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Operation: Relaxation
Her family sent her on a secret mission to an Arizona spa. Her orders? Just chill.

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 1, 2002

I had been grousing for months about turning 40. I was in the middle of a full-on midlife crisis, which was only made worse when my reporter husband packed up for a month to cover the war in Afghanistan and later spent a week in Cuba relaxing with his buddies. Both times I was left behind, exhausted, with two unhappy kids.

When my big day finally arrived, I had to work. Writing an item about flaming underwear at a freak fire at Bloomie's, I was seriously questioning the meaning of my life.

That night, after a nice but decidedly downscale birthday barbecue, my husband told me to check my e-mail. "You will be deployed via a civilian transport center @ 0935 hours," read the cryptic message. "Currently, your destination will remain classified."

I was told I would be met by "friendly forces" and that I needed to bring "personal hygiene items" and sunglasses. In bold capital letters, I was also given items to avoid: "STRESS. GUILT. WORK." Money-related worries "cannot be mentioned or discussed." This was sounding good. Very good.

A few days later, my husband handed me a Travelocity itinerary with an e-ticket to Phoenix. As I drove to BWI, I forwent the usual National Public Radio news and instead blasted Sheryl Crow, telling me to lighten up.

Arriving in Phoenix, I was surprised to find my two sisters, who'd flown down from Portland, Ore. They handed me birthday cards, helped me with my bag and hustled me into a rental car, then we took off north on Interstate 17 through the desert. "I hope you don't mind not getting the usual Restoration Hardware gift certificate," said my younger sister, Claire.

They asked how I liked my "deployment orders," which they had carefully modeled on the ones my husband received when he got word he'd be flying out with the 101st Airborne to Kandahar.

"You bring your hiking boots?" asked my older sister, Mary. I thought with sinking heart -- the baby hadn't slept well for weeks -- that I was way too tired for an Outward Bound kind of thing.

After two hours, Claire turned off on Highway 179 and we climbed into the hills, winding into a magical landscape of red rock spires, sandstone mesas and adobe-colored canyons covered with pine, cactus and cottonwood trees.

We had come to Sedona, Ariz., 4,600 feet above sea level, home to outdoor enthusiasts, artists and New Age pilgrims seeking life transformation. The sun-baked rocks glowed red in the late afternoon light. We pulled into Boynton Canyon, just north of town in Coconino National Forest, which has a resort and spa snug to its rocky walls. It's called Enchantment.

Now this was more like it.

We checked into our "casita" suite, one bedroom with two queen beds connected to a living area with fireplace, patio, tiled kitchen and a Murphy bed. We kicked off our shoes and opened the white wine the resort had chilling on ice as a birthday present.

When it was gone, after some serious sister dishing, it was time to don our velvety white terry-cloth robes -- our uniforms for the next several days -- and go to the spa.

An Otherworldly Air

Mii amo spa is just a short walk from the resort. It, like the resort, is adobe-colored and blends into the canyon landscape. As we walked through the desert gardens of yucca and ocotillo, up the wide, terrace-covered stairs, a stream of water trickled over a channel of river stones. Ahead, a massive, rounded wall jutted out of an open-air courtyard. The sound, the sky, the wall all lent an otherworldly air, as if we were about to step into another dimension.

Inside, the soft notes of a Native American flute wafted through a light and airy hallway of rough stone, dark, polished wood and terrazzo floors. In the spacious women's locker room, overstuffed couches and rows of clean, folded white towels awaited on open shelves. We poured ourselves some water with lemon and cucumber slices, an odd but refreshing taste, and went to the crystal grotto for the 6 p.m. meditation.

The round grotto is modeled on the sacred Native American kiva. The floor was simply powdery red earth, which felt cool and soft on our bare feet. The blue-gray walls were adorned with different crystals in each of the four directions. Sunlight pierced the small room through a single skylight, and in the center, water bubbled from a petrified tree stump.

A woman who introduced herself as Jonne-Marie lit a pungent sprig of sage, waved the smoke around the kiva and told us to let go of the outside world. The wine and the sage were making me dizzy. I, like my sisters, had stayed up the entire night before, doing laundry, finishing work and projects in order to leave. My mind jumped -- Buddhists call it "monkey mind" -- and my body ached from the long plane ride. I excused myself, walked down the hall and jumped into the pool.

Now, the pools at the spa are something to behold. Inside, a warm plunge pool stretched on one end of a long, light-filled room. On the other end, cushioned chairs and antique Indonesian rice boxes used as tables sat before a large stone fireplace. It felt like swimming in a living room.

The outdoor pool seemed as if it were at the heart of the canyon. I floated on my back as red rock walls rose in every direction. Chaise longues ringed the pool, many tucked away under private trellises. Forget choirs of angels. This, I decided, is what Heaven should look like.

Small wonder. With the help of two Feng Shui masters, the spa was designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects of New York, the same firm that designed New Mexico's Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. The 24,000-square-foot, two-level spa is designed to show the connection between earth and sky. In every room, at every angle, there is natural light. And there are seven bodies of water. The walls -- traditional plaster and rock latillas -- and the bright red feather circles on the restaurant walls give it a Southwest air. But the wood and glass have a distinctly Frank Lloyd Wright feel. And throughout, the simplicity and empty space hint of Asia.

After a soak in the outdoor whirlpool, it was time for our first spa treatment. The Soothing Stone Massage. We donned our robes and, as if ascending into the clouds, walked up the stairs to the treatment waiting area. For 75 minutes, a "technician" massaged my weary bones with heated basalt river rocks. When the knots were unraveled, she placed cool carrera marble stones on my back and face.

That evening, the three of us, in a decidedly gelatinous state, floated back to the resort for a light dinner at the informal Tii Gavo Cafe. We ate quesadillas and salad on the patio as Venus and Mars rose brightly over the dark outline of the canyon wall. That night, I slept as if I'd never wake.

The Right Mix

Had we had more energy, we could have opted for the 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, mountain bikes and miles of hiking trails nearby. For families, there's a camp offering arts and crafts and other activities. For the adventurous, there are back-country Jeep tours, helicopter rides and visits to the 900-year-old Sinagua cliff dwellings called Palatki and Honanki just up the road. But for those with relaxing on their mind, there is the spa.

Mii amo is a Yuman Indian word meaning one's path or journey. The spa, which opened in November 2000, has a fitness center, daily yoga, aerobics, tai chi, cooking classes and a near-overwhelming number of facials, wraps, massages and baths. But it also bills itself as an oasis, "to take time out from the world, to explore one's way, so that one can look inside and find their own path." And for those so inclined, there are lectures and "specialty services" that include acupuncture, hypnotherapy and past life regression.

We decided to find our own mix. Claire had a "chakra cleansing" while Mary and I opted for the Shirodhara facial -- which, the thick booklet explaining all of the treatments said, is "one of the most profound" offered. I was asked to take a questionnaire to determine my Ayurvedic body type -- whether I was a nervous, birdlike Vata, an athletic Pitta or a slow-moving Kapha. I think I filled it out wrong; I was sort of all three. The technician told me not to worry, it was just to figure out which scent to use in the facial. She ended up using a combination.

As I lay back in a padded chair, she slowly poured warm oil onto my forehead and drew figure eights back and forth. (My hair stayed greasy for days, but who cared?) She followed that up with a facial during , and she kindly didn't mention the breakout on my chin. I don't know about profound, but it certainly felt great.

That evening, we explored Sedona. Crystal and New Age shops dot the highway, along with craft stores, art studios and galleries displaying Southwestern art and sculpture. We ended up at a complex called Tlaquepaque, which I hesitate calling a shopping mall, but it is, only done in cozy Spanish colonial village style. We had dinner at El Rincon, which specializes in prickly pear and other margarita concoctions.

By the time we'd finished thoroughly psychoanalyzing everyone in our family, we were closing the place down.

Search for the Vortex

The next day, we got up early, donned our hiking boots and lit out to hike the 2 1/2 miles to the end of Boynton Canyon. We'd heard there was a "vortex" of electromagnetic energy -- something that New Agers travel far and wide to Sedona to experience -- somewhere up the canyon.

It was a beautiful morning. We started off in the sandy soil walking past manzanita bushes. The trail meandered along a dry creek bed under cottonwood trees. We got all the way to the end of the canyon and sat on rocky outcroppings, listening to the wind and silence. We never did find the vortex. But we decided our spot was just as nice.

After breakfast at the resort's more formal Yavapai Dining Room, it was back to the spa. Claire was getting a pedicure and a Dosha Balancing Wrap, Mary a facial with healing Reiki energy work. And I had a tough decision to make. As I sat by the pool, it hit me how far I'd come in just two days.

To-do list on a regular day at home: Take 1-year-old to the doctor for weird rash and 3-year-old to the dentist. Imprison him in my legs and pry his mouth open to fit in an appliance to fix his cross bite. Endure screaming. Fold four baskets of laundry, argue over who forgot to take out the recycling, forgo once again paying the Visa bill. Put in full day of work. Sit in traffic for 45 minutes to get home from work.

To-do list today at Mii amo: Oxygen facial or blue corn wrap?

I opted for the wrap, where a nice woman named Pam had me lie down on a traylike table, "polished" me with gritty blue corn and waved a seven-shower-headed Navajo Rain Bar all over my body. She washed my hair, then gave me a massage, dabbing "mentholy Chinese white flower oil" on achy joints and at one point sitting on my back to do Japanese shiatsu on a particularly gnarly knot.

I've had a massage and pedicure or two, but this was way out of my league. The closest I get to a spa experience at home is a shower when both kids are asleep, to avoid the 1-year-old opening the shower door or banging her brother's metal Hot Wheels against the glass.

"You know our ancestors used to take care of their bodies like this," Pam assured me. In the potato fields of Ireland? I doubt it.

But that afternoon, curled up on a chair by the pool, I finished my third book. For the first time in years, my sisters and I talked for hours -- usually in the whirlpool with Grey Goose vodka tonics -- without having to pay hefty long-distance bills. I slept. For me, the most transforming part of the experience was simply to have time. The last morning, we again rose early and hiked along the river at Red Rock Crossing, just under the impressive red towers of Cathedral Rock. We drove back to the spa and ordered what had become our breakfast obsession: the berry parfait, a confection of plain and strawberry yogurt, homemade granola and sweet fresh berries.

Claire then had a Watsu treatment, a massage in a private outdoor pool set in the rocks. Mary had a deep tissue massage in an outdoor Native American wikkiup. And after a yoga class, I went back to my private Heaven, the pool.

As we readied to leave, we stopped at the gift store to buy Zen bead bracelets for the kids, T-shirts for husbands and lotions for parents. We also bought the New Age music we'd once dismissed -- I got Carlos Nakai's "Mythic Dreamer Native American Flute" CD. We'd become addicted to that relaxed feeling and knew it wouldn't last. At least not for long.

"Now aren't you embarrassed you made such a fuss about your midlife crisis?" Mary asked as we headed down the desert highway.

"Absolutely not," I said, as we sailed past saguaro cactus and fields of agave. "Where are we going next year?"

Brigid Schulte is a reporter for the Metro section of The Post.

Details: Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz.

GETTING THERE: Enchantment Resort is in Sedona, Ariz., about 115 miles north of Phoenix. Round-trip fares from the Washington area to Phoenix start at about $218, with restrictions.

From Phoenix, it's about a two-hour drive to Sedona. Take Interstate 17 north about 100 miles to Exit 298, then follow Route 179 north to Sedona. Go through the Village of Oak Creek about 15 miles and take a left on Route 89A. Drive three miles to Dry Creek Road and turn right. Follow signs to Enchantment Resort, about five miles.

STAYING THERE: Enchantment Resort is not cheap. Guest rooms -- each with a king or two queen beds, sitting room and a deck -- are $375 to $1,175 a night during high season, which runs Aug. 30-Dec. 31 and Feb. 15-June 22. Junior suites are $475, casita suites go for $735, and one-bedroom hacienda suites cost $805 (all are double occupancy). Keep your eye out, though, for frequent promotions. Until Dec. 25, for example, the resort is offering a fourth night free. Or wait till low season, which begins Jan. 1, when rates drop to $195 to $635.

You can also stay in one of the 14 rooms at the Mii amo spa, which offers three- to seven-night packages that run from about $1,600 to $5,750 and include several treatments and private consultations.

During busy times, you may want to book treatments in advance. We could easily change or add options, but we visited during a slow week.

WHAT TO DO: The resort can arrange Jeep and helicopter tours, as well as horseback-riding expeditions. Hiking trails pass into protected Red Rock Country. Popular spots to visit or hike around include Boynton Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Red Rock Crossing, Airport Mesa and Bell Rock in the 1.8- million-acre Coconino National Forest. There is no entrance fee for hikers, but vehicles must pay $5 a day to park. Details: 928-527-3600, www.redrockcountry.org.

Farther afield lie the ancient cliff dwellings of Montezuma Castle National Monument. A seven-day pass costs $3 per person. Info: 928-567-3322, www.nps.gov/moca. For the more adventurous, Flagstaff is about 30 miles from Sedona and the Grand Canyon is 100 miles to the north. Closer in, the town of Sedona is home to hundreds of artists who exhibit in 40 galleries.

INFORMATION: 800-826-4180 or 888-749-2137, www.enchantmentresort.com or www.miiamo.com.

Finding the Right Spa for You and Your Budget

By Elissa Liebowitz
Special to the Washington Post

If a carefree soak in a tub full of lilac-scented bubbling water is your idea of Heaven, you're in luck. Here's a sampling of resorts across the country where you can stay overnight and indulge in spa treatments and other activities.

• ULTIMATE INDULGENCE: Some spas consistently appear on spa enthusiast's top 10 lists. And most of them, like the Golden Door Spa (800-424-0777, www.goldendoor.com), will appear pretty prominently on your credit card bill, too. Golden Door, in Escondido, Calif., boasts a 40-person occupancy and positively pampered treatments. All-inclusive weekly rates from $5,725. The lush Miraval Resort and Spa (800-232-3969, www.miravalresort.com) in Catalina, Ariz., emphasizes overall well-being rather than just diet and exercise and offers more than 100 different spa treatments. From $350 a night, including accommodations, meals and one spa treatment or round of golf.

The Spa at Hotel Hershey (877-772-9988, www.spaathotelhershey.com) in Hershey, Pa., is indulgent, too, merely for its Whipped Cocoa Bath and Milk and Honey Soak treatments. Package deals from $416 per person include accommodations and several treatments.

• LESS-PRICEY PAMPERING: The New Age Health Spa (800-682-4348, www.newagehealthspa.com) in Neversink, N.Y., has a yoga center, astrology lectures and outdoor rope courses with rooms from $144 a night (two-night minimum). An inn with spa facilities (fewer treatments, more personal service) usually is cheaper than the big resorts; one area example is the Five Gables Inn and Spa (877-466-0100, www.fivegables.com) in St. Michaels, Md. Rooms from $150; treatments from $60.

• CHECK IN FOR A CHECKUP: All spas aim to improve you, but some are more focused on your health. The weight management program at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center (800-235-3853, www.dukedietcenter.org) in Durham, N.C., includes water aerobics, cooking classes and instructional visits to grocery stores in its two- to four-week programs. From $5,395, plus housing. Within driving distance of Washington, the Hartland Wellness Center (800-763-9355, www.hartland.edu/nuhealth) in Rapidan, Va., has Christian-focused programs dealing with problems like heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. A 10-day package is $2,995.

• SPIRITUAL SPAS: Some spas rely upon ancient healing practices -- including the Eastern-style Ten Thousand Waves Spa (505-982-9304, www.tenthounsandwaves.com) in Santa Fe, N.M. The spa uses centuries-old Japanese techniques; two- to five-hour spa treatment packages start at $111.50, lodging from $190 a night. The treatments at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa (800-422-6524, www.ojairesort.com) in Ojai, Calif., are inspired by healing rituals of the Chumash Indians. Lodging and spa packages from $636 a night (two-night minimum).

• SPORT AND HEALTH: Who said you can't relax and play at the same time? Activities at the rustic Double Eagle Resort and Spa (877-648-7004, www.double-eagle-resort.com) in June Lake, Calif., suit the season; in warm weather you can bike, hike, boat and fish, and in winter you can ski, dog sled, skate and snowboard. Summer lodging rates from $216, winter rates from $232. Treatments at the Creekside Spa start at $20. Saddlebrook Resort (800-729-8383, www.saddlebrookresort.com) in Wesley Chapel, Fla., has two 18-hole golf courses and 45 tennis courts. Packages include activities, lodging, some meals and other resort amenities from $243 a night (two-night minimum).

• TAKING THE WATERS: The original purpose of a spa was to soak in therapeutic natural springs. The Homestead (800-838-1766, www.thehomestead.com) in Hot Springs, Va., was built near mineral waters that have been used therapeutically since the 1600s. Room rates from $164 per person. Berkeley Springs, W. Va., is home to the low-key Country Inn and Renaissance Spa (800-822-6630, www.countryinnwv.com), which has rooms from $39 a night and package deals that include lodging, meals and spa treatments from $280 a night. For something a little different, the Spa Resort Casino (800-854-1279, www.sparesortcasino.com) in Palm Springs, Calif., offers gambling on the property, which sits along mineral springs considered sacred by the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians.

• CRUISING THE WATERS: Several cruise lines have built spa facilities aboard their ships that rival resort spas on land. Crystal Cruises' Crystal Spa (310-785-9300, www.crystalcruises.com) bows to the practices of feng shui and offers such interesting treatments as a frangipani body nourish wrap and a chakra-balancing capsule. A sample itinerary: an eight-day Mediterranean cruise from Rome to Venice from $2,045. Seabourn Cruises (800-929-9595, www.seabourn.com) and the Cunard Line (800-528-6273, www.cunard.com) are two others that emphasize their spas.

• FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS: While parents take in the spa, kids can frolic in several pools, including one with six levels, at the Grand Wailea Resort (800-888-6100, www.grandwailea.com) in Wailea, Hawaii. "Camp Grande" package deals include accommodations and camp sessions for kids from $451 a night. Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa (800-422-2736, www.nemacolin.com) in Farmington, Pa., has full and half-day "Kidz Club" programs ($35-$55), an under-21 dance club ($10-$15 cover fee) and nighttime activities for those under 12 ($40). Nightly rates from $175.

• MORE INFO: The agency and magazine Spa Finder (800-255-7727, www.spafinder.com) offers discounted package deals and consultations with agents to help you pick a resort. The International Spa Association (888-651-4772, www.experiencespa.com) represents more than 2,000 spas in 55 countries. Spa magazine's Web site, www.spamagazine.com, has a searchable database of 272 spas in the United States and countless others worldwide.

Special correspondent Daniele Seiss contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company