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Lake Austin Spa Resort

Fitness Retreat in Texas Hill Country

LakeHouse Spa
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Some 3,000 years ago, after too many battles, Caesar’s legions would be sent for R & R to a nearby spa, an acronym for sanus per aquam or health by water. During the ensuing centuries the concept expanded. The French introduced thalassotherapy (seawater treatments), the Swiss offered botanical cures and the Finns weighed in with cedar saunas. Fast-forward to the last decades of the twentieth century and the reinvention in the United States of "spa," as a retreat for mostly women to exercise, diet and be coddled with treatments.

As the last century ended and the new one began, a spa revolution took place. We, men, now welcome women into our exclusive clubs and they in turn gladly receive us at what used to be an almost entirely female sanctum, the destination spa.

Like Caesar’s legionnaires, men, now troop to destination spas. The spas are, of course, American-style, but our goals are not much different than those of the Roman armies, health and fitness. As an indication that males are becoming more comfortable in this environment, a recent study found that in 2003 men made up 29% of all spa-goers in this country. Many men who used to confine their workouts to the local gym have broadened the venues in which they now exercise.

The Pool Barn at the LakeHouse Spa houses
a Junior Olympic-size pool.

Some years ago I, myself, had had a good experience at a spa, but as time went on I neglected to renew my commitment to this special process, that is, until this summer when Vivian and I spent four days at the Lake Austin Spa Resort. One of our goals was to get back into shape by shedding the pounds we knew we would gain cruising in French Polynesia aboard the Paul Gauguin.

Among the guests at Lake Austin were two other couples, George and Donna Simpson of Hartford, Conn. and Steve and Tracy Button, who live just outside Louisville, KY. In our macho way all three of the husbands pretended that we had initially been apprehensive about accompanying our wives and were here because we had yielded to pressure.

Located about 45 minutes from downtown Austin, the facility sits on the shore of 22 mile-long Lake Austin. On the opposite side of a magnificent lake, which was formed by damning up part of the Colorado River, is a forested nature preserve. The guest accommodations—40 lakeview guestrooms and garden cottages and suites line up in a neat row on a low bluff facing the lake. The pathway running above the bluff is covered with an arbor dripping greenery and blossoms and is held up by tree trunks.

Lakeview guestrooms have front porches and a vista of the sun flashing off the glimmering deep blue green water. Our garden cottage with a walled-in private patio was decorated in what might be described as "elegant Texas rustic" with handcrafted pieces and tile floors. In the most unlikely chance that we might not be tired at the end of an active day, the jacuzzi in the oversized bathroom and the extremely comfortable down bedding would hasten our visit to the sandman.

Pathway near the cottages
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Our cottage overlooked the lushly colorful cultivated gardens where herbs and vegetables for the kitchen and flowers and leaves used in the spa’s essential oils are grown. The essence of the tiny pale purplish flowers from omnipresent lavender is Lake Austin’s signature fragrance for soap, bath salts, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and shower gel. Vivian, a gardener herself and a passionate lover of flowers, was quite taken by the beauty and aromas of the property. She often plucked garlic chives to nibble on and pineapple sage and lemon balm to crush and smell.

A modest 19-acre spa resort had been going on this site for 30 years. When partners Billy Rucks and Mike McAdams purchased the property seven years ago, they had grand visions for its transformation, which have now been realized. A sprawling ranch-style building houses the dining room, library and living room, spaces that would be just right in the home of a successful cattleman, as well as a clothing and gift store, kitchen and gym. Classes and lectures take place in a separate structure, the Treehouse Loft.

Guests at the LakeHouse Spa relax in the Blue Room
before and after spa appointments.

The newest addition, the 25,000 square-foot LakeHouse Spa overlooking terraced water gardens, is in a class by itself and is possibly the most stunning treatment center in all of spadom. Mike McAdams, former design director for Tramell Crow, was the partner most involved in the project. A perfectionist and a long time collector, McAdams filled the building with modern and folk art and antiques and artifacts acquired through years of scouting and shopping. As we toured the LakeHouse with him he pointed out the wide-planked walnut floors, the knotty pine ceilings and limestone walls, which came from a local quarry. He talked about an old European painted grandfather’s clock, an expansive marble-topped credenza, French prints assembled using dried botanicals, three large quilts sewn by the state’s champion quilter and linen panels embroidered with butterflies and leaves lining the elevator. On the second floor we looked in on one of 30 treatment rooms and the Body Product Shop where some of Mc Adams’ rare blue cobalt bottles are on display. The Blue Room where guests sit before and after treatments looks like an elegant living room you might see in a shelter magazine.

Most of the more than 100 treatments, particularly the massages, East Asian and body therapies are appropriate for both sexes. To encourage males to consider facials, mud wraps, scrubs, manicures and pedicures, these particular services are tailored for men. Thus, Steve, the hesitant husband, lost his reserve and succumbed to a Java pedicure. George signed up for the unisex sea of green hydrotherapy and river rock massage. I stuck with plain old vanilla, the custom comfort massage, and had the masseuse work mostly on my shoulders, which needed the most attention?

During on-going themed days, weeks and even months, regular activities are given a special focus. These might include aquatics, healthy cooking, dancing and golf. We happened upon pilates/yoga week, both of which I enjoyed taking part in. The challenge for me was keeping up with Vivian who thinks she has not used her time well if she doesn’t go to six classes each day and who agonizes over which one to take when several are scheduled for the same time. In fact, she went from the airport limo to yoga without changing her clothes so as not to miss anything.

The outdoor treatment porch for larger groups and
special gatherings

Our days started with a two and one-half mile hike at 8 a.m. followed by a stretch or yoga stretch. Exercise classes are scheduled every hour with the final one ending at five. Thus, I was able to participate in ta’i chi and several types of yoga, some taught by guest teacher, Leigh Crews, and circuit weight training. Outside instructors often supplement the fitness staff. Pam Heston, guest specialist, taught pilates centering on ab and back mat work and used balls, too. The daily dance classes might include Fun with Latin, "Core"eography, Hip-Hop, Introduction to Belly Dancing and Nia. Although it is a world-wide movement, only the repeat guests were familiar with " neuromuscular integrative action," a dance/aerobic technique incorporating self-expression. None of the women wanted to miss it.

I took some of the dance classes, but when I looked in on one—I won’t tell you which—I knew that I would feel like a "klutz" and quietly slipped away.

Because of the beautiful lake and the junior Olympic-sized pool in the "Barn," I was able to participate in water workouts twice a day. On Lake Austin it is possible to pedal a hydro-bike or to kayak using oars and/or foot pedals. Every afternoon I took part in waterworks, often referred to as watercise or water aerobics at the Barn. I learned why it is one of Vivian’s favorite workouts. Because the water causes the body to be buoyant, you get the maximum workout with little strain on your joints and muscles.

I also learned about meditation and about balancing the chakras, "New Age" teachings that incorporate Buddhist traditions.

Kayaking on Lake Austin
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Men are often misguided about spa food and expect small bland portions. When we dined with the Simpsons and Buttons, the doubting husbands changed their mind-sets as soon as they read the menus. The dishes at all meals were extremely good with many choices for each course. We were on our own, guided by the fat and calorie count listed after each choice in deciding how much or how little to eat. The count often seemed too low in proportion to the taste. Chef Terry Conlan whose cooking is as good as any you will find in a fine restaurant likes Southwestern, Asian and Mediterranean flavors. Curtis Cooke, Chef de Cuisine said that many of the dishes were spicy because spice causes euphoria. Who would have expected to find quesadillas, enchiladas, panini, hoppin’ John Cakes, and a variety of rich chocolate desserts at a spa? All of us said we ate well and lost weight, a tribute to Conlan who has just published a 200-page cookbook "Fresh."

The late afternoon and early evening lectures with staff dietitian Terry Shaw, such as Ten Top Foods for Health, Your Emotional Appetite and To Carb or Not to Carb went far far beyond reminding us to remove the skin from chicken before cooking. She dispensed excellent advice, interacted thoughtfully with guests and distributed worthwhile handouts. Shaw even promptly returned a phone call that I made to her from home to answer a nutrition question. Dr. Deb Kern, lifestyle enrichment director, lectures on mind/body wellness.

On the last evening we took a ride on the spa’s motor boat. The captain entertained us with tales about the celebrities who lived on or had been associated with the lake.

When we saw our new acquaintances for the last time, Tracy was wearing a tee-shirt that read, "I am always right." Steve admitted that she had indeed been right when she said that he would enjoy the spa experience. George agreed that he had had a great time, too.

Who knows maybe the three of us will run across each other again wearing robes and waiting for treatments?


Edwin Fancher

Fall 2004