Spas a hot niche in Wine Country

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s I eased into the tub full of what looked like wet, warm clumps of peat moss, I smiled bravely. When I had signed up for this spa treatment as part of a Wine Country tour, I hadn't envisioned the experience being quite so literally a mud bath.

But before I had time to reconsider, the attendant was smoothing a layer of the black ooze over my reclining body.

She stuck cucumber slices on my eyelids and rubbed some sweet-smelling lotion under my nose. I took a deep breath and relaxed -- what else can you do in a tub full of mud?

A Calistoga mud bath is something everyone should try -- once. But there are dozens of other spa experiences in northern California's Napa Valley.

In fact, going to a spa is becoming as much a part of a Wine Country visit as fine wine, according to Daniel Howard, executive director of the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau.

The area has a long history as a spa center.

In the mid-1800s, a wealthy San Francisco businessman recognized the potential of the hot mineral springs and volcanic ash and set out to make Napa Valley the "Saratoga of California." (Legend has it that after too much wine, he scrambled the slogan and the area became known as Calistoga. )

Soon Bay Area socialites were arriving by the trains full.

A lot has changed since then, but Napa Valley continues to be a popular center for health and wellness. With about a dozen spas, Calistoga is a magnet for spa-goers.

But now many of the big hotels and upscale resorts that dot the valley also have their own luxury spas. Even some of the area's smaller inns are adding spa services.

The type of spa treatments offered varies widely from resort to resort and from area to area.

Most of the resorts in Calistoga, for example, are family-run, modestly priced and known for their mud baths and hot mineral springs.

Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort, where I "took the mud," has been around since 1952.

A chiropractor, Wilkinson was interested in the restorative nature of the area's volcanic ash mud and hot mineral water. He began mixing them with Canadian peat (to give the mud more buoyancy) and offering treatments in a tiny bathhouse.

"Dad had a lot to do with the spa craze that is going on these days," said Mark Wilkinson, who manages the resort today with his sister, Carolynne. "We were here before every hotel had a spa." His father, John, 89, still greets guests and recently was named California's tourism entrepreneur of the year.

Dr. Wilkinson's has 42 hotel rooms, a large spa treatment area and several hot spring pools. But it's hardly luxurious. The spa area reminded me of my high school locker room.

If more upscale surroundings are your client's idea of a spa experience, however, the options are plentiful.

Path leading to the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa.The Napa Valley Marriott's Amadeus Spa, which opened last year, represents the other end of the spectrum. The hotel's owners spent several million dollars converting what had been an underused conference area into an elegant spa.

Amadeus is one of the valley's largest spas, with 11 treatments rooms specializing in skin care.

A favorite is the "champagne bubbly," which involves soaking in a hydrotherapy tub filled with strawberry essence and champagne.

Massages are performed indoors or out.

Both Dr. Wilkinson's and the Marriott's Amadeus offer treatments to overnight guests and day visitors. Other spas offer day treatments only.

Some high-end resorts restrict their spa services to guests only, including the tony Silverado Country Club & Resort in Napa, the exclusive Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford and the expansive Meadowood Napa Valley in St. Helena.

Still other spas are known for specific treatments. The sulfur pool at the White Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa outside St. Helena has been drawing visitors since the resort opened in 1852, making it California's oldest hot springs resort.

The recent economic slowdown has reduced occupancy rates across the Wine Country, but Howard said accommodations with spas appear to be faring better.

"These days, it's virtually impossible for a facility to call itself a 'resort' if it doesn't offer spa treatments," he said.

Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort is located at 1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga.

Room rates range from $109 to $189 per night, double. For more information, call (707) 942-4102 or visit www.drwilkinson.com.

The Napa Valley Marriott, at 3425 Solano Ave., Napa, has 272 rooms. Rates range from $149 to $309 per room, per night, double. Call (707) 253-8600 or visit www.gowestmarriott.com.

Both resorts pay agents 10%.

Sales pitch

• Clients tired of Frisco? Suggest pairing several days of wine-tasting in northern Sonoma County with a sampling of spa treatments at one of the resorts in the area. Two different experiences, one vacation.

• Turn a Wine Country visit into a family reunion for your clients. Find a B&B with a pool or tennis court that will rent all of its rooms for a weekend gathering. It'll be homey.

• Wine-tasting is more fun with friends. Organize a Wine Country tour for two to four couples, including a spa experience, a limousine and a hot-air balloon ride.

• Pick a distinctive resort or a small inn that matches your client's interests (golf, tennis, spa, horses). Suggest the client use it as a base. The Napa and Sonoma valleys are so close there's no need to unpack more than once.

• If your clients love upstate New York, send them to the Napa Valley. If your clients prefer Vermont, suggest Sonoma County.

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