Megan Padilla
Megan Padilla

When was the last time you not only had a spa treatment but lingered to truly relax and enjoy the full benefit of the experience? Recently, I had the chance to do just that at Salamander Spa, the rebranded wellness sanctuary on the 900-acre grounds of Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla.

I have visited dozens of spas, but as a busy mother I usually have only enough time to indulge in a treatment and then move on. So I can honestly say that cocooning into Salamander's spa before, in between and after my two signature services along with meals, a gentle yoga class in the garden and a hair blow-out and makeup application, all of it complemented by the nurturing care and service of its staff, was a revelation. I came away from my hosted visit not only feeling recharged but also hopeful about the state of spas.

That is but one of the goals of Sheila C. Johnson's Salamander Spa concept that will be expanding its offerings at two Florida properties, Innisbrook and the newly opened Henderson Beach Resort & Spa in Destin as well as at the company's flagship Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va.

"My love for spas is what first led me into the hospitality industry, and our concept is simple: let us help you relax and rejuvenate," said Johnson, who is Salamander's CEO and founder. "We help our guests discover themselves through treatments and overall wellness, both inside and out."

"She wanted her passion for health and wellness represented in her resorts," said Deborah Berlingeri, spa director at Innisbrook. "A salamander signifies strength, fortitude, perseverance and courage. We've developed four core treatments to support those words and that are unique to Salamander and that represent the brand."

The four core treatments will be launched at Innisbrook and Middleburg in January and at the Henderson in March. The Salamander team is also working with two other Florida resorts, Hammock Beach in Palm Coast and Reunion in Kissimmee, to unify their spa offerings as well as helping develop spa experiences at two new hotel projects in New Orleans and Charleston, S.C.

The vitality pool at Salamander Spa in Middleburg.
The vitality pool at Salamander Spa in Middleburg.

Each spa will feature four 80-minute Salamander Signature treatments — a massage, body wrap, facial and mani/pedi — each designed to be therapeutic, holistic and customized with essential oils to serve each guest's needs. The team has also expanded their view of the guest's experience to dedicate as much care to the total time they are in the spa, not just when receiving their treatment. This comes not only from the physical spa environment, indoors and out, but primarily from the staff.  Guests see the same faces year after year at the established spas. And the new staff at the Henderson is already making an impression. Said spa director Kim DeOrsey, "We just had a local group here who said it felt like we've been open for 10 years, not three weeks, which is largely a result of offering people in the local community a great place to work and to be a part of."

Equally important to establishing uniformity across the brand is crafting a sense of place and treatments specific to each spa. The Salamander team has cultivated relationships with local, mostly women-owned, businesses to bring essential oils used throughout each guest's experience into each spa as well as jewelry and other beautiful handmade items available in the retail shops.

Said Cindi Moreno, spa director at Salamander Middleburg, "Mrs. Johnson is very hands-on. She is here in the spa at least every two weeks. She wants to share the experience she has had of being well with other people."Moreno looks back on her nearly 20 years in the spa industry and sees where a shift from feeding the soul was replaced with a corporate drive to sell products.

"Mrs. Johnson's mandate is to create an experience for other people to have the spa journey as it was meant to be."

Part of how she does that is by drawing on her extensive world travel and visits to international spas. "She is a wealth of information," said Moreno. "Not in a way of telling you what to do but sharing unique experiences she's had that we may not see in other U.S. spas, that we can incorporate in one way or another."

One example is the introduction of vibrational sound therapy with Tibetan sound bowls, used in every guest's experience, beginning at check-in and ending with their departure, according to DeOrsey. "We want to touch every part of a guest's time here," she said. "We want it to be a total overall life-changing experience."

Since 2013, the flagship Salamander Spa in Middleburg has served as the incubator for the brand-wide concepts to take root and to primarily guide the Salamander Spa at the Henderson, which opened when the beach resort debuted on Nov. 17. The Salamander Spa at Innisbrook, which had been an Indaba Spa since 2007, has undergone the largest transformation.

The physical structure has stayed the same, including the relaxation room with a line of cozy armchairs and ottomans overlooking a garden presided by a majestic oak tree and the PGA Copperhead Golf Course rolling out in every direction. An outdoor labyrinth meditation circle wasn't offering enough benefit to guests, Berlingeri said, so they replaced it with a stunning garden, patio and raised terrace. The effect feels like a secret garden, ideal for activities ranging from yoga classes to weddings that can seat up to 200 guests. An outdoor fire pit and individualized dining from the room service menu are part of what encourages guests to linger. "We have nature at our fingertips," said Berlingeri, referring to the 900 acres on which the Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort is situated. "Why not use it?"

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