"Would you," asks the lady with a big luxurious towel draped over one arm, "feel more comfortable, perhaps, with this wrapped around you?"
Would I ever, I think to myself, cracking open the door of my private steam room—or "hammam," as they refer to it here at the spa—just far enough to take the towel, say a polite thank you, and shut the door again. Mind you, this isn't my first spa experience, nor do I consider myself prudish. But the idea of emerging au naturel from my rosemary-mint and bay-leaf steam, diving into an ice-cold plunge pool, and reclining on a chaise overlooking the Napa Valley sans towel seems a bit much. Then, who knows? This is only day one at Spa du Soleil. Over the next three days, I will learn the benefits of crushed grape seeds (20 times stronger than vitamin C, 50 times more powerful than vitamin E), mineral salt scrubs, Calistoga mud, lemon-zest foot therapy, and the power of sacred stones. I will be massaged not by two but four warm and powerful hands at the same time, and become conversant with essential oils, herbal tea wraps, camphor cream, and rose-petal custards.
Auberge du Soleil, which translates as the Inn of the Sun, was built 20 years ago across a particularly spectacular 33-acre hillside overlooking the famous wine country of northern California. Later would come an award-winning restaurant, a tiled pool landscaped with olive trees, and gardens of lavender and verbena. (Over the years, the Auberge would be compared to a Provençal inn for its setting and the sophisticated luxury of its sun-dappled cottages, each with private terrace.) There was even a gym complete with Stairmaster and bottled waters. For those who required them, in-room treatments ranging from facials to reflexology could be arranged. But what the Auberge did not have was its own on-site spa. "Which is something we always thought about," says spa director Loma Alexander. "One never came to the Auberge just to 'get fit' in the way they might at some boot-camp retreat. Of course, you could take wonderful walks and the pool was great, but the Auberge was always about much more than fitness: It was about peace and tranquility and romance."
After five years and countless blueprints, community board meetings, herbalists, gardeners, and feng shui specialists, Spa du Soleil opened this past January. Reached by a Swiss Family Robinson-like zigzag of wooden stairs that weave their way down the hillside from the Auberge itself, the spa is built around a central courtyard with big stone fountains and 100-year-old olive trees; on either side are the treatment rooms, each of them opening onto its own private patio with outdoor shower or tub. There's a Tranquility Room, two plunge pools, herbal hammam, and breathtaking views of Napa. Unlike most spa facilities in which one is massaged behind closed doors, the emphasis here is on environmental interplay. "I love that you don't really feel inside," says Alexander, who spent two years traveling to various spas all over the world as a way to conceptualize Spa du Soleil. "Here, you're very much connected, just by the nature of these rooms' design, to the world outside—to the sky, the air, the landscape. But then we believe that what you look out on affects your psyche and spirit. I mean, look at that mountainside," she says gesturing to the forested hillside to our left. "Sometimes when I'm just sitting here by myself in the late evening after the sun goes down, I can actually hear the cries of a coyote."
These, mind you, are potent words to a still-winterized New Yorker. So down the wooden steps I head toward the spa's stucco main building. At the "reception" desk (this formal description seems inappropriate, if not downright ridiculous) I'm handed my lineup of treatments over the next couple of days. They range from introductory herbal steam and tea ritual to sacred-stone massage. Treatments are organized around four categories, or "menus": The Garden treatments are based on local herbs and freshly harvested flowers from the Napa Valley; The Grove emphasizes olive oil (which contains high levels of squalene, whose moisturizing properties and emollients are supposedly good at fending off wrinkles); The Valley uses mud and minerals; The Vineyard, as you might guess, is all about grapes. And every treatment is individualized. "Right now, for example, I have you down, sight unseen, for the Vitamin C facial, but looking at your skin, I think it could take the deep-cleanse restorative facial." And because the Auberge, even fully booked, never has more than 100 guests, you never have to worry about being rushed or about someone else grabbing your slot—whether it be a goat-milk-and-lavender pedicure or garden-therapy foot massage.
The ingredients in all the treatments—facials, massages, manicures, pedicures—are fresh and locally harvested. Alexander is especially fond of a line of botanically based products made in Petaluma by Dom Ivana. "Jane Balshau, who created it, is a skin genius," says Alexander. "She looks at these products as, literally, food for the skin." After my first treatment, I am served something called A Yen from the Cold. It is a delicious—and, I'm convinced, totally curative—concoction of fruit juices, Chinese herbs, and hot water. I take it immediately after my herbal steam, just before I'm wrapped mummylike, plugged into New Age music on a Walkman, and placed outside my room to gaze at the great beyond.
On day two I feel I'm finally beginning to unwind. However, here's the odd part of the story: I've become so relaxed and so pliable in the hands of Lisa and Susan, who make up the famous four-handed massage team, that I emerge relaxed, yes, but also in pain. The two women are perplexed, but as Alexander later explains, a massage can exacerbate an existing inflammation, which is probably what happened in my case. I thank them for the otherwise wonderful massage and then, slightly stooped, walk out of the treatment room and up the hill looking like a crab crawling sideways along the beach.
For the next few hours I'm uncomfortable, but after dinner and a few glasses of the Duckhorn Merlot I'm beginning to feel just fine. Who wouldn't? At Spa du Soleil, you'll always eat—and drink—well. Extremely well. Wheatgrass and tofu are not part of the Soleil experience. "I've never been a spa chef, and I'm the first to admit that I know nothing about cooking spa food," says Richard Reddington, the restaurant's talented executive chef, who before coming to the Auberge last year worked with Daniel Boulud in New York and Wolfgang Puck in L.A. "My concentration has always been on simple Mediterranean-inspired cooking, using local products, fresh herbs, and very little fat." In the beginning Reddington did turn out a modified spa menu lower in fat and calories. It didn't go over. "Our guests wanted fat and protein in their diets. This isn't a fat farm where people come to lose weight." Still, for every sautéed foie gras with tangerine confit, endive, and brioche croutons there's a Florida snapper, grilled and served with steamed vegetables. "I like food that is satisfying and not over-the-top," says Reddington. For my first breakfast, I did my best: an egg-white omelet and melon. On subsequent mornings, I opted for the eggs Benedict with Canadian bacon. My favorite dishes for lunch were Reddington's ragout of mussels and clams topped with crispy bits of prosciutto and his shrimp salad with fennel and avocado. At dinner the choices were amazing: slow-roasted saddle of lamb with white-bean ravioli, sauced with Niçoise olives and a tomato confit; roast duck braised with sugar-snap peas; glazed sweetbreads; marinated yellowfin tuna with baby beets and Meyer lemon oil; and—in case one felt like being virtuous and bypassing the warm chocolate gâteau and caramel-banana ice cream with crème Anglaise—a sensible rosé Champagne gelée with seasonal fruit.
Alexander has assembled a staff of 27 first-rate therapists—some skilled in reflexology, others, like Claudia Sierra, in the fine art of the facial. My own deep-cleansing begins in Sierra's crystal-clean, bright-white room, whose glass shelves are lined with a mesmerizing array of lotions and potions: all sorts of little vials of colored creams and fluids. "The first thing we'll do," she says, examining my skin, "is an aloe-milk cleanser to open it all up." She'll massage my face for an hour with a milk-and-honey enzyme masque ("to eat up dead cells"), vitazymes accelerator serum ("to nourish the skin"), a pumpkin masque ("full of active enzymes"), and finally a paraffin masque. Six weeks later I'm convinced I can still detect a glow.
For the sacred-stone massage, which reputedly "channels energy and warmth from stones," Alexander called in specialist Mary Hannigan from Arizona to train the staff. Spa du Soleil uses basalt stones, which hold the heat, and marble stones, which cool you down after treatment. After a head-to-toe massage with essential oils, my masseuse, Beth Kilmore, places warm stones up and down my back and legs. During the winter months, she might use eucalyptus, bay, and grape-seed oils; in summer, she'll use "cooler" oils like lavender and mint. The effect is exhilarating.
There are spas that are larger, more rigorous, less pampering; others that are more "out there" and New Age-ish in their treatments. So on my last morning at Spa du Soleil, I ask Alexander what makes this spa so special. "It's partly the setting," she says. The early-morning mist is just lifting from the green-and-gold fields in the valley below us. In a few weeks those same fields will be abloom in lavender. "But I think we nourish the body and soul here in a very special way, thanks to the bounty of the Napa Valley. That and an incredible staff." Putting together a staff, Alexander tells me, is an "intuitive thing. Someone may be technically skilled, but I've turned down people with lots of training. I look for people who work from their heart."
Auberge du Soleil, open year-round, is "designed for adults seeking a tranquil atmosphere and is therefore unsuitable for children under 16." Two-night minimum required for Friday or Saturday arrival; holiday weekends may require a three-night stay. There are 50 rooms in 13 cottages, two of which are private. High season (April 1-Nov. 30 and Dec. 21-31): $625-$3,000. Spa du Soleil is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Spa rates: $125 per 60-minute treatment. 180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford, CA 94573; 707-963-1211, fax 707-963-8764; www.aubergedusoleil.com.