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Dr. John & Edy Wilkinson
A Calistoga Classic Lives On

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  • Words Allison Reiber DiLiegro
  • Images Arnaud Montagard

Dr. John Wilkinson and his artist wife Edy brought a new world of wellness to the Napa Valley long before it became a trend.

Edy and “Doc,” as the chiropractor and onetime mayor of Calistoga was known by regulars, founded the hotel in 1952 and spent decades growing a loyal following—folks who kept coming back for the couple’s welcoming spirit and the Doc’s iconic, health-giving mud baths.

Today, the torch has been passed to Maki Bara and Rob Kline, who are reinvigorating Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs while working to keep the Wilkinsons’ warmth and wellness traditions alive. The longtime business partners have spent 28 years working to breathe new life into existing properties, typically taking on larger hotels. But Dr. Wilkinson’s was a passion project for them—just as it had been for John and Edy.

“We wanted to keep the old spirit intact,” Bara tells us. “Many loyal guests have been coming for decades and we didn’t want to alienate them. At the same time, we wanted to introduce this amazing experience to a new crop of customers.”

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Maki Bara and Rob Kline are now at the helm of the hotel

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Can you tell us about the mud baths?

Maki Bara: Dr. Wilkinson really popularized mudbathing in Calistoga. He created a sequence that he called “The Works” in 1952, and we still offer it today. And it’s an unbelievable experience—incredibly relaxing.

 

How does the sequence work?

Rob Kline: The “mud” is made from mineral-rich volcanic ash from Calistoga, Canadian peat, and mineral water from the property. These three ingredients are mixed with Doc’s secret formula to create a slurry. And it’s very warm—about 107 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius).

With “The Works,” you soak in the mud for as long as you’d like, shower off, and then get in a mineral-water hydrotherapy pool. After that, you go into the steam room, shower again, and you’re wrapped in a cool blanket on a resting bed before your massage. After that, if you’d like, you can relax in the mineral-fed pools on the property. So it’s about an hour-and-a-half process.

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Canadian peat is a a key ingredient that relaxes the body and alleviates aches and pains

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With “The Works” sequence, guests can soak in the mud for as long as they’d like

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Did you also get access to the secret formula when you acquired the property?

RK: We did. It was shared with us verbally and in a secret notebook that we keep under lock and key.

What did you think when you first tried it?

MB: Actually, I first went to Dr. Wilkinson’s in the 1990s. A friend and I wanted to do something a little different, so she suggested we go—I hadn’t heard of it. At the time, Dr. Wilkinson’s was very different from your typical luxury spa resort, and we loved it. We did “The Works” and it was a little uncomfortable to get into the mud bath at first, but it was wonderful. It was something I had never done before.

RK: It's a weird experience, right? When you played in mud as a kid, your parents would tell you to wash it off. But this is something people seek out, and sometimes make a regular part of their health practice. There are proven benefits, from strengthening skin and detoxifying to relaxing the nerves.

“There are proven benefits, from strengthening skin and detoxifying to relaxing the nerves.”

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So, how did you decide to refresh this iconic property while leaving its spirit intact?

MB: The biggest component to contend with was the architecture. The Wilkinsons started building in 1952, so the architecture is very strong in mid-century modern features. Instead of blowing through and creating a new look, we decided to celebrate it while, at the same time, making it feel contemporary.

RK: Maki did a masterful job in creating this sense of comfort and luxury, yet still having it feel like you’re back in the 1950s. It’s a very difficult line to walk, but she pulled it off.

MB: There are also a few Victorian houses on the property that the Wilkinsons acquired later. We struggled with these from an architectural standpoint because they are so disparate in look. How do we tie them in? Do we remove the Victorian aspect? But when you look at Calistoga, the Victorian style is very dominant within the neighborhood. So we decided: Let's not take them out. Let’s celebrate those buildings, too.

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Bara and Kline decided to keep the architecture of the original Victorian buildings intact

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Edy created several glass and tile mosaics that remain scattered throughout the property

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What are some of your favorite original details that you kept?

MB: There were some designs in the block fencing that were very reminiscent of mid-century modern. We needed to redo the railings for maintenance purposes, so we had someone come in and custom make the metalwork to mimic the original design.

RK: When we interviewed the longtime customers, a few said, “You’re not going to get rid of the mosaics, are you?” Edy Wilkinson was an artist, and she actually sold some artwork from one of the Victorian houses on the property. She created glass and tile mosaics throughout—some are extraordinarily beautiful, and others were not in great shape. We worked hard to keep all of them in the original locations where she placed them.

 

Have you heard any fun anecdotes from your longtime guests?

RK: John was your classic proprietor, there every day engaging with customers. He’d go out into the street, bring people in, and encourage them to try the mudbathing experience. He was a wonderful advocate for the health advantages of mudbathing and soaking in the mineral waters.

John and Edy ran this property as a true expression of their personalities and approached it with a sense of freedom. In other words, if they wanted to run the spa that day, they would open it. If they wanted to close it, they would close it. They would treat the hotel somewhere between their home and their business. It was their own quirky approach to running the resort and I think that was endearing in a lot of ways.

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A replica of Dr. Wilkinson’s 1952 Buick is parked at the entrance

“Take your health seriously but don't take yourself too seriously. That is an ethos we want to celebrate.”

Rob Kline

Is there anything from that spirit that you want to be sure to keep alive?

RK: Dr. Wilkinson took wellness very, very seriously, but he wasn’t robotic about it. He understood that it’s Napa Valley, where people come to have fun: to enjoy wine, good food, and good health. He understood that you can integrate healthy living with fun. That was the personality he brought: Take your health seriously but don't take yourself too seriously. That is an ethos we want to celebrate.

MB: My best friend from middle school and I just went to the property to celebrate our 50th anniversary together. So we were there when we were 25, and now we’re there at 50. And she was telling me about a time when she went in her 20s and John Wilkinson was out and about talking to people. She was talking to John, and he was saying to her, “I’m so glad to see young people here.” As his customers had sort of grown up with him.

And I wish Dr. Wilkinson could see it now. He would see so many young people. People of all ages, too, but a lot of young energy is just filling the property today. This weekend was packed and we plan to have many more weekends like that.

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