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A Wine Country Spa Escape

At a Sonoma retreat, a writer and her husband soak in mineral baths and otherwise work up an appetite for the delicious spa food.

For the past three years, I've been coming to Sonoma, California, to visit a friend who lives not far from the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. Every now and then, driving past the grounds, I'd glimpse the guests walking around in bathrobes. It gave the place the look of a well-funded, impeccably manicured insane asylum.

Having just spent two days there with my husband Ed, I can now vouch for the sanity of the people in the bathrobes. It is my own sanity that I question, for having regularly visited Sonoma without ever staying at the inn.

To be fair, there are more reasons to stay there now than there were three years ago. One of them is Toni Robertson, chef of the inn's newly remodeled restaurant, who has created a flavorful spa menu with dishes like a warm red lentil salad with feta and roasted beets, and a sponge cake made with lemon zest and studded with raspberries. Another is the new 40,000-square-foot spa facility built on a thermal mineral spring. In addition to the usual assortment of wraps and scrubs, the inn has an elaborate selection of baths: mineral baths, aromatherapeutic soaks, private whirlpools and a five-stage Roman bathing ritual. Don't come to the Sonoma Mission Inn if you don't like to get wet.

We arrived in the early afternoon, only to find that the inn has a four o'clock check-in. This seemed odd until we realized that for most of the afternoon, we wouldn't need anything other than bathrobes. We stored our luggage and headed for the locker room. Our first treatment was a couple's wine-and-roses kur, a mineral soak with bubble bath and rose petals, followed by an 80-minute massage.

Ed and I took up positions at either end of the King's Bath, a two-person, neck-deep claw-foot tub filled with 100-plus degree water. Ed lowered himself in inch-at-a-time stages punctuated by quiet screams. I fortified myself with great swallows of red wine, left for us in a pair of tubside goblets, and joined him. When I hit bottom, I was buried in a mound of sturdy, high-tensile-strength suds. It was like being inside a volcano and a snowbank at the same time.

"Ed?"

"Over here." Ed parted the towering foam. He was holding a goblet and issued a heartfelt toast to undying love. It was a deeply romantic moment, diminished only slightly by the suds goatee that quivered as he spoke and the rose petal on his ear. When we emerged from the tub 15 minutes later, the mound of bubbles remained, like one of those Carvel ice cream cakes that never seem to melt.

After a late lunch out by the pool, I had a Watsu treatment. Watsu is done outside in a three-foot-deep pool of warm water. As you float on your back, your Watsu provider holds your head up and moves your limp, rag-doll body gently through the water. It's very relaxing, provided you are able to remove from your thoughts the idea that passersby are looking at you and thinking unkind things. Most people apparently find Watsu more than merely relaxing. My provider told me that many report "a feeling of going back into the womb." I report a feeling of being a garment in the gentle cycle. My provider also said that many people find Watsu "the most amazing thing they've ever experienced." To me, the most amazing thing about Watsu is that it was invented by a man named Harold Dull. I can only imagine that somewhere out there, there's an accountant with the name Padma Heartsong.

It was five o'clock when I got out of the pool. I immediately started fantasizing about dinner, partly because I had heard a lot of good things about the inn's chef and partly because it afforded an opportunity to change into something other than a bathrobe.

I don't usually get excited about spa food. Right or wrong, I think of it as a cuisine compromised by its near-fanatical abstention from fat. At the Sonoma Mission Inn, this isn't the case. Toni Robertson's antidote to bland lowfat dishes was to ship a pair of tandoori clay ovens from England. Though not known as a healthy-cooking appliance in its native India, the tandoori oven is ideal for low-fat cooking, because it cooks at 850 degrees. The high heat seals in moisture, Robertson explained, and the reduced cooking time—her whole striped bass, roasted with spices and lemon, takes about seven minutes—prevents foods from drying out. "Normally, when you grill vegetables, you have to use a lot of oil," she told me. "Here, I just sprinkle on salt and pepper and roast them."

Robertson learned about tandoori cooking in Singapore, where she was the chef at the Pan Pacific Hotel. Singaporean cuisine is a mix of Thai, Indian, Malay and Chinese flavors, and Robertson's menu reflects this open-minded approach to food. She mixes garam masala with dried fruit in a Middle Eastern rice torte and fills cannelloni with roasted carrots and squash. About the only traditional tandoori item she makes are flat breads, and even here she tweaks them, substituting yogurt for oil to supply a pleasing tang without any compromise in texture. In the words of my Watsu provider, my dinner was one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced.

It is a good thing I had my Watsu session before dinner rather than after, for I cannot imagine being able to float after a meal like the one we had. It's not as though anything we ate was heavy or greasy. The eggplant-spread appetizer was refreshing, and the roasted striped bass was flaky and moist. It's just that we ate a lot of these things. Ed unbuttoned the waistband of his pants: "Should have worn a bathrobe."

Published January 2001
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