Calistoga Ranch hotel dots its 157 pristinely forested acres in the canyons of Napa Valley with a collection of 48 luxe lodges, all with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the valley below. Outdoor spa pools, surrounded by all this natural beauty, are as relaxing as they are restoring. And, since this is wine country, it should come as no surprise that the excellent private restaurant features a first-class wine list.
Get this when you book through us:
A bottle of Napa Valley wine in your room, and a $70 credit at the spa
All the lodges are freestanding wooden bungalows with outdoor fireplaces. We love the one-bedroom lodges with outdoor Jacuzzis, where you can bubble away under the starlit oak canopy, sipping cocktails from your wet bar.
Crisp white sun-loungers fringe the heated outdoor pool, where you can soak in both the warming waters and the stunning scenery – a dramatic backdrop of the vineyard, the oak groves and the majestic Mayacama mountains.
Bring a taste for tannins and a nose for a bouquet – the ranch not only has its own vineyard and label, but also has regular visits from vinters to give tastings. Guests who want to get their hands juicy can join in harvesting, pruning and crushing.
Furry friends are welcome, for a one-off fee of US$125, but they must remain on leads at all times (the ranch can provide dog beds and bowls).
Under-12s stay free. There’s a charge of US$100 for each extra person under 18 in rooms; lodge living rooms have pull-out sofa beds.
Sacramento, San Francisco and Oakland airports are all around 80 miles from the hotel – and driving time is around an hour and 45 minutes. American Airlines (www.americanairlines.com) flies daily to San Francisco from London Heathrow.
Head out of Napa on the St Helena Highway. The drive north to the ranch should take around 40 minutes.
Worth getting out of bed for
Napa Valleyis the heartland of America’s wine production and there are close to 300 wineries to sip your way through – reservations are essential. Connoisseurs should head for LEED certified Cade Winery on Howell Mountain; Swanson in the Oakville District; the exclusive Altamura winery in Wooden Valley; orKuleto Estate in St Helena. Alternatively, hop onto the Napa Valley Wine Train, a restored turn-of-the-century relic with velvet armchairs, curving windows, a genteel restaurant car, and, of course, a wine bar. Choose from short trips to individual wineries, food-focused journeys or whole-day excursions with multiple stops. Aside from wining and dining, there’s no shortage of decadent diversions in Napa. Drift above the vineyards in a hot-air balloon, hire a bike and cycle around the region sampling the wines as you go – Getaway Adventures organises group tours – or enjoy the scenery on horseback. For big-city thrills, San Francisco is an hour away.
You’re close to a glut of Napa’s world-renowned eateries, but you’ll still need a car to ferry yourselves between them. If you want to sample the famed fare at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, you’ll need to book a month or two in advance and be sure you have a deep wallet – the set menu starts at more than US$240 a head. Also needing advance notice, La Toque in downtown Napa has an always-excellent menu of Valley victuals, featuring a wide , coupled with a carefully considered wine selection. Go Fishin St Helena is predictably seafood-centred, with a wide range of sushi and sake. Cole’s Chop House in Napa serves 21-day dry-aged steaks alongside a classic American cocktail menu. On the same street, Celadon has a friendly neighbourhood atmosphere, shabby-chic looks and a Mediterranean menu with real respect for its ingredients.
How, goes the famous Napa Valley joke, do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a large one. Winemaking is an expensive business, and you have to have serious financial clout if you want to start mucking about with the merlot. Still, if you can’t afford your own vineyard, then at least you can experience the Napa Valley lifestyle by staying at Calistoga Ranch. From the moment we arrived, when the cheery valet took the keys of our car to park it on our behalf, to the morning we left, when gorgeous Gloria on reception handed us two bottles of water for our journey home, Mrs Smith and I were made to feel like the most important oenologists in town.
The ranch nestles in a secluded gorge at the north end of Napa Valley, near the spa town of Calistoga. The 157-acre, 46-room resort is understated Cal-luxe, all low-rise buildings in cedar and stone, punctuated with modern accents such as giant cube lampshades in all the public spaces. There’s a luxurious spa, the Bathhouse, an outdoor yoga deck with soothing views over the valley’s aged oaks, and a dramatic pool overlooked by both a bar and gym. There’s also a cosy wine cave for tastings. So, whichever cornerstone of Californian culture you’re after – wine or workout – Calistoga caters for you. And it feels more like a hamlet than a hotel. Perhaps because, in addition to the guests, it’s occupied by plenty of fractional owners, who’ve purchased their own generous glug of this fine vintage. As a result, there’s a very real sense of being welcomed into a community.
Mrs Smith and I are driven to our accommodation in a dinky electric golf buggy. We’ve been given a one-bedroom lodge by the creek, which comes with a separate lounge area and bedroom suite connected by a deck. The living room even has its own bar, with a complimentary bottle of the ranch’s private-label merlot and a coffeemaker shaped like a rocket. While I’m admiring this, Mrs Smith is making cooing noises in front of the indoor-outdoor fireplace, which promises the enticing option of either snuggling up on a comfy sofa in the lounge or out on the patio next to our personal hot tub. It’s a hard life, this wine-making lark.
Our bedroom has glass walls on two sides, allowing us to look at tall pines wafting their branches over the water from the comfort of our bed. But don’t worry – there are blinds for those who want a little time to themselves and don’t want to be watched, no matter how much fun they’re having.
We poke around the bathroom, unwrapping the mudbath soap, and Calistoga Ranch’s custom-made eucalyptus and bay laurel toiletries, then lathering them all over our hands. Interest piqued, we head into the discreetly fenced outdoor rainbath shower. Despite the slightly cool temperature of the December air, it’s wonderful – like standing beneath a waterfall. What with warm water cascading over our heads, the birds of northern California tweeting away in our ears and the breeze deliciously tickling our wet skin, Mrs Smith and I feel quite the frontiersman and woman – more Lewis and Clark than Ernst and Julio Gallo.
That evening, we eat at the Lakehouse restaurant. As its name suggests, it sits on the shores of Calistoga Ranch’s private lake, offering the sort of romantic setting that the filmmakers downstate in Hollywood dream about for backdropping their denouements. We knew the restaurant was exclusive – it’s only open to guests and those residents who’ve bought into this paradise – but it’s only when we find ourselves seated next to cult singer-songwriter Tom Waits that we realise just how much so.
The food certainly lives up to its environment. Mrs Smith, who has been assured by our waiter that none of the dishes contain her culinary bête noire of cucumber, tucks into scallops with salsify purée and short ribs. My John Dory with leeks and salt cod brandade is exquisite. Every dish on the Modern American menu – zealously seasonal and constructed only from local ingredients – is chosen to complement Calistoga’s reassuringly wonderful wine list, and our sommelier makes sure that each mouthful we eat is matched by either a 2003 Chalone Estate Chardonnay or 2002 Provenance Merlot. We retire to our lodge feeling as fat and drunk as Friar Tuck.
The next morning, keen to experience the area’s famed natural beauty (as well as burn off all those calories accrued the night before), we set out on a ramble. The ranch has plenty of its own hiking trails – this is California, after all – and Tiffany, our guide, leads us through woods to a watermill, where local villagers are hosting a ‘Pioneer Christmas’. Dressed in historical costume – though, in quaint Calistoga, it’s sometimes hard to tell the participants from the onlookers – they buzz about the food and craft stalls, indulging in all manner of 150-year-old activities. Mrs Smith is particularly amused when I am collared by a lace-making lady, and has to rescue me after several uncomfortable minutes of stitching and bobbin-shuffling. We head back to our room, dragging an impulsively bought two-pound bag of stone-ground polenta behind us.
In the afternoon, we do as any good Napa Valley visitors should, and go wine-tasting. Both Sterling and Clos Pegas wineries are within walking distance of the ranch – well, a short drive, but don’t tell anyone – and we spend a pleasant couple of hours running through their delicious range of chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons. That night, after dining at sleek local steak restaurant Press, we return to our lodge, where we sit out on the deck in front of a blazing fire, sipping merlot and gazing up at stars glowing in a grape-black sky. It’s beautiful beyond words. Napa Valley is sometimes referred to as the American Eden, and I completely understand why. I’m certainly tempted to stay forever.