“At the end of a sunny day, you should smell like dirt.”—There’s a reason I’m recalling this quote from author Margaret Atwood, and that’s because on a stunning spring afternoon in Calistoga, in Northern California’s Napa Valley, I’m covered from my neck to my toes in a slick of gray mud. It’s better than it sounds, especially considering that the sludgy concoction I’ve painted on my limbs smells like freshly cut lavender with rich overtones of earth. This upscale dirt promises to soften my skin, feed it nutrients, coax months’ worth of toxins out of my body and leave me glowing. Adding to the fun, the tiled, quiet room I’m in is delightfully heated like a sauna, and from the floor-to-ceiling windows of this private chamber, I can see a glorious sweep of hillside and wine-country flora—olive trees, old-growth oaks, rosemary bushes—and a private outdoor shower. Here, at Spa Solage, mud is not dirty. Here, mud is heaven. —Alison Singh Gee
That’s the way that the spa team at Solage Calistoga, an Auberge resort that Travel & Leisure recently voted one of the world’s best, wants dirt to feel. Their capstone treatment even has an amusing name, The Mudslide. It’s an updated twist on the traditional mud bath for which Calistoga became famous in the 1860s, when visitors began to flock here seeking the purportedly relaxing, joint-soothing and arthritis-healing powers of the town’s thermal spring waters mixed with volcanic ash (from nearby Mt. St. Helena). It’s been a staple of the region ever since, and in recent years Spa Solage has made a splash by improving upon the pleasurable and skin-boosting benefits of rolling in the mud.
The retreat’s main area—Spa Solage encompasses 20,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor facilities—looks like an old farmhouse, albeit a five-star one with not a hoof mark in sight. Surrounding structures are sheathed in a soothing ivory hue, with furnishings the colors of the surrounding hills: olive, gold and dark soil. In fact, the spa grounds look like a resort within a resort, with expansive gardens, relaxation porches, co-ed geothermal baths and separate men’s and women’s soaking pools (clothing optional), all of which are lined with luxurious white cabanas.
The hugely popular Mudslide (60 min./$98; 90 min./$148) was Solage’s response to the question, “How do we make the classic mud bath hip, lavish and—strange as this may sound—clean?” Other spas in this mud-centric town invite guests to sink into shared, thick brown baths up to their ears, but this struck Spa Solage director Karen Davis as, well, a little too communal, a little unhygienic and just not special enough. So the team innovated an approach all their own.
The Mudslide adventure is a three-part detoxifying treatment: first, The Mud; second, The Waters (a private geothermal soak); and third, The Rest (in an anti-gravity sound therapy chair).
“Our original vision was to create a contemporary social spa environment centered around the mud experience and our geothermal pools,” Ray says, “and also to provide our guests with a memorable experience worth repeating.”
To begin my treatment, I check in at the desk and a cheerful hostess leads me to the luxurious women’s locker room, where I drench myself in Solage’s lavender-scented signature lotion, don a chic, hooded cotton robe and head to an open-sided barn set up like a bar—it’s appropriately dubbed the “Mud Bar.” There, a young woman in white pants and a baseball cap is vigorously mixing mud (sourced from California and South America) with volcanic ash and geothermal mineral water (a local spring supplies this special H20, which is naturally heated by the earth’s core to about 200 degrees) from a big pot into a simple metal bucket, the kind used for animal feed (everything here has a playful farm theme).
“Smell these and let me know how your body responds,” Valerie says, asking me to consider four different essential oil blends, combined for their properties and specific benefits: stress-relieving, mood-enhancing, muscle-soothing or revitalizing. She mixes a generous dripping of my pick—stress relief—into the designer mud and keeps the oil flowing until the lavender scents alone begin to transport me into another realm. (And that’s before the treatment even begins!)
Once alone in the heated tile room, I am left to paint myself with the mud (which makes me laugh). I then lie down on an impossibly thick towel spread out on a raised, heated platform. “Make sure you only apply a thin coat,” Valerie had told me. “The mud has to dry completely to get the full detoxifying benefits.” Later, she explains that it’s when the mud tightens that it draws toxins from within the skin. I spend 20 minutes stretched out, inhaling the soup of stress-relieving scents, then rinse under a thick stream from a waterfall showerhead, throw on my robe and head to The Waters.
Valerie leads me to a high-ceilinged room for one, in the middle of which rests a sleek modern tub. She’s already drawn a bath with my selected essential oils and bath salts. I enjoy 20 minutes of hot, watery bliss. Next is The Rest, which takes place in ananti-gravity chair and is touted as being “like having a two-hour nap in 20 minutes.” The luscious, white padded lounger enfolds me in its leather contours and Valerie tips me slightly backwards. “When your knees are elevated above your heart,” she says, “that’s when you feel the effects of anti-gravity rest.” She then turns the sound therapy system on, and an instrumental music CD gently pulses bass notes and melody up and through the chair’s surface, soothing my limbs and organs.
“Music has physical benefits,” Valerie says, explaining that it brings about emotional healing, muscle stimulation and even pain relief. “The music, in addition to your position in this chair, will lull you into a deeper state of rest—the next 20 minutes should bring you two REM cycles.” The ensuing one-third of an hour is restful, that’s for sure, but it’s also fun. I’m thrilled by the novelty of having drums and flute trills permeate my bones (too thrilled, in fact, to waste the moments on slumber).
The spa as a backdrop for one big wellness-boosting party is a terrific concept, and one that has worked extremely well for Spa Solage. The geothermal pools are not only populated by guests—glowing couples and groups of chilled-out women (the spa and its pools have an over-18 rule; and you must also book a spa treatment to gain access to the spa’s geothermal waters)—but also by Solage Club members. This club is comprised of Bay Area folks who have paid for continual access to the pool, movement studio and bocce ball court, as well as fitness classes and special mixers. (Each member also receives a complimentary introductory Mudslide treatment—which no doubt helps build buzz.)
The Mudslide has proven an irresistible draw—a “memorable experience” that clients want to relive again and again. “We have many guests who return several times a year—one of our Club Solage members enjoys it every other week,” says Ray. The Mudslide is second in popularity only to the Solage Massage (50 min./$125; 80 min./$190), and followed closely by the Kate Somerville Signature Facial (50 min./$185; 80 min./$190), and Mellow Me Out (135 min./$325), a full-body exfoliation, shea butter massage, foot rejuvenation, and scalp and hair renewal experience.
Perhaps it’s this joie de vivre atmosphere that has inspired brisk business at both the resort (89 guest rooms on 22 acres, opened July 2007) and the spa (16 treatment suites with outdoor patios, showers and lounge areas, opened four months later, in September). “Because Solage Calistoga is well positioned in the ‘affordable luxury’ category near San Francisco, a major metropolitan market, we weren’t as hard hit by the recession as area businesses in other markets,” Ray says.
Indeed, the spa boasts an impressive staff of 30 therapists, 20 of whom work full-time. Clients are made up of 65% hotel guests and 35% day guests and members. The marketing team gets the word out by emailing quarterly newsletters to guests and offering seasonal spa specials to encourage local and repeat clientele. They also actively engage guests on Facebook, Twitter and even Pinterest, as well as their own lively resort blog.
As I chill out by Spa Solage’s geothermal pools after my treatment I survey the scene in front of me—spa guests lounging in the cabanas and soaking in deep pools of water that bubble up from deep within the earth—and thank the heavens for creating sunny days and dirt.
Alison Singh Gee is a journalist and author based in Los Angeles.
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