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Rolling in the dough / Calistoga timeshares arrive on wheels, but they're not your father's trailer park
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Because it's near impossible to get approvals for new commercial development in Napa County, the bright minds behind the $130 million Calistoga Ranch had to finesse their upscale Wine Country retreat into existence.
You'd never know it by strolling the grounds today, but the site had been used as a trailer park for many years. So instead of trying to obtain a new set of building approvals for a resort property -- that would have raised the hackles of Napa locals -- they kept the existing RV permit as is and customized their project to fit it.
The result: 157 acres of very high-end hotel bungalows and time-share residences -- all of which were built off site and brought in on wheels. They have attached axles and vehicle identification numbers so they conform to California's motor vehicle code.
In other words, this is a trailer park even a Getty might enjoy.
"If they didn't have the pre-existing right for an RV park, they would never have been able to do this project," said Steve Lederer, deputy planning director of Napa County. "You might have to go back 20 years to find a project of this size."
Indeed, one of the few comparable projects that received approval in the valley in recent decades was the much-admired Auberge du Soleil, which expanded from a restaurant to a resort in 1985 after much public discussion.
Luckily for developer Criswell Radovan, the Auberge folks will run the services at Calistoga Ranch, a slender, crescent-shaped property set in a wooded canyon off the Silverado Trail.
Forty-seven rustic-style guest cottages and six sprawling time-share residences are set to open Monday. A total of 27 time-share residences are planned.
The entrance is off Lommel Road. Hotel guests and time-share residents will leave their vehicles at a reception center upon arrival, and then spend the rest of their stay walking the oak-covered grounds or riding in golf carts.
The experience is bound to be restorative -- and hot, since average summer temperatures in Calistoga hit 92 degrees.
"We are selling the privacy of a canyon," said General Manager Seamus McManus, as he led a tour of the grounds the other day. "It's going to be a very social environment for people who love food, wine and hot weather."
Of course, it will take a certain level of success to partake in the bounty.
"This is for people who want a $2 million home but don't want to worry about cleaning the gutters," McManus said. "Or the guy who goes to Vegas and blows $250,000 at the table. Or the guy in Sacramento who owns a garbage company that picks up trash for thousands of people."
Sales staff have been combing the Auberge guest rolls for prospective clients, taking their pitch on the road to places like Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach, and relying on word of mouth to talk it up in appropriate circles.
Designed by architects Sandy & Babcock International of San Francisco, the time-share residences will differ slightly in layout, depending on the topography of the site.
But the general concept for each home is the same.
The units consist of 3,000 square feet, featuring two generously proportioned sleeping pods, a living room pod and a kitchen pod, all surrounding a covered outdoor patio area with wood-burning fireplace and sofas.
Adding to the woodsy feel, the indoor pods are connected by outdoor plank walkways that are exposed to the site's trees, shrubs and sometimes-running creek.
Nature has been relatively undisturbed -- in one timeshare unit, a magnificent oak has been left to spread its sheltering branches in one corner of the outdoor living area, and in another unit an oak sprouts near the front door.
You could say that staying at the Calistoga Ranch will be like living in a forest tree house.
However, this arboreal privilege will cost you $385,000 for a tenth share, which provides at least three weeks per year. The cost of a fifth share, or at least six weeks per year, is $635,000.
"When you purchase here, it's like you are purchasing a membership in a country club," said Daned Kirkham, director of real estate. "The difference here is you're making lodging reservations instead of tee times."
McManus had another way of viewing it.
"It's like staying in a five-star hotel that you own a piece of," he said. "And fractional ownership comes with a provisioned kitchen, so you can order your groceries in advance. You can cook, and we'll clean up. There are a myriad of ways to enjoy the kitchen."
Hotel guests will get 600 to 1,200 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, consisting of the same kind of sleeping room, living room and outdoor space.
"You'll have a sit on the chaise with a bottle of wine and order room service," McManus said.
Guests get the use of a pool and fitness center near the property entrance; a bathhouse with saunas, steam rooms and mud treatment rooms; a wine cave with tasting room and lockers; and a dining room operated by chef Robert Leva.
An added bonus likely to be popular with wine lovers is a vintner's program that will bring Napa winemakers to Calistoga Ranch for weekly events and tastings.
Nils and Kirk Venge, a father-and-son team associated with Venge Vineyard, Saddleback Cellars, the new Ghost Winery and the PlumpJack brand, are heading up the program.
Kirk Venge will also be in charge of a 1.5-acre patch of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, to be planted at the resort entrance, which will eventually yield an estate bottled wine.
Hotel guest room rates range from $525 to $825 per night for one-bedroom units and go up to $4,500 for the so-called Estate Lodge, a kind of presidential suite with 3,600 square feet.
The lodge, located above artificial Lake Lommel on the northern edge of the property, is named for the man who owned the land and the RV park for many years.
The story goes that Lommel sold out to Olympus Real Estate Partners of Dallas in the late 1980s, which went through a succession of developers before finding the firm of Criswell Radovan, also of Dallas, to see the project through.
Partner Robert Radovan, hunting for a place in Napa to put up his wedding guests in 1997, found himself squeezed out of the Auberge, Meadowood and other luxury spots. When he happened upon the Lommel site, Radovan decided he would build a new resort himself.
"Other developers had tried to change the entitlements, but we stayed true to the letter of it," Radovan said, nibbling on Leva's beef tenderloin and spring vegetables on the terrace overlooking Lake Lommel. "But we had to ask ourselves: How do we turn this trailer park into the ultimate luxury resort?"
They started with the very practical idea in Napa that preservation and conservation is key to winning local support.
"The reason we went to extremes is we knew there wouldn't be another resort next door," Radovan said.
Then, showing that former Navy Seals can have a tree-hugging side, he added: "If any of the construction guys touched a tree limb larger than 1 inch in diameter, they had to get permission from me or Seamus to remove it."
McManus, dabbing at his just-rare salmon, agreed.
"It takes an act of God to take out a tree here," he said.
"We own ridge line to ridge line," Radovan continued, looking up from the table. "You're right between St. Helena and Calistoga, and you've got some of the best wineries around right here. Diamond Mountain, Clos Pegase, Chateau St. Helena."
He compared this region to Jackson Hole, Wyo., Aspen, Colo., the Hamptons in New York and oceanfront property in Cabo San Lucas -- all destinations with scarce ownership opportunities.
"The Bay Area is one of the few areas where this kind of project can work, " Radovan said.
Kirkham said he had calculated that Calistoga Ranch would end up with 270 owners if all of them bought tenth shares, and 135 owners if all buy fifth shares.
"We think we'll end up with 190 to 200 owners," he said.
So far, he added, 34 potential buyers have put down a refundable deposit on the six residences that are now available.
Ownership lodges at Calistoga Ranch
All of the modular units feature indoor and outdoor living rooms. Thelocation of the bedrooms changes depending on the site.