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The Spa Who Loved Me

Get rubbed, scrubbed, wrapped, and unwound in spas from Northern California to the deserts of Las Vegas.

woman with a cosmetic face mask, image
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You will be more relaxed and more beautiful when you finish with a spa treatment.

Alright. You’ve survived the revolving door of relatives and the mad dashes to Target for tinsel. Now the piled-up dishes and postponed appointments are clamoring for attention. And you just found that extra helping of pie—between you and your waistband.

There is an antidote. It’s called a spa. And like an old friend, it’s waiting to help you forget your worries.

From the Northern California coast to the deserts around Las Vegas, spas are popping up faster than you can say "Steve Wynn." In style and expense, spas run the gamut—from rustic affairs where life revolves around a bubbling spring, to lavish pleasure palaces where the only thing missing is your own personal throne.

In sorting out what each spa had to offer, our results were both eye- and pore-opening. One editor, a spa novice, actually had to be coaxed into going ("They aren’t going to do anything weird, are they?") He came back a glowing convert. We also learned a lesson in the limits of indulgence: Never, ever have your skin exfoliated two days in a row.

The following are our favorite destination spas, where overnight accommodations can extend a quick tune-up into a true getaway (in fact, many are for overnight guests only). The list is by no means comprehensive, but it should get you started into a world where serenity reigns supreme.

Metropolitan Massages
The City and surroundings don’t usually inspire images of lazy lounging at a spa for hours on end. If given a choice, however, why not stay where you can rejuvenate after a long urbanite day?

I left my stress in San Francisco: Steep-hill-weary muscles will appreciate it if you pick a San Francisco hotel with a spa. Many of the big hotels have massage therapists on call, and fitness centers. A sure thing is the Ritz-Carlton, perched above downtown, with a grand lap pool, whirlpools, and a healthy list of spa treatments. A specialty: combination massage therapy (using, say, Swedish and shiatsu). (415) 296-7465.

Viva Spas Vegas
Relaxing in Las Vegas will soon be as easy as finding a blackjack table. Pampering is the latest trend—new casinos and resorts are appearing fully equipped with deluxe spas, and many of the older casinos and hotels are working to stay on par. Here are a few good bets:

Elvis, peel me a grape: Feel like an emperor (or empress) as staff members at the Spa at Caesar’s Palace make offerings of hedonistic champagne facials, Venus Vitamin body treatments, or aromatic steam baths. Rather shun the Roman gods for nirvana? Open your eyes to Ayurvedic treatments based on Indian healing rituals (including a gentle exfoliation and an oil massage scented with sandalwood, rose, vetiver, sage, and cinnamon.) A trip to the steam room lets those fragrant oils seep into your pores, turning you into a walking air freshener. Finish up in the Sanctum of Peace, where you’ll be calmed by the Zen waterfall until you feel ready to face the surreal world again. Et tu, gambler? (800) 634-6001.

Just like peeling the skin off an onion. Dead cells are removed with scrubs, masks, or acid peels, revealing the younger, smoother layer of skin beneath.

Another land of milk and honey: Want to feel miles away from the nearest neon sign without leaving the Strip? Dissolve into the MGM Hotel’s Grand Spa. Here you can have your skin softened with milk and honey. You can loll in the Jacuzzi, eucalyptus-scented steam room, sauna, or have your face massaged with aromatic oils. Not a single jingle of slot machines, no hot rays of Nevada sun beating down as you gaze out into the palm trees bending over the hotel’s many pools. The serenity of the spa works as a perfect foil to the lights, noise, and crowds of Las Vegas. Subdued abstract art, soothing earth tones, and cool stone surfaces surround you as you submerge yourself in the tranquil belly of the resort. (702) 891-3077.

Healing from the outside in. By applying pressure to nerve endings in your hands and feet, a masseuse can release tension in organs and body systems.

More mud and tangerine dreams: Simmer in a bath of earthy, tangerine-scented moor mud beneath a domed painted sky at the Desert Inn and Spa. Muted light from the desert sun seeps through glass-brick walls. Be led from the bath to the scrub room, where you’re rubbed with sea and raspberry salts until you positively glow. After an hour of massage—maybe a little shiatsu to get those bunched up pressure points straightened out—be careful; in your relaxed state you might fall into one of the hotel’s many pools or wander out onto the golf course. The spa provides everything from a nourishing hair and scalp treatment to therapeutic baths to private spa suites. (800) 634-6909.

Wine, Dine, and Recline
The list of attributes that have become synonymous with the California wine country has grown steadily over the years. Sure, some spas have been around forever, but more and more are appearing. Now, the wine country’s "must be experienced" list includes great wine, great food, and great spas.

The well-seasoned body: Taking the waters has deep meaning at Sonoma Mission Inn, where the 135-degree artesian waters bubble into pools from 1,100 feet below. This is wine country crossed with an extensive European-style spa. The coed bathhouse contrasts the energy of an aerobic studio with contented sighs from a eucalyptus steam room. Terry-robed sensualists float from indoor to outdoor mineral whirlpools. Classes suit introverts and extroverts—from yoga and tai chi to the art of illusion in dressing. Treatments leave no muscle unstroked—Swedish Esalen massage and wraps will turn you into a fragrant cocoon; citrus body scrubs will banish toxins. Dine on the freshest Sonoma farm products at the inn’s grill or on eclectic American cuisine at its casual bistro. In Sonoma. (707) 938-9000.

Spa de deux: It’s not just the arbored courtyard with fountains and persimmon, fig, and olive trees that makes the 12-suite Kenwood Inn & Spa so Italian. Nor the intimate scale of this Tuscan villa in the Valley of the Moon. Nor Chef Charles Holmes’s Mediterranean cuisine served near the pool and Jacuzzi. It’s the indulgent treatment for two, given on a private terrace. Together, you and your sweetheart get aromatized, exfoliated, detoxified, mint-washed, massaged with sea salts. Mama mia, after you’ve been spoiled in tandem, what’s left? How about Kenwood’s Faccia Bella, an acupressure facelift, or Italian Fango, a facial with special emulsions? From thermal masks to Ayurvedic purification and shiatsu—it all adds up to La Dolce Vita, another in a full line of treatments. In Kenwood. (707) 833-1293.

Body Wraps
Being slathered in oil, mud, or herbs and swaddled in warm sheets eliminates impurities, softens the skin, and calms the mind.

Four hands are better than one: From its roots as an innovative Napa Valley restaurant, Auberge du Soleil has blossomed into a top-of-the-line getaway destination where even the name, "the Inn of the Sun," conveys luxurious sensuality. In the spa, this romantic flair takes the form of several lovebird packages, such as the Romance Package: an aromatic body polish for two, a massage, a cup of Lover’s Tea, and a Colour Bath (the colored water promotes love and kindness). The Couple’s Massage is every back-rub-starved individual’s dream: a two-hour session in which you and your partner learn techniques for hands-on bliss. Or there’s always the ultimate indulgence: Auberge’s Four Handed Massage means two skilled therapists working on one serene you. In Rutherford. (707) 967-9990.

Just like a whiff of apple pie can take you back to your mother’s kitchen, the scent of fragrant plant oils and extracts can transport you to a world of utter relaxation.

Yes, I’d like a facial, sir! When a spa appoints an Iron Man Triathlete as its director, you know it takes pampering seriously. Take ultra-luxurious Meadowood, a veritable boot camp of indulgence in the Napa Valley. Here your hedonism training begins with a warm-up of saunas, steam rooms, and whirlpools. Then relaxation intervals: European facials, aromatherapy massages, and reflexology. Finally, the real kicker: the resort’s trademark Chardonnay Body Wrap—50 minutes of catatonic pleasure. But don’t even think of wimping out now. You’ve got melt-in-your-mouth entrees to eat, local wines to swill, and oak-shaded paths to stroll. By the end of the day you’ll flop atop your bed and cry, "How much rejuvenation can one mere mortal be expected to bear?" In St. Helena. (707) 963-3646.

Salt scrubs
Rough salt granules are rubbed over your body, buffing away dead skin and leaving you tingly and invigorated. Not recommended for slugs.

Where goddesses reign supreme: Juventas, goddess of the fountain of youth, reigns as patroness of the Villagio Inn and Spa. Disguised as a convenient roadside stop just off Highway 29 in Napa Valley’s Yountville, Villagio opened its doors in November. Nine goddesses watch over the village-like hotel. In honor of Juturna, the goddess of wells, springs, rivers, and fountains, water flows throughout—in pools, hot tubs, fountains (one should give serious thought to a hydrotherapy treatment here). The 3,500-square-foot spa has 10 treatment rooms, private lap pool, whirlpools, and fitness room. Nearby, cute Yountville has many a fine restaurant, owned by famed chefs. (800) 351-1133.

Not to be confused with acupuncture. Pressure applied along the body’s energy channels reduces inflammation and, like, enhances energy flow.

Purple haze: Maybe the spa concept leaves you feeling a little, well, intimidated, and words like paraffin and antioxidants sound more like Mr. Spock’s lunch than skin treatment. Enter the Purple Orchid Inn Resort and Spa. Here the uninitiated can indulge under the roof of the largest residential Lincoln Log structure on the planet. And, the staff is very down-to-earth about explanations. How about a deep tissue massage, getting down into those sore spots, and mineral salt bath; or perhaps a moor mud facial and herbal body wrap, or simple relaxation by the pool? The Orchid (a bed and breakfast) has eight rooms that reflect different facets (sorry, no atomic room) of the Livermore Valley—one of California’s oldest wine growing regions. In Livermore, east of the Bay Area. (800) 353-4549.

Going Wild
The ocean, hills, and forests of trees along the California coast can do nothing but help propel a spa visitor to faster healing. Here are two classic coastal spas.

Through a window, brightly: Henry Miller, who raised sensual living to a literary form, would appreciate the sybaritic retreat, Ventana Inn and Spa. The inn’s cedar suites are a few ridges north of where Miller lived and wrote in Big Sur’s Santa Lucias. Nature feeds the soul, he said. So it does as you take a Japanese hot bath at 1,200 feet above the sea. If Henry were around, he’d entrust his solar Plexus and aching Nexus to the massage therapist’s strokes. An array of massages, body brushes, and wraps is available in-room. A new spa facility will open in April. Treatments from the ocean, earth, and plants will be added to the roster, along with the energy-balancing traditions of the East—Ayurvedic, yoga, meditation. (800) 628-6500.

Do you take your massage with salt, or without? Guests at the utterly romantic hideaway, Sonoma Coast Villa, swear by the body salt scrubs and the salt scrub body polish. For more oneness with the nearby ocean, try a seaweed mud body mask. Or, to fight nature, try the age-defying treatment. Before each, you get to soak your tootsies in a Mediterranean foot bath (sprinkled with rose petals), given in the spa garden. The entire inn could be a tiny outpost of Italy, all terra-cotta with gardens winding through the grounds. You’ll find it in the hills, 5 miles inland from Bodega Bay, with wineries and seaside restaurants not far away. (888) 404-2255.

Get Real
There are some resorts where well-coifed patrons glide from facial to massage, pausing to nibble on a sprig of watercress. Then there are resorts for the rest of us, where sunburned patrons tromp from volleyball court to mud bath, pausing to chow down on all-you-can-eat ribs and admire their children doing cannonballs into the pool.

Laid back at the lake: Take Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa, a pretension-less playland on the shores of Clear Lake. Folks come here for the inexpensive digs, the activities—tennis, waterskiing, mini golf—and for blowout concerts by the likes of Willie Nelson and the Righteous Brothers. After pulling your shoulder tossing horseshoes, head to the full-service spa for massages, pedicures, facials, loofahs, and whirlpools. And you needn’t worrying about an invasion of über-perfect people: "Guts and Butts" is still the most popular workout class. In Kelseyville, off Hwy. 29. (800) 660-5253.

Where to Ski to a Spa
So you’d rather be on the slopes, using your muscles for all they’re worth? Here’s a thought: Rip up the Sierra slopes all morning and have the therapists put you back together that evening. In summer, the same theory can apply for hiking and biking.

How to lose the family: The big, luxury Resort at Squaw Creek says they are a family destination—rooms with views over Olympic Valley, hot tubs, pools, even their own ice rink. So try this: Send the rest of your family up the mountain to Squaw Valley to ski, and disappear at the spa. A specialty: the "Skier’s Paradise" sports massage, using compression and trigger point therapy. Or, the full-service salon will wrap (complete facials) your face, and take care of your fingers and toes, too. In Squaw Valley, North Lake Tahoe. (800) 327-3353.

Mud Baths
Why wallow like a piglet? Heated mud relaxes your muscles, forces you to sweat out toxins, and remineralizes your skin.

Honey, I shrunk my body: How does a honeysuckle body scrub sound? Or a glycolic peel? The Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort and Casino, near the shores of the deep lake and beneath the Incline Village ski resorts, will do either to you. Maybe you’re more of an "integrated massage" type, with a combination of, say, Swedish and deep tissue massage? There’s lots more on the menu. In Incline Village, North Lake Tahoe. (800) 553-3288.

Heaven-scent: Come off the cross-country trails or downhill ski slopes in heavenly Yosemite National Park to the AAA 4-diamond Tenaya Lodge, tucked into the trees at the park’s southern gateway. The lodge’s no-frills spa offers a variety of body treatments: massages, wraps, mud packs, aromatherapy, hydrotherapy, facial treatments, scrubs. The indoor lap pool is open year-round. Also here: a fitness center and outdoor pool. In Fish Camp, south of Yosemite. (800) 635-5807.

Where the whirlpools are: John Ascuaga’s Nugget is into whirlpools—a bunch of them bubble along the edge of a giant indoor pool there. Glass walls give views of nearby Reno and the desert. Amenities include a massage room, manicures, and fitness center. Other casinos in the area that will massage your sorry muscles include the Silver Legacy and the Hilton. For the Nugget, in Sparks, call (800) 648-1177.

Like the Tumbling Tumbleweed
North of Las Vegas, the burnt desert is so dry that your eyes ache and you work up a terrible thirst. Wait, what’s that off the road? An oasis? Not only an Oasis, but also a Casablanca. Farther still, Red Mountain and Green Valley. Just a few hours outside of Las Vegas, spas offer relief from the harsh desert, or the harsh neon.

Rub it again, Sam: When at the Casablanca Resort in Mesquite, Nevada, indulgence can easily take precedence over gambling. Maybe an outdoor hot oil treatment under a canopy so your hair can become lustrous while you listen to the breeze riffling through the trees? (Surely Ingrid Bergman would have indulged.) Or a therapist can give you an underwater massage in the Watsu pool. Mineral baths, fitness center, massages, peat moss mud treatments—all amid the peacefulness of the open-air spa. You’ll always have Mesquite. (800) 459-PLAY.

The decadent desert: Hang your hat and kick off your boots: It’s time to have your body rubbed with crushed pearls and your face uplifted with cinnamon and sugar. But of course, you’re at the Green Valley Spa at Si Redd’s Oasis. The prestigious Utah spa has spread its soothing arms into nearby Mesquite, Nevada, bringing with it frescoed bathing rooms and massage rooms sprinkled with flower petals, burning candles, cooling flavored waters, and the aromas of flowers, herbs, and fruits. Think lush, think tranquil, think relieved muscles. This luscious spa offers everything from rejuvenating water treatments to cleansing clay facials. (800) 21-OASIS ext. 3551.

Southwest immersion: The Southwestern adobe architecture of the Green Valley Spa sets well against the red canyons and bluffs leading to Zion National Park. For more regional spirit, take part in the Native American mind-body treatments that can lead from sage-scented treatment rooms into the desert. Dive into the pool, dip into Canyonland mud, or soak up hot oil hair treatments in the garden. Gurgling fountains, aromatic baths, and meditation rooms help make up the resort’s Relaxation Center. The spa—big sister to the one in Mesquite—includes a tennis school and a golf studio and golf course. In St. George, Utah. (800) 237-1068.

Earn that relaxation:
After a long hike or mountain bike ride into the massive, rust-colored walls of Snow Canyon with staff from Red Mountain Spa, there’s a body-polishing scrub with honey mango, or a relaxing massage waiting for you. Well, not all massages are relaxing—the Russian massage stimulates, revitalizes, and energizes…don’t ask how. With a focus on nutrition education and exercise, this fitness resort offers spinning, water aerobics, tai chi, and yoga; healthy meals, and space-age lodging. Treatments run the gamut: Try an aloe vera body wrap to rehydrate, or perhaps a gentleman’s facial. In St. George, Utah. (800) 407-3002.

Rub a dub dub, beyond the hot tub: One could easily forget skiing- or hiking-sore muscles at the Cedar Breaks Lodge and Spa, in the mountains of Southern Utah near the state’s grand circle of national parks. Designed for personal fitness and, of course, revitalization of the mind and body, specialties include a dead-skin-exfoliating aromatic bath and a two-hour "Ultimate Full Body Massage." Downstairs is a pool looking out to the mountains and big hot tubs in front of roaring fires. In Brian Head, Utah. (888) 282-3327.

Rejuvenating History
Spas have been around at least since Roman times and some are older than dirt. The Napa Valley bubbles and gurgles with mineral waters and hot springs and volcanic mud. Like a good wine, many historic spas have improved with age.

City of mud and minerals: Consider the whole town of Calistoga, at the head of the Napa Valley, a spa. It sits atop a major thermal area where the hot springs boil and bubble up from the ground 24 hours a day, century after century. And it has volcanic mud that any number of establishments will be happy to sling on top of your sorry, stressed-out self. Spas vary in size, age, style, luxury, and price. Most have separate bathhouses and spas for men and women; some offer private bathhouses for couples. Many offer massages, wraps, facials, indoor and outdoor whirlpools, and swimming pools in assorted sizes. Decades back, guests would stay for long periods, so many lodgings have kitchens. Calistoga’s first real spa resort was opened by Sam Brannan in 1860; the longest-operating is Doc Wilkinson’s. All this must be good for you—Doc is now a thriving 84-year-old. Contact the chamber of commerce for a detailed brochure, (707) 942-6333.

Simply satisfying: The 145-year history of White Sulphur Springs, in Napa Valley’s St. Helena, includes the satisfying fact that local Indians were using these warm, sulfurous waters for medicinal purposes centuries before Hollywood celebrities began touting Evian. Set in a forest of redwoods, oak, and madrone, this rustic, simple resort is a place where the natural world comes back into focus. After a long soak in the tub, a bike ride through nearby vineyards, and an outdoor massage under an ancient madrone, you’ll be ready to face the world again. (707) 963-8588.

You’ll get a kick from champagne: Jack London did it. So did Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and countless others over the past 140 years. Traveling by ferry, stagecoach, and train, they took the "champagne baths" at Vichy Springs Resort. You’ll be following in their footsteps at these 19th-century cement tubs, stained a deep red ochre by the highly mineralized waters. Pull out the stopper, plug up the hole, and sink into the effervescent waters. Pleasures here are that simple. There are no self-improvement workshops, no Jazzercise classes. The toughest decision is whether to get a massage, hike to the waterfall, splash in the Olympic-size pool, or just take another intoxicating champagne dip. To really fall under Vichy’s tranquil trance, spend a night in their historic rooms or cottages (breakfast included). In Ukiah, California. (707) 462-9515.

Invasion of the Body Relaxers
Several hotels and resorts on California’s Monterey Peninsula have begun a transformation—a metamorphosis, if you will. When done, they will emerge from their cocoons as full-service spas.

The Monterey Plaza Hotel unveils its European-style spa this spring, (800) 334-3999, (800) 631-1339 outside California. The new Bernardus Lodge arrives in Carmel Valley in late spring, (888) 648-9463. By fall a completely remodeled spa will debut at the Robles del Rio Lodge in Carmel Valley, (800) 833-0843. Fall will also bring the Spa at Pebble Beach Resort, (800) 654-9300. Watch for the Golden Door spa at Carmel Valley Ranch Resort to open in the year 2000, (800) 422-7635.

Monterey Peninsula
Retreat in Style
There are spas where you check in, and don’t check out. That is, until you have had a serious (or semi-serious) overhaul of your inner and outer selves. These retreats will rub, stretch, thump, and pat your worries out of you; exercise your muscles and your adrenaline;and cleanse your insides with good, healthy food. In Northern California, tucked high into the redwoods, both Ventana Inn and Spa and The Lodge at Skylonda will take you in and make sure you head for home a happier, healthier person with a whole new attitude. In Southern Utah, Green Valley Spa and Red Mountain Spa both focus on nutrition, education, exercise, and, of course, soothing your worries away. Ah retreats—the ultimate treat.

A hike a day keeps the stress away:
The Lodge at Skylonda
considers its deep forest exfoliation with clay mud, oatmeal, and essence of pine (you wear it, not eat it) a spa specialty. How apropos. High in the hills above stressful Silicon Valley, the Lincoln Log lodge and spa is tucked behind thick walls of towering redwoods, madrones, firs. It’s all about a rejuvenating getaway here. Every morning, guests go out for a long hike in the forest. After lunch, there are exercise classes (tai chi, yoga, aquatics). The lodge has 16 spacious rooms. The decadent spa is partially lit by soft light pouring in through stained glass windows. Saunas and steam baths wait for guests. The indoor pool and outdoor hot tub look onto the wall of trees. The list of treatments, covering head to toe, is lengthy.

Upstairs, the grand Great Hall is lined with shelves of books and tall windows. Here Chef Sue Chapman holds cooking demonstrations of her healthy—and hearty—concoctions, such as stuffed pumpkin with gorgonzola and Peking duck with forbidden rice.

Skylonda events to entice visitors include: Valentine’s packages; Food and Wine Week, February 21 through 26; Women’s Week, March 21 through 26 (including the lucky combination of a stock portfolio counselor and a clairvoyant counselor). Rates go down January through March. In Woodside, Calif.(800) 851-2222.

This article was first published in January 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.