SANTA BARBARA — It probably wasn't healthy to eat pretzels for dinner and watch prime-time TV in bed at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. But after a full day of yoga, hiking, swimming, mud baths and massage, it felt good.
At destination spas, you stay for a week with other health seekers, eat spa cuisine and work hard to get fit. But at luxurious resort spas like the three I visited in and around Santa Barbara last month, simply feeling good is the goal--and that may or may not entail self-improvement and physical exertion.
Small wonder, then, that resort and hotel spas such as the swank new Bacara are popping up as fast as bubbles in a hot tub; there are almost twice as many hotel and resort spas today as there were five years ago, according to the International Spa Assn., or ISPA. Classy little hideaways like San Ysidro Ranch, tucked into the nearby village of Montecito, have put exotic treatments and spa cuisine on the menu. And even established golf resorts like the 77-year-old Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a 30-minute drive southeast of town, have spent millions adding spa facilities.
My friends were envious when I went to Santa Barbara to offer up my body and mind to the spa experience at these three places. I couldn't persuade them that I wouldn't have a chance to see much of Santa Barbara or that I was on an investigative mission (and after a massage or two, I stopped believing it myself). Most of all, they wanted to know whether it was worth the price of, say, a new refrigerator to stay one night at these places.
Each man must balance his own checkbook, I say. But if you're looking for a special getaway, all three of these resorts easily qualify, offering superb service, resplendent surroundings and a virtual pastry case of spa treatments and programs.
Bacara, with its three swimming pools and its 220-seat screening room, is the property of New York billionaire Alvin Dworman. The 360-room resort, on the beach just north of Santa Barbara, opened in September, launched by a $7.5-million print advertising campaign starring supermodel Shalom Harlow. "Bacara" (pronounced bah-CAR-ah) is a made-up name that's meant to evoke the loveliness of the California coast, which is everywhere on display at the resort. Bacara doesn't have quite the same cachet as the fabled Miramar and Four Seasons Biltmore because it's actually in Goleta. But the setting--a dramatically pitched valley in the lee of a sea cliff that opens onto a wild stretch of beach--is its secret weapon.
The right to break ground on this stunning 78 acres, one of the few sizable tracts available on the pricey Santa Barbara County coast, was 25 years in the winning and involved the out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit brought against Bacara by environmentalists. Other obstacles included the discovery of Chumash Indian burials on the grounds and natural methane gas seeps that are still being monitored, says John Patton, director of the county's Planning and Development Department. Bacara's nearest neighbor is a well-camouflaged oil and gas processing plant, Patton notes, underscoring the site's environmental fragility.
But as you look down from the top end of the resort near the palatial reception building and arrival court, gas seeps are the last thing that come to mind. From there, you see what resembles a ritzy Spanish Colonial-style condominium complex fanning out around two opulent pools on a terrace above the sea. The resort buildings (about a dozen of which hold guest rooms) have whitewashed walls, terra-cotta roofs, peaked chimneys, gracefully curving staircases and myriad wrought-iron balconies from which you half expect to see Zorro ride by. And though the flowers and shrubs are newly planted, they are plentiful and so well manicured that they put my nails and hair to shame.
After I checked in, a bellman took me in a golf cart to my room on the second floor of Building 11, which overlooked the courtyard. At $450 a night, it was not the most expensive room; rates here crest at $5,000 a night for the Presidential Residence. But it was dreamy, with terra-cotta tile floors, an electric fireplace, wooden shutters, a sliding glass door that opened onto a balcony, and a king-size bed mounded with a white coverlet, blue striped duvet and a half-dozen pillows. In the marble-lined bath were two sinks, a deep tub, separate shower and toilet cubicles, a big basket of towels, handsome white cotton robes with black piping, and a New York touch in the light, natural toiletries from Kiehl's Pharmacy on Third Avenue in the East Village.