September 25, 2015

The spa at Indian Springs. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.


Entrance to the historic pool. Photo: ©


The huge main pool with thermal waters. Photo: ©


An overhead shot of the massive pool. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.


The lounge and bar at Sam’s Social Club. Photo: ©


The dining room at Sam’s Social Club. Photo: ©


The patio at Sam’s Social Club. Photo: ©


Halibut ceviche at Sam’s. Photo: ©


Eggs in a hole for brunch at Sam’s. Photo: ©


One of the view rooms. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.


Island vibes in the bathroom. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.


The view from our geyser view room. Photo: ©

Have you ever been somewhere for the first time, and you got so mad at yourself for not having gone there sooner? Experiencing my first mud bath at ~INDIAN SPRINGS~ in Calistoga was like that. As soon as I pulled up to the spa—with its charming Mission Revival historic building, palm trees, and punchy orange table umbrellas—I felt like I was visiting a resort in Palm Springs that had been magically dropped down into Calistoga.

Talking to some of my long-term San Francisco friends, they remember when it was Pacheteau Baths, up until 1988, when Pat and John Merchant bought the property and renamed it Indian Springs. But the history of this land stretches back 8,000 years, when the Wapoo Indians settled here, creating sweat lodges and enjoying the mineral waters.

It’s pretty remarkable: the Indian Springs property has four geysers, and all the volcanic ash they use for the mud baths is from the property as well. Back when Sam Brannan owned all of upper Napa Valley, he envisioned the area as a resort. He built the original spa, mud baths, pool, and a racetrack—in 1861! Leland Stanford bought the property in 1880, and then the Pacheteaus took it over in 1905.

This place has deep roots—and total juju. And here’s the thing: after you steam in that intense ash-mud bath, you get to soak in warm thermal mineral water in a clawfoot tub that dates back to who knows when, and even the little wood shelf that holds your water and rests over the width of the tub looked older than me two times over, with its wooden nail and handcrafted edges.

It’s worth noting that there are a few moments when you’ll be totally nekkid and exposed to others (like your mud bath attendant), so if you’re modest, you can request a disposable swimsuit. (Don’t worry, the men and ladies are in separate areas in the spa.) When you’re soaking in your tub, there will be a few other people in the room as well, and someone else may be with you in the sauna. I dug the NorCal naturalism of it, and everyone seemed pretty chill about it, but if you’re modest, you can make a few adjustments. (Hopper says relax. And yes, that is a Frankie reference.)

After a good steam in the wet sauna (also powered with mineral water), you’ll be brought to an area that I called the human corral—there are open-ceilinged rooms with wood-slat walls lined up next to each other, each with a bed where you’ll be wrapped up in a cotton sheet and left to rest and daydream for a bit while your body returns to its natural temperature. (I just wish they would make that area a strict no-talking zone—some chatty spa guests walking by made a lot of racket.) And then it’s time to go to the massage you hopefully booked for yourself, or you can go hang out in a lounge chair by the tranquil Buddha Pond, or head over to the Olympic-sized pool filled with mineral water.

The main pool is magnificent. It was built in 1913 and is one of the largest pools in California. When you consider it’s filled with thermal mineral water, it’s incredibly impressive. The water is blissfully warm (anywhere from 92-102 degrees) and feels so silky on your skin. And healing. You’ll hear the water trumpeting out of the earth nearby (at 230 degrees!), and it then cools off in a series of reservoirs before it makes its way into the pools. It feels so…alive. Because it is.

A few things to note: the pool used to be open to the public, but the resort has now made it available only to hotel and spa guests (so if you can’t stay at the resort, you can book a spa treatment and the pool is complimentary Mon-Fri and $30 on weekends and holidays). Hotel guests have an extra advantage: you can use the pool up until midnight, while spa guests can only access it until 7pm. Let me tell you, floating in that hundred-year-old pool under the stars is downright special. (And then you get to towel off your tired bones and toddle off to bed.) Oh, and for a little more peace and quiet, there’s an adjacent adult pool as well.

A big move for the property was building their on-site restaurant, Sam’s Social Club (named in honor of Sam Brannan), which opened early in 2015. They brought on chef Kory Stewart, previously at Americano, who is doing a bang-up job with the menu. After eating some of his bright and vibrant dishes, I said to my dining partner, “This is a happy chef. These are happy dishes.” You can taste it. Of course, being there at the end of summer, tasting perfectly ripened watermelon dusted with ghost chile salt and Brentwood corn soup topped with “salumi salsa” (it’s as good as it sounds) on the spacious back patio under the oak trees will put anyone into a chipper state of mind.

The menu is full of snacks ($7), ten in all (like fried green tomatoes with bacon rémoulade, yes please), matched with an equal number of starters. Don’t miss the market ceviche ($17) with sweet potato chips—it was one of the best ones I have had. The line-caught halibut was so fresh, and you could really taste the delicate fish—instead of overdoing it like almost every ceviche you’ve ever had, Stewart cured it just so with lime.

We saw a lot of tables with the cheeseburger on it, and his rotisserie chicken looked good, too, but we went for the housemade casareccia pasta with guanciale and tomato ($24), sporting a warm heat from the Calabrese chile. Kudos on the well-made pasta and great sauce, but the guanciale was cut into some odd shapes, some almost the size of lardons—I would have liked them much smaller. Meanwhile, the grilled octopus ($15) had the opposite fate—it was cut into such small pieces you could barely discern it was octopus. These are small quibbles on an otherwise really delicious meal. Everything is served at the height of its season, and you can see Stewart is sourcing his ingredients like he’s still right across from the Ferry Building.

You probably have been smelling something warm and maple-y throughout the evening, and that would be the candy cap churros ($9) being brought to tables. Stewart was known for his candy cap desserts at Americano, and I was happy to have another taste here—the churros were so donut-y and cakey, don’t miss ‘em (you can also have them at breakfast!). The butterscotch and coconut bread pudding ($9) was another winner.

Brunch the next day was quality—Stewart is a fan of mushrooms (he’s a big forager), so the omelet ($14) with corn, mushrooms, chives, and Piave cheese (hold the truffle oil for me, thanks!) was the way to go. But then there’s the eggs in a hole ($13), with the creamy eggs tucked into Parmesan-crusted housemade brioche, topped with a mushroom fondue, and some really good home fries, with the richness cut with arugula on the side. You can steam it off later. Heh.

The bar and lounge have such a welcoming and handsome style, with a whimsical/folksy mural behind the bar, plus good lighting and comfortable seating—it’s going to be really cozy in the winter (complete with a fireplace). The space transitions well from the evening to being an airy and light-filled room during the day. The style fits in with the Calistoga surroundings and rest of the property—it has some subtle Western touches that hark back to its history.

If you’re staying on property, you get to ride their resort-branded Public bikes around, which makes you feel like a little kid again. You don’t have to worry about getting home a little tipsy after dinner (both the cocktail list and all-local wines by the glass are extensive, plus there’s a house-brewed IPA too)—just ride a little slower (it’s especially fun at night when you’re riding to the pools in your robe).

There are a variety of rooms you can choose from, whether it’s the original cottages, the bungalows, the lodge (renovated in 2005), or the the brand-new view rooms. We stayed in a new geyser view room, and I’d recommend requesting one on the top floor so you don’t hear people above you (but the ground floor was still very tranquil, don’t get me wrong). You have a view of the Geyser Pond, and either a terrace or balcony where you can chill.

The rooms have a cheerful and eclectic style, from the cornflower blue headboards to the Turkish blankets, while the tropical vibe of the bathroom made me feel like I was in a cottage on Barbados. The beds are really comfortable and come with soft linens—you’ll want to request a late checkout.

The good news is, even though the property feels like a dream summery getaway, it’s also going to be a perfect place to visit in the winter—that mud bath and a nighttime soak in the main pool have my name on them.

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