geyser water in Calistoga isn’t recommended, but happily, the surrounding countryside hangs heavy with the grapes that first brought Napa its well-founded fame. Calistoga is home to more than 50 wineries, including Chateau Montelena, producer of the wine that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris (and subject of the 2008 movie Bottle Shock); the horse-happy Tamber Bey; and the eccentric castle of Castello di Amorosa.

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Christine Sarkis recently spent the night in Calistoga courtesy of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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