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.
Lake Austin Spa Resort
1705 S. Quinlan Park Rd., Austin, Tex.; 800/847-5637 or 512/372-7300; www.lakeaustin.com; three-night packages from $1,280 per person, double.
Inn at Palmetto Bluff
476 Mount Pelia Rd., Bluffton, S.C.; 866/706-6565 or 843/706-6500; www.palmettobluffresort.com; doubles from $450.
Sanctuary at Kiawah Island
1 Sanctuary Beach Dr., Kiawah Island, S.C.; 877/683-1234 or 843/768-6000; www.thesanctuary.com; doubles from $275.
Old Edwards Inn & Spa
445 Main St., Highlands, N.C.; 866/526-8008 or 828/526-8008; www.oldedwardsinn.com; doubles from $235.
Fruit-infused steam and an herbal mask are the focus of a hydrating Blackberry Mist treatment. Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.; 800/273-6004 or 865/380-2260; www.blackberryfarm.com; doubles from $545.
Named for a local mountain crop, Kate's Black Walnut Scrub is an exfoliating treatment that resurfaces dry skin. The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.; 800/624-6070 or 304/536-1110; www.greenbrier.com; doubles from $540.
Sea Island Spa
The Georgia Mud Pie is a playful body wrap paired with a mineral bath. The Cloister, Sea Island, Ga.; 800/732-4752 or 912/638-3611; www.seaisland.com; doubles from $300.
Spa at Charleston Place
The spa's new Flavor of the Month sugar scrubs are made with iconic Southern infusions such as peach, magnolia, and peppermint. Charleston Place Hotel, Charleston; 800/611-5545 or 843/722-4900; www.charlestonplace.com; doubles from $479.
About 25 minutes from Knoxville, Blackberry is like a south of the Mason-Dixon Line edition of a Currier & Ives print: ribbons of white fences, a pond stocked with catfish, and houses constructed from Tennessee fieldstone. Set on 4,200 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains, Blackberry’s 62 rooms—spread throughout the main house, three guesthouses, and 20 cottages—are done in a plush Anglo-American idiom, complete with fringed swags and decorative pillows in fancy fabrics. Regulation rockers are soldiered onto the front lawn for the day’s Big Moment: sundown with tumblers of Hirsch 20-year-old bourbon.
Travelers have long been drawn to this remote valley in the Allegheny Mountains, seeking the curative powers of the white sulphur springs discovered by the Shawnee. It’s there, in rural West Virginia, that travelers also find the Greenbrier, one of America’s most legendary resorts, which dates back to 1778 and features interior designer Dorothy Draper’s familiar floral patterns and baroque plaster pediments. Now, after a $65 million renovation, the 6,500-acre property is once again decked to the nines; the resort boasts seven restaurants, four golf courses, a spa and equestrian center, and as of 2010, a casino complex designed by Carleton Varney, with 37 table games and 320 slot machines. The 710 rooms all have custom pillow-top mattresses and newspaper delivery.
Belmond Charleston Place
Grand hotel with Georgian staircases and a 1-to-1 staff-to-guest ratio, in the heart of Charleston's commercial district. It's a family-friendly spot and one of the city's largest hotels (don't miss the magnificent spa).
Old Edwards Inn & Spa
The central Highlands grounds of the Old Edwards Inn have deep hospitality roots—the property was originally a boarding house when it opened in 1878, though of course, much has changed. In the last eight yearsalone there has been close to $100 million in renovations; the new owners have added pools, shops, restaurants, and upgraded accommodations. Guests clink champagne glasses at check-in before making their way to one of 68 plush rooms—with 22 more opening in mid-2013—furnished with antiques and Italian linens and framed in local wood and stone. The 25,000-square-foot spa is elegant and warmed by a new solarium with a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Carolina Mountain countryside. Guests also have access to the Old Edwards Club, a Tom Jackson–designed golf course and handsome clubhouse, and a swimming pool.
Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
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. 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 123 mature live oaks for the resort’s entrance avenue, and Kiawah’s beach glows pink at sunset as a shrimp trawler anchors in front of the resort. Treatments at the third-floor spa also have a distinctly Southern drawl: the Mint Julep Facial incorporates the Anakiri line’s pure-peppermint essential oil.
Inn at Palmetto Bluff, a Montage Resort
With Spanish moss dripping from low-lying oak branches and egrets soaring overhead, life at this plantation-style luxury resort seems to move at the pace of a deep-southern drawl. But the many diversions—a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, fly-fishing, spa treatments, naturalist-led alligator “hunts”—sequestered on 20,000 acres of South Carolina coastal marshland leave little time for ennui. Fifty cottages house enormous rooms and suites (1,150- and 1,350- square feet, respectively), with pine floors, gas fireplaces, and private screened porches.
Lake Austin Spa Resort
Relax and recharge at this sprawling resort, a longtime favorite respite for both locals and celebrities looking to escape curious eyes. Nineteen waterfront acres house everything one could ever wish for at a destination spa: with hundreds of classes (fitness, cooking, gardening) and spa treatments to choose from, the hardest decision you'll make during your stay is how to fit it all in. At a minimum cost of $1,600 for a three-day weekend, it's a splurge, but it's worth every penny.