While you're in Calistoga, why not try these local treasures...
Wine-lovers (and Alan Rickman fans) will remember the story of the Paris Tasting, the 1976 face-off between French and Californian wines that helped usher Californian wines to their rightful place on the world stage. The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay waltzed off with the top prize for white wine - much to the chagrin of the French judges, some of whom demanded their scorecards back! The tradition of great wines continues many years later and makes Chateau Montelena well worth a visit. Even if you don't like to drink, it's pleasant just to stroll around the grounds and visit the swans on the lake. If you do like to drink, you're in for a treat. The $20 tasting fee is waived if you leave with $100 or more in purchases.... a bottle of Riesling, a bottle of the famous Chardonnay, and a bottle of the very drinkable Zinfandel will put you into the free zone (not to mention make you very, very happy). Or you can treat yourself to a single bottle of the true star of the show, the Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, which really is exceptional (especially if you can snag one of these vintages: 1996, 1997, 1999 or 2002).
Welcome to a little treasure of the Russian River Valley. Housed in a retired railway station (complete with a railway crossing sign outside), Howard Station serves a generous menu of down-home favorites. I'm especially partial to their breakfasts, particularly the hearty corned beef hash with an unusual hint of rosemary, and the Serious Sausage with its spicy Italian sausage patty smothered with grilled onions, peppers and mushrooms. And of course I'm a sucker for the heart-shaped biscuits. Health nuts swear by the fresh juices, one dose of which can keep you hiking through the redwoods all day -- try "Joe's Secret," a blend of carrots, celery, garlic, and spinach topped off with a splash of hot sauce. The less health-inclined might prefer the old-fashioned milkshakes and fancy coffees. Howard Station has a buzzy community atmosphere and friendly service; the last time I was there our waitress had freesias in her hair and chuckled when I admitted defeat by my huge mountain of corned beef hash. This place also serves as a bit of a crossroads for the whole of Sonoma County; the pushpins in the "Where's Home?" maps near the restrooms reveal that Howard Station has had visitors from all over the world. So please come, be ready for fun, but remember your cash - Howard Station is cash-only!
One of my favorite instant escapes in the Russian River Valley. The moment I step into this beautiful grove of ancient redwoods, my breathing slows down and I start to relax. Armstrong Woods provides a home to some of the most interesting trees in the area, including the super-tall Parson Jones tree (at 310 feet, this tree is taller than the length of a football field) and the super-old Colonel Armstrong Tree (its estimated age is 1400 years!). The best thing about the Armstrong Redwoods Reserve is that you can enjoy it no matter how much energy you have -- if you are tired, stroll along an easy 1-mile loop among the most famous trees, but if you are full of vim, you can tackle any number of tougher trails or bike routes. The Armstrong Woods also offers an unusual Discovery Trail, which is wheelchair-accessible and has signs printed in Braille.
First, get a car. Then, drive yourself to the junction of the Bohemian Highway and Coleman Valley Road in Occidental, California. Get ready for one of the drives of your life as you drive straight uphill on Coleman Valley Road. This picturesque road winds its way along a gorgeous ridge, gradually revealing more and more of the Pacific Ocean. Dramatic hills, secluded lakes, beautiful twisty trees, redwoods, and then the ocean… this drive has it all. You wind up right at Coleman Beach north of Bodega Bay, which is a decent place for a stroll, or you can explore any number of other great spots nearby, such as the very walkable Portuguese Beach or Goat Rock with its stupendous view.
Most people come to Calistoga for the hot springs or the wineries, but I come for the breakfast. For some mysterious reason Cafe Sarafornia is one of my favorite places to eat breakfast anywhere near the Bay Area. Maybe I'm wasting time that would be better spent soaking in a spa or sipping a Chardonnay somewhere, but I am just a fool for the Sarafornia Muffin -- have it with a sausage patty and it's exactly the same idea as a McDonald's Sausage McMuffin with Egg -- except that it's actually food! Cafe Sarafornia also works all the usual American breakfast magic with their French toast, cheese blintzes, steak and eggs, and omelets. The staff is always friendly and there's something about drinking my coffee out of a Cafe Sarafornia mug that just makes it taste better.
People have told me that the Cafe Sarafornia lunches are great too (and I do like the look of the cherry pie in its glass case on the counter) but I have usually come to my senses and gotten into the hot springs by lunchtime ;)
Wow, do I love this place. The Garden Grill is definitely worth the short drive from Guerneville or even the long drive to Guerneville if you love barbecue. My favorite thing on the menu is the BBQ tri-tip sandwich, but the pork ribs are quite tasty too. If you are there for breakfast, the house specialty is the crabcake Benedict… I could eat this every morning. It's fun to eat outside on the pretty patio, where a clever assortment of plants and rocks have been gathered into a lovely small garden at the foot of a giant redwood. The servers are exceptionally friendly -- on my most recent visit, I left with an assortment of Sonoma County magazines and guidebooks that my waitress had thoughtfully given me.