A local spa entrepreneur shares the very best of this historic hot mud haven.
I’ve been living here for 32 years. I came to Calistoga because in 1984, I was hired by a French spa company, Promothermes. They are in the mineral springs business in France, and at the time, they owned seven huge mineral spring spas allover the country—but no hotels. The owner of the company was traveling with his wife in California, and visited Calistoga because of the hot springs, which were his passion in life. There was one for sale with a hotel on site, so he bought it. There was also a very old shack with old hot springs popping up.
My background was hotel, and in 1984, this fellow Jacques, hired me as general manager and US rep. He told me that he and his team would come over and build a nice European spa on property. I was completely ignorant of spas, but we built a beautiful spa that had a lot of hydrotherapy in it, tubs, showers, scotch hoses, and wet tables. We completed the project in 1985, and because Jacques wanted to give it a French flair, we called Le Spa Francais. It was called that but nobody could pronounce it or remember it. The spa became extremely successful, and at the time it was the most beautiful mineral springs in California, perhaps in all of the US. All of the equipment was state-of-the-art from France and Germany. It also offered the traditional Calistoga mud bath because Jacques wanted to bring innovation and new equipment and at the same time blend it with the tradition of Calistoga.
Hotels, Hippies & Hot Springs
Next came the renovation of the existing hotel. The 50-room property was completely rundown when Jacques bought it. The previous owners were a group called Alive Polarity (the creators of Polarity therapy). They were a bunch of hippies who’d been there since the 1960s, and the place was like a commune—all of the kids were running around, sprouts were growing in hotel rooms, and there was a veggie restaurant and a mineral pool on property. The pool became the Calistoga community pool because everyone was coming for free. They had wonderful nurturing therapists that drew a loyal following. It was a great place, but a difficult place to run a business.
I told Jacques I needed $1.5 to $2 million to fix the hotel and bring it up to decent standards. He had a thalassotherapy project in Normandy he was working on and he wanted to concentrate on that, so he decided to sell the Calistoga property. He asked me to help him sell it, and in 1986, he put it up for sale. We sold it to a local group, and that was it.
On Expertise & Equipment
Soon after, I took another job in the area managing a hotel and one day I got a phone call from a lady who was a spa consultant. She tracked me down and got my number from the spa. She wanted to use my expertise because she went to Le Spa Francais and saw all this fancy equipment and asked if I could connect her to the manufacturers in Europe. And I said, “Sure, lady, I can do that.” And I did. My wife suggested I go to the Napa County Business Department and start a business. That’s how I started my company, SpaEquip. The first project was a resort owned by Japan Airlines in Hawaii. It’s still in existence and is one of the only thalassotherapy spas in the country—the Ihilani—it was my first big project! We brought all the same fancy equipment from France and Germany, and I said to myself after that, I think there’s something to do in this industry. That was 1988, and the beginning of SpaEquip.
Rebirth of a Boutique Hotel
Le Spa Francais is now the Sunburst Hotel. There was another owner in between, so the hotel has been completely remodeled over the years. The spa was closed about 12 to 15 years. The spa building shut down, it was starting to suffer, it was 20 years old and aging. The good news is that as we speak, the remodeling project is going through the buildings department for approval in Calistoga. It will happen pretty quickly. I’m working with the new owners who are going to keep the core business, massages, and some esthetics treatments, but they’re going to give a twist to the traditional Calistoga mud bath treatment that all the spas here offer.
Calistoga’s Traditional Mud Bath
The traditional mud bath in Calistoga originated from the fact that we have a volcano (that is dead now) that erupted millions of years ago. The ashes from the volcano had great therapeutic properties, and the indigenous Wappo tribe mixed the ashes with the hot mineral spring water that comes out of the ground at 240 degrees Fahrenheit. They cooled the water off by mixing it with the ashes, peat moss, and some clay—that’s how the Indians used to relax.
Spas in Calistoga have been carrying on that tradition for a long, long time in the tubs. The Calistoga mud bath became a very unique treatment in town. In most of the town’s spas, you can have what they call “The Works.” It consists of a mineral springs shower; followed by a 20-minute immersion in very hot mud where you sweat and rid yourself of toxins (cool towels are applied to your forehead). The mud attendant then assists you out of the mud bath, and because mud is all over your body and hair, you must shower (some spas use Swiss showers or Scotch hoses). Then you take a hot mineral bath for 10 to 12 minutes, followed by a cool-down period, a blanket wrap. You enter a special room where you’re wrapped in a blanket and slowly cool down. After about 20 minutes you go for a one-hour massage. The whole treatment takes a little more than two hours. There are a couple of newer spas, like Solage, that offer their own version of this (Solage created the MudSlide). The renovated Sunburst will create an outdoor mud pit, a little like Glen Ivy, where people go and cover themselves up in mud and dry in the sun.
The Best Places for Spa-ing
• Best Spa for Hipsters: The Sunburst, when remodeled
• Best Spa for Going Solo: Any of these places, but Indian Springs is unique because they keep the temperature of the pools very hot so you can go in the evening and soak in warm mineral pools.
The Best Places for Dining
I love Solbar at Solage and Sam’s Social Club at Indian Springs. I also like d’Amici Ristorante and Brannan’s Grill. The newest restaurant in town that’s very good is Johnny’s at the Mount View Hotel.
The Best Places for Wining
If I had a restaurant here, all the wines would be from Calistoga. Some good boutique wineries include Zahtila Vineyards; they make a great cabernet sauvignon and one of the best red zinfandels in the valley. Chateau Montelena is very well known and makes wonderful wines, too.
The Best time to Visit
Anytime, but one of the best times in my opinion is September and October, during crush. There are a lot of activities in the wineries, the whole valley smells like grape juice, and the weather is still very nice.
For more on the historic spa town of Calistoga, click here.