"Are you and your friends celebrating a special occasion?" asked the young attendant as she dipped a paintbrush into a bowl of thick green goop and covered my skin with the aloe vera, shea butter and coconut oil concoction.
My friends Donna and Julie and I were in the underground Grotto at Glen Ivy Hot Springs. We were visiting the Corona spa on a recent spring day just to relax and soak, but many people meet there to celebrate showers, birthdays and anniversaries. About a third go to the Grotto, billed as Glen Ivy's "social spa treatment."
Some spas cater to the elite; Glen Ivy is a day spa for the masses. On a summer weekend day, there can be as many as 1,200 guests.
The spa — which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year — is tucked into a canyon on the edge of the Santa Ana Mountains about 60 miles from L.A. The gray-green hillsides make a pleasing backdrop for the Mediterranean-style architecture and lush landscaping. Plantings and raised terraces separate the pools and even on busy days create peaceful nooks.
To get into Glen Ivy you just show up, pay the day fee and walk in. This gives you access to the spa's outdoor mineral baths, mud bath, lap pool, saline pool and other outdoor soaking pools; saunas; Roman bath; steam rooms; and exercise classes. The Grotto treatment is $25, and no appointment is necessary. They are suggested for other body treatments, though, including massages, scrubs, wraps, manicures, facials and waxing. To sign up, you call the spa's phone line between 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
After my friends and I arrived, we parked in one of the free lots and paid our day fee in a store selling spa wear and Glen Ivy products. We opened tabs on our credit cards, which allowed us to charge food and services throughout the day.
Then we toured the multi-acre spread. We walked past the lap pool, where water aerobics classes take place, toward the 104-degree mineral water tubs. (These and the mud bath are the only pools with water fed from the hot springs.) The baths — packed with people — bubbled and churned and smelled strongly of sulfur.
On the lawn ahead, a yoga class was about to begin. Up the hill in the Lounge Pool, sunbathers on blue foam rafts were wall to wall in shallow water. Wherever we looked, there were swimsuit-clad women — they're about 90% of the clientele — and a few happy-looking men, strolling the grounds and relaxing on chaises.
We arrived at the Bath House, which has lockers, a lounge, restrooms, showers, blow dryers, a whirlpool and steam rooms. There we stashed our bags in free lockers, picked up spa-provided towels and headed out.
Our first stop was Club Mud. We threw down our towels on red-clay-tinted chaises and waded into the pool of warm, brick-colored mineral water — gooey clay squishing beneath our feet. On an island was a block of the sticky Temescal Valley clay. I heard a few "Ewwws" as people put their hands into the muck to paint their skin, but eventually even the reluctant got into the fun of playing in the mud.
We lay in the sun to let the mud dry, then washed it off at the outdoor showers with the spa's cleansing gel. The process is supposed to draw out impurities and exfoliate your skin. At the very least, it's a fun ice breaker. (As for hygiene, Glen Ivy says it empties and cleans the pool every day.)
After the mud, I changed suits — bring an old one as a spare, as the clay can stain — and walked to the nail salon for a pedicure while Donna and Julie ventured off to find a spot by a pool.
The salon had a row of comfortable spa stations facing a large window with a view of the property. No chemical smell here — the only scent was of the (Oprah-approved) FarmHouse Fresh products used in my $49 Essential Pedicure and available for purchase in the lobby. The Sugared Maple scrub and Sweet Cream Body Milk smelled almost good enough to eat. While soft music played in the background, nail technician Sandy soaked my feet in the whirlpool, then trimmed, buffed, scrubbed, massaged and applied polish with care.
Outside, my friends joined me for a quick lunch at Paradise Bar, which serves premade sandwiches and salads, smoothies and alcoholic drinks. (Paradise Grind, at the entrance, has the same menu; Café Solé has a full Mediterranean menu, indoor-outdoor seating and private rental cabanas.)
Then we were off to the Grotto, where we took an elevator down to a cave-like room. After we were painted with the green lotion, we moved into a warmer cavern to rub it into our skin. We showered in the next room, then finished in the cool chamber, where we nibbled on green apples and sipped tea. I found the experience underwhelming; the Grotto had too much of a Disneyland ride feel for my taste. (You can even buy a $5 souvenir picture.)