When the slopes freeze (and you prefer flip-flops to skis), Stoweflake is a blissful escape

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2004

STOWE, Vt. -- January snows bring thousands to the slopes, but they send me into hibernation. I learned my lesson as a child. I had been trapped on tows, frozen in lift lines, and humiliated on moguls, sitting on my skis as others whisked past. I never grasped the logic of being dropped on a mountainside, only to struggle back down on a pair of runners. When a snowbank snapped my skis in two as they dangled from a chairlift, I called it quits.

So when my partner suggested a weekend in the snow capital of New England, I set to work plotting an escape.

While he was tackling the great outdoors, I would explore Stowe's many shops, take in a movie, or do the cafes. Dogsledding, snowmobiling, and the ski museum were definitely out. Failing all else, I could find a warm fireplace and lose myself in a book. I had picked up ''The Bounty," the true story of Fletcher Christian's escape to Pitcairn Island. But perusing the brochures, I had an inspiration: I would disappear in a spa. It was a no-brainer. The biggest and best was at the family-run Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa.

We arrived in a sunny, snow-bundled town still in Christmas mode. The sign over the local barbershop was typical: Stowe Kutts International. Anything goes as long as the acronym spells SKI. Even the barbers are ski fanatics. Turning onto Mountain Road, we found the resort 2 miles up on the right: a four-sided complex with two restaurants and an interior garden filled with snow. It was spanking new.

While my partner dressed up to brave the howling winds, I dressed down to a terrycloth robe. He stepped out into the bitter cold, while I shuffled into a homey lounge with a fireplace and water sculpture that dripped liquid sounds. The air smelled of swimming pools and herbs.

I began what would be a delightfully idle afternoon with something called a ''thermal mineral kur." In a modern, low-lit room animated by flickering candles, Marty Wiltshire slathered me with a layer of Hungarian mud and then wrapped me up like an Egyptian mummy in layers of hot towels. There was nothing I could do but think, so I closed my eyes and free-associated. I was new born, wrapped in swaddling clothes. I was a whimpering papoose in a birch bark container, tethered to a tree. I was a Lon Chaney character actor, unwinding my mummy shroud and terrifying other guests. Or best of all, I was a time traveler, aging in reverse, and would soon look 20 years younger. The warmth penetrated my bones, relaxing me to the brink of sleep.

Marty's soft voice broke the spell. I was to shower off, then settle into the Jacuzzi for a restful soak. Next up was a deep-tissue massage interrupted by bursts of sweet-smelling sprays, like orange flower essence. Then came the facial. Michelle Boivin led me in to another spotless room and wrapped me to the neck in warm sheets. What followed was an olfactory feast of masques, exfoliations, toners, and body butters, all smelling of good things to eat.

Applications of rose, citrus, and eucalyptus cascaded over me, and though she explained the healing properties of each one, it fell on deaf ears. Her honeyed voice and the tropical background music had spirited me into blurry semiconsciousness. I had mutinied and abandoned ship, and now I was coming ashore in Tahiti. Natives were singing and dancing as I glided through forests of hibiscus blossoms and coconuts. I was half-clad and happy.

Before I knew it, yet another attendant was leading me away, not to a banana grove but to a full-service salon for an aromatic manicure and pedicure. She asked me to pick a scent and choose from what looked like hundreds of nail polish colors. All my rough edges would be smoothed, buffed, and lacquered away. As I sat, the chair beneath me began to shimmy like a city bus idling in traffic. In some future world, every chair will be so endowed, I dreamed. By the time I emerged, the day was over.

I wandered back to my room, rejuvenated. It too was new and spiffy, all cherry and marble with a thermometer that reads the temperature inside and out. The bath was warm and spacious with an oversized shower, a Jacuzzi, two sinks, and lots of little potions. Everything is interconnected, so you never have to tread outside. Feeling hunger pangs, we set out for one of the two on-site restaurants, wandering through a wooden covered bridge that links one wing to the other over snowshoe tracks.

I felt slightly guilty that I hadn't gone outside for some physical exertion, but by the time we had walked the resort's quarter-mile loop of corridors I figured I had exercised enough.

To reward myself, I resolved to spend the next day in intensive relaxation.

While it snowed outside, I holed up in the sauna, breathing in the steamy heat while watching snowflakes float past the windows. I cooled off with a facecloth drenched in eucalyptus, then moved on to the spacious Jacuzzi, which erupted into foamy suds, like a gigantic bubble bath. Water jets massaged my legs and back at different levels as I moved along its blue-tiled perimeter.

I was as happy as a kid at the beach, but the grand finale was still to come. On the other side of a stone wall was the aqua solarium, a skylit paradise for mixed company with two heated pools. One is a Hungarian mineral bath kept at a constant 101 degrees, a good place to soak undisturbed. The other is the Bingham hydrotherapy waterfalls, a replica of nearby Bingham Falls, not snowbound but kept in a state of perpetual summer, complete with moss, rock formations, vegetation, and a gorge with a waterfall dropping 12 feet.

When I walked in, Neil Weidner, a lawyer from Manhattan, was in the falls reading The New Yorker. A dude in turquoise trunks thrust his head under one of the two waterfalls, sending a spray of water onto Weidner's magazine, but he barely moved. He and his wife, who was 7 months pregnant, were vacationing before moving to London, he told me. They had wanted a place within driving distance of the city that still felt worlds away, and this was it. He had been surprised at how large the spa was, 30 rooms with 120 treatments. Like me, he was especially enamored with the solarium. We basked in the summer-like heat while watching the snow fall on the mountains outside. It was a total illusion, yet it totally worked.

Hours later I wandered into Charlie B's, the in-house pub, my skin still tingling. I felt relaxed, awake, and immune from deadlines and disappointments. On the rotunda-style ceiling were paintings of hot-air balloons floating over the mountain landscape, and it occurred to me that the waters had the same effect. They had lifted me out of the cold. Delivered me from humiliation. Sent me drifting into whimsical sensations. And I was still aloft.

Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer who lives in Burlington, Vt.

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