Ticket to Tranquility


It should have taken two hours and 15 minutes to get here from the Westside. Instead, the rain, traffic and the fact that it was a Friday conspired against me. Two hours and 15 minutes into my drive, I was still on the stinkin' San Bernardino Freeway crawling at 8 mph through one of those dang Covinas.

Didn't El Nino understand? I was a woman on the edge. My mind and body desperately needed to get to the newly renovated spa at the Spa Hotel & Casino in downtown Palm Springs for a weekend of soaking, kneading, oils and aromas. There awaited heaven in the form of the facility's $1.85-million spa renovation. I drooled over the prospect of magic fingers, magic waters and please, dear Lord, let the bartender know how to make a decent gin and tonic.

Four and a half hours later, I pulled into the parking lot. I was well beyond frazzled, having witnessed several fender-benders, near skids, skids and a horrific one-car accident near Calimesa that caused looky-loos on my side of the road to stop, stare, then peel off down the open, rain-slicked stretch of freeway at top speed.

Oh, to have just one cigarette. . . .

But I was embarking on a weekend of good clean living with my bud Cindy Hively, photo editor of the Times' Calendar section, who showed up three hours later looking equally dazed.

Once Cindy called home to let her husband know that we had arrived alive, we gathered what little strength we had and dragged ourselves downstairs to the hotel's Agua Dining Room. If we could have paid a momma bird to chew our food and put it in our mouths, we would have.

Two dinners, two gin and tonics and two strawberry daiquiris later, we returned to our room, a perfectly comfortable but nothin' fancy space with two queen-size beds and, we discovered the next morning, a lovely view of the San Jacinto Mountains. Although the valet parking lot was below, we heard nothing.

Our upcoming weekend included taking part in the Heart of Palm Springs 10K Run on Sunday morning.

But first we had to get through Saturday.

After taking a five-mile walk around downtown and treating ourselves to a bagel and coffee breakfast at Einsteins on Palm Canyon Drive--the main drag into town--we stood at the spa desk, lumps of clay waiting to be molded. Not so fast.

Because we had ignored the spa's suggestion to make reservations and we wanted female masseuses, we were out of luck. So we made later appointments and settled for the Spa Experience, which is the best $13.80 (including gratuity) you'll ever spend.

Your tired bones enter the spa area where you change from your grungy street clothes into a luxurious terry cloth robe and slippers. You are then led to the steam room--not the place to visit if you've just had your hair done. This is followed by deep inhalations in the eucalyptus room, followed by a trip to the sauna.

Then you move to the rear of the spa to the most wonderful sunken tub with jets. Make sure the water, which comes from the Agua Caliente Mineral Springs, is warm enough before you step in. And don't forget to replenish your body with plenty of ice water located throughout the spa.

Once we were as limp as dishrags, an attendant escorted us to the Tranquillity Room, a dimly lighted area with soothing music piped in. The room is wall-to-wall beds. An attendant tucks you in between the sheets, then places cool, wet pads over your eyes. You are then free to float away and end your spa day here and consider it a deal.

We ended our spa day here, but spent the rest of the day undergoing therapy of a different sort--shopping, eating burgers and fries, drinking daiquiris and beers, and capping the non-spa experience at the hotel's casino with a secondhand-smoke body wrap and eye-hand coordination exercises on the quarter slot machines.

What a fabulous way to end a fabulous day.


But if you prefer to stay on the straight and narrow, after the Spa Experience you can opt to continue with one of the many treatments offered by the staff. Our choices, after we came in dead last and second-to-dead-last in the 10K:

* Aromatherapy Salt Glow: Lie back as the dead skin is gently rubbed off your body with sea salts and mineral salts. I estimate I lost five pounds this way.

* Swedish massage: For circulation and relaxation purposes.

* Therapeutic massage: A Swedish massage with attitude. It's a deeper massage designed to relieve stress, tension and the pain of the San Bernardino Freeway.

Other massages available include sports, Shiatsu, aromatherapy and target massage. You also can learn the art of massage. But if massage isn't your thing, there are a variety of body treatments available (mud wraps, seaweed wraps, herbal wraps) or you can go the facial route.

My face, feet and hands were handled by Luci, a delightful, soft-spoken woman who not only taught me how to wash my face, but discussed how very pleased she was with the results of the spa's renovation.

The renovations on the spa, which opened in 1958, started in July 1997. The challenge thrown down by the owners, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, was to modernize the facility yet maintain its "sacred cultural heritage." The natural hot mineral waters have a deep spiritual significance to the tribe. The water is collected in two 50,000-gallon holding tanks and then fed to the 35 sunken tubs and two outdoor pools.

A few things to know if you go:

* A 15% gratuity is included in all service fees.

* Services cost less if you are a guest at the hotel. For example, a Spa Experience is $19.55 for non-guests and $13.80 for guests.

* Services can either be a la carte or a package deal. I was quite pleased with the Day of Beauty (a pretty optimistic name, I thought), which included the Spa Experience, a facial consultation, 50-minute facial, 50-minute Swedish massage, 25-minute paraffin dip for hands and feet and a lunch. Five hours later I emerged a new woman.

Williams is The Times' Life & Style/Health editor.

Pool shot


Budget for Two

Hotel plus tax, two nights: $309.64

Gas: 35.00

Valet parking: 12.00

Spa services: 2 Spa Experiences, Salt Glow, Swedish massage, therapeutic massage, facial, paraffin dip: 360.30

Dinner, Agua Dining Room: 62.40

Dinner, Village Pub: 34.05

Other meals: 56.90

FINAL TAB: $870.29

The Spa, The Spa Hotel & Casino, 100 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262; tel. (888) 293-0180. Hotel: tel. (800) 854-1279.

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