The Big Chill-Out

From city spas to rural retreats, we found the best places in Texas to relieve the stress of everyday life.

June 1996By Comments

HERE AT THE END OF THE TWENTIETH century, stress is reaching epidemic levels. In a time when paychecks are stretched thinner than Kate Moss’s waistline, when the message is be-wired-or-be-fired, stress is as annoyingly ubiquitous as the cast of Friends, as relentless as Martha Stewart’s perfection. We might think we’re coping with our daily tempests. We run a mile here, down a vodka and tonic there; we yoga, we Valium, we breathe very deeply. We scramble through the outlet malls in pursuit of material deliverance. We send our therapists’ kids to college. But we rarely stop. Really stop.

Where can you go to escape the constant noise that jars the soul? Is any peace left out there? To find out, I traveled around checking out the most tranquil spots in the state—from remote ranches and spiritual retreats to heavenly spas. I’ve been kneaded more than pizza dough. I’ve been wrapped in seaweed and doused in warm oil. I’ve lolled in hammocks, porch swings, and poolside lounge chairs, all the time wondering what I did in a past life to deserve this assignment. For the tired and frazzled, here are the best havens from harriedom that I could find. Of course, there are plenty of places for a quick break—a fifteen-minute massage at Whole Foods, a short nap on the couch—but the following are establishments for serious defusing, where nothing is demanded of you, where you can utterly indulge yourself, where you can watch your toenails grow or, if you must, have them painted.

Spa vs. Spa

SPAS ARE BECOMING A GROWTH industry as more and more Texans discover the benefits of a few days of intensive relaxation. Of them all, the Greenhouse is it—the temple for serious (and seriously solvent) Sybarites. For thirty years the Greenhouse has been massaging the elbows and egos of celebrities (including Princess Grace, Elizabeth Taylor, and Cindy Crawford) inside a sprawling beige building in Arlington. It doesn’t matter that over the years the surrounding area has grown into an industrial park; once guests step into the thickly carpeted, heavily draped, ornately chandeliered spa, they’re entering a protected bubble. The mood of the women-only retreat is that of a fluffy sorority house; this is the place good Tri-Delts go when they grow up.

Guests stay for a week (though shorter stays can sometimes be arranged) and pay handsomely for the privilege—around $4,000. For that amount, the staff does everything short of carting you to your next body wrap on a gilded throne. Thinking is optional here. Every morning, guests wake up in a sunny room—with a maid call button by their pillows—to breakfast in bed and a pink schedule card that maps out the day. The closet of each room is stocked with black leotards and tights (the Greenhouse uniform), so no one has to fret over her daily wardrobe. Three to four hours of each day is spent in surprisingly strenuous exercise classes, many of which are conducted around an indoor pool in the atrium. The rest of the day is spent recovering from the exertion. Every guest receives a facial and massage every day. Other services can be arranged for an extra charge. (The pampering level goes so far that after my massage the masseuse held my Greenhouse tights open for me to step into; I had to fight to dress myself.)

The spa ladies may be equalized by the tights and leotards during the day (though one woman in my conditioning class did bring her own weights: a business card—size emerald ring on the right hand and a marblelike diamond on the left). For dinner, however, many guests break out the major jewels and designer finery. If going Manolo a Manolo with River Oaks types seems like another form of stress, you can have dinner brought to your room. The day ends in the most magnificent fashion: a twenty-minute tuck-in massage right in your own bed, so that you can go to sleep and dream that this will go on forever. The Greenhouse, 817-640-4000.

The Greenhouse is to the Lake Austin Spa Resort what caviar is to tofu. It shouldn’t be surprising that Austin has the most laid-back, unpretentious house of indulgence. There are many reasons to spend time at the Lake Austin Spa Resort, which hugs the shoreline of the Colorado River twenty miles west of Austin, such as the view of the curling, impossibly green water and the formidable limestone cliff on the other side, and the miles of hike and bike trails in adjacent parkland. But what will bring me back to this spa is the inventive services (for instance, underwater massage, a honey-mango scrub, and what’s known as the Texas Two Step, which is a face massage and a reflexology foot rub) and a hot oil therapy called OJA, simply pronounced “oj.” If you’re reminded of the mantra “om,” you’re on the right track.

Imagine this: You’re lying on a bed with heat lamps warm-ing your almost-naked body. Someone stands over you and pours warm oil onto your forehead; it feels like gravy finding its way through a mound of mashed potatoes, which is just the vegetable your mind feels like at this point. Then the oil is rubbed into your scalp. After that, your body is scrubbed down with a sponge, covered with herbs, and smothered in hot steaming towels. This mind-boggling treatment has been used in India for thousands of years. The woman who worked on me said that the oil hits “the third eye” on the forehead and that this was extremely good for the immune system. I laughed at this New Age justification for deep hedonism; I couldn’t care less if it made my immune system as strong as Phil Gramm’s po-litical machine. It felt damn good, and that’s all that matters. Lake Austin Spa Resort, 800-847-5637. A week costs $2,000, double occupancy.

Unlike a sleep-over spa, a day spa has only a few hours to do its anxiety-busting business. Most day spas are merely glorified beauty salons, but everything about the Urban Retreat in Houston is calculated to soothe the senses, starting with the valet parking (on Wednesdays the parking attendants even offer to wash your car while you get spoiled inside). At the center of the spa is a soaring atrium that needs only some glass elevators to qualify as a Hyatt Regency. Four square reflecting pools sprout islands of potted ficus trees. Despite the high ceilings and all the people busily trimming hair and filing nails around the edges of the atrium, there was a curious hush over the place. The woman leading me back to the locker room spoke in the near-whisper of a golf announcer.

The Urban Retreat stands out among other day spas in the state for its extensive list of treatments (such as seaweed wraps and paraffin pedicures) and packages that offer three, five, even eight hours of nonstop nurturing. The treatment I settled on was the Jericho mud masque. In a small pink room, I lay down naked on a plastic sheet. My mud therapist heated a bowl of mud that was supposedly from the Dead Sea (of course it could have been from the Ship Channel for all I could tell) in a microwave and began slathering it on my skin. It’s hard to describe the feeling of warm mud, except that it is soft, not gritty, and I kept thinking that this is what it would be like to wriggle around in chocolate mousse.

After I was completely covered in the lentil soup–colored slime—which is reportedly rich in minerals, though no one could tell me which ones—the therapist applied hot, wet towels and wrapped me in the plastic sheet, then in a blanket. “The world’s largest soft taco,” I thought to myself. I was left that way for 25 minutes, all warm and dirty and mummified but somehow magnificently calm. Later, as I was showering off, watching all the dirt swirl down the drain, I began worrying about the poor soul who was going to clean up the muddy tile. Then I cheered up, knowing that thankfully it wouldn’t be me. The Urban Retreat, 713-523-2300. $85 for the Jericho mud treatment.

Beyond Room Service

WHEN A HOTEL SAYS IT HAS A spa, it often is referring to an overly chlorinated puddle-size hot tub and maybe a sauna stuck in a closet in the changing room. It’s the tourist industry’s equivalent of padding your résumé. But the Spa at the Crescent Hotel in Dallas offers full-service coddling when your nerves get as taught as Joan Rivers’ face. Done up in pink and tan marble, the locker room is stocked with plenty of lounge chairs, a telephone, newspapers, and pitchers of ice water. A chic little cafe is just outside the locker room door, and a gym is nearby. The nicest feature of the spa is that no one hurried me in or out, which happened at other hotel spas that hadn’t heard that rushing is antithetical to relaxing. I arrived early and spent about fifteen minutes before my Swedish massage—one of many services offered—in what’s called the “quiet” room, where lights were turned low and several daybeds were invitingly strewn with pillows. The masseuse then worked the rigid strands of muscle in my neck, plucking them as if they were harp strings.

Delirious after the fifty-minute massage, I went to the clinical-sounding “wet treatment” area and stepped into the 104-degree water of the whirlpool bath. No sooner had I shut my eyes than an attentive staff member ran up with a glass of ice water. Next to the bath was another, smaller pool labeled “cold plunge.” I quickly—and I do mean quickly—lowered myself into the bracing 54-degree water and then ran back to the hot tub. The change in temperature made my body tingle as if it were a fizzing Alka-Seltzer tablet. After that I stayed put until my fingertips took on the texture of monkey fingers. The Spa at the Crescent, 800-828-4772. $68 for a Swedish massage.

The Alamo Plaza Spa in the Menger Hotel in San Antonio is not as nice to look at as the spa at the Crescent. The decor has a no-fluff, all-business feel, but that is somehow appropriate for the treatment the spa specializes in—the Menger massage, based on a method from Baden-Baden, Germany’s famed spa town. A gruff masseuse with a Teutonic accent would have been perfect (surely they could find one in the Hill Country), but the sweet young woman who worked on me performed brilliantly just the same. The idea behind the Baden-Baden method is to “detoxify” your body. I began with a steaming shower, followed by fifteen minutes in the sauna. Then a masseuse put me on a table and scrubbed me down as if I were a linoleum floor, using a sponge and wonderful-smelling herbal gels. I took another shower and went into the steam room, where I sat in a cottony fog that resembled my state of mind. Then came the Swedish massage, followed by another hot shower. Two hours later, I was cleaner than Mariah Carey’s image and so blissfully lethargic that I had to stop for coffee to stay awake on the drive home. Alamo Plaza Spa, 210-223-5772. $95 for the Menger massage.

The Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas is not the decadent diversion you’ll find at many spas but rather a place for concentrating intensely on your health to make yourself more pressure-proof. Kenneth Cooper is the fitness guru and writer who coined the term “aerobics” (see “Walk, Don’t Run,” TM, June 1995). Cooper has long had a clinic and an aerobics research center on his thirty-acre property. Several years ago, he started a wellness program so that people could stay from four to thirteen days at the clinic’s hotel and learn how to live—better, healthier, longer. Not only does the staff focus on the body, as you would expect, but an awful lot of attention is paid to retooling the mind. You can sign up for sessions on dealing with anger, boosting your self-esteem, or sleeping better.

Most people begin their sessions with a complete physical, which includes a blood workup, a treadmill test, and a dunking in a vat of water to determine fat percentage (you may need a class in managing grief afterward). From there, the days are crammed with exercise—maybe laps in one of the two pools or workouts in the fitness center, which has a banked indoor track, a basketball court, and more machinery than an airplane assembly plant. If it’s true that exercise produces mood-elevating endorphins, as researchers say, then there should be no spot on the planet that has more elevated moods than the Cooper clinic. Cooper Aerobics Center, 800-444-5192. $1,500 for a four-day program, double occupancy, including meals and a complete physical.

The Sounds of Silence

SOME STRESS CAN’T BE WRUNG OUT OF you by a masseuse. Some stress is a deeper darkness of the soul that requires spiritual attention, and for that there is no place like Lebh Shomea House of Prayer in Sarita, sixty miles southwest of Corpus Christi (see “Let Me Hear Silence,” TM, August 1991). Run by Roman Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Lebh Shomea (the name is Hebrew for “listening heart”) is a quiet refuge that emphasizes solitude and prayer. Here, no one speaks to each other; life is conducted in almost complete silence.

Living in a large city most of my adult life, I had never really experienced the power of silence, the way it amplifies the sounds of nature. After I arrived, I curled up for a nap in my room, and the palms rustling outside my window seemed to roar like waves breaking on a beach. One of the most refreshing principles of Lebh Shomea is that there is no structure to the day, except for a morning mass, which everyone is encouraged to attend. You can do whatever you like and no one bothers you. For me that was browsing through an extensive library and spending an afternoon roaming a few trails that wind through Lebh Shomea’s 1,100 acres. There I saw deer, wild turkeys, and armadillos among the wine-cups and Indian paintbrush. I noticed that none of the animals ran when they saw me. I assumed that they felt—as I did—very secure here.

As beautiful as Lebh Shomea is, it is not for everyone. And those who live there full-time prefer it that way. After some recent publicity, the place has received more than its share of curiosity seekers. The Oblates would like only visitors (of any faith) who are sincerely searching for a connection with God. And to that end, potential guests are gently screened over the phone. First-time visitors meet with the priest or one of the nuns who live at Lebh Shomea to discuss why they have come. I saw it as a time to make a map for the quiet, spiritual journey ahead. Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, 512-294-5369.

Another spot for solitude owes its creation, oddly, to the age of industrialization. You can find it in the pine forests of East Texas, near the Big Thicket National Preserve. Seventy years ago, a company began digging up gravel here, taking deep bites out of the land and piling up dirt and gravel in massive heaps. Instead of leaving the land scarred, the years of mining have miraculously created a splendorous terrain, thanks to springs that have filled the craters with jade-green water and to the pines, maples, and willows that have sprung up on the old mounds of debris.

This web of thirteen clear lakes—set off by a leafy archipelago and an abundance of spoon-shaped peninsulas—is now owned by Chain-O-Lakes Resort; small rustic log cabins on piers crane out over the water’s edge. This is the place to go when you want to do nothing more taxing than fish from your cabin’s front porch, swim in an artesian-well-fed pool, pick blueberries, or canoe through the maze of waterways that make up more than a third of the resort’s three hundred acres.

Eating at Chain-O-Lakes requires no more effort than lake gazing. A horse and carriage will pick you up at your cabin in the morning to take you to a breakfast buffet at the Hilltop Herb Farm Restaurant, which is on the property. The Hilltop will also bring dinner to your cabin, and we’re not talking take-out. The staff sets up the table with white linen, candles, china, and champagne, and puts down more food than anyone could possibly eat—smoked salmon, boiled shrimp, Texas caviar, pasta salad, mangoes and raspberries, and homemade cookies.

The best time to go to Chain-O-Lakes is midweek (particularly during the summer); if you’re going on a weekend, make sure it’s not one of the few weekends when camping is allowed. You want to share this place with as few human beings as possible. Chain-O-Lakes, 713-592-2150. Small cabin, $85—$150 per night double occupancy.

You won’t have to share anything with anyone at two cabins deep in the southern Hill Country, near a place called Utopia. Happily, the name did not come about in a fit of civic boosterism. “Nirvana” or “Idyllic” would have worked just as well. Gumdrop-shaped peaks surround a valley of waving grasslands and dense live oak groves. Stately cypress trees, with leaves as delicate as down, shade the Sabinal and Frio rivers as they wind through limestone shelves and gather occasionally in turquoise-colored pools. Both cabins are completely private oases. My favorite is the Hideaway Cabin, which is part of the Bluebird Hill Bed and Breakfast. This rustic stone and wood building sits near a spring-fed swimming hole on Blanket Creek. The other cabin is across a county road from Bluebird Hill, on a nine-thousand-acre ranch. Part of Bear Creek Cabins, the building is called, appropriately enough, the Getaway Cabin. It is situated under a grove of pecan trees by a deep spot in Bear Creek that is filled with bass and perch. The main attractions here are stargazing, cooking out on the barbecue pit, and hiking the property, although Nancy Jones, who operates Bear Creek Cabins, worries that careless hikers could get lost on the vast property. But getting lost seems to be the whole point. Bluebird Hill Bed and Breakfast, 210-966-3525. $75 for two in the Hideaway Cabin, which sleeps six, plus $10 for each additional person; breakfast included. Bear Creek Cabins, 210-966-2177. $75 for two adults in the Getaway Cabin, which sleeps six, plus $5 for each additional adult; breakfast not included.

You could also get lost in Big Bend National Park, which has the state’s premier natural spa. The hot springs right on the Rio Grande are completely free (as they have been for most of the thousands of years they’ve been around), if not quite easily accessible, but that can be a plus. The unwinding begins with the drive, and on the drive to Big Bend there is nothing to distract you except the tumbleweeds that cartwheel across the road and the dust devils that shoot up from the desert floor like geysers.

Warm water bubbles up in several spots along the Rio Grande—heated geothermally to 105 degrees by igneous rock below the surface—but Big Bend’s hot springs, near the end of a dirt road in the southeast corner of the park, are the only ones open to the public. Indians were the original spa-goers, digging out a bathtub in the rocks, the better for stretching out in the water. In 1909 J. O. Langford filed a homestead claim on the springs, sight unseen, based on the word of a man he met in the lobby of the Alpine Hotel. Looking for a cure for his malaria, he built a stone cabin for himself and his family and a bathhouse around the springs and began charging a fee for a dunk. Eventually the rejuvenated Langford added a trading post and an eight-room motel. From 1944 to 1952 a local woman named Maggy Smith ran the place, and since the mid-fifties the National Park Service has maintained the springs as a historic site.

To get to the springs, you walk on a path that takes you by the beautifully preserved stone trading post, the less beautifully preserved motel, and some red Indian pictographs. Even though it was early morning when I arrived, six other people were already sprawling in the ruins of the bathhouse, which jut out into the Rio Grande like a crumbling jetty. I found a space for myself in the submerged foundation of the building, which has only one partial wall standing.

I lay back in the shallow water, and happily the rest of the spring dippers were respectfully quiet. All I heard was the low rushing of the Rio Grande. To one side of me were the rocky banks of Mexico; to the other, a cliff caught a brilliant blast of morning sun. The cool, arid breeze—which will dry you off before you can grab a towel—made the water feel even warmer. These are sights and sensations that every other spa is hard-pressed to match, and I found that several days of hiking then soaking my screaming muscles was the perfect tonic. Big Bend National Park, 915-477-2251.

You shouldn’t go out to West Texas without also cooling your jets at the most relaxing guest ranch in the state. Most guest ranches are set up to fill time with a flurry of activities—horseback riding, hayrides, cookouts, and the like. But Cibolo Creek Ranch, thirty miles south of Marfa, is not an ordinary guest ranch. First, it doesn’t look like any guest ranch you’ve ever seen, or any hotel for that matter. The owner, Houston businessman John Poindexter, pulled off a spectacularly meticulous renovation of three adobe forts originally built by West Texas legend Milton Faver in the 1850’s. The rooms are either in three mushroom-colored forts spread out over 25,000 acres of desert or in a new main house, called the hacienda, that was built in the same style—thick adobe walls, tile floors, and ocotillo cactus ceilings on long ramadas that allow dappled sunlight to fall on old Mexican benches.

You can ride a horse up to the mountaintops, but the best aspects of Cibolo Creek are those that encourage stillness. The courtyards of the main fort and the hacienda are crisscrossed by acequias, or stone-lined canals, that channel spring water from the source in a cottonwood grove to a comma-shaped pond below the buildings. My room was right on the courtyard in the hacienda, and I slept with my doors wide open and the wooden louvered shutters closed. I dozed off to the sound of water trickling, an unusual sound in the desert.

My favorite spot for resting was a small oasis at a spring near the hacienda, a fold of green in the khaki-colored hills. I made the fifteen-minute walk to the spot early in the morning, while the sun was rising up from behind a mountain. I sunk into the hammock hung between two cottonwoods and watched a blue heron land noisily in the top of a scrub oak. I listened to Mexican finches and mourning doves and the sound of a family of javelinas rooting around on the slope next to me. I was as tranquil as the Mona Lisa.

Meals at Cibolo Creek are relaxing too, with guests running through the kitchen pouring their own coffee, chatting with the chef, a woman who recently moved to West Texas from New York. When I was there, some guests had even brought their own food and cooked out on a grill near the pool house. This is probably one of the biggest joys of the place—that a hotel so beautifully decorated, so celebrated (it’s been written up in every major travel magazine, plus many decorating publications) can have such an unpretentious air. It gives you the feeling that this is actually your own house, but you didn’t have to buy it. Cibolo Creek Ranch, 915-837-5901. $275 per night double occupancy, meals included.

The only warning I can offer is that once you’ve sampled these places, they become addictive. No sooner are you back among stoplights and honking horns, no sooner has Peter Jennings told you about yet another corporate downsizing or terrorist bombing and you’re ready to head back. Which of course leads to the stress of trying to save up for the next trip. Will it never end?

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