October 28, 2012

Four California hot springs, four experiences, all comforting

California springs may drain your worries, but not your bank account.

Bear in mind, before reading further, that this story is being written by a man still under the influence of Northern California's mineral hot springs.

He is blissed out, all skepticism having seeped from his pores, his fingers old-man wrinkled and his senses completely altered from three days of marinating in a heady sulfuric bouillabaisse.

Much as he might try to summon his well- cultivated snark and emotional detachment from his hardened journalistic core, it just ain't happening, folks. Among all the minerals – selenium, potassium, carbonic acid, even a touch of lithium – that have pierced his epidermis, he finds himself strangely irony-deficient.

This is what a Tour de Hot Springs will do to a guy.

It is highly recommended.

Nothing renews spirits like being cradled in the all-embracing arms of a Hawaiian goddess helping a guy relive the birth experience in the healing waters, or being suspended, like a prehistoric bug in amber, in a vat of heated volcanic ash by a dude named Fernando, or being plopped like an Alka-Seltzer tablet into steaming waters crackling with carbon dioxide.

Stressed? Frustrated? Enervated?

Get thee to a hot springs, stat.

Scores of springs burble up from the restless mantle throughout Northern California, many located in the Napa wine country and surrounding environs. So finding one is not the problem. Finding the right one to fit your temperament, level of modesty and tolerance of healthy hedonism is another matter. Be it hippies or yuppies, new agers or old-timers, choices abound.

Your correspondent visited four springs of varying vibes, all in lovely settings, to dip a toe (and more, so much more) into the waters.

His choices:

Wilbur Hot Springs in Colusa County, a place of near monastic quiet, where clothing is optional in the baths but mandatory elsewhere.

Harbin Hot Springs in Middleton, where clothing also is said to be optional but is nearly uniform in its absence poolside, and a place of sociability more than solitude.

Indian Springs in Calistoga, home of the volcanic ash mud bath and decidedly swimsuit-required at its Olympic-sized mineral pool.

Vichy Hot Springs in Ukiah, one of only three spots in the world with carbonated mineral water in its sulfur-tinged, 150-year-old, swimsuit-required tubs.

One commonality: These springs may drain your worries, but not your bank account. Rooms range from $60 on the modest end to $250 at the top. The food ranges from a kitchen where guests make their own meals to restaurants replete with vegan, gluten-free, organic free-range options. Even the spa treatments – massage, mud baths and body peels – fall on the reasonable end of the pampering spectrum.

That's because these places are retreats, not resorts. Meaning, you don't necessarily have sycophantic workers at your beck and call, catering to every whim. Meaning, also, that it's not, despite reputation, the Club Med pick-up scene.

Nudity, poolside, is accepted with a shrug of one's bare shoulders. There's little overtly sexual about going suitless in baths and, except for occasional canoodling by a few couples at Harbin, no touching or hassling, either.

"It just feels so natural to be in a completely natural setting like this, looking up at the stars and feeling this hot water that comes from the earth," said Carly Giesen, who works at Wilbur and frequents hot springs from here to Mammoth Lakes. "It's an otherworldly experience you can experience every day."

Wilbur Hot Springs

Leaving Sacramento behind, the drive on Highway 16 through the Capay Valley into the rolling hills of Colusa County is a good start at lowering the blood pressure. Near the end of a four-mile dirt road at Wilbur's gate, a large sign reads: "Time to Slow Down."

It is both a greeting and a friendly admonition. But, really, people have no choice. Wedged between oak-studded hillsides, Wilbur has no cell service, no guest Wi-Fi, no televisions.

"Right now," said manager Michael Van Hall, "even our (landline) phone service is down. But we're getting by. This is what you'd expect in nature. We're trying to create a place of healing, self- reflection. We're on the inner-contemplative end of the (hot springs) spectrum."

Wilbur offers massage service and an occasional chef's weekend, but solitude reigns. Which sat just fine with daughter Patricia and mother Heather, who declined to give their last names, who came from Eureka and Grass Valley, respectively, to decompress on a "mother-daughter week."

"I like that this is rustic and sort of old-school," Heather said. "It's not some modern monstrosity. It's got its own laid-back style."

Wilbur's main building is a turn-of-the-century hotel with 20 rooms and a bunkhouse with 11 beds. There is a library and music area, recalling days of yore. Only the expansive kitchen is thoroughly modern.

Beyond the creaking, wooden veranda lie miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, including the Smelt Loop that features the ruins of two abandoned smelters.

But it's the water that holds the allure.

Wilbur's "flumarium" consists of three flumes, about 20 feet long and 4 feet wide of increasing temperature – 98, 105 and 110 degrees. It is sheltered from the elements by a wooden roof and, from a distance, you can see the steam curling up over the walls. Below is a "cold" pool, which looks like a regular backyard pool, but it's filled with mineral water.

More than any other hot spring on the itinerary, Wilbur's waters were the most pungent, due to the extremely high sulfur content. As you walk the trails beside the creek, the water flowing off volcanic rock appears milky. It can be bracing, but as Van Hall said, "As with any place, like a farm, after half a day, you don't smell it."

What lingers longer is the silky feel of the minerals coating your skin. Though Wilbur guests are required, for hygiene's sake, to shower before entering the baths, Giesen said many don't shower off immediately after soaking, opting to let the minerals seep into them.

"It's just so relaxing," she said.

"Maybe it's the lithium," joked Patricia, the Grass Valley guest.

Harbin Hot Springs

He is plunged, in only his birthday suit, into the amniotic warmth of the private pool up the hillside near the geodesic domes. Before his guide, massage therapist Sara Kealani Takahashi, cradles him into the crook of her shoulder, she looks him straight in the eye and intones: "For some people, Watsu is like reliving (birth) and very nurturing. For others, it's just a water massage."

A little nurturing could never hurt, right? Soon, your correspondent floated to and fro, limbs stretched and palpitated in the swirling, in-utero buoyancy of the mineral bath.

"I tell people," Kealani added, "to let your body feel like seaweed floating in the ocean."

And then she stopped talking. For the next 45 minutes, safe in her embrace, he felt disconnected from gravity and reality. His body felt loose-limbed for the first time in decades: arm and leg tension palpitated into submission, back and neck knots loosened, emotions rising to a crescendo of near tears

When it was over, swaddled once more in a towel, he was told by Kealani, "You definitely need some nurturing."

Well, that is a big appeal of a Watsu massage – a smashed together term meaning "water shiatsu." It was developed at Harbin in 1980 by practitioner Harold Dull and today is a "modality" practiced worldwide. To come to Harbin and not experience Watsu is like visiting the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa.

Be prepared, too, for other new-agey aspects when you visit this Lake County site that opened in 1870 as the Harbin Springs Health and Pleasure Resort. Since 1972, Harbin has been owned and operated by the Heart Consciousness Church ("An embodiment and a manifestation of the New Age," according to its literature). But many of Harbin's guests barely see evidence of any religious doctrine, save some ubiquitous Buddha statues, a few altars and a labyrinth.

See, at Harbin, it's more about a separation of church and clothes. Harbin is "clothing optional" in its pool area and elsewhere save its restaurants and main road. By clothing optional, that means 99 percent of guests bathe suitless. In fact, the one sure way to turn heads is to don a bathing suit.

The hottest of Harbin's springs are meditative places where talking is forbidden, but its heart-shaped warm water pool is where guests soak and converse. Your correspondent chatted with a couple, Madalyn Suozzo and Rick ("just Rick, please") and a young Quebecoise named Melissa, who showed off her Om symbol tattoo between her breasts and spun a fanciful story about how she had just returned from living two years in a cave in the Amazon.

Later, clothed and eating dinner, Suozzo said she loves Harbin for just such interesting people.

"If you want to be social, Harbin is the place to go," she said. "I have friends of mine who hate this place. And they're not prudes. They just think men are stalking them and they don't feel safe. But I've come here a couple times a year for 20 years, both alone and with someone, and always felt safe.

"There's not sex everywhere, like you'd think. But it's a very, very spiritual place. Your average Joe will not go for it."

Indian Springs

Fernando helped ease your disrobed correspondent into the mud-filled tub, which had the consistency of sludge. Then he snapped on latex gloves, wiggled his fingers and started shoveling volcanic ash, heated with mineral water, onto his subject's body, first the chest, then the tender midsection, lastly the arms, legs feet and neck.

Gradually, your correspondent sank deeper into the blackness, maybe 5 inches down. No steam rose, but the heat was intense and immediate. The mud felt as heavy on his chest as if he was wearing a lead X-ray vest. Rivulets of sweat poured from his face, the only unsubmerged part of his body. His heart beat with the frequency and ferocity of Charlie Watts banging away on "Paint It Black."

"We usually go 10 to 12 minutes," Fernando said. "I'll come back and check up."

Either five minutes or an eternity passed before Fernando reappeared, asking, "Would you like a cold wash cloth on your brow?"

At the eight-minute mark, Fernando made another foray, as your correspondent breathed evenly through open mouth to quell his rising blood pressure.

"Want to get out?"

A curt nod, and your correspondent was back on his feet, coated in tar-black mud like a vegetable having been dipped in a fondue pot. After showering, a rigorous exercise in itself, he was led by Fernando to a pleasantly warm mineral bath for a 15-minute soak. Fernando placed two cups of cucumber-infused ice water for him to sip. Your correspondent drank one cup and poured the other over his head.

In no time, it was back to the intense heat: five minutes in the steam room, where his heart went on another long drum solo. That was followed by yet another cold shower. Finally, Fernando led his charge, now totally wrung out, into a private room. There, your correspondent was wrapped in high-thread-count sheets, had cucumber slices and a cold wash cloth placed over his eyes and was left to nap for 15 minutes.

Rest was needed. Later, out at the pool, he compared volcanic mud bath battle stories with others lounging around.

"I did the mud bath last time I was here," said Greg Stemler of Oakland, honeymooning this time with his bride, Liza. "I was there until they forced me to get out of the mud. I was blissed out. I like mud."

But Bill Kirkham of Belmont said he was a one-time-only mudbather.

"I'm not claustrophobic, but it was not a pleasurable experience," he said.

Pleasure could be found in the Indian Springs pool, a gorgeous white Mission Revival-style structure built in 1913. The water, 92 degrees, was just right for mother and daughter Virginia and Katherine Houston of Falls Church, Va., and friend Mari Metcalf of Kensington.

"The sign here should say, 'Floating Only,' " said Virginia, "because that's all anyone does here."

"No one's doing laps, no one's even trying to move. You veg out," Katherine added.

Metcalf, who calls herself a "pool aficionado," rates Indian Springs among the best she's encountered.

"I love the vegetation (palm trees, cacti) and architecture (Mission) and the whole retro feel.

"And the water is swimming-pool nirvana."

Vichy Springs

The billboard on Highway 101 heading into Ukiah features a photo of a raffish Jack London, posthumously endorsing the healing, carbonated "champagne" waters of Vichy Springs.

Jack, apparently, was not alone among celebrities drawn to Vichy, named after the original carbonated mineral spring in France. Everyone from Mark Twain to Teddy Roosevelt to Bo Derek to Nancy Pelosi have "taken the waters" here. (All, presumably, wore swimsuits.)

Little wonder, then, why Vichy, 150 years old, has earned California Landmark status. While the land- scaping and grounds have changed, the 90-degree mineral baths themselves remain the same as when they were built in the 1850s.

"You pull out the pipe (in the tub) at this end for the water to rush in and plug the pipe in on that end to keep it in," said Angela ("I never give my last name"), a Vichy employee. "They work exactly the same as they always have; they've only been repaired twice in 155 years."

Vichy has two pools – a mineral swimming pool at 72 degrees, a hot pool at 104 degrees – and a long line of mineral baths, some hidden behind walls, some exposed to the elements.

Guests Terry and Marie Kent of Redwood City had wanted to visit Vichy for a long time because its carbonated water makes it unique among California hot springs.

"We sat out and soaked and watched the full moon come up," Terry said. "It's pretty romantic, and we've been married 42 years."

Vichy, as with the other hot springs, offers massages and facials and features hiking trails. But its selling point, without question, is its bubbly baths.

Your correspondent eased into the fizzing depths of the outdoor tub on an unusually warm early-October morning. As the bubbles coalesced around his newly pliant frame after three days submerged in four sites, he reflected as to what Mark Twain might've quipped about taking the waters.

If ol' Sam Clemens had found golf "a good walk spoiled," perhaps he would've dubbed hot springs an "ordinary bath made delightful."


Northern California is fraught with natural hot springs, many of which have been turned into tourist retreats. We visited four popular spots:

Wilbur Hot Springs

3375 Wilbur Springs Road, Wilbur Springs

Phone: (530) 473-2306


Rooms: Single room: $205; apartment: $310; bunkhouse $100; campsite: $75.

Day Use: $53 (10 a.m.-5 p.m.)

Amenities: Kitchen to make your own meals; massages from $98 per hour; hiking trails, bicycles.

Harbin Hot Springs

18424 Harbin Springs Road, Middletown

Phone: (707) 987-2477


Rooms: Basic room: $60-$90; basic room with bath: $75-$190; tent cabins: $80-$100; cottages: $170-$260; domes: $50-$170.

Day use: $30 (six hours); $40 (24 hours)

Amenities: Massage services: basic (including Watsu) $45-$115; advanced bodywork $53-$130; restaurant for breakfast and dinner; two cafes; nightly movies; twice-weekly dances; yoga, breath work and spirutal workshops; hiking trails.

Indian Springs

1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga

Phone: (707) 942-4913


Rooms: Cottages: $229-$729; Lodge: $199-$329 (depending on time or week and season)

Amenities: Complete spa service (volcanic ash mud bath: $85; mineral bath $75; massages: $125-235); tennis, pingpong, croquet, bocce courts, use of bicycle

Vichy Springs

2605 Vichy Springs Road, Ukiah

Phone: (707) 462-9515


Rooms: Mountain view: $135-$195; creekside: $195-$245; suite: $230-$275; cottage: $280-390

Day Use: $30 (two hours); $50 (all day)

Amenities: Restaurant, hiking trails

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