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Not Your Mother's Spa
In Utah, getting pampered has never been so hard.

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?

5. The extraordinary beauty of Utah's red-rock country tends to put your misbehaving furnace and undone yard work in perspective. Not to get too sappy about it, but those postcard-worthy sunsets, puffy carpets of gray-green sagebrush and theatrical red peaks against an impossibly blue sky really do distract you from your mundane little problems.

6. The red rocks are actually rusting, petrified sandstone. Stained red by iron oxide, they've been carved into fantastic shapes by wind and rain over eons. Other geological oddities include slot canyons, volcanic cones, mammoth boulders, lava fields, lava caves and bright red sand dunes. There are also fossils and petrified wood and coprolite (dinosaur dung). Rock hunters routinely find topaz, jasper, quartz crystals and agate -- the same stones the Anasazi Indians used to make weapons and jewelry. And if you don't find any of these on the trail, you can always hit the gift shops in downtown St. George.

7. Desert plant life is astonishingly rich, even in winter. On our hikes, we passed stands of prickly pear, Joshua trees, junipers, barrel cactus and cholla cactus (with hummingbird nests!). You don't want to get too close to the cholla: It looks innocuous, but its barbs are like fishhooks. The creosote bush smells like railroad ties. And the bottlebrush plant, also known as Mormon tea, is a source of ephedra. Mormon settlers ground it up and brewed it for pain relief.

8. A three-hour, back-breaking, calf-straining, knuckle-shredding, toe-numbing hike can energize you. You'd think you'd crave a nap or a soak after all that exertion, but no, you find yourself gravitating to the exercise studio for a stretch class, or a little yoga or cardio salsa. You wonder: Could you transfer this concept to real life? Maybe, just maybe, exercising first thing in the morning could improve your sense of well-being and set you off down a path of renewed creativity and accomplishment.

Nah.

9. You're basically stuck with the body you were born with, but there's a lot you can do to help things along. The spa provides body composition analysis, strength training, acupuncture and other services as part of its mission to educate clients on how to lead healthier lives. "A lot of times," says health services manager Brad Crump, "they're not getting this information from their doctors." At least I'm pretty sure my doctor wouldn't tell me about a loofah yam wrap.

10. You might be younger than you think. The spa says it can determine your "actual age" (as opposed to your chronological one) by measuring such "bio-markers" as muscle mass, body fat, hip-to-waist ratio and blood pressure, followed by a pushup endurance test. I want to know, I don't want to know -- in the end, I can't resist. I'm pleased when my "actual age" registers two decades less than my real one, but cynical enough to wonder about the accuracy of this miraculous finding. Sure enough, my new doctor pals on the trail the next day tell me the test is probably worthless without other key measurements, like a VO2 test to measure oxygen consumption. Gotta get one of those.

11. A Slickrock Survival Fango Treatment may, despite its foolish name, change your mind forever about massages. I'm initially skeptical about this "leg wrap of deep relief mud . . . detoxifying, healing and deep penetrating with natural pain relievers for sore muscles and joints." Toxic leg muscles -- give me a break. But soon I loosen up as the fabulous Tyler (I've heard about his hands from the women on the trail) rubs lovely warm mud (I never do find out what "fango" is) all over my legs, wraps me in plastic, covers me with towels, turns up the Yanni and dims the lights. I baste for 15 minutes, shower, and then Tyler returns to give me the most profoundly relaxing massage of my life. Stumbling out into the night, I can barely find the way back to my room.

12. It's easy to become a massage slut. Now I can't get enough of these things. The heated rock massage is almost as nice as the fango one. Warmth penetrates my bones as the masseuse -- it's Keith this time -- places dozens of smooth, hot rocks on my back, stomach, forehead and -- a nice touch -- between my toes. On the other hand . . .

13. If you're claustrophobic, don't get an adobe body wrap. An unsuspecting friend who was encased in plastic and left to stew for 17 minutes (she was counting) compared the experience to being mummified alive.

14. St. George, Utah, is the best place to live in the United States if you're an amateur astronomer or geologist. So says John P. Kolb Jr., who is both. Kolb hosts a popular weekly "Star Party" for Red Mountain guests at his house on the outskirts of town. Because of the elevation (3,264 feet) and the thermals coming off the desert and mountains, most nights tend to be clear -- heaven for star nuts. Despite the freezing temperature, enthusiasm is high as spa guests line up to look through Kolb's computerized 10-inch telescope for glimpses of Betelgeuse, Andromeda and -- the celestial pièce de résistance -- Saturn, complete with cartoon-looking rings. Nobody notices the 30-degree cold.

15. Sometimes the little parks are just as spectacular as the big-deal ones. Everyone raves about Utah's Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, and Red Mountain offers field trips to both. But Snow Canyon State Park, right outside the spa's back door, is equally impressive. The exquisite little park is home to red and white Navajo sandstone rock formations, lava caves, 1,400-year-old Anasazi petroglyphs and an astounding display of desert plant and animal life. And nobody back East seems to have heard of it.

16. A VO2 test can change your life. Twenty-four hours ago I didn't even know this text existed; now I'm thrilled to find out the spa offers it. The Metabolic Cardiovascular Assessment is a specialized treadmill test that tells you how much oxygen you use when you exercise (more is better), and the threshold at which your body begins to burn muscle (not good). This information is critical to designing a workout routine, says Red Mountain personal trainer Eric Gorecki, because standardized heart-rate charts are notoriously inaccurate. And the test is relatively cheap here -- $100 vs. $250 and up elsewhere, Gorecki says. He hooks me up to a treadmill and I run at increasingly higher levels for seven minutes. I leave with a customized workout program that tells me exactly how hard and how long I need to exercise, based on my oxygen levels -- probably the most useful piece of information I'll come away with during my entire stay.

17. The eyes are the windows to the soul, but probably not the kidneys. Every spa needs a wacky offering or two, if only so the guests can have something to make fun of. At Red Mountain that would be Iridology, an "art" based on the belief that the markings and colors of the iris correspond to other organs of the body and can reveal weakness or toxicity in the corresponding parts. Hey, I'm so loose now I'll try anything. On my last morning, I book an appointment with Ian, a dreamy Brit who gazes into my eyes, then whips out a flashlight and scrutinizes my irises with the intensity of a neurosurgeon. He consults some Victorian-looking charts, asks about my lifestyle and diet, and speaks ominously about my "sodium ring" and the danger of high blood pressure. He doesn't know that, thanks to my Actual Age Assessment, I've got it in writing that I have unusually low blood pressure. Hmmm.

18. In the 1980s, under different management, Red Mountain Spa was known as the National Institute of Fitness. It was run like a boot camp, with no spa component. People would check in, have their bags searched for contraband food, and then spend their waking hours exercising, eating Spartan meals and focusing exclusively on weight loss.

19. This is better.

K.C. Summers will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.

Details: Red Mountain Spa

GETTING THERE: Red Mountain Spa is in St. George, Utah, about a two-hour drive northeast of Las Vegas. Flights from D.C. to Vegas start at about $200 round trip on such low-fare carriers as Southwest (from BWI), America West (Reagan National, BWI) and Ted (Dulles).

Shuttle service from the Las Vegas airport to the spa is available from St. George Shuttle (800-933-8320) and the Limo Bus (866-546-6350) for $35 each way. Private limo service also is available through the spa.

It's also possible -- though much more expensive -- to fly directly to St. George from Washington. Delta has a flight for $898 round trip, connecting in Salt Lake City, and United has one for $1,020 via Los Angeles, both through Expedia.com. The spa offers complimentary shuttle service from the St. George airport.

WHEN TO GO: The spa operates year-round except for Christmas week. Winters are generally mild, ranging from 45 to 60 degrees during the day and in the 40s at night. Spring and fall daytime temps are generally in the mid-70s. In summer, daytime temps range from the mid-90s to over 100.

PACKAGES: Nightly rates start at $219 per person double (winter and summer) and $239 (spring and fall). Included: three meals a day, daily guided morning hikes, unlimited fitness classes and use of the pools and fitness center. Not included: spa services, health and fitness assessments, personal training and adventure field trips. A current winter promotional package includes a $100 resort credit toward any of these extras.

INFORMATION: Red Mountain Spa, 800-407-3002, www.redmountainspa.com.

-- K.C. Summers

© 2005 The Washington Post Company