Best Rests in the West: Four Luxurious Retreats To Rejuvenate Body and Soul
What's your ideal spa getaway? Hopping in the hot tub after a long hike through the redwoods? Enjoying a panoramic desert view while sipping a glass of wine near a crackling piñon fire? Or perhaps indulging in a massage under the stars in your own private garden, courtesy of Texas' lakeside hill country? Whatever your pleasure, take our advice—park your worries, pack your bags and go West.
I didn't want to do it, but 35 miles south of San Francisco I left Highway 1 and headed into the hills, becoming morose about surrendering the majestic ocean views. There was a consolation, however: three days at the Lodge at Skylonda, a small spa dropped into the middle of the redwoods.
As I pulled up the driveway a half-hour later, I was completely absorbed by the surrounding trees that stood like sentinels chosen to protect their mountain—amazing entities connecting earth and sky. For reasons I couldn't articulate, I felt honored.
The 16-room lodge set in the middle of the trees fit in exactly with its powerful environs—not inconspicuous, but in keeping with the theme, as if it had, along with its botanical neighbors, grown up out of the ground. The stone walkway led inside to an equally inspiring space—warm, elegant and with an earthy décor. It was easy to settle in.
Later, wrapped in my plush terry cloth robe—a staple for all Skylonda guests—and sipping a cup of herbal tea, I spoke with Tracy Herk, general manager of the lodge. "There is a mind-body approach to this place," she says, explaining that the integration of nature into the Skylonda experience is key. Whether you embark on the daily hike, walk the winding property trails or relax in the outdoor hot tub, you can't help but be affected by the beauty and power of your surroundings.
With the exception of the redwoods, what I found most remarkable about the lodge was the way the staff contributed to the energy of the place. Join one of the organized daily hikes and you'll see what I mean while listening to the tales of 64-year-old Patrick Colgan. His Irish accent will charm; his stories will inspire. And if you show an interest, he'll introduce you to Methuselah, the 1800-year-old redwood down the road. "Can you believe they pay me to do this?" Colgan asks in happy dismay.
It's All About You
"You can hike, you can sleep in, you can have a vegetarian meal or enjoy a filet—the choice is yours," says Herk. Besides the many bodywork treatments to choose from, the lodge offers daily activities including circuit training, aqua aerobics, tai chi, yoga, stretching classes and cooking instruction. Yet there's no pressure to do anything at all.
And did I mention the food? Executive Chef Sue Chapman keeps it healthy and flavorful with breakfast dishes such as Pumpkin Pancakes with Currents and Nutmeg. Lunches feature such delicacies as Beet and Brie Bisque and Warm Wild Mushroom Salad with Caramelized Baby Leeks. Dinner entrées range from Penne Puttanesca to Seared Scallops with Lavender, Lime and Champagne. Dessert anyone? Try the Chocolate Angel Food Cake, Baked Pears with Spiced Breadcrumb Streusel or, my favorite, Coconut Gelato.
The Royal Treatment
- Shirdhara: This mesmerizing mixture of ritual, physical and spiritual bodywork is a 90-minute treatment that begins with the Ayurvedic custom of pouring warm sesame oil over the "third eye," located in the middle of the forehead. This balances the body and opens the window to creativity. A head massage and herbal hair treatment ensue, finished off with a massage focusing specifically on the hands and feet. Ahhhh...
- Reflexology: Targeting reflex points in the feet, hands and ears, this rejuvenating and incredibly relaxing treatment opens energy pathways in the body and enhances circulation. When it was over, I simply stared out the windows into the redwoods—and let the energy flow.
- Essential Oil Wrap with Dry Brush Massage: This treatment begins with a soothing dry brush exfoliation to prepare the skin for a massage, using the essential oil of your choice. Special attention is paid to the hands and feet. A quiet walk around the deck in my robe was the perfect finish to this treatment.
Visit skylondalodge.com or call 800.851.2222 for more information.
Wining, Dining, Refining
What better way to soothe your soul than to head for the hills—the rolling hills of the Mayacamas Range in California's spectacular Sonoma County wine country. Here, tucked into the Valley of the Moon's verdant, vine-covered hills rests the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, a luxurious four-star, four-diamond resort that has consecutively been named one of the Top Ten U.S. Spas.
For good reason. The Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is sheer indulgence—luxury without pretension, pampering without pandering. One of the finest spas in the world, this venerable resort is patterned after the most fashionable destination spas in Europe, from Bath to Baden-Baden.
In fact, visiting the Inn feels like escaping to an Old World village. Its Mission-style architecture evokes memories of Spain and Old Mexico, but its amenities are all 21st century. Suites are lavish and luxurious, and include marble-walled whirlpool baths, private patios, a fireplace and plush featherbed with down comforter.
The tradition of "taking the waters" is revered in California's Valley of the Moon. Emerging from artesian wells directly beneath the Inn, fresh mineral water fills the spa's three pools at temperatures ranging from 96-98 degrees. A true indulgence is the spa's 10-step, 60-minute bathing process—a series of immersions in hot and cold mineral water, patterned after an elaborate Roman bath ritual—that jumpstarts the day's treatments in the fabulous new spa complex.
Serene and private, scented by flowering gardens that terrace down to an outdoor mineral pool, the spa offers more than 40 relaxing and revitalizing treatments—including aromatherapy, shiatsu, reflexology, therapeutic massage, herbal and seaweed body wraps, body scrubs, facials and complete salon services. Two of the spa's signature treatments get my "exceptional" rating: the Wine Country Kur and the Watsu. The Kur consists of exfoliating the body with pulverized grape seeds from nearby vineyards followed by an invigorating shower, a warm grape-seed tub soak and a massage with grape-seed oil that leaves your skin baby-soft and your spirit butterfly-free.
The innovative Watsu was not only relaxing but profoundly transcendent. This waterborne massage therapy—a California-based version of Zen shiatsu—made me feel as though I had safely returned to the womb, with no sights or sounds to interrupt the feeling of being totally in the moment.
The spa menu doesn't stop here. You can schedule a-la-carte offerings such as guided wine-country hikes, bike tours, hot-air balloon rides and a wide range of fitness classes such as yoga, body sculpting, cardio circuits and meditation. Visitors can also schedule personalized sessions with a nutritionist, stress-management specialist, image consultant or Tarot card reader—all effective for helping you connect with some part of your body, mind or spirit.
"We focus on facilitating the experience of connection," says Gabriela Knubis, public relations director—"the connection between guest and practitioner; between couples; to one's own body and sense of self; to nature; and to spirit." Jeff Kohl, director of spa operations, agrees: "We're here to make certain every guest connects to and enjoys a world-class, wine-country experience."
World-class definitely describes the cuisine at this health-conscious spa. Guided by renowned chef Toni Robertson, chef of five-star restaurants the world over, the fare is a fabulous fusion of East-West culinary arts and healthy, locally grown produce. You can even watch your food being prepared in the exhibition kitchen with a tandoori clay oven. And you'll want to savor the tasting menu, which includes a variety of dim sum, California hand rolls and tandoori flat breads. Nightly wine-tasting events can be enjoyed by a crackling fire in the inn's lobby, a cozy culmination to a relaxing yet resplendent day in America's beloved wine-producing paradise.
For more information, call 800.862.4945 or visit sonomamissioninn.com.
Mudpack at The Oasis
As I entered La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa, surrounded by the high, pristine desert mountains of New Mexico, I wondered if I was merely viewing a beautiful mirage. Set on six serene acres in the heart of bustling Santa Fe and shaded by scores of fruit trees and towering cottonwoods, La Posada is truly a desert oasis for tired bodies and thirsty souls. With the warm, welcoming ambiance of a Spanish hacienda, this enchanting resort prides itself on being luxurious and yet eminently homey, combining the best of Old World charm with New World comforts.
Each room and suite is unique, expertly decorated with natural desert elements including stone tile, wood-beam ceilings and adobe walls painted with the palette of Georgia O'Keeffe: sunset-plum, butternut-squash, bone-white. My cozy casita featured a kiva fireplace stocked with sweet-burning piñon wood, and a private patio from which I could hear the lingering chimes of nearby St. Francis Cathedral.
Avanyu, La Posada's full-service spa—named after the legendary plumed water serpent of the Tewa Pueblo peoples—offers treatments based on traditional Native American and Southwestern elements. Baked mud, desert herbs, smooth black river stones and crushed maize are incorporated to calm and revitalize body, mind and spirit. "We live in a city of healers," says Karen Koehler, spa director. "When we set up Avanyu, we wanted to make it distinctly different. The heart of our house is matching the individual to the best treatment for his or her needs."
A Perfect Match
- Adobe Mud Wrap: This purifying wrap starts with a light exfoliation of the skin with a cactus-fiber cloth. Following a mud-lotion rubdown, the body is loosely wrapped to retain heat, drawing out impurities and relaxing muscles. A soothing shower followed by a massage with warm sage-juniper lotion left me blissed out and smelling luscious.
- High Desert Stone Massage: Smooth basalt stones, bath-heated to 150 degrees, are chosen, placed and manipulated by a trained therapist to individually relieve tense muscles and balance energy. This trendy, new massage style is receiving rave reviews across the country. I liken it to being massaged with small, smooth heating pads.
- Corn Dance Skin Purification: Another favorite, this treatment starts with an exfoliating blend of cornmeal, oatmeal and clay, followed by a relaxing cocoon-like wrap, warm-water rinse, and application of lavender and sage oils that stimulate circulation, leaving skin silky smooth.
The spa also features a fully equipped fitness room, a steam room, hair and nail pampering, and a year-round outdoor heated pool and whirlpool.
Then, of course, there's the food. Fuego, La Posada's signature restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner featuring creative gourmet cuisine with a Southwestern flair. Vegetarian and lighter options are available (don't miss the Grilled Portobello with Herb Goat Cheese or, for breakfast, Maria's Huevos Rancheros). "We want to invite people to our home, instead of to a business," says Gary Palm, La Posada's executive chef/food and beverage director. "What we offer is from the heart."
For more information, call 800.727.5276 or visit laposadadesantafe.com.
Texas on My Mind
Maybe I fall in love too easily, but the Gingerbread Pancakes at Lake Austin Spa have completely stolen my heart. For the past nine years, Chef Terry Conley has been responsible for creating a spa menu focusing on healthy, fresh foods instead of "diet" food. His dishes boast bold ingredients with strong, clean flavors. The twice-yearly revamped menu features such wonders as Spinach and Mushroom Quesadilla, Cannelini Bean and Fennel Soup, and Smoked Duck and Apple Ravioli with Spinach Cream Sauce.
"The trick," explains Conley, "is to create a certain sensation; one that has nothing to do with denial. We have a captive audience here, and it's fun for us to bounce all over the globe with our menu and to keep options fresh for our guests."
Conley grows almost all the herbs used in his kitchen on site, and has plans this year to develop an organic garden with an assortment of fruits and vegetables. Calorie and fat grams are listed in the menu for those keeping track, with a 1,200 calorie-per-day goal for women and 1,500 calories per day for men.
Conley also teaches cooking classes at Lake Austin, allowing guests to learn healthy, flavorful ways of preparing food at home. "The focus at Lake Austin," says Spa Director Lynn Vertrees, "is all about balance. We want people to leave here with something they can implement in their daily lives. We believe it's important to pass along our knowledge about living a healthy, balanced life."
Guests choose from an extensive palette of spa treatments including a full-body Honey Mango Scrub featuring almond meal, slippery elm bark and sea kelp, followed by a Swedish massage; the Dosha Balancing treatment, an Ayurvedic therapy to align the three constitutions of the body; and the Cactus Cooler, incorporating aloe vera, tea tree and lavender in a soothing, moisturizing wrap.
A full range of fitness classes are also available, such as Spinning, yoga, salsa aerobics and sculling on beautiful Lake Austin. All available, but none required—no one here makes you feel guilty if you choose to seclude yourself with a novel in your private garden next to your Japanese-style fountain.
Spa packages come in several shapes and sizes, with most including accomodations, all meals and a daily treatment of choice. Full and half-day spa packages are available as well.
Yes, maybe I fall in love too easily, but I challenge you not to lose your heart at Lake Austin Spa. Between the amazing menu, the beautiful environment and the extensive bodywork options, there is little not to love.
- Mermaid of the Sea: A seaweed bath designed to eliminate toxins and stimulate the body's process of fat elimination, this 70-minute water experience left me flapping my tail in ecstasy.
- Indian Clay Purification Treatment: My absolute favorite. After a dry body scrub, mineral-drenched adobe clay is applied to the skin. You are then wrapped in a warm, relaxing cocoon while the clay does its detoxifying magic. After a soothing shower, the therapist applies aromatherapy oils to the entire body, then watches as you float out the door toward your room.
- Wildflower Delight: After a light, dry body brush/polish, shea butter infused with essential oils is rubbed into the skin. You are then wrapped, cleansed and rubbed down with aromatherapy lotions. Total decadence.
For more information, contact Lake Austin Spa at 800.847.5637, or log on to lakeaustin.com.