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At Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe, massage pagodas offer elegant privacy.
At Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe, massage pagodas offer elegant privacy. (Deborah Fleig for the Boston Globe)

Unwind in good hands

Santa Fe and a spa soften up one harried Easterner

Email|Print| Text size + By Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / July 2, 2006

SANTA FE -- My fellow wedding guests teased me all weekend about how I was planning to let a bird poop on my face.

It was true, more or less. I even paid for it.

I first heard about the Japanese-inspired spa Ten Thousand Waves as I was planning a trip to Santa Fe for a wedding. I didn't realize then that it regularly shows up on lists of the nation's best spas, but my instinct s told me that this could be a true desert oasis, a place that would banish the cares that had recently stiffened my shoulders and blemished my skin.

I decided to go all out, booking several treatments, including a hot stone massage and the spa's oddest, most intriguing offering: a facial featuring nightingale droppings. Ten Thousand Waves is the ``exclusive," US importer of the processed, sterilized droppings, a beauty secret of geishas that has been largely forgotten in modern Japan, as the spa's owner would explain to me.

Even before I hit the spa, I had fallen under the spell of Santa Fe. I loved the adobe architecture, the burning of the ubiquitous green and red chile sauces on my tongue, and most of all, the otherworldly, high-desert scenery of mountains and mesas bathed in the brightest, strongest light I have ever seen.

My senses were primed when I arrived at Ten Thousand Waves, a 10-minute drive from my hotel, and a short walk up a gravel pathway lined with Japanese lanterns. After checking in, I found the women's locker room past the koi pond and the chile ristras that lend a Southwest accent to the spare Asian aesthetic.

First on the agenda was an hour in a private, outdoor hot tub. I found a teak hot tub surrounded by a fence on three sides for privacy, but still offering a nice view of the woods and that gorgeous blue sky. I spent a dreamy hour soaking and admiring the evergreens.

Ten Thousand Waves also has a coed tub and a women's tub. The deluxe private tubs have saunas and one, a waterfall.

Already feeling relaxed, I was quickly whisked to my first massage, a head and neck treatment called yasuragi. In a room with soft light and classical music, Shawn, my masseur, worked on my neck and scalp, and even did some gentle massaging with his fingertips on my face, between applications of hot camellia oil to my hair. It felt great, but I was disappointed that I ended up with oily locks for three days, in contrast to the brochure's promise of ``lustrous hair."

After a short break, it was time for my hot stone treatment, called the ``flowing river stone massage." Rose, the masseuse, had heated the polished black stones to about 130 degrees, and was keeping some red-brown marble stones on ice.

First, Rose wrapped one of the hot stones in a cloth and slipped it under my belly as I lay face down, my face cradled in a headrest. Then she lined the stones down my back and rested one in each palm and one on each foot. Finally, she used stones coated in oil to massage my entire body, especially my back.

Eventually I flipped over and lay back onto two lines of stones. Rose massaged my arms, legs, and feet , placing mini hot stones between each toe . Toward the end of the 70 minutes, Rose burned lavender oil, lighted incense, and finally held a tuning fork to my heart, creating a deep vibration.

As explained to me by Rose and later by Duke Klauck, who owns Ten Thousand Waves, the hot stone massage is neither Japanese nor ancient. It was invented by an American woman in Arizona, inspired in part by Native American traditions.

I returned the next day for my nightingale facial with Noel, whose luminous skin was a reassurance as I pondered why, exactly, I had signed up for the bird poop treatment. Noel explained to me that kabuki actors used nightingale droppings to remove their makeup, and geishas used them to lighten and smooth their skin.

Klauck later noted that the droppings have mild bleaching properties, and were used to bleach patterns into the black dye of kimonos, before they were used on the hard-to-remove makeup, which he said gave the actors lead poisoning.

He added that the treatment fell out of use in Japan after synthetic beauty products came along and is just starting to come back into vogue. Ninety-year-old women who have always used the product have finer, less wrinkled skin than their daughters, said Klauck, who gets the droppings from a farm in Japan where the birdsong is so loud he can hardly hear the farmer when they speak by phone.

As intriguing as the story is, the experience was unremarkable. The powdered droppings, mixed with another cleanser, had no smell that I detected. And it turned out to be only the first stage in the hour long facial, which emphasized natural products and aroma therapy. The many layers Noel applied included sandalwood, lavender and lilac, papaya and pineapple, witch hazel and tea tree.

At the end, Noel, who also gave my shoulders and arms a gentle massage, told me the nightingale droppings were actually a little strong for my sensitive skin. Still, I thought my face was soft and had a nice glow as a result.

Ten Thousand Waves has come a long way from its hippie beginnings 25 years ago. Klauck had never been to Japan when he opened the place. Rather, he had developed an affection for hot springs as he traveled around the West to ski, living out of his van. The springs were his only bathing option.

Klauck now spends part of each year in Japan, and notes that the spa has become more authentically Japanese, but remains a fusion.

Confining myself to this side of the Pacific, I have decided that Santa Fe is an ideal American vacation spot. The relentless adobe architecture and tony shops strike some as overly precious, but this relaxed little state capital has a lot of art and many good restaurants. There are only two or three traffic lights between the center of Santa Fe and the breathtaking landscape that surrounds it.

In an all-too -brief foray into the desert after my facial, I hiked Tsankawi, an easy trail 30 miles from town with gorgeous views and the opportunity to scramble over rocks, duck into cave dwellings, and spot petroglyphs.

Santa Feans are right to pride themselves on their restaurant scene. My favorite was the funky Cafe Pasqual's, which offers a mix of Southwest, Asian , and continental fare under a canopy of Mexican banners. We had the free- range organic chicken mole enchiladas with orange jicama salad, and chard and zucchini enchiladas with chile d'arbol sauce and grilled banana.

We also feasted on tacos and enchiladas, drenched in the freshest red and green chile around, at the Shed, a storied local hangout. Governor Bill Richardson was lunching in the next room, the walls were covered with colorful quilts, and the enticing smell of nachos filled the air.

My stay in Santa Fe proved to be a treat for all my senses and the time to reward them again cannot come too soon.

Contact Marcella Bombardieri at bombardieri@globe.com.

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