Side Order: Soaking up a Santa Fe spa

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 4:59 PM

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.

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