Texas raises the bar on spa resorts

Story and photos by Patricia Alisau

The mechanical bull was no big surprise. Neither was “On the Road Again” and “Texas Rose” massages named for Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin. After all, this was Austin, which prides itself on its music and being weird.

Eccentric or not, Travaasa is a gorgeous new spa resort and wellness center nestled against 210 acres of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve about 30 minutes from downtown. Put together by a Dell computer magnate as a retreat for de-stressing and recharging, it’s now owned by a subsidiary of Denver-based developer Amstar and the good vibes live on. A little bit of Texas tradition and local culture give it that special Austin flair not to mention the “green” organic practices and sustainable building rules.

Wrapped in unfussy Western décor, 70 guest rooms are spread among seven lodges with simple, Zen-looking architecture actually patterned after farmhouses of German immigrants who rolled into Texas in the 1800s. The rooms come with everything you expect in a luxury hotel such as wide-screen TV, DVD, Gilchrist & Soames bathroom lotions plus a balcony with lovely views of the endless rolling hills. For groups, a convention center accommodates around 200 people and there’s complimentary Wi-Fi everywhere for those who like to stay connected.

For those who don’t, there’s a tiny nook by a stream with a labyrinth for reflection and meditation and daily classes on breath work, hatha yoga, Pilates and journaling.  Those who want to up the adrenaline feel just as comfortable stepping into dance cardio or a challenge course with climbing wall, zipline and walking something that looks like a tight rope strung between two platforms.

A new program with horses might just as well be called “Horse Whisperer 101.” Led by cowboy Keith, it teaches guests how to feel comfortable around the animals. The trainer showed me how to talk to, pet and guide a horse around a riding ring and, before long, my black stallion and I were part of a mutual admiration society. “It’s good for people with a fear of horses,” Keith remarked. “It’s thrilling to see when a horse lets a person into its space.”

Travaasa manager Tim Thuell called this a good example of what the resort is trying to do: encourage new flashes of self-awareness. “Here we want you to get the experience first, dip your foot in the pond and make it your journey.” (Personal journals are handed out to guests on arrival.) “If people are apprehensive about horses, we offer a remedy, if it’s snakes, we’ll do that experience.” The British-born hotel executive, who called the guest programs “evolving,” took over the reins of the resort in April following a career in managing small luxury hotels and Chateau Relais brands.

The Shiatsu massage at the spa was one experience easy to dip into. So was the outdoor Jacuzzi and infinity pool. Soon enough though the gentle stretching and kneading of overworked muscles by the masseuse worked their spell and I was ready for the next round of evening activities. “Texas Rose” and “On The Road Again” are new to the spa but they would have to wait for another visit.

What couldn’t wait was dinner and anticipating a meal touted as a high point of a resort stay. Newly arrived from Hawaii, affable chef Ben Baker uses Italian, French, Latin American and Tex-Mex influences to turn out healthy but outrageously good dishes, dispelling the myth that “healthy” means tasteless.

Travaasa chef Ben Baker.Organic produce from Texas farms, vineyards and the resort's herb and vegetable garden go into the menu, which caters to carnivores and non-carnivores alike. A house favorite for the former is grilled rib eye served with purple potatoes and sautéed Swiss chard while vegetarians are drawn to dishes such as curried chickpea cakes with lentils and salsa. A real treat on the sandwich menu is sourdough bread made from a 160-year-old yeast starter that Baker said originated in San Francisco during the Gold Rush days. The crowning glory of desserts, though, is the bewitching chipotle chocolate cake, which is so rich it’s only served in small portions. Hotel guests can also take advantage of the chef’s cooking classes.

After dinner, I wound up the day with the Texas two-step, a lively western dance class taught by Larry Callahan, director of operations for Travaasa. Sometimes, he gives harmonica lessons or leads a cowboy sing-a-long around a campfire. And as to the mechanical bull, it’s really a clever exercise in core strengthening at the gym, Austin style, of course.

Travaasa is an adults-only resort and most guests opt for the all-inclusive package, which includes all day activities plus a generous spa credit for services. The Austin airport is about a half-hour drive away.

More info: Visit www.travaasa.com  or call (877) 944-3003.

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