Rustic Bathing Beauty

Berlin is a freelance writer living in Stinson Beach, Calif

In a rustic bathhouse beside a creek, I dipped my big toe into three rectangular pools, testing the different temperatures before settling into a soothing 98-degree bath.

I took a deep breath and stretched out in the silky pea-green water, dropping my head back and exhaling a month's worth of tension.

One end of the A-frame bathhouse was open to the outdoors, exposing a dense evergreen forest that covered the hill above the natural hot springs. Wilbur Hot Springs spa is tucked in the foothills of Colusa County, about two hours northwest of Sacramento in a wilderness area known for its spectacular wildflowers.

I had arrived that day with my husband, Michael, his brother, Gary, and his wife, Debra, for a weekend of rest and relaxation. Gary and Michael play guitar and I play piano, so we also hoped to play together.

On the drive up we stopped at the Organic Groceries store in Santa Rosa for supplies for our two-day visit. The reason: There are no restaurants nor grocery stores at Wilbur Hot Springs. So guests bring their own food and prepare meals in the lodge's spacious kitchen.

It was early spring, and rainy, and we drove slowly on the winding roads, past lush swaths of green hills and high water.

Built in blissfully quiet Bear Valley, the historic wooden Victorian lodge has a veranda on the first floor where guests remove their shoes before entering. Rustic dormer windows provide views of the hillside from the third-floor guest rooms, and a grand turret sits atop the roof. Staff members live there year-round along with co-managers Richard and Ezzita Davis.

The spa gets its name from Ezekial Wilbur who, with Edwin T. Howell, purchased 640 acres of wilderness along Sulphur Creek in the 1860s to mine copper. That project failed but, in 1864, Wilbur bought Howell's stake for $200, built a wood-frame hotel and announced the opening of Wilbur Hot Sulphur Springs. (Sulphur has since been dropped from the name, but the smell still emanates from the mineral-rich waters.) Its reputation flourished and Wilbur Hot Springs became known for "miraculous cures."

Another owner took over in 1915, removed the old structure and replaced it with a glorious, Victorian-style hotel. That's the structure that exists today, albeit restored by a Tiburon, Calif., psychologist, who bought the 240-acre valley in the 1970s to create a weekend retreat for his clients.

Down the road from the lodge, abandoned mining shafts--now home to the endangered Townsend's-big-eared bat--are remnants of copper mining days. The lodge, too, retains its Old World ways. For one thing, there is no electricity. Instead, propane and solar panels help generate enough energy to run several refrigerators, gas stoves, fireplaces and lights.

On the first floor, where guests make their meals and mingle in the dining room, the lofty ceiling and white-glass chandeliers provide an elegant ambience. There are no television sets blaring, nor radios. At night, candles on each table flicker in colored-glass holders and entertainment comes in the form of self-made music or a friendly game of pool.

We arrived on a Saturday and hauled our food and drinks into the well-equipped first-floor communal kitchen. Each refrigerator shelf and dry-storage cupboard is assigned to a different room.

Accommodations at Wilbur are as varied as the staircases winding through the three-story lodge. There are 17 private guest rooms with bathrooms down the hall ($126 per night for two including use of hot springs); one suite with a private bath and kitchen ($184) plus three adjoining bedrooms ($126 each, for small groups); a more modest 11-bed bunk room ($55 per person; earplugs are recommended); and two campsites ($35 per person), open from May to October.

After sorting the food, I went to our room, one of six on the third floor, to change into a robe and sandals. The bedroom was small but comfortable, with a sloped ceiling, wood paneling, double bed and an armoire with a mirror on it. There were windows along one side of the room above a long shelf that provided a perfect writer's desk. We had a view of the winding road into Bear Valley.

Michael and I got into terry cloth robes and walked to the bathing complex across a gravel road from the lodge. The carpeted walkway is lined by Japanese lanterns and leads to a dry sauna and onto a redwood deck that surrounds the outdoor pools. The pools are situated beside a thriving riparian habitat. Bathers can watch the wildlife from the multilevel decks that parallel Sulphur Creek.

Bathing suits are optional here, but most people soak naked, so I did too. After several minutes immersed in the most temperate pool, I slithered into the middle pool, which was several degrees hotter--the temperature of a hot tub, but free of chlorine.

Instead of going in the third pool--a 112-degree boiler--I opted for the oval-shaped outdoor pool.

After swimming several laps in the 80-degree pool, I went to the dry sauna and reclined on a bench until I was soaked with perspiration. Then I walked into the hallway, tugged on a rope, and a blast of cold water cooled me off, making my body steam.

That night, we gathered with our friends in the dining room for homemade Thai curry and steamed rice.

The large dining room is filled with an assortment of tables and chairs. There is a pool table in one corner of the room and some couches and reading chairs near an upright piano. Management provides several guitars, bamboo flutes and bongos, and guests can play music until 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.

After dinner, my brother-in-law assembled some friends to play jazz tunes; Michael and I joined on guitar and piano, and eventually other guests joined in.

The next day Michael had made arrangements for a Swedish massage ($55 per hour, $75 for 1 1/2 hours). I retreated to the bathhouse for another try at soaking in the hottest pool. It was impossible for me to get in without first cooling down, so I walked to the farthest deck perched over the creek and plugged the drain of a sunken bathtub near a clump of bamboo, where ice-cold creek water runs.

When my toes turned blue, I splashed out of the tub and made a beeline for the bathhouse. I eased myself into the hottest pool and my muscles melted in the heat. It was a brief soak, but I had the feeling that if I landed in Hades I might be able to cope so long as a cool stream ran through it.

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Budget for Two

Wilbur Hot Springs, with tax and entry fee, 2 nights: $270.28

Organic Groceries, Santa Rosa: $26.90

Massage for 1: $55.00

FINAL TAB: $352.18

Wilbur Hot Springs, 3375 Wilbur Springs Road, Williams, CA 95987; tel. (530) 473-2306.

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