Calistoga revels in its ruggedness

But this summer when the company launched Solage Calistoga, the flagship of what will become a national brand of hotels and spas, it aimed for something more affordable (November-March offseason rates are $325 to $775), more eco- and family-friendly, and in keeping with the local character.

"Calistoga is a little bohemian, home to individuals who make their own way, and very friendly," says general manager Richard Hill.

The 22-acre property, built on a horse pasture, consists of a 20,000-square-foot spa complex, the Solbar restaurant, which serves California cuisine made with sustainable ingredients, and 89 cottages designed with what Hill describes as a "Napa Valley barn meets San Francisco loft" feel. The rooms feature organic linens and hemp curtains, and were built using recycled wood and eco-friendly paint. To conserve energy, the spa's treatment rooms and soaking pool tap hot water from the geothermal springs beneath the property.

But what sets Solage apart are the whimsical touches. Deliveries of luggage and amenities are made via bicycle, and the spa features a modern take on the traditions of soaking in the hot volcanic mud baths and thermal springs that are popular at Calistoga's older spas.

At Solage, spa visitors who book a "mudslide" treatment begin at a "mud bar," where a "bartender" mixes a customized cocktail of fresh mud, essential oils, serum with anti-oxidants and hot thermal water from the springs below. Customers then retire to a private sauna, apply the mud, bake for 10 minutes to draw out toxins, before washing the mess away. Next stop is a 10-minute soak in a tub of geothermal water, followed by a wrap in a down comforter and a session in a "sound chair," where soothing tunes play through headphones and vibrations pulsate through the chair.

"The approach may seem tongue-in-cheek, but it's steeped in traditional healing modalities and aromatherapy principles," says spa director Peggy Francis.

Get a wine tune-up

If Todd Miller can get the permits squared away by next harvest, he'll crush grapes in the parking lot of a former gas station that he leases, ferment the juice in the garage, then dispense the wine from a keg into screw-capped jugs that customers bring with them. If that sounds déclassé, well, that's the point.

"This is an antidote to the trophy-wine obsession in the rest of the valley," says Miller, who runs an adjoining store called Wine Garage with his wife, Joy.

Since they opened the shop in 2003, the Millers have done a booming business selling only wines that cost $25 or less ($2 million worth this year). "We're down-to-earth people selling to down-to-earth customers, the people who make this valley what it is."

The Millers keep costs low by maintaining a bare-bones retail space — bottles are displayed in cardboard boxes — and seeking out lesser-known labels from the region. Miller aims to install a wine bar and deli by next spring that will allow customers to taste any of the 350 brands in the store.

"There's an ocean out there of good $25 wines," he says. "But wine is shrouded in mystery and intimidation and people don't know how to get into it. We're making it easy for them."

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