Spas of the West

The West has always led the way in the health-and-wellness industry, and the region continues to be on the cutting edge. Here’s our list of 12 must-know spa resorts

By: Nora Isaacs

I stood under the deluge shower at the Claremont Resort & Spa in Berkeley, Calif., and pressed the start button. Slowly and then faster, warm water at the pace of 30 gallons per minute poured over my head, neck and shoulders, giving me a delicious massage with the perfect amount of pressure. As the water swirled down the drain, so did the stress, fatigue and anxiety that led me to seek out a spa vacation in the first place. I felt pampered and deeply rejuvenated and quite reluctant to leave my temporary paradise to face the outside world.

Like me, more and more people leading hectic lives yearn to slow down, simplify and feel connected and they are finding spa vacations to be just the right refuge: According to the International Spa Association (ISPA), we are currently witnessing an unprecedented boom in destination spas: In 2001, 500,000 visits were made; climbing to 2.4 million visits in 2003. In 2001, destination spas accounted for $158 million in revenues, just two years later, they more than doubled to $399 million. And as of June 2004, there were 191 destination spas in the U.S. up from 70 in 2002.

Why the shift? Americans are starting to see spa vacations as an integral part of staying healthy and reducing stress over the long haul.

“While there are still those who view spa experiences as an unnecessary indulgence, others quickly interpret it as much-needed relief from a stressful and time-famined life...,” said a 2004 ISPA report on spa trends.

In response to the skyrocketing interest, today’s destination spas aren’t just offering hotel meals, your basic massage and nice scenery, instead, they are hiring the finest chefs, adding eclectic treatments from around the world and opening in some of the most stunning natural landscapes in the West.

All of this growth means that the spa market can provide a bottom-line boost to any travel agency. But with so many new spas opening and new treatments being added, how does an agent stay on top of this industry? Which are the spas in the West the region where health-and-wellness is a way of life after all that are must-have bookmarks on your computer or in your Rolodex? To help you answer these questions, I whittled down a large list of spas that offer commissions and came up with 12 of the most luxurious, innovative and reputable spas in the West. And although they differ in ambiance, one thing is clear: The following places offer the finest accommodations, employ the best therapists and incorporate the most cutting-edge treatments. These are the ultimate destinations for clients who spend their vacation time trying out new spa offerings as well as for first-timers interested in testing the waters.

The Wellness Belt: California and Arizona
The 215-room luxury Miramonte Resort & Spa, which offers fine Italian dining, horseback riding, tennis and golf, is typical of the best of today’s Western destination spas. This Indian Wells, Calif., resort introduced its state-of-the-art spa, The Well, in May.

“We are a boutique spa with15 treatment rooms in a Tuscan villa,” said spa director Jennifer DiFrancesco. “It feels like you are walking into a home.”

The spa area includes outdoor treatment cabanas, two river benches with cascading waterfalls and private outdoor balconies. DiFrancesco said The Well caters to couples on a romantic getaway with services like a warm mud wrap for two or an instructional watsu (water shiatsu) session.

“I think for couples who want to reacquaint themselves with one another, it provides a really great service. It’s not just your run-of-the mill experience,” DiFrancesco said.

Farther upstate, in Napa Valley, Auberge du Soleil features gourmet meals, romantic rooms, and a hilltop setting with valley views. The resort which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2005 and has recently renovated many of its rooms houses couples treatment rooms and private outdoor gardens for showering off. Seasonal spa services take advantage of the area’s natural resources, such as a heating wrap using blooming mustard; a steam bath with fresh herbs; and a face, head and body massage using regional grape-seed oil.

When not swaddled in warm towels or sunning by the pool, guests savor the resort’s famous food.

“This is not a resort where you go to diet,” said spokesperson Stacy Lewis. “The food is very unmanipulated, beautifully and simply prepared and uses fresh local produce and ingredients.” If your clients want spa cuisine and a focus on integrating mind, body and spirit, the award-winning resort Miraval delivers. This Catalina, Ariz., resort offers a menu of Ayurvedic treatments, which draw on the wisdom of ancient India for removing toxins and improving immunity and uses detoxifying oils and herbs. According to spokesperson Mary Monaghan, the spa attracts people “living a very stressful lifestyle, either business or personal” who find respite in Miraval’s 100 spa and massage options, including hot stone massage, shiatsu and acupuncture.

“We do not have a whistle-and-clipboard mentality we let our guests choose their own schedule of events,” said Monaghan.

Also in Arizona, uber-spa Canyon Ranch, in Tucson, offers dozens of enticing and unusual treatments, from Jet Lag Wrap to Aloe Glaze, for total pampering. But the biggest thing that separates Canyon Ranch from the pack is its extensive medical department, according to regional sales manager Scott Bull. Clients meet with on-site doctors, therapists, acupuncturists and nutritionists for a comprehensive overview of their medical condition and to set goals for the future.

“There is nowhere else you can lie by the pool all day, pick out of 50 fitness classes, exercise from morning to night and address lifestyle issues all in one setting,” said Bull.

But dare not think of Canyon Ranch as a medical clinic.

“Not only are guests getting the most sophisticated integrative medical diagnostic testing, but you are getting one of the most fantastic resorts in the world,” said Bull.

At Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, the name says it all. This idyllic mountaintop sanctuary, recognized several times over as “One of the World’s Best Places to Stay” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine, offers world-weary travelers a stunning view, elegant touches, private casitas and a unique spa. The Sanctuary Spa’s menu includes exotic facials with names like Sanctuary Jewel, Dragonfly and Porcelain; Asian-inspired body treatments using seaweed, coconut, lemongrass and bamboo; massages using stones and herbs, as well as Thai foot massage and Reiki.

The Sanctuary’s ultimate pampering package is called Satori, which is the Japanese word for enlightenment, and you just might reach this transcendent state after four nights in a deluxe spa casita, daily meals, a choice of spa treatments, session with a personal trainer, classes in the movement studio and unlimited use of the facilities including the vitality pool, steam room and meditation garden.

Other inclusive deals at Camelback include Paradise for Two and Sanctuary Escape, as well as seasonal packages.

Elsewhere in the West
For clients wanting something on a smaller scale, privacy with a personal touch can be found at the exclusive Colorado mountain resort Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, an intimate 56-room getaway on top of a mountain overlooking Vail Valley.

A recently completed multi-million-dollar renovation resulted in a spa that houses 12 treatment rooms, a fitness room and indoor and outdoor pools. Cordillera’s unique setting high above sea level inspires customized services, such as the High Altitude Rescue Body Wrap where therapists use propolis (bee’s wax) as a moisturizer and then pour warm coconut milk over the body. The personalization extends to customized massage services, too.

“Guests don’t have to choose between sports, deep tissue or shiatsu,” said spa director Angie Primmer. “They talk to the therapist, and then it’s completely tailored to whatever they need.” After a long day of skiing or golfing, guests often need some kneading and a quiet escape. “Our location is perfect we are not in the middle of the hustle and bustle, but you can still go into Vail for dinner and then come back to this quiet, serene place,” said Primmer.

The best of both worlds also exists at the Spa & Salon Bellagio, in Las Vegas. The renovated spa recently reopened and includes new contemporary design and an eclectic international menu that features treatments like Thai Yoga massage, Indian head massage, Balinese massage and watsu.

The spa’s 56 treatment rooms include spaces for skin care, hydrotherapy and massage. The spa also houses couple’s rooms, a fitness studio, meditation room, salon and lounge.

“Spa & Salon Bellagio’s theme is contemporary fusion, bringing together the best-of-the-best of spa and salon therapies from around the world,” said spa director Michelle Wilkos. “The new space was created as a result of listening to guests. They wanted more, so we doubled the space to 65,000 square feet and created areas for unique spa gatherings. They wanted an experience they couldn’t get any place else, so we brought the world of spa-ing to them in a sleek, natural Zen-like setting.”

The Watermark Hotel and Spa in San Antonio, Tex., opened its doors in 2004 along the River Walk. This year-old gem has a 17,000-square-foot spa, with slate floors, eucalyptus trees and tumbled marble that offers 20 rooms for over 60 treatments, including facials, massage and wraps.

Visitors rave about the hotel’s packages, which include an Anniversary Package for couples, Girls Day Out for mothers and daughters or bridal parties, and a Spa Getaway for anyone who wants to indulge.

“Guests love the specials, which often include lunch at the rooftop cafe,” said spokesperson Christabel Wilson. “There’s a pool on the roof, and they eat lunch in their robes.” Utah’s Red Mountain Spa offers luxury adventure; guests can hike, bike and rock climb to their heart’s content among Moab’s stunning rock formations, lava caves and desert terrain. Red Mountain also offers full-service spa, massage and body treatments, a core program of hiking, fitness classes and three healthy gourmet spa cuisine meals daily. For guests hungry for information about their health, Red Mountain offers a list of services like body composition assessments and bone-density testing. Packages include Sisterhood Getaway, Bring a Teen and Couples Adventure.

Spas in Paradise
Over the years, Hawaii has been a leader in the health-and-wellness and spa markets, and that trend continues today.

On Maui, the Grand Wailea Resort and Hotel offers golf, tennis, fine dining and an impressive art collection, but its crown jewel is the newly renovated Spa Grande, which consists of a 50,000-square-foot spa facility and a state-of-the-art Terme (which literally translates as “healing waters”). This wet area includes hydrotherapy baths, three cascading waterfalls, five specialty baths, Swiss jet showers, a traditional Japanese Furo bath, marble steam room, Roman tub and two cold plunges.

“The Terme is complementary whenever you get a treatment,” said spokesperson Wendy Bagwill. “More people show up early, and they can spend an entire hour there. It’s good for your body to loosen your muscles, and it’s good for your mind as well. You get a full two-hour treatment even if you are only getting a 50-minute massage.”

The Fairmont Orchid, a 32-acre resort on Hawaii’s Big Island, opened its Spa Without Walls in December 2003. The spa includes 10 hale, or houses, nestled in tropical foliage, where guests can get massage, reflexology, hot-rocks therapy, facials and body wraps, many of which use indigenous ingredients.

The spa’s in-demand offering? The hale with a special floor window, so you can look at the fish while lying face-down on the treatment table. Spa packages like Nirvana, Hawaiian Rejuvenation, Deluxe Oceanside Experience and Ladies or Gentlemen’s Special combine some of the most luxurious treatments for an unforgettably relaxing day.

Nora Isaacs is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist who writes about travel, health and wellness. She can be reached at

Spa Trends

As spas grow in popularity there are some trends agents should monitor. A Wide Net: Spa directors across the country see an increasing number of men traveling to spas especially getting massages, manicures and facials.

“Men are finally understanding how therapeutic these services are they’re not just a luxury, they are routine maintenance for your body,” said Grand Wailea’s Nancy Bagwill. In addition to more men, the International Spa Association (ISPA) said that more children are introducing their parents to the spa experience, and that more “teenagers are entering the spa world for cosmetic spa services.”

Spiritual Acceptance: As consumers become more interested in practices like yoga and tai chi, incorporating spiritual ideas seems less threatening.

“Whereas before it was considered a bit too woo woo to even say the ‘spiritual’ word, now if people aren’t actively pursuing it, they are at least open to learning more about it,” said Miraval’s Mary Monaghan.

Indigenous Offerings: More interest in spas means more diversity in offerings. ISPA sees more spa services that use local, natural ingredients, as well as an increase in the use of ancient treatments based on Ayurvedic (Eastern) and Native American techniques.

Spiritual Spas

Simply getting away from the grind can be a transcendent experience in itself. But for clients who want to connect with their spiritual center, a growing number of Western getaways offer a combination of spa services with classes, workshops and retreats.

Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California
Perched along 27 acres in California’s Big Sur, guests enjoy cliffside baths while also taking one of over 400 workshops a year taught by experts in spirituality, psychology and health.

Feathered Pipe Ranch, Helena, Montana
This Montana mountain paradise offers intensive yoga classes, massage, acupuncture, CranioSacral therapy, acupressure and energy work.

Omega at the Crossings, Austin, Texas
A progressive learning center that offers seminars, workshops, retreats and trainings, alongside a wellness spa for rejuvenation and relaxation.

Shambhala Mountain Center, Red Feather Lakes, Colorado
A Rocky Mountain refuge offering an array of workshops on Tibetan Buddhist meditation and philosophy, yoga retreats and personal getaways.

Selling tips

With over 12,000 spas in the U.S. alone not to mention those on cruise ships and at overseas resorts travel agents can rightly feel overwhelmed by the choices available in the spa market. Fortunately, they have help in the form of the International Spa Association (ISPA). The association maintains a very helpful Web site (, which features a glossary of spa treatments, and has experts that are willing to answer agents’ questions. Travel agents can even join ISPA for $90 annually.

Here are some of the group’s tips for agents:

Put clients at ease: According to ISPA’s research, one of the main hurdles for first-time spa-goers is uneasiness about what to expect. If you can put a client at ease in advance and answer their questions about etiquette, you will probably earn a repeat customer eager to experience more spa-going.

What is the client looking for: As always, work hard to determine what type of experience a client expects right from the start. ISPA has a page on their Web site titled, “What I Want From a Spa Vacation” that is a great starting point for this process.

Ask, ask, ask: Before you book a spa vacation, be sure to call the spa and ask detailed questions. Professional spa operators should be happy to speak to you if not, consider it a warning sign. Finally, Jennifer DiFrancesco, the spa director at the Miramonte Resort & Spa, said agents should always utilize the biggest selling point for a spa vacation.

“Agents will never go wrong presenting the opportunity to their clients to visit a spa resort by touting the benefits of stress relief,” she said. “In this fast-paced world we live in, each of us needs some aspect of stress relief when vacationing.”

Kenneth Shapiro

Spa Resorts & Outstanding Features

Auberge du Soleil
Specialty: Cuisine; Hilltop views
Napa Valley, Calif.

Bellagio Spa & Salon
Specialty: International menu of treatments; Urban location
Las Vegas, Nev.

Canyon Ranch
Specialty: The “Uber Spa”; Extensive medical evaluations
Tucson, Ariz.

Claremont Resort
Specialty: Deluge shower
Berkeley, Calif.

Fairmont Orchid
Specialty: Private hales; Indigenous ingredients
Big Island, Hawaii

Grand Wailea Resort
Specialty: “Terme” water spa
Maui, Hawaii

Lodge & Spa at Cordillera
Specialty: Privacy; Location near Vail Valley
Vail, Colo.

Miramonte Resort
Specialty: Ideal for romantic getaways; Tennis and golf
Indian Wells, Calif.

Specialty: Ayurvedic treatments; Eastern philosophy
Catalina, Ariz.

Red Mountain Spa
Specialty: Active adventure; fitness pursuits
Moab, Utah

Sanctuary on Camelback
Specialty: Private luxury casitas; Deluxe spa packages
Paradise Valley, Ariz.

Watermark Hotel & Spa
Specialty: Extensive packages
San Antonio, Tex.