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A Skeptic's Spa Retreat

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

Photo: Jason Todd

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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