• Otter Views: Too Soothing for Words

    A friend’s aching back sent us on Sunday to verdant Carmel Valley, where one tennis ranch operates as a public amenity and aquatic spa called “The Refuge.”

    For $39 plus tax, any law-abiding person owning a swim suit and flip-flops can take the waters, perspire in steam rooms, and recline by fireside in comfy lounge chairs. For an additional $12, you can rent a deluxe Hugh Hefner-style white terry cloth robe.

    My Hefner phase lost to recall, I eschewed the robe in favor of a loose cotton shirt and a high tuck of the complementary pool towel. Luckily, few mirrors or reflective surfaces accost spa patrons. The Refuge is all about feeling good in the body you brought, even if it differs from the one you thought you remembered.

    To that end, the spa employs a near-Babylonian arsenal of body pleasing stress-reduction systems. Stream-fed hot and cold soaking pools abound, as do fire pits ringed by comfortable patio chairs. Separate benched chambers offer salutary blasts of Saharan dry heat or Amazonian steam. Yet other rooms soothe spa patrons with ergonomic sling chairs and discreetly piped-in New Age flutes.

    The discreet flutes are part of a thoughtfully calibrated sonic environment designed to still the inner rabble rouser and let relaxation commence. The soft whuffling of the patio gas fires mingles with bird song. Breezes rustle in the trees overhead. From all sides comes the hypnotic thrumming of mini waterfalls splashing into hot and cold pools.

    Should this artful susurration somehow fail to induce tranquility, a picket line of posted signs reminds patrons to “Respect the Silence.” I liked that sentiment and felt moved to comment on it.

    “Totally the reverse of what’s going on in Congress right now!” I began. “Outrageous! Did you read about that latest . . .”

    “Shhhhh,” my friend whispered. “You’ll bring on stress.”

    Actually, I should have come to The Refuge packing more stress. As the day went on, our successive immersions in hot pools, cold pools, saunas and steam rooms left me in a torpid bliss state I can only call “stress debt.” Thankfully (and probably only temporarily), my present life includes so little stress the first hot pool exhausted it all. Everything after that was stress gravy.

    Lying in an ergonomic chair at one point, I gazed idly up at blue sky, puffy white clouds and sun-dappled treetops. I tried to reflect upon the many stress-racked periods of my earlier life when I could have made better use of The Refuge, but I lacked the energy.

    “Stress is wasted on the young,” I observed. “My life has such a low aggravation metric these days, I feel like a charlatan basking in all this comfort. I should probably just stay home and take a nap.”

    “Shhhh,” my friend whispered, pointing to the nearest Respect the Silence sign. “Don’t worry about it. I have enough stress for two.”

    Yet as our visit lengthened, even that proved insufficient to counter the spa’s many blandishments. Among these is a regime of heat-cold-rest-and-repeat treatments which, if followed scrupulously, leaves the patron’s body tingling all over with soft electric fire.

    In Finland and Siberia, sauna bathers whip themselves with birch branches and roll in the snow to achieve the same effect. In Carmel Valley, the “double cold” pool does the trick. Perhaps to avoid the stress of lawsuits related to cardio-pulmonary failure, The Refuge thoughtfully posts little pictographs at each water feature.

    The icon with two yellow suns indicates a pool with hotter water than a pool with just one sun. Blue spheres – possibly ice planets? – indicate the cold pools. The pools with one ice planet are about the same temperature as the ocean hereabouts, that is, barely tolerable. The two ice planet pools are considerably more Arctic.

    The tingliest “double cold” pool greets patrons exiting at a loopy stagger from the sustained furnace blast of the spa’s sauna or steam room. Spotting the pool’s limpid waters, inviting blue tiles and helpful stair rail, the superheated spa-goer happily descends three steps before the frigid shock locks in. By then, it’s too late. You’re chest-deep in a clear, fiery, icy liquid that resembles water in fluidity only.

    According to the spa’s tri-fold brochure, double cold pool immersion should last “five to 10 seconds” on average but “no more than 60 seconds.” I was about to remark on this, but I’d already been in for 10 seconds and could no longer breathe. A full minute in there would probably relieve all stress, permanently.

    Near the end of our visit, The Refuge filled up with patrons who didn’t need midriff-hiding towel tucks. These were lean and sinewy marathoners who had just finished Sunday’s Big Sur race. The pools and saunas beckoned, but the runners all took seats on the patio, pointed their feet toward the fire rings, and fell gratefully asleep. Their silence was respected.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 2, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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