When I was growing up, the word spa was used primarily in mittel-european novels to indicate small towns in Switzerland or Germany where aging philosophers met tragic, beautiful girls with TB. The whole concept of spa seemed as charmingly dated as the idea of taking the waters. But the spa principle has now become ubiquitous: airplanes have spa cuisine and people go on spa vacations, and I recently got a mail-order catalog for spa clothing. Spa Water is a best-selling brand.
A rather hip youngish person I know told me she just needed "a little bit of spa" to feel okay. And when I said that I was off to Sedona, someone asked whether I was going "for work or just to kind of spa away the weekend." Men with tough corporate jobs who play tennis hard on their rare days off told me about particular spas they've been to, and one mentioned he'd given his son a week at a spa as a high school graduation present. The kids at the elementary school my godson attends recently exchanged spa stories at recess--to the absolute horror of his mother.
I could never quite understand what people did at spas. I was beginning to feel ignorant, constantly excluded from conversations on whether Golden Door was more opulent than Canyon Ranch, and, competitive as I am, increasingly concerned that I might be aging more rapidly than my contemporaries. I decided it was time for me to check out the spa scene.
Preferring to avoid the Golden Doors and Canyon Ranches of the world, I decided to try a spa in Sedona, where New Age thinking (something else I felt I'd sort of missed) first got going. Sedona is the great red-rock town of Arizona, a place that was long sacred to Native Americans. The first brave explorers of the late Sixties congregated there because they thought the energies of the rocks converged to form a vortex. It is said that in Sedona you can get in touch with your past lives, and everyone in Sedona has at least one, since no one actually comes from there: it's a destination where searchers and seekers arrive after long wanderings, the New Age equivalent of holy Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges.
To be in this location in a Quonset hut would be a privilege. Gloriously, I in fact found myself there in coddling luxe. Enchantment Resort, at the bottom of Boynton Canyon, is pink adobe that blends in with its red-rock surroundings, and it consists of 222 rooms in 71 low-built casitas and haciendas. Through the center of the resort flow a putting green and a croquet lawn, like a streak of immoderate fertility. Leafy trees shelter the paths that lead up to the main building, and desert flowers bloom at ankle level. There are seven tennis courts, four swimming pools, a spa and two dining rooms. There's a new spa building currently under construction; it will house 18 treatment rooms and a third restaurant.
The food at Enchantment is admirable given that it's all being produced in the middle of the desert. The totally informal Tii Gavo lounge serves up an excellent hamburger and a good pizza; the nearly-as-informal Yavapai Restaurant, the main dining room, is walled in glass to take in the breathtaking scenery, and features grilled poblano chiles and other Southwestern ingredients. Executive chef Kevin Maguire (a protégé of Lydia Shire, the chef-owner of Boston's Biba) takes on the challenge of translating local traditions to suit a non-native palate.
Maguire has recently expanded into spa food with particular success. The salads on the lunch menu each come with a different dressing; there are 16 dressings in all, half low fat; another 5 appear on the dinner menu. Thai shrimp on spinach in a coconut dressing is sweet and meaty, yet refreshingly light. Chilean sea bass with a chile rub is tender and rich, the fish equivalent of barbecued ribs. Buffalo in a glossy Rioja demiglace is choice and smooth. Maguire's desserts are quite fantastic, though they countermand any caloric advantage of the spa cuisine. A dark chocolate taco filled with milk chocolate mousse, which is slightly flavored with cinnamon, is a guilty pleasure par excellence. The wine list, at 230 selections, is varied and interesting, with an especially strong showing among California reds.
Native American culture is an important part of the Enchantment experience, and the resort boasts a Native American "ambassador" named Uqualla. Born and raised on a reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, he's always dressed in homemade reinterpretations of native fashion, which included, the first time I saw him, enormous silver earrings, hammered necklaces clattering like wind chimes, a black velour thigh-length caftan, striped trousers, a pair of moccasin boots that looked like madness in the Prada factory and a fringed handbag for which Jane Fonda would have given her eyeteeth. So garbed, Uqualla led a walk in which he acted out local traditions, demonstrating a native sign language that's nearly balletic and conjuring the great Spirit of the Red Earth, which we all knelt down to touch and honor. A few hours later, Uqualla was at the concierge desk in a sort of turquoise miniskirt with knee-high white buckskin boots and some eagle claws around his neck, explaining the grammar of local Indian dialects to a rapt audience of tennis players.
The spirit of the land expresses itself in the hiking opportunities at Enchantment and in the hotel's spa. Your room key lets you out of the hotel property directly onto national wilderness trails of surpassing beauty. You can choose to spend the day climbing rough stone to the top of the canyon or take a gentler path for 45 minutes to the ruins of some ancient Native American cave dwellings.
The spa is to tranquility what the H-bomb is to stimulation. In its hushed rooms, you can choose among dozens of treatments, performed by a competent and experienced staff. I had myself primed with an exfoliation wrap of native grains (cornmeal and oatmeal) and a men's therapeutic facial with pure calendula and geranium oil.
I was especially intrigued, however, by the more novel treatments, and so I signed on for an "awakening" session. I am in general rather cynical about the super-New Age stuff that's so fashionable in Sedona, and I greeted L'Dona, the Jungian analyst who would perform the session, with some suspicion as she laid out her crystals at the end of the room and told me about her dream of pure love issuing from an ancient woman with stone-red hair, the dream that had brought her to Sedona. I am not persuaded that deep tranquility is a direct result of being sprayed in sequence by L'Dona with oils created at sacred sites around the world, including Chaco Canyon and Tibet, and I don't know that the strand of rose quartz beads she draped like a rosary over my eyes was really connecting with my chakras. The ritual of this whole thing, however, was surprisingly soothing. The weight of healing stones on my chest was substantial, and L'Dona's laying on of hands and her incantations really did awaken whole sensory systems that had been long dormant inside of me.
The next morning, Divyo (no one in Sedona is named Jane or Patty), who has a Ph.D. in psychology and has taught corporate leadership, gave me a Cranial-Sacral body treatment, applying light pressure to release physical and emotional blockages. It teased out tension I never knew I had, and when she had completed the exercise I did indeed feel more serene than I'd felt in many months, anxiety and irritability wholly alleviated.
All this New Age activity can tumble over the dangerous verge into kitsch, and there were moments when Enchantment invited a cynical laugh. But cynicism has no place in Boynton Canyon, and the sensual pleasures and constant beauty of the place are deeply renewing. The landscape invades your dreams; it takes anchor in your unconscious mind; it makes you into someone other than who you were.
It's not easy to carry away the gifts of such a holiday. Fifteen minutes in the Phoenix airport easily revived my vanquished pique. But my deep tissue memory now incorporates not only the discomfort of my birth and my overcompensation for troubled energy alignments but also the halcyon touch of Enchantment. And my regular old conscious mind was longing to return even before I left.
Text by Andrew Solomon, the author of A Stone Boat (Plume/Penguin). He is currently at work on a book about depression.