Side Order: Soaking up a Santa Fe spa

February 11, 2011

When I told friends that I was about to spend a few days in Santa Fe, N.M., three of them - separately and without prompting - told me about a stop that I simply had to make. You know, a "must-see." Not the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, although that certainly qualifies. Not a side trip to Taos and not a meal at Cafe Pasqual's, although those were on the list, too.

"I hope you have time to get to Ten Thousand Waves," one began.

"Favorite spa in the country," e-mailed another. "Pay extra for a master massage. Totally worth it."

A third was even more specific: "Get Pascal," she said. "He's a god."

How could I argue with that? So at the tail end of a conference in the 400-year-old capital of New Mexico, I skipped out on a group dinner to decompress in other ways.

Frankly, I was pretty sure that I'd like Ten Thousand Waves after visiting the Web site and seeing its commitment to the Japanese philosophy and practice of communal baths, which I had dipped into several times on a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto a few years ago. And the Zen nature of the place was clear when I called, caught in traffic on the way back from Taos and running late for my first appointment. Not to worry, the laid-back guy responded: They'd make adjustments so I wouldn't miss out on any soaking time. (I imagined him thinking, "Chill out, man.")

In fact, this is how he put it: "You'll still get a full hour in the tub, and then the only downside is that you won't have much downtime between that treatment and your facial. But I imagine you can handle that."

I imagined I could.

The main difference between this spa, which opened in 1981, and traditional Japanese onsens is that TTW has added a raft of spa treatments to the natural-wood-and-trickling-water-along-stone-paths scene. I'd signed up for an admittedly indulgent 41/2-hour package dubbed Waves of Bliss, and my only remaining worry was that I might get a little bored spending a whole hour in a private bath.

I didn't. As soon as I showered and changed into my kimono (leaving my iPhone in the locker), I shuffled in my sandals up a little winding path to find the tub and opened the wooden gate with a key. The scene that awaited looked so peaceful that I practically swooned: an open-air wooden tub big enough for six, enclosed by a bamboo slat fence, with steam curling up invitingly. When I slipped in, the tiniest bubbles streamed up from the bottom and clung to my skin, buoying me slightly, as if I were bathing in champagne. Every now and then I'd get out and sit on the side of the tub, enjoying the September breeze until I cooled off, and then I'd slide back in.

The hour flew.

The facial was more than a facial; it started with a head and neck treatment that involved the therapist anointing me with hot oil on my forehead and temples, then massaging it into my scalp. Best of all, the therapist barely spoke, meaning that by the time the actual facial-facial started, I was practically asleep.

I didn't get Pascal for the massage, because he wasn't working that day. But Solar, an affable guy with big hands (just what you want in a massage therapist), was a master, too. He was a bit chatty at first, even once I was on the table - asking what I did for work, why I was in Santa Fe, etc. - but he quieted down after my answers became monosyllabic.

What can you say about a massage? Well, I'm lucky to have had hundreds, and this was one of the best ever, honestly. When I got up from the table, every nerve ending was tingling (were those hot-tub bubbles still on my skin?), and I told Solar that it felt as if he had given me a new circulatory system. I was deeply relaxed, but somehow also full of energy.

Before my last treatment, I'd have a chance to experience the communal baths, the centerpiece of Ten Thousand Waves. Up another little stairway and behind a gate was the big clothing-optional tub, where a handful of men had opted against and a couple of couples had opted in favor. I quickly dropped my kimono and got in. By this point, the sun was setting, and I knew my half-hour wouldn't be enough, that I'd return after my salt-glow scrub for more soaking time. When I did, the sky was pitch black except for the stars popping out like Christmas lights on an ebony tree. For urbanites, seeing the night sky uncorrupted by light pollution is worth a flight to the Southwest.

My 41/2 hours turned to six, but at some point I couldn't delay the inevitable any longer. The place had to close, after all.

After changing back into my street clothes and settling my bill, I wandered in the dark downan exceptionally winding pathway to the parking lot, Waves of Bliss-ed out. Enchanted by the look of the lodging, with glowing lamps at each door, I got turned around and soon enough hopelessly lost. The night was stone silent. Wondering whether I should retrace my steps and seek help from the staff or knock on one of those little cabin doors, potentially disturbing the Zen of another spa-goer, my anxiety started to creep up.

Then I imagined what that laid-back front-desk guy would do, or say: "Chill out, man."

I relaxed, wandered some more and practically bumped into my rental car. When I was then faced with pulling myself together enough to drive, the obvious realization hit me. Next time, I won't just drop by this spa; I'll plan ahead and stay in one of those ryokan-style rooms, making it a destination unto itself.

And guess what I'll tell the next friend who's planning a trip to New Mexico's capital? Not that the spa is a "must-see" once you're in Santa Fe but that the rest of Santa Fe is a "must-see" - once you've been to Ten Thousand Waves.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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