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Rise of the Southern U.S. Spa

My southern-born mother wanted to send me to charm school. I was a teenage tomboy with scabby knees and tangled hair, and nothing could have been further from my imagination. To her disappointment, I never became the belle she'd envisioned—perfectly coiffed, swathed in linen, decked out with heirloom pearls.(It's a small consolation that I've finally stopped scraping my knees.) But she did manage to drill one feminine notion into my contrary head: even steel magnolias are entitled to a little pampering now and then. It just so happens that this is the specialty of resort spas south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

AUSTIN, TEXAS Lake Austin Spa Resort is a blue dot deep in the heart of the red zone. Despite recent attempts by a certain former Texas governor to hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency, the folks here still give a toot about sustainability. That's why the sheets on my bed are wrinkled. (Egyptian cotton, good; aerosol spray starch, bad.) Just outside Austin's city limits, the resort has 40 ranch-style guest rooms facing a sparkling lake where tame geese paddle between rowing sculls. Granite gravel crunches underfoot as I climb a pesticide-free garden path to the limestone-and-cedar LakeHouse Spa, which evokes an oil baron's Hill Country retreat. Make that an oil baron with New Age ethics: the slate-blue barn shelters a lap pool instead of livestock; a boulder-strewn pond recirculates used water to a stream that trickles downhill. On a screened-in treatment porch, therapist April Day administers a mind-bending cranio- sacral massage, which is followed by an equally impressive moxibustion (Chinese heat therapy) session with acupuncturist Aaron Rubenstein. But all this doesn't mean Lake Austin has lost its twang. An exfoliating scrub uses locally grown pecans. The lounge is draped with quilts by a blue ribbon winner at the Texas State Fair. A private wildflower patch behind the VIP suite honors the Texas-born Lady Bird Johnson. During a low-fat cooking demo, chef Terry Conlan smokes itty-bitty Texas quail and drizzles them with spicy barbecue sauce. Conlan quit caffeine ages ago; his iced tea is strictly herbal. Since meals are also alcohol-free, my granddaddy's sterling hip flask, brimming with small-batch bourbon, turns out to be mighty handy.

BLUFFTON, SOUTH CAROLINA On a high bank above the May River, just north of the Georgia state line, I lounge in a rocker on a screened porch and watch the swiftly receding tide expose briny oyster beds. Herons stalk shrimp marooned in back channels. A light breeze carries the tangy whiff of mineral-rich mud ashore. The Inn at Palmetto Bluff has 50 white clapboard cottages, most of which face this waterway. Each contains a gas-burning fireplace, Italian throws on downy beds, a tiled bathroom scented with jasmine and pine. When housekeeping delivers spiced pecans and a pitcher of lemonade, I want to sit tight for the rest of the day. Somehow, I break off my reverie and wander over to the spa, next to a lagoon lined with live oaks where snowy egrets roost at dusk. Some open-air treatment rooms have old-fashioned claw-foot tubs, for soaking in frothy infusions of black cohosh, cypress, nettle, and bayberry; these indigenous plants have been favored for centuries by low-country healers. After the Southern Floral Facial, my aesthetician hands me a posy of roses from the spa garden. Plopping them into a water glass back in my cottage, I dash down to the Palmetto Bluff dock, where the inn's adventure outfitter, Andrew "Boo" Harrell, is waiting to take me for a shrimp gumbo dinner on Daufuskie Island. He unties the boat and we drift into the current as the rising tide covers the golden marsh grass. A sociable pod of dolphins surfaces by our stern. You simply couldn't ask for a finer welcoming committee.

KIAWAH ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA Like a super-sized Tara, the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island belongs to a fictional plantation family. In the morning room, a portrait of the "Mistress" presides over moss-green brocades, floral drapes, and porcelain bibelots crowding occasional tables. The "Master" hangs his hat in the lobby bar. Tobacco-stained walnut planking creaks like the timeworn floors in an authentic antebellum mansion. Landscape architects transplanted 160 mature live oaks for the resort's entrance avenue. Cute as all get-out, the reception staff wears beige seersucker and silk magnolias. Why didn't I pay attention to my mother's lectures on proper attire?However, in the privacy of a fourth-floor suite, I channel Miss Scarlett while flopped on the mahogany four-poster bed. Viewed from my balcony, Kiawah's 10-mile beach glows pink at sunset as a shrimp trawler anchors in front of the resort. Chef Chris Brandt makes a splash at the imposing Ocean Room, but the homier dishes in Jasmine Porch appeal to my inner Bubba. (Love the sweet potato and pulled duck wrapped in braised collards.) Treatments at the second-floor spa also have a distinctly Southern drawl:the Julep Facial incorporates the Anakiri line's pure peppermint essential oil. The Low-Country Verbena Body Polish leaves my buffed skin smelling like fresh-squeezed lemonade. During a massage, Kim Kitchens eases tension points with heated herbal poultices. Removing the face cradle, she instructs me to "Scoot on down, ma'am." Afterward, I descendthe curved grand staircase as if there were six petticoats under my spa robe. So there, Mama.

HIGHLANDS, NORTH CAROLINA Getting to Highlands isn't all that easy. While Route 64 is one of the most scenic in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, it whips like an asphalt rattlesnake around tumbling waterfalls, pine-covered knobs, and hamlets marked by road signs that insist, PULL OVER, SLOWPOKE. When I finally park in front of the Old Edwards Inn & Spa, a valet practically has to peel my fingers off the steering wheel. Whisked up to spa suite No. 24, where flames dance in the fireplace, I dive into the soaking tub, and the circulation returns to my toes. At dinner, there's no point in counting calories; I'm already off the chart when chef François Ternes's trout stuffed with pecans, crab, and smoked Gouda arrives at my table. Once a summer boardinghouse, the historic 30-room inn spent the last three years shuttered during a makeover worthy of The Swan. In an annex to the original structure, the new spa is a frothy boudoir of ice blue, silver, and petal pink. The apothecary stocks Perle de Caviar creams. Vintage shoes adorn the pedicure stations; crystal chandeliers glimmer in treatment rooms. Therapies are equally lavish: who can resist a salt scrub called Carolina Body Delight?The White Falls facial uses a vitamin C whitening serum imported from Paris. When a spa expansion is completed next year, it will include rooms created specifically for naps. I resisted that Southern institution furiously as a child. Now, nothing seems more decadent.

SHANE MITCHELL is a T+L contributing editor.

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