My Virgin Spa Experience

Before this past weekend at the Mandarin Oriental, I had always thought of spas as silly things – unnecessary luxuries masquerading as helpful holistic health aids – and I’ve avoided them like the plague. It all seemed like so much namby-pamby frivolity that served no discernible purpose other than pampered relaxation. As high-maintenance and self-gratifying as everyone thinks I am, I’m really not – and the whole spa thing seemed like a long-ass drawn-out shower that went on for hours beyond what was necessary – a supreme time-waster for someone who showers in fifteen minutes flat, including dry-off and squeegee down. For those same reasons, I never understood the appeal of a long hot bath – I can’t think of a bigger waste of time and hot water. Now that I’m a bit older, however, pampered relaxation is a goal in and of itself, and a worthy and admirable one at that.

When presented with an opulent hotel like the Mandarin, and a much-heralded spa experience, I figured I might as well try it at least once. Having made a cursory tour of the facilities the day before, and finding them relatively quiet and uncrowded (in fact, no one would disturb me at all with the polite exception of a staffer or two) I felt comfortable returning to the pool and spa space the next day.

I began, quite simply enough, with the grand pool as seen below. At first I just wanted to sit in one of those circular lounges and read the day away, but I decided to do a few laps in the pool since no one else was there. As you can see, I had it entirely to myself, and there’s something special about having all that expanse alone. The scope and size can’t be accurately rendered from this photo, but it’s enough to say that the pool was immense, and one lap here was equal to about five laps in our backyard pool – a drop in this ocean.

After doing a couple of lazy laps and floating peacefully in the quiet calm, I toweled off and wandered to the private area that housed the gentlemen’s sauna, steam-room, and plunge bath. I was familiar with the Finnish method of sitting in a sauna for a few minutes, then plunging into the cold water of a lake, and repeating for a half-hour or so. (I actually did it once in Finland, before the heat gave me a bloody nose and ended the escapade early.) Since I haven’t had a bloody nose in years, I decided to try it again.

The wooden sauna was, naturally, hot, but it felt good sitting there and sweating out any vodka from the night before. After a few minutes, I went out and plunged myself into the cool water of the circulating tub, a startling contrast, and incredibly refreshing. I floated there for a bit, letting my body adjust, and tried the steam-room next.

A large amethyst geode stood in a recessed space above a tiled bench, barely visible through the heavy steam. I sat down on my towel, and suddenly the wet bathing suit I was wearing felt foolish. Yes, traditionally one only wears a towel when in the steam-room or sauna, but I’m much more modest in public. (No matter how much nudity I show on this website, being publicly naked is a totally different animal to which I’m not quite accustomed or comfortable. You deal with the dichotomy – I’ve reconciled myself to it.) But at the sauna, being naked felt more natural, so I doffed the trunks and undid the towel. It felt liberating and free and not a big deal at all, though I’m sure that was partly because no one else was there.

I did don my suit again when dipping into the plunge pool, but stayed in just a towel for the remainder of the sauna experience. Followed by a shower and all those lovely bath gels and shampoo and conditioning creams, surrounded by peacefully soft lighting and gently soothing ambient music, this spa experience was a turning point. I understood what all the fuss was about – the art of ritual, the act of breathing, the appreciation of the elements – and the resulting peace and transformation. To take oneself out of the mundane present of the hustle and bustle of life 

and into a more pure presence of ease and tranquility – this was the beauty of the spa, and I will never again consider it a waste of time. In fact, I’d do my best to recreate the feeling of peace and calm in our own bathroom (not unlike its own spa, thanks to all the gorgeous marble and fluffy towels).

If there is one gift that I will take back from this weekend in Washington and our time at the Mandarin Oriental, it’s the gift of time and relaxation. By padding our wedding attendance with a few days to allow for sightseeing and visits, and the luxury of not being rushed, there was an enjoyment often missing from those vacations when we try to pack too much into too little time. My moments at the spa, in quiet contemplative solitude, and physical rest and ease, will prove invaluable – I’m certain of it. And though I’ll never be able to fully recapture the extravagant sauna and steam room experience of the Mandarin, I’ll bring back a little bit of the peace to my morning and nightly showers from this point onward.

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