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Sonoma Spas

The Weekend Getaway

If youíre anything like the people I know, vacation time doesnít mean diddly squat. All the same, assiduous types who spend all their hours in the office or ďout in the fieldĒ, for better or worse, can find suitable reprieves in spas, inns, campsites, and other such sanctuaries within a stoneís throw of the city. Weekend getaways for the harried San Franciscan, luckily for us, abound in great numbers. Whether youíre looking for a place to indulge all your five-star fantasies or if you simply want a rustic roost where you can temporarily forget about next weekís presentation to the board, here are a couple suggestions for the serious pleasure seeker.

Raindance Spa

I think of Sonoma as a quainter, down-home version of Napa, whose ostentatious vineyards and big-name wine cellars often leave a little something to be desired. Sybarites of all stations appreciate Sonomaís distinctive touch, which is nothing short of picturesque; soft manzanitas, rustic champagne caves, acres of verdant vineyards, multi-colored sunsets, and intimate haunts dot the region like so many plump grapes.

If youíre looking for the right location to enjoy your weekend getaway, the Lodge at Sonoma is10,000 square feet of sprawling cottages, reception areas, fine dining, and one hell of a spa -- and itís just a hop, skip, and jump away from 200 sumptuous Sonoma wineries.

A typical room at the Lodge is adorned with plenty of posh appointments -- cozy fireplaces, sunken tubs, French windows, and balconies that spill onto the horizon are just some of the treats you can expect. You can even nibble on some bread and cheese, and sip on a bottle of complimentary vino with your sweetheart as you wait for the sun to go down. Unless, of course, youíd rather dine at the Carneros Bistro, an award-winning onsite restaurant where you can nibble on organic delectables sprinkled with herbs from the garden out back.

I naturally gravitate towards the Lodgeís main attraction, the Raindance Spa. A world-class establishment known for its local treats (springtime yellow mustard hydrotherapy baths and red wine body polishes, to name a couple), Raindance is synonymous with instant gratification. Walk through the airy lobby, which is earmarked with a colossal alabaster fountain filled with rose petals, and into the courtyard, where you can lounge in the garden or dip into the heated mineral pools. (Lodge guests, in fact, can enjoy the amenities all day long for free.) Head up the stairs to the waiting room and sip on some herbal tea or cucumber water before being ushered down the dim hallway to your treatment room, where one of many talented therapists awaits.

Favored treatments at Raindance include the Encapsulated Wrapsody, which encompasses a red wine grape seed body scrub, massage in rosehip mud, thermal vitamin wrap, rinse-off in mineral water, and finally, a leisurely Swedish massage. The Ultimate Kur is another desired treatment (complete with grape seed scrub, rosehip mud wrap, and Swedish massage) that you can enjoy with your beloved if you book the Raindance Suite, a specialty cottage that includes a monsoon shower, hydrotherapy tub, cedar sauna, and (of course) a bevy of in-room treatments.

My guest and I go for basic but therapeutic, opting for a 50-minute couples massage, in which we enjoy side by side treatments administered by two sets of talented hands. Then we slip out into the relaxation areas before retiring to our patio with a bottle of pinot noir, sleepy yet satisfied from our superb treatments.

The Spa and Lodge might feel like an exclusive treat for privileged out-of-towners but spa packages range from ridiculously affordable to glamorously exorbitant. Life is good, indeed.

Dr. Wilkinsonís Hot Springs Resort

Mud baths arenít everyoneís cup of tea. Though theyíve been used as a curative therapy for centuries, theyíre smelly, strange, and suspect as far as hygiene goes. Dr. John Wilkinson, however, launched a Calistoga institution with Dr. Wilkinsonís Hot Springs Resort in the 50s, when he decided to peddle the ancient remedy used by the Wappo people indigenous to the area. Back then, older clients sought relief from arthritis and rheumatism at the resort; nowadays, the mud bath is marketed as a stress buster and detoxifying treatment.

While Calistoga has come to be associated with hot springs, rich people, and country chic, Dr. Wilkinsonís unfussy approach doesnít have multiple dollar signs attached to it. The resort, which is now run by Wilkinsonís son Mark, is unassuming and a little chintzy, despite its posh surroundings. A simple courtyard separates a bevy of motel rooms with staid yet comfortable accommodations. And unless you choose to stay in the resortís Victorian House, which offers lodgings in five luxurious bedrooms, donít expect a complimentary bottle of wine or dinner mints on your pillow. The red neon sign on the outside of the building is indication enough that at best, you might find a vending machine. Itís precisely this kind of unhampered, effortless atmosphere thatís been drawing crowds for decades. Besides, itís about the therapy, not all the fixings.

The spa area itself is fairly spartan; there are separate mud bath stations for men and women, and massage and facial rooms can be found adjacent to the mud baths. While I donít know what to expect as I open the glass door leading to my treatment, nothing prepares me for the putrid odor of the mud bath, which lies somewhere between sulphurous and fecal. Two enormous cement tubs -- flanked by showers, whirlpool baths, and a sauna -- lie smack in the middle of the room, filled to the brim with the swampy substance. I rinse off in a shower before an attendant helps me settle into the mud. It takes me a moment to adjust to the heat, but then I settle into the marshy mess, feeling like Iím being engulfed by a bubbly, breathing organism.

The mud is a mixture of volcanic ash, mineral water, and peat moss that feels as fluid as it is viscous -- a quagmire of granular, oatmeal-like liquid that slushes around my body. Thereís no ethereal chanting or muted lights in the background to make the process feel more relaxing and less mechanical, but there are a few nice touches. As I lie back in the mud, my attendant places cucumber slices on my eyes, sprays me with a lavender mist, and gives me ice-cold water to sip on. Iím there for about 10 minutes, though something about being immersed in the mud screws up my sense of time.

Afterwards, I rinse off and settle into a soothing mineral whirlpool, as the next person is dunked into my tub. Given that the mud is supposed to be a natural detoxifier, I can attest to the fact that a cold Iíd been skirting around descended on me full force after my experience at Dr. Wilkinsonís; a mixed blessing, indeed. (FYI, hygiene buffs should take note that the tubs are only sterilized in the mornings.)

Since thereís an endless stream of activity in the mud bath room, the entire process feels a bit clinical. Soon, however, Iím ushered back towards the locker room, where I enter a private cubicle for my ďblanket wrap,Ē a relaxing mini-nap during which Iím completely cocooned in a downy cotton blanket. Itís a pleasant respite after the intensity of the mud bath experience.

If the prospect of scooping mud out of unlikely places several showers later doesnít scare you off, the novelty of the mud bath (and its ineffable texture) as well as the resortís unpretentious modus operandi might be enough of a draw. All the same, itís not the kind of treatment of which you need repeat demonstrations. After you spend a couple hours in the spa, youíll be tempted to engage in simpler pleasures around town, like shopping or wine tasting.