Our 36-hour marathon of self-indulgence
Romance blooms inside the Will Stream Spa at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
I am lying naked under countless layers of heated towels and sheets, my body is slathered with some kind of protoplasmic, bio-nourishing balm that feels, I begin to think I remember, like the embryonic broth I swam in before my mother ejected me from her womb.
I have lost all awareness of time and place, my mind has wandered down hallways into places I haven’t visited in years, into rooms I didn’t know existed. Fingers like the warm tongues of rabbits are tenderly kneading the skin around my eyes and ears. My breathing is so slow I wonder if I haven’t just quietly slipped out of my body.
When Monika tells me it’s time to roll over, I can’t. At first I can’t even tell her I can’t. Because I’m not home. I’m down the hallway. I’ve left the building. I’m not even sure it’s Monica. Desirée? No, Desirée was yesterday. In Kenwood. Or was it? I have become detached from temporal reality. I’m not even sure I remember who I am.
What is your name? I ask myself. The answer comes drifting up from somewhere. Then my wife coughs from the adjoining table and I feel the tug of vital energy, the silver cord with which I am apparently still tethered, pull me back.
Under all those wraps I am nakeder than naked, the tensions that define the contours of my body and my soul are gone. I am benignly defenseless and exposed. I have been peeled and prodded and manipulated and molded until every muscle and every bone and every joint has been pulled, bent, rubbed, smoothed, massaged into limp submission and laid into what blissfully feels like eternal rest. The Willow Stream Spa at Sonoma Mission Inn calls this the Sonoma Organic Lavender Kur. It is 90 minutes long. I call it a beautiful way to die.
Somehow I roll over.
Let’s be clear about this. What you’re reading is a true-life, 36-hour marathon of self-indulgence during which two of us will explore—because someone has to—a romantic fantasy involving every sybaritic, luxurious, soul-satisfying, sensory-fulfilling and, OK, very expensive, form of legal pleasure we can find.
The laboratories for this research are two of the top-rated Edens in the world of luxury hotel spas—Kenwood Inn and Spa and the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. They are dramatically different and deliciously the same. One is a villa, the other a village. One is small and intimate, the other large and expansive. Both are layered with awards from the travel trade, and both share the singular distinction that marks the very best luxury hotels in the world—unparalleled service. You want something, it is there, or on its way. You want to be alone, you’re alone. And yet there seem to be invisible people hovering within psychic range, intuiting your needs.
The attendant in the men’s locker room at the Fairmont is not to be found until you need him and then, like Harry Potter apparating into Diagon Alley, poof, he’s in front of you with a hand towel.
Enter the peaceful waiting room at the Kenwood Inn’s spa and, before you can voice the request, a glass of chilled prosecco is in your hand and a platter of chocolate truffles is laid before you. Leave your room for 10 minutes and somehow, silent, unseen staff slip in and restore any signs of disorder.
Fortunately, the rules for this romantic reconnoiter are self-limiting. We don’t need to get engaged, we did that. No need to marry us, we’re married. We just want some pampered pleasure so one of us can report on what it’s like to be submersed in wall-to-wall romance while being treated something like royalty.
We share, it should be noted, just a tiny bit of ambivalence about the extravagance upon which we have embarked. It seems unlikely we’ll encounter any of the 99 percent strolling through these grounds. On the other hand, the Valley of the Moon would be sadly diminished without this oasis of beauty, and it needs no egalitarian justification for being.
So, a day in the embrace of the Kenwood Inn and Spa, anointed numerous times as one of the best small resorts and spas in the country, goes something like this.
It’s a drizzly afternoon in November when we step through the portal into a space-time warp that delivers us to the courtyard of a villa in Tuscany, or maybe Umbria, with Roman arches everywhere. The palette is sand and ochre and earth yellow; ivy and grapevines crawl over the walls, the foliage is almost tropical—green, lush, moist; the sound is a muted symphony of falling water.
There is, in fact, water falling everywhere. From a sluice that drops 10 feet into the saline, heated swimming pool; from the water wheel that spins slowly above the koi pond; from the strategically placed fountains; from the façade of a second heated pool. The sound is soothing, day and night, and helps screen the traffic hum from Highway 12, which passes just a little too close to the inn.
Once in our room we find French tapestries and original oils on the walls, a spacious fireplace in front of a bed swathed in Italian linen big enough for an Octomom sleepover, a box of chocolates, some biscotti and a complimentary bottle of superb pinot noir.
The double-glazed windows have inside shutters that cancel outside sound, and in the bathroom—which is layered with marble—two windows perfectly frame a tableau of golden yellow autumn leaves on the hillside in back. The marble-plated, glass-enclosed shower stall is almost as big as our kitchen, and it sits next to a Jacuzzi tub the size of a small backyard pool.
The rooms are elegant without being opulent, decorated with exquisite taste and at great expense, with an absence of TV sets that seems like a gutsy gamble, but a good one.
With the inn’s exceptional service come amenities you won’t find at home. We can’t turn around without bumping into a bottle of port or sherry or sparkling something. There are snacks everywhere on the grounds and a cozy library room and a nearby concierge to fill the gaps in anyone’s romantic wish list. And where we normally reside—at home—there is not, alas, a detached steam room or a pair of massage therapists waiting to rearrange our bodies.
We wander from our room to the spa in luxuriant, tailored robes that would have seemed appropriate for a stroll in the Plaza. We sip the prosecco, taste the port, pop a chocolate or two and are thus primed for the ministrations that follow.
Desirée has me face-down on the table and asks about my pain threshold. I say go for it, and she does. Fifty minutes later I am back in the waiting room, slightly dazed, with the port bottle and the chocolate, waiting for my wife and marveling at what Desirée has done to my back, navigating the fine line between pleasure and pain while locating every knot in my body. I rank it high on the short list of best massages ever.
We have more than an hour before dinner, so we spend part of it neck-deep in a hot soaking pool under a fine drizzle of cool rain as a bigleaf maple drops dinner-plate-sized leaves around us and mist rises off the surface like steam. Thoroughly soaked, we retire to the fireplace in our room, where we sample the chocolates and the pinot in comfortable armchairs and I guiltily confess that, for once, I am glad a 5-year-old named Kate isn’t with us.
The Kenwood Inn’s restaurant serves only guests so, with just 29 rooms, it doesn’t have to be big and it’s not. When we arrive our table isn’t ready, a fact that elicits impassioned apologies, and we are led instead to the award-winning wine bar and our choice from the exceptional menu. We pass a happy quarter-hour sipping before being led back to our table and a meal that more than meets expectations, with a chanterelle mushroom pizza, an excellent rack of lamb and Michael Muscardini’s sensational Monte Rosso sangiovese.
After dinner we talk about returning to one of the hot pools—they’re open all night—but torpor sets in and other priorities prevail. I haven’t inquired about the thread count in the Italian linens on the bed, but it is higher than Pablo Sandoval’s career batting average and those sheets provide a perfect place to end the night.
In the morning, we return to the restaurant for a delightful hot and cold breakfast with a little bit of everything anyone could reasonably want.
Alas, our schedule for further research requires an early departure and, although we’d love to lounge in warm water for another hour, or explore the detoxifying wine wrap and an intraceutical oxygen infusion in the spa, our bags are in the car before 11. We have appointments to keep at SMI and a five-year-old to relocate.
Shift gears, change the soundtrack and move precisely 7.3 miles down Highway 12 to the Fairmont, that incongruously sited haven of indescribable indulgence, and I am under the gifted hands of a massage therapist named David who is vigorously administering what the Willow Stream Spa calls the “Executive Meltdown.” Its intended purpose is to release stress and recharge your energy fields, which it does with a back defoliation, warm stones and hot herbal towels, penetrating heat, and an escalating massage regime of scalp, hands, feet, back, neck and shoulders. David’s massage makes it onto my short list.
The SMI spa is a virtual campus (there are 30 treatment rooms, and more than 60 individual treatments offered), with two outdoor and two indoor pools, a gymnasium and yoga studio, secluded outdoor alcoves, rows of lounge chairs, voluptuous landscaping and an aura of transforming serenity that triggers an automatic impulse to speak in whispers.
In the cloverleaf watsu pool you can have a floating massage (with soft, subsurface music) that resembles a water ballet.
The pools are all filled with naturally heated geothermal water from hot springs 1,100 feet under the hotel, and they’re available under a “good neighbor” program to anyone living in a 100-mile radius for $25 on weekdays and some Sundays.
If you’re staying in one of the Fairmont’s 226, lavishly appointed rooms for a romantic weekend, your first stop once you’re settled should be the front desk and super concierge Judy Mendel. Judy is the woman who says yes to almost any request (“It has to be legal.”) and can connect guests with almost anything they want, including sky diving, hot-air balloons, glider flights, roller skating, at least one nudist colony, a trapeze experience and, of course, any kind of wine at any kind of winery.
She can also buy your daughter a Christmas present—one guest handed her his black AmEx card and told Judy to buy a Mini Cooper (“And make sure they put a bow on it”). Another man wanted to propose somewhere romantic, so Judy arranged a bike ride, a rose-petal path, linen and crystal for a Bartholomew Park Winery picnic table, crab from Fisherman’s Wharf, champagne and the engagement ring in a Tiffany’s box filled with gummy bears. It all came together seamlessly.
Meanwhile, inside the 40,000-square-foot spa there are separate sauna and steam rooms, the latter offering a billowing cloud of eucalyptus scent where my wife and I sit, hoping the moist air will open her constricted bronchial tubes. My back has already been transformed by Desirée and then David. And we are about to be escorted to a giant, copper tub filled with lavender bubble bath and seaweed extracts, were we will melt until it’s time for Monica and Lani to administer the botanical body wrap.
Perhaps you’ve read enough? There’s more.
Were there the time and money, we could also indulge ourselves with a relationship reading, a lift and tone facial, an eye and lip rescue, a gentleman’s power manicure, a deluxe stone pedicure, a guided meditation, an intuitive reading or a body-energy alignment. We could, in fact, spend at least two hours a day for a month without exhausting all the possibilities.
But there isn’t time for that, because we have to eat.
There are a number of good reasons the Fairmont’s Sante restaurant has a Michelin star. I would argue it should have two.
Executive Chef Bruno Tyson, and Chef de Cuisine Andrew Cain have constructed the essential elements for gastronomical perfection, importantly including some of the finest service I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. Attentive but not pushy, friendly, confident and relaxed, but not obnoxious.
The tasting menu, which changes with the seasons, is an eight-course wonder, with brilliantly paired wines.
Highlights of this masterful degustation included a sweet potato and ricotta gnocchi on Brussels sprout petals with a black truffle beurre monté, paired with a 2009 Kistler Sonoma Coast Chardonnay; a butter-poached Maine lobster on a cassoulet of black-eyed peas with a 2007 Alysian Russian River pinot, and a Kobe-style beef rib eye with roasted beech mushrooms, sunchoke purée and a foie gras sauce, paired with a 2007 Stone Edge Farm cabernet.
Words, of course, don’t work to describe such things, but there wasn’t a weak link in the entire performance and there was everything to praise. Chef Cain came out to inquire about our experience and I told him one Michelin star was not enough. I meant it.
Looking across that table at each other, if either one of us had ever felt thoroughly sated, this, we agreed, was it.
“You know,” the mother of my five-year-old said, paraphrasing our daughter as she pushed her plate away, “I could live my life like this.”