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Southern comforts in Texas Hill Country

It’s not unusual for the streets of Austin to be alive with music. Even its airport is a showcase for talent. But a few miles out of town at Lake Austin Spa Resort, I encountered a song that stood apart from the rest. /
/ Source: Spa Magazine

It’s not unusual for the streets of Austin to be alive with music. Even its airport is a showcase for talent. But a few miles out of town at Lake Austin Spa Resort, I encountered a song that stood apart from the rest. It was in the spring, when the region’s hills are swathed in blue wildflowers, when Texas-sized thunderstorms arrive at the spur of the moment to drench the landscape and then disappear just as quickly.

As I was making an evening trek to the spa’s pool barn after one of these downpours, a rhythmic sound surged up from the ground, growing louder as I neared the gate of the spa complex and even louder when I set off on a shortcut through the water feature. Looking down in the dim light, I caught sight of the source. There were scads of frogs, perfectly camouflaged on the rocks and all perfectly still — except for their cheeks, which were bellowing in song.

The element of surprise is exactly what gives Lake Austin its charm and spirit. One could easily take the spa at face value as a lovely resort comfortably appointed in perfect taste or choose instead to come away with a life lesson or two. Though I spent little more than two days here, the seeds of transformation that are true to a destination spa visit were gently sewn. Nothing is forced or pushed. Scheduling one’s time is an option, not a requirement. Guests set their own agendas and are encouraged, however tacitly, to be sure to find time between exercise classes and spa treatments to laze in a hammock down by the water or to check out from it all with a nap in the cool comfort of their airy guest cottages.

On my Sunday afternoon arrival, the air was buzzing with motor-boats trolling water-skiers along Lake Austin, which, it seems, isn’t really a lake at all, but rather a 20-mile stretch of the Colorado River reconfigured by dams. But early in the morning, the water lies still and quiet — ideal for sculling. I set out for my introduction to this meditative sport at 8 a.m., fortified by some of the tea and fruit that are plentiful in the main dining room. For one hour, instructor Cindy Present patiently taught me the push and pull motions of this rowing technique, connecting my own energy to that of the water. Breezes that come up later in the day limit sculling to a morning pursuit, but (conditions permitting) kayaks and Hydro-bikes are for loan on the dock whenever a white flag flutters above.

Surrendering, with or without a white flag, is both de rigueur and contagious, and the safe haven Lake Austin provides makes it easy to try something new. I confess that one of my guilty pleasures is eavesdropping, and mealtimes in the dining room were treasure troves of upturned assumptions. Young women visiting with their mothers talked about wanting to try a Nia dance class or the Anti-Aging Facial while the occasional “big-haired” gal would declare she was heading off to chakra meditation or hoping to fit in a moxibustion session. And why not? If you’re certain you made a fool of yourself during a Bollywood aerobics class, chances are you’ll be laughing about it over dinner with someone else who thinks she did the same thing.

At the LakeHouse Spa, added to the resort in 2004, the atmosphere is quiet and calming. Its 25,000-square-foot limestone-clad main building houses 20 indoor treatment rooms; hair and nail salons; several couples suites; men’s and women’s lounges with steam, sauna, whirlpool and private sunning areas; the Aster Café; and the Blue Room — a soaring space filled with well-padded armchairs, ottomans, inviting coffee table books and natural light that is designated for lounging before and after appointments.

It also has a massive screened-in porch where one can schedule a massage behind eight-foot-high cabana-striped curtains. As they billowed elegantly in the afternoon breeze, I padded out in a baggy cotton outfit I had been issued for my Thai massage. I fortunately passed through the spa unseen — except by my therapist, a man roughly equal my height who seemed unable to mesh with my range of flexibility during the session, a common problem for me.

A lot of thought has gone into devising ways to keep guests relaxed, quite visibly so in the newest guest suites with their private gardens and hot tubs under the stars. A fireplace in the sitting room takes the chill off of early spring nights, and tall windows nudge you awake with sunlight. I even had a few cats walking the top of my garden’s fence and sunning themselves in its various petunia patches throughout the day. I’m sure they spent more time there than I did; I had things to explore.

I’ve always considered myself a sturdy swimmer (I’m the one who will jump in almost any body of clear water given the chance), but I wanted to fine-tune my technique. Little did I know how much work I really needed. My swimming instructor, Paul Smith, meant business, and for the entire hour I swam and swam up and down the length of one of the most appealing pools in the world — 75 feet long and set within a glass-walled barn. The massive ceiling seemed miles overhead as I tried out new strokes, attempting to breathe and kick with some level of coordination.

Smith, like many of the fitness staffers at Lake Austin, doubles as a meditation instructor and personal trainer when not in the pool. Katherine Coffee, who led an exceptional stretching class, took me through one-on-one posture analysis and stability ball–based core-strength training. Chef Terry Conlan stepped out of the kitchen to give a cooking demonstration, and Trisha Shirey, the spa’s director of flora and fauna, walked us through rows of organic herbs, vegetables and flowers that were ultimately destined for dinner and decor.

Though all are flawlessly patient, cheerful and professional, Dr. Deborah Kern, the spa’s executive director of lifestyle enrichment, offers that and something else. Known to guests, friends and colleagues as Dr. Deb, her role is to bridge the divide between health and happiness by implementing therapies that nurture both.

One of these is Phoenix Rising, a cathartic combination of body-mind psychology and yoga that bypasses analytical thought in favor of the innate wisdom of the body. “It helps release stress and tension that is held in the body and clears the mind,” Kern says, adding that the technique often reveals steps needed to achieve “your highest good.” While I laid on a soft mat on the floor, she pressed me gently into various yoga-like positions, holding me there as she asked just the right questions to get to the root cause of my spiritual unease. Tears trickled out as did a few giggles, and 80 minutes later I was a lighter, more directed human being.

In my experience, it is offerings like this that distinguish a destination spa visit from those of most day or resort spas. Destination spas present the possibility of transformation, more than just relaxation or pampered grooming. Mind and body are engaged and renewed. Spirit and flesh are challenged. Having arrived at this privileged state, I wanted nothing more on my final night at Lake Austin than to savor its peaceful energy in the magical confines of the pool barn. En route to my swim, I listened to the vibration of the land’s true denizens, the sand-colored amphibians that were filling the night with their call. Stepping into the softly lit pool barn, its windowed walls glistening in the darkness, the sound of nature gave way to soft Indian ragas. And I slipped into a self-prescribed nirvana.

Address Book: Texas
Lake Austin Spa Resort, LakeHouse Spa, Austin, (800) 847-5637,

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