As longtime Texans, we’re plenty familiar with the prickly pear cactus. Its biggest spines are tough enough to pierce shoe leather. Its micro-needles get into your skin and can be felt but not seen.
And, we were learning, its pulp can be transformed into spa products that are as soothing as the prickly pear’s exterior is spiny. Our lesson came courtesy of the “Tour of Texas” massage at The LakeHouse Spa at Lake Austin Spa Resort. We started with a prickly pear exfoliating scrub followed by an aloe vera wrap and a tranquil massage, perfect for kneading away stress from a week’s worth of deadlines and urgent emails. Fifty blissful minutes later, we were slathered in a heavenly cactus lotion. Not a spine in sight.
We’ll never think of the prickly pear the same way again.
And, thanks to the Lake Austin Spa Resort, many travelers never think of spas quite the same way again. In 2007, it was named the No. 2 destination spa in North America by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler and No. 9 in the world by the readers of Travel + Leisure. The spa and adjoining 40-room resort lie on the shores of Lake Austin, a narrow swath of water that begins at the foot of the Hill Country and flows through the western part of the city. Its location — just half an hour outside of Austin, yet worlds apart in terms of atmosphere — makes it easy for business travelers to finish a morning downtown meeting in plenty of time for an afternoon massage or yoga class on the lake’s placid banks. Or better yet, to follow up a few days of business with a few days of relaxation at the resort.
A longtime favorite in the Lone Star State, the resort became a world-class destination spa in 2004 with the opening of the 25,000-square-foot LakeHouse Spa. The two-story, Texas-sized structure resembles many Hill Country farmhouses with its limestone exterior and screened upstairs porch; inside it houses 30 treatment areas staffed by more than 80 therapists.
Day guests, like us, begin with check-in downstairs before heading off to relaxing locker rooms (overnight guests enjoy a quiet saunter from their guestrooms to the spa along a path lined by gardens and a trickling stream). Upstairs, spa guests fill the Blue Room, a relaxation room with large, Mission-style furniture and curtains hand-painted with wildflowers, a delightful contrast to the blue walls for which the room is named. Therapists come to the Blue Room to retrieve guests, escorting them down halls decorated with award-winning Texas quilts before reaching the treatment areas. All the indoor treatment rooms are soundproofed and equipped with showers and a customized sound system. Or guests can opt for treatments on the porch, at poolside cabanas, or even in the outdoor “Bamboo Room” where black bamboo and limestone walls create a private getaway for two lucky guests; a hot tub and waterfall complete the soothing scene.
Like the prickly pear treatment we enjoyed, many of the spa’s signature treatments feature products grown right on the resort grounds. Rosemary joins sea salt for exfoliation, lavender soothes and de-stresses, figs provide a relaxing bath, and lemon verbena invigorates. In all, over 1,000 species of plants, herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables and wildflowers thrive in the resort’s organic Healing Gardens.
The spa’s practice of using locally grown ingredients in its products carries over into its dining as well, both at the LakeHouse Spa’s Aster Café and in the resort’s dining room, which offers three meals daily (including a five-course nightly menu) as part of its all-inclusive guest plan.
“All of our beef, lamb, poultry and eggs come from within a hundred miles of where I sit, and so do most of our vegetables,” said executive chef Terry Conlan. “From November to February every year, just about all our lettuce comes out of our own gardens — eight or 10 kinds in all. In the summer, we use our own tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers — and get beautiful hydroponic lettuce from Dripping Springs, just down the road.” Conlan’s creations include such dishes as smoked salmon and chive spread, coconut snapper ceviche, fresh corn and green chili soup, and coffee-crusted sirloin with jalapeño red-eye gravy.
Conlan and guest chefs share their culinary knowledge with guests the second week of every month during the resort’s Culinary Experience Week, offering morning cooking classes followed by afternoon wine and cheese tastings. Culinary classes are also a popular option for corporate groups attending retreats or small meetings at the property. Small groups can be accommodated at the resort with packages that offer activities ranging from challenging fitness classes to pampering spa treatments.
Both individual and group guests can select from a menu of daily activities (usually 20 activities and classes per day) designed for a variety of fitness levels. From high-intensity cardio workouts to yoga-for-sleep classes conducted in near-dark rooms, the spa allows visitors to find a fitness option that works with their lifestyles and interests.
Fitness — and fun — opportunities also extend beyond the walls of the fitness center and onto the resort grounds. Three pools provide a variety of settings for relaxation and exercise. The resort pool tempts guests not only with a view of Lake Austin, but with lavender-scented facecloths to help them cool off in the Texas heat. Uphill, the Pool Barn houses a Junior Olympic-sized pool, perfect for laps year-round. And, adjacent to the spa, the Palm Pool provides a place to relax after a pampering treatment, shaded in stylish cabanas.
Group activities also center on the water. The Yoga Deck, built over the waters of Lake Austin, serves as a tranquil setting for sun salutations when the first rays of light peek over the juniper- and live oak=dotted hills. Other guests opt to explore the lake aboard kayaks, canoes abd challenging Hydro-bikes — or to relax on a lake cruise with the chance to spot the many birds that call Austin home year-round or on a migratory basis.
Like the migrating birds, guests eventually leave Lake Austin Spa Resort and head back home. Offering a chance for a new outlook on everything from nutrition to exercise — and even prickly pear cactus — Lake Austin Spa Resort, like many migratory homes, ranks high in the annual travel plans of many of its lucky guests.
Though air travel slowed as airports temporarily closed and borders shuttered to stifle the spread of coronavirus, the airline industry — led by oneworld alliance member airlines — enacted enhanced protective measures to reduce risk and protect passengers.
I had just taken off my sandals, stepping onto the white-sand beach for a late-morning walk to a secluded spot I heard about from a front desk clerk, when I glanced down and saw the time on my phone. It had just turned 11 a.m., which meant it was only 7 am back home, the perfect time to call and say good morning to by husband before he left for work. Not quite ready to head back to my room, I decided I’d test the WiFi signal and made the call as I continued walking toward the shoreline.
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When you think of a relaxing spa day, mountains, rivers and view of gorgeous landscapes pop in your head; a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of any city’s booming music and honking taxis. SoJo Spa Club and Hotel gives you the relaxing feeling of being away while still staying close to the busy center of Manhattan.
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