A friend recently asked me if I’d rather spend a week in Europe or four days at a spa. The answer was easy. There is simply nothing like the spa experience: carefree days during which you can choose to do yoga, cardio circuit, water aerobics, drumming. Or not. You might read by the pool, take a hike, meditate, attend a lecture. Or not. Maybe you’ll want a facial, full-body massage, a soak in the hot tub, a steam in the eucalyptus-scented sauna. Or not. You can do anything or nothing.

So when I had the opportunity to visit Lake Austin Spa in Austin, Texas, I didn’t have to think twice. My previous spa getaways had been to arid, desert climes, so this was going to be different. It’s located on the banks of Lake Austin, with a dining room just a stone’s throw from the lake, and that lake sure mesmerizes you with its meditative, soothing quality.

Every meal overlooks this idyllic scene: crystalline water butting up against a mountain of trees on the opposite bank (which is a protected nature preserve). It couldn’t have been prettier. And the water adds the option of lake activities to the roster of possibilities: kayaks, paddleboats, pedal boards, leisurely boat cruises around the lake. I embarked on this restful adventure with that same friend, a first-time (and somewhat skeptical) spa-goer. Many guests come solo—there are a couple of ‘friendship tables’ in the dining room where people can choose to sit and meet each other, or they might want to use the spa experience for contemplation and self-focus.

What struck me most about this particular retreat—right after the tranquility of its lake setting—was its size. With only 40 guest rooms, it has an intimate aura you can’t help but find appealing. All the staff knows and greets you—and so do the other guests. This is Texas, after all, and besides being uniquely Southern, it’s a place full of friendly ‘hi y’alls’ and ‘yes ma’ams.’ I have to admit, there is something refreshing about the civility of it. And being small, the spa was so easy to navigate (and to return to your room for a forgotten swimsuit or flip flops between classes).

In ambience, Lake Austin Spa looks like a genteel lake house straight out of Veranda magazine. Beadboard ceilings, plush furniture, floral fabrics and pastoral paintings create a warm setting in the common areas. We were housed in a newer Luxury Room, which had fabric headboards, featherbeds and a bathroom I wanted to take home with me.

But enough about the setting, what is there to do at the spa? As you’d imagine, a smaller spa means fewer offerings, but also less-crowded classes. There was something going on every hour, from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., ranging from meditation to CrossFit. First thing in the morning, before the Texas heat hits, there’s a different 2-hour hike offered each day, including the one I went on along the bluffs overlooking the lake. After lunch, Lake Fit classes are offered, where you can enjoy the boats and get a little exercise at the same time. Or for the more sedentary, a crafts project or cooking class
lets you relax while your food digests.

Among the standout offerings was ‘Strum,’ a 4 p.m. restorative yoga class with the lights turned low and a musician playing classical guitar music. Also exceptional were water classes with Monica, a trained hydro-therapist whose specialty is aquatic myofascial release. She saw to it that we got our cardio/core muscle workout while in the Barn Pool. That amazing structure might just have been my favorite spot (or at least it’s tied with the steam room). Apparently the property’s owners wanted their new spa building, created 13 years ago, to resemble a big barn. That couldn’t be done, so instead they created a cavernous wood-and-windowed ‘barn’ to house the indoor pool.

The Lakehouse Spa, built in 2004, is pretty magnificent, too, with its impressive ‘Blue Room’ where guests wait to be called for their treatments. No talking allowed, but relaxing is mandatory (despite the daily stack of The New York Times). Its curtains, floor-to-ceiling along three walls, are hand-painted with flowers—each panel a different variety—so that when they are closed at night, guests can still be surrounded by a beautiful garden. My ‘Tour of Texas’ treatment was a threefer: a body scrub, a wrap and a massage. I chose it because it was Texas-sized: 110 minutes of prickly pear exfoliation, an agave moisturizing wrap and a full-body massage.

We happened to be there during a ‘special guest’ week, when celebrity stylist Billy Yamaguchi from L.A. gave presentations about Feng Shui Style, an Eastern approach to hair styling he developed that has been featured by Oprah, Dr. Phil and Deepak Chopra. Yamaguchi creates a look—hair color and cut—for clients based on their Feng (breath) and Shui (water), i.e., the month, day, year, time and season of their birth. The objective? “Getting better hair for better chi.” He’s created looks for the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts, and he comes to the spa monthly to present and offer his styling services. Apparently several regulars come in from Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and elsewhere for the celebrity makeovers. Price tag: $460.

Seminal to every spa experience is the natural environment, especially the spa grounds, which are designed to provide tranquility. Palm trees, pecan trees, crape myrtle, and tons of lush flowers and herbs were just beginning to bloom during our early March visit. So another highlight was the Garden Tour, offered weekly by longtime groundskeeper Trisha Shivey. For an hour, she regaled us with anecdotes and samples from her amazing edible garden. Did you know there is such a plant as chocolate peppermint? Or that you should always buy organic celery because the non-organic variety is heavily sprayed? She walked us around the abundance of her garden, offering tastes of borage, stevia and snapdragon, and explained that its herbs and flowers are used everywhere around the spa: in food, floral arrangements and art classes like the one we attended to make dream pillows and sachets.

So as you can tell, we had a very busy four days. I enjoyed every minute of it, grateful to be padding around my little spa instead of traipsing around Europe.

if you go …
stay: With only 40 units, there are no bad rooms. Everything is close to the main building’s dining room, living room and workout gym. The new Luxury Rooms, though, have prettier, unobstructed views of the gorgeous lake.
play: You’re here to focus on you, so do the things you like: yoga, kayaking, meditation, cooking classes. But this is your chance to try some new things, too. You might just like that Cardio Drumming or Hula Hoop class!
eat: Remember, this is spa food. You’re here to, if not exactly lose weight, at least keep from gaining any! Unlike other vacations, the food focus is not on rich meals, but on healthful ones. Ideally, you’ll jump-start a healthier lifestyle and ‘take the spa home with you’ by incorporating some of its recipes into your home cooking.
shop: There are a couple of gift shops on the grounds, with the usual fun, gifty items: jewelry, workout wear, yummy spa products. But hands-down the best gift you can give yourself is a repeat visit to the spa next year!

Pictured: The spa pool
Photos: Dorothy Weiner

Spaaaaah ... Texas Style
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Spaaaaah ... Texas Style
A friend recently asked me if I’d rather spend a week in Europe or four days at a spa. The answer was easy. There is simply nothing like the spa experience.
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Dorothy Weiner
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