A Skeptic's Spa Retreat

A Skeptic's Spa Retreat

Jason Todd Author, Patricia Marx, climbing at the Gap, near St. George.

Jason Todd

<p>Jason Todd</p>
Jason Todd Author, Patricia Marx, climbing at the Gap, near St. George.

Jason Todd

At Utah's Red Mountain Spa, a reluctant PATRICIA MARX endures a hot-stone massage, scales 40-foot walls, joins a fire ceremony, and gets her attitude adjusted (almost).

The first and, until recently, only time I visited a spa, I ran smack into a potted cactus on my rush from Abs, Abs, Abs to Get High on the Trampoline,and somehow ended up scraping the inside of my eye. But that isn't why, on the flight to Utah, I start to get queasy feelings about my upcoming stay at the Red Mountain Spa. The resort's Web site had mentioned "wellness" and "life enhancement." Red Mountain, apparently, is for both; I am for neither, because "spiritual growth" and "mind/body balance" are usually right around the corner and from there it's a short hop to someone telling me not to poison myself by using artificial sweetener.

This brings me to cuisine. "We do not advocate deprivation or severe restriction," said Kim, one of the so-called concierges, when she booked my reservation on the phone. I was planning to lose about 50 pounds a day, but Kim, I decided, was not someone who would want to hear about this goal. Also, I should tell you that I do not like massages or facials or dining at the "captain's table," a seating arrangement for singles who want to meet people, which I do not.

Oh, one more thing: I do not do yoga.

I guess you could say that I am not a spa person. And yet, the promise of transformation, of coming back thinner, healthier, and stronger; and, if I were to suffer a lot, younger, richer, taller, and with rosier skin, greener eyes, and possibly blond hair too…well, the bait always gets me.

And so I arrive at St. George Airport, not far from Red Mountain in Ivins, Utah, determined to be a grouch for the next five days. It is three o'clock in the afternoon and 104 degrees. Similar temperatures are predicted for the week ahead. A khaki-colored Red Mountain van picks me up. Another van is there, too, for guests of the Green Valley Spa. I consider getting in that one instead, convinced for no reason that it is not the sort of vehicle that would go to a place with classes such as Dance on Rock and Emotions in Motion, or that offers guests the opportunity to "learn…through breathwork to let go of energy blocks." Breathwork isn't even a word. Can I really go to a place that uses nonwords, not to mention forces me to enhance my life and eat unprocessed grains?

If the Pueblos had built condominiums, they might have looked like the buildings at Red Mountain and have had the same names—Quail, Owl, Armadillo, and so forth. The spa has 84 rooms and 11 villa suites. During my visit, which coincides with the way-off-peak season (see weather report above), there are about 90 guests, who seem to be mostly from the Mid- or Northwest and, on average, younger (quite a few in their thirties) than at the spa where I scraped my eye. Also, it appears they have spent less money on their exercise gear, with the exception of hiking boots. I meet a physical therapist, a doctor, a manufacturer of arts-and-crafts products, an engineer working on nuclear waste disposal, an army nurse stationed in Germany, and a woman who posts church music on the Internet. There are many sisters; quite a few mother­daughter duos; and a fair number of men, all accompanying wives or girlfriends. A conversation I overhear later in the pool demonstrates my observation that the men have come for the hikes, not the spa treatments:

Wife (to husband): "After my massage, I might want to take a sauna, if they have one."
Husband: "Whatever."
Wife: "You don't even know what a sauna is, do you?"
Husband: "The word comes from the word water, right?"

After registering, I walk to my room in the Rabbit building. Passers-by, many of them wearing beige spa-issued robes, give me friendly hellos. Someone in a hammock, assuming I'm lost, asks if she can help me find my way. I overhear a woman who is putting on sunscreen say to a woman who is not putting on sunscreen, "Promise me that after all this healthy food, you will never eat at Starbucks again." "I'll promise for a week," is the reply.

My room is large and, while not posh, more than adequate. From my window, I have a view of the red sandstone bluffs of Snow Canyon State Park in the distance. Spectacular, I think, though monotonously so. But hiking through those mountains the next morning, I am significantly awed by the landscape. The palette is predominantly rust, paprika, and what Crayola calls burnt sienna, but there's plenty of red, pink, and yellow, too, and a smattering of green (sagebrush) and charcoal black (fields of lava), and, I'm told, every other color when the desert flowers are in bloom. The display of sandstone domes, red-rock spires, dunes, ­volcanic deposits, and eccentrically weathered stone columns make the area an in-your-face geology lesson. Even if you've never been to the southwestern corner of Utah, I bet you have an accurate idea what it looks like, for this is cowboy country. Hundreds of movies and television series were filmed here, including Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Planet of the Apes, Exorcist II, The Lone Ranger, Have Gun— Will Travel, F Troop, Death Valley Days, Gunsmoke, Lassie, and Route 66.

That night I have dinner on the restaurant's patio. I am a bit annoyed by the water mister dampening my book as it cools the air, but I am pleased that it is okay with everyone that I sit alone and am unsociable. Unfortunately (given my weight-loss goals), the food is delicious. Entrées include grilled sirloin and chile-rubbed halibut with watermelon relish and sweet potato hash; for dessert there's pumpkin cheesecake, "deep dark" chocolate cake, and apple-walnut bread pudding, to give some examples. Butter, beer, and wine are also on offer. And, what a relief, so is artificial sweetener (Splenda).

Okay, you can see where this is heading, can't you?Despite myself, I have a good time. Did I mention that my room has cable TV and, best of all, a wireless Internet connection?


Every day at a spa feels like the last you will spend on earth. This is not only because your muscles ache and the instructors push you to push your heart rate up to heart-attack levels. It is also because of the soothing nurselike undertone in which everyone talks to you ("Ms. Marx, I'm going to apply steamed rose hips to your face now; let me know if you feel any discomfort"). And let's not forget, you're permitted, even encouraged, to wear a robe and slippers on the premises at all times. Very Magic Mountain.

There is another reason you might feel doomed at Red Mountain Spa. This is an "adventure spa," meaning there is an emphasis on rugged and sometimes risky outdoor activities. You can rock climb or kayak near Zion National Park, ride horseback along the trails of Pine Valley, spend a day exploring Bryce Canyon, or take a two-day, 26-mile hike through the Grand Canyon. (By the way, there is a surcharge for most of the adventure trips, though the excellent morning hikes—on more than 30 trails—are included in the basic package.) At the start of each adventure, you sign a release form that acknowledges your awareness of certain dangers, such as "flash flood," "venomous reptiles," "barbed wire," "terrain lacking water sources," "obscure hazards," and, of course, "cactus" (this time, I have sunglasses, so look out, prickly pear!). Such dangers, the form states, can result in "injury, damage, permanent disability, death, or loss." It gives you pause. (It is also curious that "loss" comes after "death.")

As it happens, these adventures are by far my favorite part of the week, though my least favorite part is the hour at which they begin—anywhere from 6:15 to 7:30 a.m. I especially like rock climbing, because I get to wear equipment (a harness and climbing shoes) and can now brag to people (like you) that I scaled four 40-foot, more-or-less-vertical mountain walls. During my visit I also cram in several other adventures, including a hike, a bike ride, and an educational walk through a canyon with a geologist.

I also throw a pot on a potter's wheel in pottery school one night, thereby making good on all the money my parents spent sending me to sleepaway camp (though maybe not, as I assume it's possible to get a nicer bowl for several thousand dollars). And guess what?In an effort to be broad-minded, I go to an Incan Fire Ceremony led by Dana, a pretty girl in her twenties, who has been studying with a shaman for two years. Six other spa guests and I walk through the lava fields to a small fire pit, where we wrap a piece of paper around a stick, which we toss into the fire. It is a little more complicated than that, but the thing to know is that by doing this, we are supposedly letting go of hoocha (heavy energy) and letting in sami (light energy). Let's just say that I do not follow this up with the Sacred Spiral Energy Walk or attend the class on meditation rituals or try any of the other wellness and life-enhancement activities that week.

Red Mountain has conventional spa stuff as well. A full slate of fitness classes is offered, yet, maddeningly, there are never more than two at a time to choose from. I go to a hip-hop class (where I prove once again that I cannot dance), a tai chi class (during which the instructor asks us to feel the energy of the Earth's gravitational pull and I feel the pull of the exit door), circuit training (as good as circuit training can be), and Aqua Asana, which is yoga in the pool (I don't care what they call it or where they put it, I will never like yoga). I have a LaStone massage, in which hot and cold oiled stones are placed on my body to relieve stress. However, lying on a table in dim light with calming music piped in overhead makes me stressed. I also get a haircut, and that makes me very happy. Apparently, scissors relieve my stress.

Don't tell anyone I said this (I don't want a reputation as a spa person) but I am not totally unhappy after my stay at Red Mountain. Wait, yes, I am: I never had a chance to take the day trip to Bryce Canyon or to try the sports pedicure with Terry, who is supposed to be a Zen master. I did not lose 50 pounds a day, though my suitcase did: by the fifth day, my sneakers and several T-shirts were stained red from dust—irrevocably, it seemed—so I ditched them. Still, I feel healthy and relaxed on the flight back to New York. And my eyes are unscraped. But I am also vaguely on edge: I can't get that damn Incan Fire Ceremony chant out of my head.

RED MOUNTAIN SPA, 1275 E. Red Mountain Circle, Ivins, Utah; 800/407-3002 or 435/673-4905; www.redmountainspa.com; doubles from $530 (including all meals), treatments from $25.

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