AUSTIN - Alone. Together.
That's a place many couples, particularly those blessed with children, find themselves with greater infrequency these days.
Oh, there's the occasional night out for dinner and a movie. But these are often less-than-satisfying affairs, what with the traffic and parking hassles, and the conversation (when possible) frequently confined to household events. Not to mention the constant click of the baby-sitting meter always just audible in the background.
Where, then, can a couple get away to really indulge themselves - and in each other - at least for a few hours?
We recently found the answer in the Bamboo Room, the private outdoor garden suite featuring an inground hot tub with limestone waterfall, outdoor shower, and treatment cabana for two at the luxurious LakeHouse Spa at Lake Austin Spa Resort.
And while we had the Bamboo Room all to ourselves (except for our discreet massage therapists, of course), we were not alone in our indulgence. The number of couples taking time out to sample spa treatments together is on the rise.
"Historically, a spa visit was something you did on your own, or with a friend, but for more and more couples, it's really a time to reconnect," said Lynne Walker McNees, who has been president of the 3,000-member International Spa Association since 1997. She reports that 46 percent of spas in the United States now offer some kind of couples package.
Those offerings run the gamut from the fairly standard side-by-side massage to the Mohonk Red couples experience at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., which takes place before a fireplace and concludes with a "guided power nap." At the other end of the spectrum, Spa Ojai at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in Ojai, Calif., offers communal sessions in its unique Kuyam chamber, which combines the therapeutic effects of cleansing mud, dry heat, inhalation therapy, and meditation.
Our special time together began bright and early one crisp November morning in the foothills of Texas Hill Country just a few miles west of downtown Austin. Lake Austin Spa Resort has 40 casually elegant guest rooms that range in price from $1,455 to $6,340 for three- to seven-night stays, depending on accommodations and your spa and fitness services.
No overnights for us, alas, as we had an afternoon school bus to meet. So we reported promptly at 9 for our 9:30 appointment in the beautifully appointed, 25,000-square-foot LakeHouse Spa, built in 2004. The separate changing rooms, decorated in Southwestern earth tones that are echoed throughout the facility, were equipped with steam rooms, showers, and hot tubs and offered a nice selection of teas and magazines.
After changing into our white robes and slippers, we were shown upstairs to the magnificent Blue Room, the heart of the spa, which is furnished with large, comfortable furniture perfect for lounging, hand-painted linen curtains, and an eye-catching tin chandelier in a leaf motif. As we waited for our therapists, we ventured briefly onto the porch and admired the view of the outdoor pool area and the landscaped grounds rolling gently down to the shore of Lake Austin.
You reach the sanctuary that is the Bamboo Room through two locked doors, the second through the high, wooden fence that surrounds much of the enclosure. Rare black Japanese bamboo, mixed with the more run-of-the-mill variety, towers overhead, adding to the sense of privacy. That was the governing concept when the place was being designed, according to Tracy York, the general manager.
"Because the space is intimate and integrated with the natural beauty of our outdoor landscape, it lends itself well to a private and memorable spa experience. It's a one-of-a-kind treatment space for couples," York said in a follow-up e-mail.
And right she is. Our package, a joint anniversary gift appropriately named Over the Top for Two, entitled us to spend four hours in the Bamboo Room. We enjoyed every minute. Our therapists, Cindy and Misty, guided us to the canvas treatment cabana, which was warmed against the morning's chill by an elaborate space heater. We settled onto our parallel tables and surrendered to our senses.
We started off with a Ruby Red Grapefruit Refresher, which incorporated Texas grapefruit essential oils with Dead Sea salts in an exfoliating body scrub. I have long maintained that sweet, Texas ruby reds are vastly superior to other grapefruit, but this experience brought my admiration to a whole new level. Lynne Vertrees, the spa's director of treatment development, has been at Lake Austin for 13 years and clearly knows what she is trying to accomplish.
"I wanted to incorporate indigenous Texas products with other elements that would go well in our beautiful outdoor setting," Vertrees explained later in a phone interview.
Our refreshing scrub was followed by a short stroll to the wooden outdoor shower, outfitted with a massive rainfall showerhead, for a rinse. Cindy and Misty stepped away and turned their backs, but for us the moment raised a key issue in the enjoyment of the couples spa experience: being prepared to see your significant other in the buff and possibly in daylight.
This posed no problem for me, but my more modest wife muttered, "I prefer to jiggle in private," as we made our way back to the cabana. McNees, of the spa association, says preparation is the key to making sure everyone is comfortable. "Ask questions in advance," she said in a follow-up phone interview. "It's your time and you can pick everything from the gender of the therapist to whether bathing suits are an option."
We certainly were comfortable as we returned to the treatment tables to be slathered with grapefruit lotion and then wrapped in linen sheets with heat packs applied to our chests. The sensation of peace and relaxation was all-enveloping. Before my eye pillows were applied, I took a few sneak peeks and captured images that helped make our couples experience memorable.
Here's what I saw: a diffused golden light shining on the downward curve of my wife's bare back; a pomegranate-colored eye pillow spread across her face; shadows of bamboo shoots dappling the canvas roof of the treatment cabana; then darkness.
While thus mummified, our therapists performed simultaneous face and scalp massages that may have been the highlight of the entire experience. At the end, Cindy applied frankincense oil to her fingers and instructed me to take three deep breaths as she held her hands inches from my face. The earthy, musky scent was exotic and unlike anything I'd inhaled before.
After a short break, as we prepared for a final, hour-long, full-body massage, Cindy asked whether there was any particular part that was posing a problem for me. I informed her of my balky left shoulder, injured in a moving mishap, and she modified my massage to focus on that area. I emerged from the treatment feeling better than I had in months. My wife said she felt the same way, even without a preexisting injury.
We grabbed our robes and left the Bamboo Room briefly to get a take-out lunch from the spa's delightful Aster Café. We relished our solitude along with our lunch as we munched our spinach and mushroom quesadillas (only 255 calories!) and pecan crusted chicken breast salad (a mere 325 calories!) under the sun umbrella in our private paradise. With time to spare before our 1:30 p.m. checkout, we slipped into the welcoming waters of the hot tub and enjoyed the sound of the waterfall - now completely comfortable in our own skins (and nothing more) - as the afternoon sun warmed our very well-worked-over shoulders.
The world of the school bus seemed very far away as we shared a quiet laugh or two and celebrated, at least for a moment, the crucial qualities that had brought us together in the first place, all those years ago. As we emerged from the tub to don our robes and go, we realized the spa had served its purpose. We had arrived as two weary individuals in need of a break, but we were leaving as a couple restored in every sense.
Doug Warren, a freelance writer in Austin, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.