Thursday, January 19, 2012
First comes the choice, then the moment of truth.
The choice arrives after 25 minutes sweating in a massive Finnish sauna. It’s between cold-plunge pools: one chilled to approximate the Pacific Ocean (marked with a single snowflake symbol), the other an icy mountain river in winter (with two flakes).
My choice seems predestined. I’ve been in the Pacific, after all, but I’ve never dipped in a freezing stream.
Then comes the moment of truth. Not when I step into the small curve of polar-bear cold, but when I emerge.
Sculpted waterfalls tumble into six different hot pools. Steam rises past dozens of Adirondack chairs clustered around stone-framed fire pits. Several relaxation rooms soothe with “zero-gravity” lounge chairs and airy chords of transcendent music. A handful of satiated guests, in either bathing suits or rabbit-soft robes, don’t so much move through the 2-acre space as they drift.
It’s a nice place, this Refuge. Adjacent to the Carmel Valley Athletic Club, the retreat opened on 11/11/11 (the design took 20 months, the construction 17). Of course, there are plenty of saunas and steam rooms and cold showers and hot tubs elsewhere – albeit not as slick as, say, Refuge’s gorgeous sauna (the country’s largest, staff members claim), or the eucalyptus steam room with its LED glow melting through soothing greens, yellows and blues.
And other places don’t pair the plunge pools with the Refuge philosophy. That’s the multi-million-dollar gamble for owner Scot McKay: That this hydrothermal therapy, the same healing deployed way back by the Greeks and popular in Europe for years, will catch on here.
“No one promotes the thermal therapy cycle like we do,” General Manager Axel Binneboese says, “where the relaxation is a very important component.”
Refuge’s recommended methodology: 1. Heat up in the co-ed steam bath, sauna or hot pools. 2. Cool down (briefly) in one of four chilly pools. 3. Relax in the chairs by the fire, or the lounges indoors, or back in the warm baths. 4. Repeat as desired, typically up to three or four times.
Their desired effect: The heat sends the circulation to the skin, the shock of cold sends it careening back to shepherd vital organs. The body works very hard, even as it walks only a few steps, and as it equalizes, a profound relaxation takes root.
This is a completely foreign feeling.
After 10 seconds in the arctic pool, I’m up the stairs and into the winter air, speechless but not silent. I hear a cooing noise, and it takes me a second to realize that I’m the one making it. “Haaah… haaaah… Haaaaaaaaah.”
A fair translation might be, holy-monkey-this-is-intense-what-is-happening-I-don’t-really-know-but-I-think-I-dig-it. My body is somehow racing and floating at the same time. Later, another guest calls the feeling “toppling through the universe.”
A rhythm of sorts accompanies the cooing: My heartbeat thuds pleasantly in every single cell of my skin. That skin – the largest organ and maybe the most amazing – is consumed by a woozy satisfaction that oozes to my seemingly emptied core. A lightly ecstatic tingle tells me my nerves are carrying temperature-triggered impulses to a range of systems: immune, circulatory, digestive, cardiovascular.
Maybe the zero-relaxation chairs are this comfortable without the hot-cold combo beforehand, but I doubt it. Same goes for the massage jets in the tubs. The on-site massages qualify as icing on the icy-hot cake.
People I know swear by the treatment, like a Carmel wine manager who attends several times a week and even makes it a verb – “You have to Refuge,” she says – and the guest who stayed nine hours in one visit. Others will do it once, dismiss or delight in the novelty, and be content with a one-and-done.
But both camps will have chosen to do something they likely hadn’t before. And the truth is, that’s one of the better choices a healthy body and mind can make.
REFUGE is located at Carmel Valley Athletic Club, 27300 Rancho San Carlos Road, Carmel. Visits are $39; robes are $12 to rent, $69 to own; admission plus massage packages are $99. 620-7360, www.refuge.com
The Extreme Relaxation