Not Your Mother's Spa

By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005

Who wouldn't want to go to a spa?

Well, me.

Perhaps you, too, cringe at all the girlie-girl stuff. Maybe New Age music makes your skin crawl, and you're skeptical about the alleged health benefits of anti-aging rebalancing aromatherapy seaweed wraps, and you find the whole concept of someone fluttering over you, patting and kneading and rubbing, a bit creepy, yes?

One of the new breed of adventure spas might change your mind. The best combine traditional spa treatments with challenging outdoor activities such as rock climbing, mountain biking and kayaking, so you feel as if you've earned that lavender adobe massage.

Case in point: Red Mountain Spa in St. George, Utah. About two hours north of Las Vegas in the spectacular red-rock country of the American Southwest, it has all the usual luxury spa trappings -- state-of-the-art facilities, manicured grounds, a solicitous staff and a full complement of massages and body treatments. But the core of its curriculum is a series of rigorous early-morning hikes, led by expert guides over more than 30 trails. In addition, there are dozens of up-to-the-moment fitness classes -- Chi Ball Stretch, anyone? -- and a roster of serious medical evaluations, such as bone density screenings. Plus, the food is billed as "cuisine," and they serve wine with dinner. A good sign.

Still, when a gourmetish, outdoorsy pair of friends invited me to come along on what they promised would be a magical getaway of physical activity and spiritual renewal, I went with some trepidation -- knowing I was promised something hard-minded and hearty, but afraid I'd wind up immersed in a giant vat of essential lavender oil. Even scarier, maybe I would succumb to the herbal goo and not sign up for any of the hikes. Maybe, deep down, I really am a bathrobe-wearing, Yanni-humming sybarite.

Here's what I learned during three intense days at Red Mountain Spa.

1. Hiking down a mountain is a lot scarier than hiking up, especially if it's a near-vertical descent on slickrock in the middle of a lava field. The trick to getting down alive: Look at your feet. Take baby steps. Trust your guide, who is repeating gently, "Heel-toe, heel-toe, that's right, baby steps, nice and easy," as he coaches you down the hellish incline. Sliding down on your rear is also okay.

2. Slickrock, despite its name, is not very slippery. It's actually the loose lava rock that'll do you in -- it looks benign, but it shifts under your feet and can cause a broken ankle before you even bag your first peak. And by the way, you can have the fanciest, most expensive hiking boots in the world, but they won't do you much good if you haven't tied the laces properly.

3. Adventure spas seem to attract an inordinate number of funny, ribald, professional women -- and the men in their lives. No girls-only ethos here. The first thing you notice upon arrival at Red Mountain are the men -- in the spa, at the salad bar, on the yoga mats and, most of all, on the hikes. The International Spa Institute, a trade organization in Lexington, Ky., estimates that almost 30 percent of spa-goers are men these days. "We're even seeing men-only spas pop up," says ISPA president Lynne Walker McNees.

Although the gender mix is appealing, it must be said that my most memorable hike at Red Mountain was a rugged, eight-mile trek through nearby Snow Canyon State Park with eight women in their thirties and forties, most of them doctors from Seattle. Topics of conversation: men, health clubs, running injuries, men, blended families, cute hiking clothes, which male massage therapists at Red Mountain are the hottest, Brazilian vs. bikini waxes, lip stain vs. lipstick, men, alternative medicine, trophy wives, male vs. female cardiologists (apparently it's still a boys' club), relationship strategies and penile anomalies. Probably a good thing there were no guys along.

4 . Spa food doesn't have to mean deprivation. In fact, it's quite possible to overindulge at dinner -- though Red Mountain provides nutritional information for everything, so you have only yourself to blame as the numbers add up. Typical entrees include pan-seared salmon (198 calories, 12 grams fat), fettucine with pumpkin-seed pesto and parmesan (392 calories, 10 grams fat) and roasted breast of duck with herbed potatoes and strawberry rhubarb demi-glaze (257 calories, 5 grams fat). Did I mention the wine?

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