Cleansed of stereotypes, the hot tub finds respect

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It is cool inside Sundance Spas & Sauna, and there is the sound of running water, the occasional clear note of a wind chime stirred. Though this is a commercial stretch of West L.A., there are Eastern silhouettes here, redwood gazebos that hint of pagodas, of temples somewhere leafy green and holy.

It all seems a bit retreat-and-resortish -- Santa Barbara, Big Sur or even Marin. Then you glance at the actual merchandise and it’s strictly L.A. Sleek and shiny, the spas themselves are made of sophisticated polymers, studded like a punk rocker’s face with Intelli-Jets, acupressure jets, whirlpool jets. There are knobs and dials to control the water’s pulse and temperature and volume, contours for backs and knees and derrieres, nooks for drinks and snacks and portable phones. Empty, the spas look like hypersleep space pods -- everything but an oxygen vent and the heart monitor.

The thoroughly modern hot tub.

For many years, to many people, the hot tub has been an instant evocation of California. Not just any California, but the lackadaisical, libidinous, loopy California so vivid in the collective imagination of folks freezing their taillights off at the end of March somewhere on the other side of the Rockies.


I was guilty of hot tub profiling in my early years, but after 13 years in Los Angeles, I thought I was cured of all Quaalude-and-granola-gobbling stereotypes. Then my husband and I bought a house that included a hot tub and it all came flooding back.

“Take it out,” I said, beset by images of topless blonds and adulterous men in tiny Speedos sloshing chardonnay around while trying to keep their reefers dry, engage in group foreplay and talk on cellphones to their agents.

“We have small children,” I said, “it isn’t safe.” I wasn’t so much worried about death by drowning as I was death by cliche.

But it was the children who insisted, who begged that we keep it “just for a little while,” and of course the first time I saw them splashing and playing -- in a contained space! for hours at a time! -- I was hooked. Slightly embarrassed -- “We can all get in the hot tub after dinner” still sounds way soft-core to me -- but hooked.

All in a name

“Don’t call it a hot tub,” a friend advised, “call it a ‘home spa.’ ”

This is what happens when you don’t read enough Shelter magazines. Unbeknownst to me, somewhere in the mid-’90s, the hot tub became the home spa. And far from being an emblem of the hippie freak or swinger sets, it’s one of the hottest commodities among the stress-driven, the family centered and the overly fit.

Who doesn’t want to belong to at least two of those three groups?

According to Suzanne Barrows, communications director of the National Spa and Pool Institute, the spa portion of the industry has exploded in the last five years, with sales almost doubling between 1995 and 2002. There are 5.6-million spas in the United States, she says, and while California remains the largest market (followed, unsurprisingly enough, by Florida), there are hundreds of hot tubs, er, spas, in North Dakota, Vermont, even that bastion of wry-and-dry, Washington, D.C.


Spa sales will continue to increase, says Barrows, as long as our collective stress level continues to increase. Which could be forever.

Also note these are not redwood tubs. The modern spa, as evidenced by Sundance Spas’ collection, is all about tile and granite and acrylics of every hue. It often comes equipped with faux boulders, waterfalls or meditative fountains, fiber-optic lighting and remote-control panels, with CD players and built-in television screens.

“Oh, they want all the bells and whistles these days,” says Paul Anderson, who has owned Anderson & Sons Pools in Thousand Oaks since 1969. He only builds in-ground spas, often accompanying pools, but since around 1994, he says, the spa work has been “phenomenal. We had a little downturn just after the war started,” he says, “but now it’s bananas again.”

His company recently won first and third place in the residential spa category at this year’s Western Pool and Spa Show. Both entries were ringed with multicolor stone and complete with waterfalls cascading into the spa from a picturesque pile of rock. (Grape-peeling Polynesian dreamboat not included.) “You can get phone lines attached so you can call from work and the tub is hot by the time you get home,” Anderson said with a laugh. “It’s unbelievable.”

Fictional depiction

So much for the icon of laid-back. But then California was never really laid-back. There are no snow days here; if you can play tennis outside in February, you can also build houses, fix roads, mend fences, shoot movies. Far from dozing in a Lotus-induced haze, people here work all the time. Just look at the freeways, just look at the bus stops.

And now, it seems, they have a reason to work even harder -- the $20,000 home spa with redwood gazebo and Intelli-Jets, DVD player extra. For all its newfound ubiquity, the home spa is still very Southern Californian, part of our hurry-up-and-chill, “lots is more” consumer culture. We worship the technological gods by using the time freed by the latest gadget to work harder so we can afford the things we now need to decompress.


No wonder California is the largest home-spa market. We love this kind of stuff. Far from being the capital of slack, we’re the capital of synergy. We bustle and buzz with more acquisitive, multi-tasking A-types, and their personal assistants, than anywhere in the world, all comparing lipid counts and stress levels like GQ models comparing abs and pecs. Why have a hot tub when you can have a power hot tub?

And for an icon of the laid-back lifestyle, the hot tub, including our hot tub, which is as low-end as you get before hitting actual wine barrel, is pretty high-maintenance. Years away from my last chemistry class, I’m calculating pH balances, measuring out chemicals and anxiously peering at a litmus strip like a coed examining a home pregnancy test.

But the kids love it. They don’t know from symbols, or history, or stress levels. They certainly don’t know from relaxing. They just know that nothing beats romping in a puddle. And when you live in the desert, sometimes you have to improvise.