There are three words the traveler ought to fear more than any other. More than cholera, typhoid or malaria. Three words that signal more danger than a World Health Organization alert.

They are:


A few years ago I went up into the California wine country for a well-deserved rest at a venerable old spa. In anticipation of the birth of our first child, or should I say in preparation for the end of normal life, my wife and I decided to take a holiday. This was a farewell tour of sorts, a salute to our salad days, a last chance to enjoy the spoiled rotten life.

We drove up to the spa from San Francisco, arriving at dusk. There were candles flickering in the windows. Just like in Town & Country. What we didn't know was that there was no electricity in part of the building, due to somewhat amateurish renovations alleged to be underway.

My impression was that the spa had once been a grand place where soigne'e ladies of a certain age came for the waters, the mud baths and the price-is-no-object pampering. The old place had a genteel shabbiness to it -- "Sunset Boulevard" with a touch of Gothic.

The long halls were spooky, empty and drafty. There were no other occupants in our wing. Two elderly women dressed in black -- I assumed they were in mourning -- wandered about the halls every day, but I didn't actually see them do any housekeeping. The towels were ratty and the bedding had cigarette burns. Trays full of dirty dishes littered the corridors.

We had faced worse, and determined to enjoy ourselves and the spa's legendary cuisine. Cookbooks had been written about the table d'ho~te here.

Alas, the only thing you could be assured of doing here was losing weight. The portions were tiny. Little bits of food were artfully presented with flowers and papier-ma~che' on the plates. We figured that not even the most crazed trencherman, eating the carved radishes and the papier-ma~che' birds, could consume more than 800 calories a day.

The spa had apparently fallen on hard times. To stave off Chapter 11 and the collection agency, it had retooled its operation to include Monday night football, replete with a giant widescreen television, Buffalo chicken wings, and Billy Bob and Bubba reenacting game highlights in the lobby. The old spa had become a roadhouse.

They stay up late in the wine country and the racket continued until long after midnight. In the morning, the lobby looked as if the evening might have ended with looting. Several enormous old leather chairs had been dragged out onto the front lawn. Items of clothing were hanging from the lighting fixtures and the skeletal remains of Buffalo wings were everywhere.

I inspected the grounds and found that the old spa had come pretty close to a dead halt. No soigne'e ladies about. No mud baths. No taking the waters. No manicures. No pedicures. No cures. The old spa wasn't so much under new management as under no management.

The nouvelle bits of dinner of the previous evening were replaced at breakfast by tiny little muffins the size of doughnut holes, with a fresh fruit bowl that consisted of cantaloupe shavings.

Lunch was more cantaloupe shavings and consomme' spa, a lukewarm broth in which several minuscule bits of scallion were floating.

I figured Monday night football could only happen once a week, but I was wrong. The spa had a satellite dish capable of picking up sporting events from other galaxies. Monday night football resembled tea at the Willard Hotel compared with what they had planned for the rest of the week.

Tuesday night was wrestling beamed in from Japan. This brought the sumo out in the patrons, who began wrestling with furniture. We barricaded ourselves in our room.

We stopped going down for consomme' and cantaloupe shavings and instead went into town for Mexican food.

Hawaiian Nite was the last straw. They roasted a pig. In the lobby. Several young women (they didn't look Polynesian to me) danced in what is oft described as "a state of undress." When the revelers began surfing on the coffee tables (they had wheels on them) I vowed to check out. We would have left immediately but I was afraid to try and cross the lobby with a pregnant woman during the luau.

The next day I wanted to complain but there was no one around, so we just left. We'd paid in advance anyway, and really only wanted to escape. We had to get out of there. Thursday was "The Last Days of Pompeii Nite." Christopher Corbett was the James Thurber Journalist-in-Residence this year at Ohio State University.