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[whitespace] Al fresco: Night spa enthusiasts can melt in a steam bath and then soak in a cool tub while enjoying the stars, the moon, the mist, and a healthy dose of relaxation.

Michael Amsler

Night Sweats

Soaking up the evening allure of Calistoga Spa Hot Springs

By Paula Harris

IT ALL STARTED with my friend Julia's bathtub. The unforgiving, undersized fixture allows her to draw a measly six inches of lukewarm water (thanks to an iffy water heater) before it all drains out through an ill-placed overflow. Pretty useless for a "bath person" like Julia Whitty, who cursed the fixture and promptly dubbed it her "torture tub."

So last winter she began searching for a better way to chill out and vanquish the winter shivers.

Her quest ended with the discovery of the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, a resort/motel off Calistoga's main street, that opens its four outdoor naturally heated mineral pools and steam room to the public each day between 7 and 9 p.m.--and at a bargain price.

For seven bucks, you can float, steam, and soak to your heart's content. Part of the thrill is that you're in the open air, under the moon, stars, clouds, mist, or fragrant smoke wafting over from the barbecue joint nearby.

The air is cold and invigorating and the lighted water is as steamy-hot and bubbly as a giant Jacuzzi. Bliss.

"It was an immediate addiction," says Julia of the night-time visits.

She's been known to spend a couple of hours there each week, out in all weather, alternating between the outdoor mineral pools of varying temperatures, the aromatic steam room, and the cool swimming pool. And she swears the Native American-inspired regimen of heating and cooling the body five times keeps her healthy.

"It feels like clicking down through your gears until you reach a point of total relaxation," she says. "The goal is to achieve a state as close to a jelly- fish as possible, where you feel as if you have no bones and no brain."

EAGER TO BECOME spineless and brainless, I accompany Julia on her next evening visit to the outdoor mineral pools.

The attendant hands us locker keys and we go change into our swimwear. In the locker room, a woman with dripping hair and gooseflesh advises us to get into the hot water as briskly as possible, since it's "bloody freezing out there."

We swathe ourselves in towels and scamper outside barefoot. It's cold, though not "bloody freezing." Still, we quickly shuck off our towels and ease into the hottest pool of all.

The covered octagonal jet pool is a stress-melting 105 degrees. The steamy pale-green water reaches chin level as we stand there motionless, our bodies adjusting to the sudden temperature change.

It doesn't take too long before we begin to boil. I look over at a group of people steeping themselves in the water across from me. I see sweaty faces becoming a deep rosy-red in the half-light, and I begin to feel a bit breathless myself.

Julia suggests we move on to the large, palm tree-lined soaking pool, which retains a mellow 100 degrees. Perfect temperature and perfect depth. This is where you could spend an entire lifetime.

Now, if only someone could invent a waterproof laptop, we muse.

Others, too, have discovered this sodden respite. We notice a group has placed a picnic basket poolside, and slack-faced folks are pouring bubbly into plastic flutes to guzzle down as they soak under the stars.

Finally, Julia says she's ready for the steam room. By now we're staggering a little from all the relaxation. We collapse into the small (and totally dark) steam room, where we must call out to make sure we don't step or sit on anyone. But we can't endure the scalding vapor very long.

Next, Julia plunges into the chilly 80-degree lap pool, while I wimpily join a bunch of toddlers in the more tolerable 90-degree wading pool.

I already feel lollopy, but Julia is ready to go through the whole sequence again. "It feels like a mini-vacation," she sighs. "A holiday for an evening."

She even forgives her torture tub.

Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, 1006 Washington St., Calistoga, is open to the public between 8:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Mondays-Fridays at $10 per person, and on Saturdays-Sundays at $15. There are $7 bargain rates between 7 and 9 p.m. daily on a first-come, first-served basis. For details, call 942-6269).

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From the January 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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