Given the choice between spending a day exploring a new destination or indulging in a hotel spa, I’d pick the exploration. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy spa treatments; I just prefer basking in the local culture, people and food.
However, the Gem Spa’s 10-step hydrotherapy ritual in Cancun was such a jewel; it made me reconsider. The sublime treatment takes about an hour, and I left feeling alive and ready to take on the world. Mind you, massages are wonderfully relaxing, but this treatment re-energized me. Because I never knew what was coming next, my mind escaped from all worries, and I allowed my body soak in the moment. The hour was bliss.
The oversized Gem Spa, measuring a whopping 43,046 square feet, is located at the Fiesta Americana Grand in Coral Beach, Cancun. The hotel is staffed and run to the highest 5-star level. Their strip of white sand beach might not be wide, but it delivers everything you want on a Mexican vacation. Chaise lounges and palapas provide comfort, clear turquoise waves roll onto the shore, and the clock like sound of the surf can lull you to sleep. Those who prefer swimming pools will also discover happiness. The Grand’s string of freeform pools cascade one into another via waterfalls, fountains, and swim-up bars provide amusement.
I signed up for Mayan Chocolate Scrub, but anyone taking a spa treatment is invited to arrive early for a complimentary hydrotherapy routine. Don’t miss it.
I entered the Aromatherapy Steam Room in my swimsuit and sat down. The powerful scent of Eucalyptus filled the moist air. Soon, beads of sweat began to form on my skin and my lungs expanded. This room was pleasingly warm but not too hot; I stayed for ten relaxing minutes.
Step two, I must warn, is rather unpleasant. I was lead to a cold water shower with multiple heads. Here, I was to withstand the chilling spray for a minute. Call me a wimp, but those 60 seconds seemed endless; I couldn’t wait to get out. My skin, however, was certainly stimulated.
Step three involved the Clay Steam Room, much more to my liking. I was handed a container of soft clay to rub onto my body, but not my face. This treatment was to remove impurities from my skin and leave it feeling smooth. I took pleasure from the warmth and the essence of orange in the clay.
Step four had me standing in a rain shower, but this shower was not cold, merely cool to lukewarm and, at this point, the temperature felt right. I think I stayed under the shower for 2-3 minutes rinsing away all the clay.
Step five brought me to a hot sauna. The aromatic wood and dry heat produced more sweat and relaxed my muscles. I live in Florida, so can withstand heat. This ten-minute treatment was divine.
Entering the Ice Room is step six. I feared this may be painful, but I was totally wrong; the ice room felt refreshing. I slowly rubbed pieces of ice all over my body and strangely, the sensation was delightful. The cold didn’t seem to bother me.
Step seven includes ten minutes in a Jacuzzi. I lowered myself into a warm pool filled with bubbly water, and my body floated around in pure happiness. Who doesn’t love a tepid soak and the gentle pressure of a Jacuzzi jet?
Step eight was another “Oh no” moment: The Polar Pool. I was astonished again, this cold water treatment was not as unpleasant as I feared and my skin became tingly as blood circulation increased. I did not have to stay in long- just take a plunge or two under the icy water. Did I let out a muted scream? Yes, I did.
Next came step nine, the Pebble Water Walkway to stimulate my feet. I lightly touched the side walls for balance as I carefully walked through a narrow zigzag course of knee-high water lanes lined with flat stones. Some of the paths included warm water, and others were cool. The friction created on the bottom of my feet felt like a foot massage- weirdly wonderful.
A plunge into the Pool of Sensations is the final step, number ten. To reach this pool, I exited the main hydrotherapy area and proceeded into a grand swimming pool size arena filled with fountains, waterfalls, cervical neck jets, bubble beds and floor geysers. I was free to wade around and test out each area, lingering as long as I desired. One section had a circular handrail with powerful jets (geysers) of water aimed directly upward. I entered, and the gush of air inflated by my bathing suit making me look like the Poppin’ Fresh doughboy. The powerful sensation was almost strong enough to lift me out of the pool. I chuckled, then swam around and lazed along an incline zone relishing the champagne effects until my skin began to prune. I then climbed out, toweled off and wrapped myself in a warm spa robe.
Honestly, I didn’t need anything more; the chocolate treatment was almost overkill.
A drive to Asheville, North Carolina takes seven hours from my home, but I had a family wedding to attend. The travel writer in me decided to go two days early and explore the city as I’d never been there before. The local Tourism Board (ExploreAsheville.com) arranged for a two-night stay at the Sourwood Inn. Thank you for that sweet treat.
Sourwood Inn is a hidden jewel; I passed it by twice before locating the entrance off the Blue Ridge Parkway and Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. That was after owner Susan Curtis warned me about the ten miles of winding roads I’d encounter getting there. Major hairpin turns and slow speeds, but once you find it, your cares drift away.
The twelve-room retreat sits on one hundred acres of mountainous terrain at 3200 feet elevation, however, just 15-20 minutes from downtown Asheville. The bedrooms (most have king-sized beds, mine had two Queens) are spacious and airy, and each comes with a fireplace stacked with logs and kindling. All you have to do is strike a match. The extra large bathrooms include a shower plus separate Jacuzzi tub with a large window that provides no worries secluded views. Each room also has an outdoor balcony overlooking the woods becoming an ideal spot for an afternoon cocktail or glass of wine. Guests can also book the Sassafras Cabin, a small suite nestled in the woods a hundred yards from the main inn.
I arrived in time for afternoon refreshments; they are placed in the lobby every day. You are welcome to take them back to your room or enjoy with other guests.
The common areas like the lobby, library, and sitting rooms are serenely inviting and homey. I’d call the decor refined rustic, indeed not that overly cutesy country stuff. Downstairs is a game room with a television, the only one at the Inn.
Warning, there is no Internet or television in the guestrooms. My Smartphone got access, but some do not. Sourwood was designed to be a relaxing getaway, so indulge yourself and escape the high-tech world.
Full breakfasts are included in a stay and mine were exceptionally tasty. Everything is homemade, and the breads are especially yummy. You may bring wine, beer or liquor for your enjoyment. The chef prepares dinner on selected nights, usually Thursday through Sunday by reservation only. Don’t miss these; they are bargain priced three-course gourmet meals from a fabulous cook.
If you aren’t out participating in Asheville’s array of outdoor activities like biking, hiking, camping, yoga, kayaking, and fishing, you can stay at Sourwood property and play badminton, croquet and use over two miles of mountainous trails. Asheville also offers an endless list of attractions like fine dining, spas, micro-breweries and the world famous Biltmore Estate.
Jeff Curtis, husband and co-owner at Sourwood, has a love affair with the falconry and also loves to share his passion. My niece, Sarah, joined me the second night of my stay, and she and I had an entertaining and educational morning meeting Jeff and two of his hawks. We first were introduced to Greenman, a Red-Tail Hawk, who had a hood on its head. (He’s named after a local micro-brew.) Greenman was a newly acquired Raptor and just getting used to working with people. Jeff explained how the hawks are trained and later released if captured as a wild bird. Those raised in captivity can be trained and kept for life. Falconry requires a major time commitment including finding a sponsor and apprenticing with a Master. Keepers must also pass inspections.
Jeff allowed Sarah and I the chance to don a gauntlet and hold the Hawks on our arm. They are magnificent creatures and an encounter like this makes you appreciate the species all the more. Make an appointment to meet Jeff and his hawks or hire him for a hawk walk. He also gives hands-on demonstrations for groups, sometimes at the Biltmore.
Don’t leave Sourwood before chatting with Susan Curtis, if you missed her at check-in. She is one of he loveliest Southern ladies ever. Asheville and Sourwood are the kind of place you long to revisit. In fact, Susan said 80% of their business comes from returning guests. Those numbers reinforce my opinion; the Sourwood Inn is a sweet place to stay.