It seems lately like every hotel is suddenly a “resort” or at least includes a spa offering the latest herbal-infused therapies. But if you’re hoping for a truly therapeutic approach to relaxation or, better yet, some relief for your aching back or racing mind, that’s not so easily found.
With my back and shoulders perennially sore from long hours on the computer, I’m eager to have a massage any chance I get. But I’ve found the massages offered at many resort spas to be frustratingly inadequate. It’s not that the practitioners aren’t skilled — the Bay Area is overrun with well-qualified massage therapists. But sometimes it seems like spa directors think vacationers want only light-touch relaxation massages and don’t offer the full range of treatment options that true massage afficionados like myself crave. But it’s not all letdown and disappointment; some Napa and Sonoma spas are taking advantage of the area’s wealth of experience in alternative bodywork to offer truly innovative therapeutic experiences. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. The Spa at Hotel Healdsburg
The term biodynamic is a strict designation; farms that grow lavender and other herbs biodynamically not only use no pesticides or herbicides but utilize an intensive cyclic organic gardening process that ensures maximum nutrient content in the herbs. The biodynamic massage offered by the Spa at Hotel Healdsburg (on the Condé Nast Gold List for the past three years) uses biodynamic lavender-grapefruit massage oil produced by local Sebastopol herbalist Stella Flora for a truly holistic experience. Thanks to the oil’s deep penetration and lack of surface grease, the masseuse is able to get a stronger grip and really work the muscles and joints. As a former beauty editor for women’s magazines, I’m hard to impress when it comes to spa products, and I loved the Stella Flora products so much I contacted the company myself afterwards, and will be doing a future article on their operations.
2. The Kenwood Inn and Spa
Known for its romantic ambiance and phenomenal cuisine, the Kenwood Inn may not be the first Sonoma hotel that comes to mind when you’re looking for a spa. But since reopening after an expansion, Kenwood’s spa has earned accolades for European-style treatments and attention to detail. (Condé Nast Traveler readers put Kenwood at the top of the Gold List again this year, voting Kenwood one of the top three resort spas in the U.S.) Kenwoood is also one of the few resort spas I’ve visited that offers true therapeutic massage; guests have a choice of Swedish or deep tissue. There are three different heated salt-water pools, two of which include waterfalls that are perfectly positioned to massage an aching back. Thalasso therapy, a Greek technique of salt water massage, is all the rage in Europe, and Kenwood’s treatments reminded me of this tradition. Take advantage of beauty regimens such as a full-body cellulite treatment and an organic enzyme facial, and you can return home not just feeling years younger, but looking that way too.
3. Auberge du Soleil
At this super-luxe hideaway, they take spa-ing seriously. The 7,000-square-foot garden spa has three pools for regular guests, as well as a private area with its own pool and sundeck for small groups (or celebrities) who want to relax in total privacy. The seasonal treatments are what really set the spa at Auberge du Soleil apart, though. Offered only in the spring and early summer, the peaches and cream body masque involves covering your skin with crushed fresh peaches mixed with cream, to exfoliate with the fruit and lactic acids. The Harvest Body Glaze wraps you in honey and fall fruits like apples and pears, then oxygenates. Both are followed by cleansing invigorating massage; the idea is that the wraps stimulate the skin to rid itself of toxins, with the massage action completing the process. All I can tell you is I felt completely clean and clear afterwards; like my concentration and mental clarity matched the clarity of my pores.
4. Bardessono Hotel and Spa
What sets the Bardessono Hotel apart is the extreme emphasis on sustainability, which carries through to the pools and spa, which are heated with solar and geothermal energy just like the rest of the facility. The massage offerings are extensive; in addition to traditional massage you can have a Thai table massage, featuring that traditional stretching technique, a hot towel massage featuring herbal poultices and a pressure point massage, or a reflexology massage emphasizing the hands, feet, and ears. I had the vinotherapie massage, which features organic grapeseed oil infused with herbs you choose yourself for a personalized aromatherapy experience. A very special feature of the Bardsessono’s design is that each room features in-room massage tables, so you can have your spa treatments without leaving your suite. A spa butler arrives about 15 minutes before your treatment and sets up, then dismantles the whole setup afterwards while you shower or relax. The payoff? you — and your partner, if you so choose — can just roll into bed afterwards.
5. Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
Distinguished by its long history as a hot springs hotel, the Sonoma Mission Inn, as locals still call it, is the only spa south of Calistoga that has its own natural source of heated mineral water straight from the ground. Taking advantage of this venerable tradition, the Fairmont’s 2007 makeover kept the best of the Spanish mission ambiance and exotic gardens, but upgraded the spa with modern facilities like an herbal steam room. The massage offerings at the Spa at Sonoma Mission Inn are unusually extensive. Friends who come for golf, tennis, and the enormous gym swear by the energetic sports massage, with its emphasis on stretching and compression, but I haven’t found anything to rival the Barefoot Shiatsu massage, in which the therapist uses his feet and full body weight to achieve a different kind of deep pressure.