Sense of place

Indigenous connections and unique environs are key ingredients to the bodywork done here

sense of place
(Handout photo )
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / January 14, 2007

WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. -- In the morning, we traveled by boat along the Wisconsin River, admiring the fantastic formations of soft red sandstone along its banks. By afternoon, that same sandstone, blended with aromatic oils, was sloughing away a winter's worth of dry skin at Sundara Spa.

When Sundara broke ground in 2002, founder Kelli Trumble was amazed by the fine texture of the sand found on the site and its beautiful shades of gold and red. She sent it off to a number of labs that specialize in the development of spa products. When the ancient sandstone was found to be rich in minerals, capable of holding moisture, and a gentle exfoliant because of the roundness of the grains, it became the basis of the entire Sundara line of spa products.

From the coconut oil at The Fairmont Orchid's Spa Without Walls in Hawaii to the fynbos plants at Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa in South Africa, more spas are finding the ingredients of signature treatments in their own backyards. It's part of an increasing emphasis on place in destination spas, says Sylvia Sepielli, a spa developer and consultant, and recipient of the International Spa Association 2006 Visionary Award.

"A spa experience, especially a destination spa, is also travel," Sepielli said. "When I travel, I want to know I'm not going to have a rubber-stamp experience." The focus on indigenous therapies and authentic regional atmosphere, she said, is an extension of that desire for a unique travel experience.

Sepielli's newest project, the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, set to open this month , combines traditions and ingredients used by Native Americans, English settlers, African- Americans, and immigrants, such as a ginger and orange body scrub inspired by 18th-century apothecary practices.

We visited three destination spas in geographically distinct US locales and tried body treatments using local ingredients. We came away palpably smoother, and we learned a few things: that indigenous ingredients combine with architecture and design to create a harmonious whole, that good therapists can make you feel like the most important person in the world, and that a Vichy shower resembles nothing so much as a car wash.

Amid sandstone and towering pines
At Sundara, guests are asked to arrive early to enjoy a purifying bath ritual that consists of an exfoliating rainfall shower using the signature sandstone body polish, followed by steam scented with eucalyptus, and then alternating soaks in hot and cool plunge pools.

Sundara's "soaring organic" architecture is designed to mimic the towering pines that cover the spa's 26 acres. Guest rooms and public spaces are vertical and airy. There are no right angles anywhere, which can be somewhat disorienting, but the curved passageways, combined with soft flute music, are soothing.

Following the purifying bath, an attendant gave me a robe and sandals and led me to a lounge to wait for the therapist who would provide the sandstone body treatment. I was struck by how seamlessly I was handed off from one attendant to the next. My comfort seemed everyone's top priority.

When the therapist took me into the Vichy shower room, she asked, "Are those sandals too big? Would you like a smaller size?" I assured her they were fine.

The sandstone body polish was less abrasive than I thought it would be. When she was done, the therapist left me alone to rinse in a shower with a rainfall showerhead, body jets, and a footbath that threatened to overflow at any moment but miraculously did not. I then returned to the table for an application of moisturizers to my newly soft skin.

Next was a facial customized to my sensitive skin, with organic extracts from rose and wild plum. It smelled clean and outdoorsy. The therapist handed me a list of recommended products, then asked if my sandals fit properly.

Relaxed and glowing, I headed outdoors to lounge by the heated infinity pool. It was mesmerizing to watch the water drop over the edge to a pool below, against a backdrop of tall pines. From a bar in the corner, a waiter brought water with lemon. He stared at my feet. "Would you like me to get you smaller sandals?" he asked.

Blue corn and red rocks
The adobe walls of Miiamo at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz., blend into the stunning red rock of Boynton Canyon, considered a sacred place by native tribes. Mii amo, which takes its name from a Native American word meaning "journey," offers packages to overnight spa guests and a la carte services to guests of Enchantment Resort.

Designed by Sepielli, Mii amo embraces the beauty of the canyon by minimizing the distinction between indoors and outdoors. Natural light and water are recurring themes, and interior and exterior spaces flow into one another. There is no fabric on the large windows, and the red rock is visible from nearly anywhere in the spa.

Here we chose the Blue Corn Polish body treatment. Native Americans used ground corn to cleanse and purify the skin, said Deborah Waldvogel, director of spa operations. Made from corn grown in the area, the scrub is combined with aloe vera gel and sea salt . The aloe vera has healing properties, and sea salt remove s dead skin cells and impurities under the skin's surface, stimulating superficial lymphatic flow, she said.

In the Vichy room the walls and floor were tiled, and the floor sloped slightly to a drain in the center. The table was a shallow tub with a dense foam mat. After introducing herself, Mary, my therapist, took off her shoes, rolled up her pant s, and put on a black plastic apron. If nothing else, I thought, this is going to be wet.

Mary shampooed my skin to remove oils, then rinsed me with a handheld shower. She mixed up the bluish-purple scrub, heated it, and applied it with rough-gloved hands. Then she covered my face with a towel, leaving it open around my nose and pulled an overhead shower arm out from the wall until it was directly over my body. Seven jets rinsed me from head to toe, while Mary worked in the blue corn mixture. I lost count of the number of towels she used in draping, mopping, and drying, but by the time she was done my skin was baby smooth, and I nearly drifted off as she applied a moisturizing oil with light massage strokes.

Other treatments that tap into indigenous ingredients include a Sedona clay wrap made with clay mined in Sedona, which is detoxifying and has anti-inflammatory properties, a jojoba butter wrap, and a rosemary scrub. "We're always looking for new ways to bring in indigenous ingredients and authentic experiences," Waldvogel said.

The spa is so attuned to the indigenous connection that it has on staff a director of Native American programs, who acts as a liaison with local tribal elders and ensures that the spa remains true to its roots, Waldvogel said.

With grape seedsand in a French château
From Interstate 85 in Georgia, Château Élan looks like a mirage. But the acres of vineyards spreading out behind it in Braselton, north of Atlanta, create a context that somehow makes the European architecture believable.

The spa resembles a French country house, with its stone exterior, topped by café-au-lait-colored stucco, and wide burgundy shutters. The inside is expansive, anchored by a great room that seems half parlor, half hunting lodge.

The signature treatment at a vineyard, of course, could only be grape seeds, which are used here in an exfoliating treatment called the Winery Harvest Crush, a "De-Vine" mud body wrap that mixes crushed grape seeds in French clay, and a facial.

The biggest benefit of grape seeds, said Graeme Harper, assistant spa director, is their antioxidant properties. "You know how they say to have a glass of red wine a day? It's pretty much the same idea," he said. And because grape seeds are naturally round, they provide good exfoliation without irritating the skin. But despite Château Élan's acres of vineyards, Harper said, the spa uses grape seeds from a Napa Valley winery.

I went for the crush, which was wonderfully purple. It looked as though rivers of grape Kool-Aid were running off my body.

Château Élan's Vichy room was a bit different from the others. Here, the therapist closed a cover over me, leaving my head exposed. Shower heads in the cover did the rinsing. It was much less messy than an overhead Vichy shower, but definitely not for the claustrophobic. The treatment finished with an application of shea butter lotion.

The French château theme carries into the elegant locker room, with its thick, clear glass basins, gilt-framed mirrors, and dazzling chandelier. Large vases are filled with greenery and grapes. Outside, black wrought iron furniture, topped with burgundy cushions, sits on a patio with a semicircular bank of flowers in red and yellow overlooking a lake with a fountain. The 14 themed guest rooms have spa baths and European touches, such as bidets.

While some may question the authenticity of a 16th-century-style French château in northeast Georgia, Château Élan Winery & Resort meets Sepielli's first rule of spa travel: It is definitely not a rubber-stamp experience.

Contact Ellen Albanese at .

If You Go

Mii amo at Enchantment Resort
525 Boynton Canyon Road

Sedona, Ariz.

928-203-8500, 888-749-2137

Blue Corn Polish: $135 for 60 minutes.

Château Élan Winery & Resort
100 Rue Charlemagne

Braselton, Ga.

678-425-0900, 800-233-9463

Harvest Winery Crush: $90-$100 for 50 minutes, depending on day of the week.

Sundara Inn & Spa
920 Canyon Road

Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

608-253-9200, 888-735-8181

Sandstone Body Polish: $115-$125 for 45 minutes, depending on day of the week.

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