penthouse terraceA recent quick trip to San Francisco, during which I spent more time traveling than the business that was its purpose, was made much sweeter by stays at two luxury hotels whose minimalistic approach stripped away the stress of travel and filled the senses with the essence of the Golden State.

I arrived in San Francisco early in the afternoon and checked into the Hotel Vitale, a newish property in the city’s Embarcadero district.Its location isn’t just nicely convenient to so much that San Francisco has to offer; situated at the foot of Mission Street right on the water, it has astounding views from nearly every window: the San Francisco Bay is framed by palm trees and the waterfront, bathed in glowing California sun (well, many days, anyway).

When the hotel was built, Heller Manus Architechts, the hotel’s designers, took a classic modern streamlined approach to luxury: the lobby is a moderately sized comfortable mix of hard surfaces, soft textiles, stacked rock walls and open space that draws your attention to the helpful, accommodating, pleasant staff, ready to assist (or not) as you wish. The hotel’s elevators (elevators? Not usually notable in hotel reviews!) take a page from the Philippe Starck designs of the 1990’s: monitors above the doors show webcam views of local beaches or billowing jelly fish in a tank. The hotel also has a restaurant, outdoor dining and a rooftop spa.

View from roonThe view of the Embarcadero and San Francisco bay from my room; top photo: the penthouse terrace (photo: Heller Manus Architects)Upstairs, my room looked out on to the Embarcadero, and even though I was on a relatively low floor (third, to be exact) the view was gorgeous: Palm trees, charming architecture, San Francisco Bay. The view alone made the trip worthwhile, and the hotel’s architects took great care to capture this opportunity: the room had a sitting area tucked into a bay window that looked right out onto the street–a light flooded, delightful place to lounge. View of room HVA standard king room with a sweet sitting area overlooking the water.


The room was filled with comforts: a well appointed bed (crisp white linens and softly woven bed covers), complimented by plenty of lighting, a desk area with ample workspace, and small closets tucked into the walls. The bathroom also had its share of spare but inspired design: a nicely sized room with a pocket door separated it from the rest of the room; a stone counter top and sink filled one wall and the shower filled the other.  Amenities from Fresh (shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and bath gel) were a delightful, refreshing indulgence.Fresh HVLuscious bathroom amenities from Fresh

But this is where a moment of brilliance made me start my day with a smile: The shower area, with an overhead rain style shower head, is separated from the rest of the room by a partial glass wall–not unlike so many newly renovated hotel bathrooms. But here’s the smart touch: a pass-through window in the glass partition lets you reach in from the outside to turn on the water or reach your bath amenities on a shelf just outside the shower. That meant I didn’t have to do the avoid-the-cold-blast-of-water dance before I got into a nice steamy shower; I could let it heat up first (only briefly, though; this is California where water is gold).Shower HVSublime detail: a pass through in the shower’s glass wall lets you set the shower temperature before getting in.

If you stay at the Hotel Vitale and are lucky enough to land in a suite, cross your fingers and hope to get room 808. This top floor suite (Presidential? Penthouse?) sits at the corner of the hotel overlooking the bay. Spacious and gracious living spaces are filled with light, but the real glory is the terrace: big enough for several tables (dinner for 20? Sure! And rest assured in the catering and restaurant quality; the food was quite good), you can sit and soak up the rich marine air or vibrant sunshine (or like most San Francisco days, both) among picturesque potted plants as life plays out on the streets below.

Entrance SolageThe cottages at Solage Calistoga are equipped with bicycles for touring the property or nearby vineyards.The next day our meeting continued in the Napa Valley town of Calistoga. We arrived early in the afternoon, the weather gloriously warm and sunny, a solid 20 degrees warmer than when we’d left the city that morning. Our hotel, Solage Calistoga, welcomed us to a space that is a mastery of indoor comforts lived outdoors; its campus of modern craftsman style buildings are connected by pathways and gardens of blooming plants and wispy grasses. Gathering spaces offer familiar and relaxing comforts–solid furniture topped by soft textiles set under twig-topped pergolas that shade the harsh sunlight but capture the soft warmth of the day. Indoor spaces have wide doors that open to outdoor patios, where fireplaces and fire pits abound. As the sun set that evening, the Solage’s fireplaces came to life, creating pockets of glowing warmth. The resort’s dining room is an open, modern barn-like space, with a mountain-lodge-worthy gas fireplace anchoring one end of the room and an ample and friendly bar and lounge at the other end; the bartenders and wait staff were just as welcoming, creating a relaxing, welcome end to a busy day.

Room SolageCottages are airy and filled with soothing textiles and luxury touches.The rooms at Solage are not rooms at all, they are cottages that ring the property; at the entrance to each are two old-school cruising bicycles for touring the property or town, and each cottage has its own patio (often surrounded by lush plantings for privacy. From each cottage it’s a short walk to the restaurant, spa, pool, fitness center, yoga class, bocce ball court or nearest fire pit.

Solage’s dedication to blending luxury, comfort and environmental responsibility is a distinction; the resort has thought through every aspect of a guest’s needs to craft an experience that both relaxes and comforts but conserves, as well. Each cottage’s heating system is only adjustable by inserting a room key into a slot on the thermostat so that you consider the act of raising or lowering the temperature before you make the change. Rather than bottled water in the rooms or on tables around the resort, staff has placed glass decanters; the one on my nightstand was flavored with fresh mint leaves. And in the bathroom, there are no small plastic bottles of exclusive grooming products; instead there are refillable pump bottles with bath gel and lotion near the sink, and in the shower there are three pump bottles labeled shampoo, condition and cleanse. 

Patio solageA cottage patio offers a nice place to relax.The cottage’s layout is unique; a king size bed covered in crisp white linens anchors the room’s center, a soaring ceiling above and an ‘island’ wall behind it. The island houses the bathroom, closet and bar area. At the foot of the bed is a sitting area with two plush, modern chairs that are angled to face the sliding doors and the patio beyond. The bathroom is reached by walking around the island; to the left is a closet with shelves, hangers and a luggage rack and on the opposite side, and to the right of the bed, is a bar area with a coffee maker, the ever-tempting honor bar and a small prep area. The bathroom itself is a galley-style space with a sink and counter are tucked into the island’s wall, and the shower and toilet closet built into the outside wall, offering each privacy despite the room’s open design. The space between the shower and toilet closet, opposite the counter, is fitted with a upholstered bench and cushions–perfect for relaxing with a book after your massage. 

Slippers solageRelaxing is also invited on the galley-style bathroom’s settee.The inspired thinking of the room’s design creates a delightful experience; but it’s one last detail–a subtle, almost unnoticeable choice that might be its best and most luxurious feature: The river stone flooring of the shower stall. Shower solageLe piece de resistance: a river rock paved shower floor creates an isometric foot massage while showering.The choice of this very textured surface in a resort filled with sleek polished concrete and the simplicity of craftsman design, though certainly organic, seemed a bit odd. Until I stepped into the shower: the shower floor gives an isometric foot massage. Weight, gravity, hot water, and a patchouli spiced steam (thanks to the bottle labeled Cleanse) softens and massages the feet while it relaxes the body and mind; it’s not quite as nice as the real thing, but it’s an experience that you would welcome at the end of a day of heavy footwork. And, now I know: my next bathroom will have a river rock shower floor, no question. Just the thought of it, and of my brief but delightful stay at Solage Calistoga, inspires me to find considered, deliberate pockets of relaxation.

Hotel Vitale, 8 Mission St, at the Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA; rates from $259
Solage Calistoga, 755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga CA; Rates from $350