True Texan: For Lake Austin Spa, bigger is better

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Many locals in this central Texas city don't even know what's under their noses. A top-ranked destination spa? In Austin?

In fact, Lake Austin Spa Resort is cited as one of the 10 best destination spas in the U.S. by the likes of Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure and the 2003 Zagat U.S. Hotel, Resort and Spa Survey.

And the coming year is going to bring big changes to the property, with greatly expanded spa facilities set to open either in March or April.

The new buildings will raise the total area of dedicated spa-facility space from 3,600 square feet to more than 25,000 square feet.

Available to resort guests as well as day-spa visitors, the facilities will include 21 indoor treatment rooms and nine open-air treatment areas. One of the nine outdoor venues is a luxury suite for couples.

Also new will be a second outdoor swimming pool; an indoor junior olympic-size lap pool housed in a new building; separate men's and women's locker rooms, whirlpools, saunas and steam rooms; and a full-service beauty salon.

The Lake Austin Spa Resort is landscaped with flowers and herbs.The expansion will enable the resort to accommodate larger group functions, with the addition of a multipurpose meetings facility with a private garden.

The expansion isn't limited to new building, though. Lake Austin Spa Resort prides itself on its landscape design, and as I looked at a model of what's to come, my eye was drawn to a serpentine path in the lower right-hand corner.

This walkway will wend its way up a hill, heading for the new spa buildings, and will be lined with new gardens and planting areas.

Horticulture figures prominently in the Lake Austin Spa picture. The grounds aren't solely ornamental, they're utilitarian as well. The kitchen makes use of fruits and vegetables grown on site, and herbs from the gardens are used both in the kitchen and in various spa treatments.

One treatment, called Essence of the Garden, lets guests choose the particular herbs they want used right from the garden.

There's also a regularly scheduled, four-night Gardening Package, which includes gardening workshops; classes and lectures on using herbs and flowers; a guided tour of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center nearby; and spa treatments.

Prices start at $1,670 for a double room. (All rates are per person but don't include an 18% service charge or 6% room tax.)

The five-night Back on Track package focuses on ways to have a healthier lifestyle. It offers such items as sessions with personal trainers and licensed dieticians as well as multiple spa treatments.

This package starts at $1,995. A copy of the cookbook, "Fresh: Healthy Cooking and Living from Lake Austin Spa Resort," featuring recipes by the resort's chef, Terry Conlan, is included.

Lake Austin has a variety of themed weeks for overnight guests. One week might be devoted to cooking, another to astrology.

Coming up in the fall are two perennial offerings. October will bring the Gathering of Wise Women, a month-long series of workshops that focus on women's health issues.

This year, speakers will include noted journalist Linda Ellerbee, former White House press secretary Liz Carpenter and Kathy Cronkite (daughter of TV newsman Walter), who will speak on "Conquering Depression."

In November and December comes the "For the Love of Books" series, with authors as guest speakers. A few will present writing courses. This year's group of writers includes Molly Ivins, J.A. Jance and Jill Conner Browne.

So what did I think of the place during my guided tour? The Lake Austin Spa Resort has its charms. In its present state, it's more compact than I had imagined, but I'd definitely choose intimacy over sprawl any day.

Built on the shores of Lake Austin, on a stretch that's far from the city's downtown and university areas, the resort is tucked quite a way off the main road, and that main road is quite a way from a major highway, which should please guests who want to get away from it all.

There are only 40 guest rooms, and no new ones will be added in the expansion, so I doubt it will ever feel crowded, even when full.

The rooms themselves are not huge, but they are more cozy than cramped. The decorating scheme might be described as Texas Hill Country, with ginghams and florals.

The Signature-level rooms all have lounge chairs in small front-porch areas. A bump up to the Premier-level rooms brings extra space, pleasant private gardens in the rear, fireplaces or private outdoor hot tubs.

The location on the water is a draw, although lakes around here are really dammed-up stretches of the Colorado River. Water-based activities include sculling lessons. A dock for practicing yoga extends out over the water.

Lakeside dining is an attractive option. The view across the water is of rising green hills, part of a nature preserve, so the view should remain pristine.

My tour guide told me the point of the place is to "rest, relax, and rejuvenate."

I don't expect the expansion to change that aspect of Lake Austin. But in the future, guests will just have more room in which to relax.

Room key: Lake Austin Spa Resort
Address:
1705 So. Quinlan Park Road, Austin, Texas
Phone: (512) 372-7300
Reservations: (800) 847-5637
Web:www.lakeaustin.com
Room Rates: $410 to $540 per person, double (not including an 18% service charge or 6% room tax). A three-night minimum is generally required on weekends. Rates include three meals daily, accommodations, unlimited fitness classes and other activities. Various packages are available.
Commission: 10%
Noteworthy: Herbs from the resort's gardens are used both in the kitchen and in spa treatments.
Not worthy: Doesn't have the glam factor of other big-name spas.

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