Weekend Escape: Northern California : Redwood Revival : Soaking up the indoor-outdoor experience at Woodside's nearly new Skylonda

I was in no mood for a dream spa weekend: My back was tweaked from running, my throat still rasped from laryngitis, and I was exhausted from too much life and too little sleep. Even more annoying, I had to set the alarm because the airplane was scheduled to leave LAX for San Francisco at 9:15 a.m. Those airplanes are always late.

Talk about cranky.

And, just as I predicted, the plane left . . . well, actually it left on time.

I bypassed baggage claim with my carry-on bag and strolled right out to the sidewalk, where I stood for a moment, positive the driver would be late. At the exact appointed time--11:15 a.m.--a blue van pulled to the curb.

It was a driver, come to fetch me for Skylonda. I had no idea what to expect. But clearly, the spa gods were colluding to lift my mood. All I knew was that I would be spending 24 hours at a nearly new spa nestled in the redwoods along the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains that stretch between San Francisco and Palo Alto.

Most people come to Skylonda Retreat for a week of rigorous fitness and pampering starting at $2,400. A few stay for three or four days (days are prorated at $400 each). Those prices are what makes the weekend alternative so appealing. For $322 for a single person, or $250 per person for a couple, you can spend a day and night at Skylonda, starting at noon on Saturday. Everything--including the shuttle to and from the airport, all taxes and tips--is included in the price. The only extra option is a Sunday morning facial, which costs $60.

After I checked in, a fitness instructor took me to my room, which overlooked a small emerald lawn that gave way to a gorgeous stand of redwoods and madronos. The room, with exposed log walls, was spacious if slightly spartan, furnished with two double beds, a night stand, two armoires and a heavy, sashed curtain that could be drawn between the beds for privacy. The rooms opposite me looked into the small parking area--not an awful view, but not as nice as mine. The bathroom was small but serviceable, with a shower but no bath. A heavy, white terry robe, puffy slippers and fanny pack with water bottles and packets of Kleenex were waiting in my room. And as the instructor left, she gave me a printed schedule with every moment of the next 24 hours accounted for.


The spa can accommodate up to 30 guests in its 15 rooms, but on this weekend, there were only nine of us. Most of the guests were like me--women with jobs and/or husbands and/or kids, women who needed a day and night out of the loop. There was only one man among us--a retired Napa Valley grocer who had come with his wife.

I had arrived just in time to catch the end of lunch, a buffet of salads (black-and-white bean, couscous, mesclun), breads and soup. A confession: I was worried about going hungry, since the whole point of spa food is to cut out everything that makes food delicious (without sacrificing flavor--yeah, right), but the salads were filling and the no-oil salad dressings were pungent and delicious. Chef Sue Chapman told me she is "not nearly as strict" with the weekend menu as she is during the week (when guests eat between 1,400 and 1,600 low-fat calories a day). There is no target calorie goal, but the food, she says, is "clean"--spa-speak for low-fat.

After lunch, we bundled up against the chill and drove off to a nearby park for a 90-minute hike along trails that were moderately challenging but invigorating. We returned to Skylonda ready for our scheduled "Break/Smoothies."

Then we decamped to a 30-minute circuit training class on hydraulic-powered PACE machines in the studio, followed by a 15-minute abdominal workout, then water aerobics in the indoor pool.

An hour massage is included in the package, and times were assigned randomly. Mine was a high point of the visit. Sixty minutes of kneading and rubbing by a woman named Colleen, who seemed to intuit whether I wanted to talk or vegetate, was heaven. I came away feeling that the world would be a much happier place if people were touched like that every day.

After that, I slipped into the outdoor Jacuzzi and sat alone amid the bubbling jets as the steam rose into the redwoods. Pure peace.

By the time we met for dinner at 7:30, any tension about sharing a table with strangers had completely disappeared, and we chatted like old friends.

Dinner began with a basket of bread and a choice of a salad of baby lettuce or a bisque of arugula and basil, drizzled with "tomato red wine." The soup was creamy and rich (made with cottage cheese, tofu and nonfat milk), but to my taste buds it was too sweet. Everyone else seemed to love it.

Dinner was a choice of seared swordfish with a glaze of Chinese fermented black beans, shaved ginger and sake, served on a ball of "sticky sushi rice risotto" or a roasted breast of chicken with herbes de Provence on grilled polenta triangles with a roasted red-pepper coulis . Both drew raves. Dessert--which I have since fantasized about--was a honeydew custard with a Triple Sec anglaise sauce.

After dinner, we strolled upstairs to the "great room"--an extraordinarily beautiful common area with high, pitched, beamed ceilings, overstuffed couches and armchairs, and a roaring fire in a massive stone fireplace. It was like dying and going wherever Paul Bunyan went after he and Babe bought the farm.

A trio of classical musicians, on cello, piano and violin, played for an hour or so. Sometimes, said Dixon Collins, the engineer who built and owns Skylonda, entertainment is a string quartet from the San Francisco Symphony, a jazz group, or a guitarist and singer.

At 9:30, I sunk into my bed, a bed I did not have to share with a husband, a child or two dogs. I stretched out and slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

In the morning, at 7, a low-tech wake-up: A fitness instructor padded down the hall, knocking on each door.

In sweats and Skylonda floppy slippers, I went out to the dining room and served myself coffee (with nonfat milk: Cream-lovers, be prepared). A cook came out of the kitchen with a basket of tiny, lovely nonfat apple muffins fresh from the oven. We wandered down to the exercise studio for 30 minutes of stretching before embarking on an hourlong hike before brunch. This time we stayed on Skylonda property, and the trails took us through shady stands of redwoods, across anemic brooks, past brilliant little yellow banana slugs that had slithered into our paths. I thought this hike was as good as a three-mile run, since the last third or so of it was a steady uphill grade.

After the hike, it was time for an hourlong facial--the only extra you can buy, and a $60 a splurge. But worth it. The aesthetician used a French line of skin-care products called Decleor, and each cream, oil and lotion was redolent of different herbs and flowers: lilac and lemon and thyme in one, basil and chamomile in others. I was late getting back to the dining room for brunch, but one of the fitness instructors had kindly waited for me, a gesture I found considerate but in character with the quality of the service at Skylonda. We ate yogurt with melon and tangerines and blackberry compote.

Then it was time to pack. My cold was a memory; the tweak in my back had mysteriously disappeared. I had been gone for one day. But it felt like a week.


Budget for One

Skylonda Retreat, one person, one night, including shuttle to and from airport,meals, massage, activities, tax and tips: $322.00

Facial: 60.00

Round-trip air fare: 101.00

FINAL TAB: $483.00

Skylonda Retreat, 16350 Skyline Blvd., Woodside, CA 94062; reservations (800) 851-2222, office (415) 851-4500.

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