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Tea Garden Springs

A Romantic Getaway…If You're So Inclined

I spa, therefore I am -- that's my mantra. Give me a hot stone massage, cedar enzyme bath, seaweed wrap, or oxygen facial over a pair of Jimmy Choos or Manolos any day. Blistered feet and envious glances for a flash-in-the-pan trend? No thank you. I'll take hours of lovingly administered languor in an urban oasis or wine country retreat in a heartbeat.

I've had the pleasure of sampling some inimitable treatments from dozens of San Francisco spas, but for years, that most vaunted of spa delights has eluded me: the couples treatment. Throw in the fact that my boyfriend doesn't really go in for froufy facials or being kneaded by strangers -- not to mention my own bashfulness when it comes to advertising my relationship in such a shameless way -- and the romantic pampering is pretty much a no-go.

All the same, shared indulgence with a loved one has always been appealing to me, so imagine my delight when I discovered that the Zen-inspired Tea Garden Springs, tucked away in a cozy vestibule of Mill Valley, has a treatment called "A Suite for Two", which defies the exclusivity of the couples treatment by extending the offer to "dear friends". Of course, I scooped up my requisite best gay male friend and moseyed on out there for some much-needed R&R, all in the name of platonic camaraderie.

It was almost winter when we paid our visit to this North Bay nook, which lay smack in the center of an autumnal-looking grove of trees and an old-fashioned shopping center festooned with holiday lights. The picture got even more idyllic as we actually approached Tea Garden Springs. We walked upstairs and were greeted by a tumble of exotic plants on an ample outdoor porch. Then we pushed open the huge monastery-style wooden door and walked into the (obviously Feng Shui-inspired) reception room, where a wash of late afternoon light came pouring through the bay windows.

As Josh and I sat nibbling almond cookies, sipping jasmine tea from miniature teacups, and thumbing through lush coffee table books, I realized why so many of the spa's clients drive several miles just to hang out there. Tea Garden Springs is 5,000 square feet of pure repose, with a passel of treatment rooms that include the two-story Rainforest Room, the Tao room for massage, the Three Treasures room for meditation and special events, and the Zen Garden and Heaven's Door rooms, which boast whirlpool baths and incomparable views of Mount Tamalpais.

The spa has a healthy smattering of both western and eastern therapies -- the latter include the Ubvartan Body Treatment, an Indian massage that releases toxic energy through steam therapy, and Tui Na, a Chinese massage that increases flexibility and assuages pain with a gentle combination of stretching and rocking. I also have friends who swear by the spa's Elixir Facial, an aromatherapy skin treatment that whips up yummy organic fruit masks and cereal peels for some serious deep pore cleansing. If you prefer decadence, try Wrapped in Stars, a head-to-toe champagne treatment that includes a revitalizing body mask and bubbly footbath.

The choices here are dizzying, but I was simply looking forward to some chatter and relaxation with Josh. Our two therapists soon joined us and led us over a gurgling makeshift brook. We walked into a light-speckled atrium anchored by a colossal Buddha sculpture, and down damask-hued halls swathed by opulent modern paintings of eastern gods and goddesses.

As we entered the epicurean-looking Heaven's Door Room, where our therapists left us to enjoy our bath, Josh and I realized that somewhere along the line, someone flubbed. Apparently, it's only the Zen Garden room that has side-by-side Jacuzzi tubs. Here, there was just one.

We both caught sight of the candle votives, tall-stemmed goblets of champagne, and rose petals strewn around and inside the marble tub. I giggled nervously and looked around for a shoji screen or some sign that whoever arranged my appointment knew that Josh and I were platonic, although I didn't clearly recall mentioning this over the phone.

For the most part, we made the best of it and cracked a few good-natured jokes about taking our friendship to the next level. Josh didn't think the bath should go to waste, so he suggested that we each pick a side and keep our underwear on. As we talked with our backs facing each other, our gazes resting on twin depictions of old Kama Sutra statues, I was struck by the extravagance and absurdity of the moment. We both laughed about how our most romantic experiences had been fairly similarly to this one -- in that they were generally shared with the wrong person.

Gradually, we orchestrated a way to store our soaking underwear (shower caps, if you ask), and get under the sheets of our respective massage tables without glimpsing each other's half-naked bodies. It was a relief to both of us that we didn't have to be in close contact during our massages, but as my limbs were stretched, plied, and rotated, the silence that I usually welcomed seemed almost stifling in the presence of not one, but three other people. Luckily, the ethereal trance music and my therapist's deft knowledge of knotty shoulders substantially alleviated the awkwardness of the situation.

Later, as I rinsed rose oil off my skin in one of the spa's showers (which, by the way, I didn't have to share with Josh), I thought of all the lessons to be learned from my first couples treatment experience:

1. No matter how close I am to someone, and how many times he or she has held back my hair during drunken, vomity fits, it's not likely that any sort of twosome spa treatment will cement that bond further.

2. Wet underwear is uncomfortable. Never leave home without a bathing suit.

3. Even if I'd gone with my boyfriend, I just might be one of those selfish, efficiency-motivated spa babies who doesn't go in for mixing romance with pampering.

4. The "Suite for Two" treatment is perfect for romantics, who are apparently the opposite of me.

5. If you do opt to take a friend, make sure you reserve the right room (i.e. the one with two tubs and perhaps a shoji screen) beforehand.

6. Most important of all, Tea Garden Springs is the North Bay's answer to prelapsarian Eden -- a sanctum of healing that proffers all the gurgling water, herbal tea, and inner peace required (but so rarely found) to fully luxuriate in the
Tao of beauty. I'm definitely coming back -- on my own.

Later, I read the description of "A Suite for Two" on the spa's website and found a passage stating that "moments of abandoned sensuality with water spin endless tales." Indeed. I know I'll certainly be talking about my unexpected tryst at Tea Garden Springs for months to come.