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Williamsburg, VA — The challenge was to take the essentially modern construct of a spa and integrate it into the fabric of one of the country’s premier historical destinations.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The new outdoor pool at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg nestles into a sloping hillside overlooking a golf course.
The Cleansing Hot Stones Spa Experience draws on the 17th-century Powhatan Indian practice of using sweating to eliminate aches and pains. In the modern interpretation, the body is warmed by hot stones then wrapped in herb-infused, steaming linen to encourage the release of toxins. The experience concludes with a full-body, hot-stone massage using oil containing lavender, cypress, juniper and rosemary.
The Root and Herbal Spa Experience draws on African-American practices that used root powders to heal and strengthen, combined with the 19th-century fascination with spring waters. They thought that when the water was ingested, applied topically or used for bathing, it would cure common diseases. This treatment includes exfoliation with an herbal powder of lavender buds, rose petals and essential oils, followed by a bath, infused with sage, lavender and sea salts, and a massage.
Inspiration for the 20th- century Williamsburg Water Cures Spa Experience came from the development of technologically advanced spa equipment combined with the history of bathing rituals. This treatment consists of a full-body, dry-brush exfoliation, followed by a Vichy shower “rain” massage and a traditional milk bath to seal in the skin’s moisture.
The red brick Georgian-Revival building is bordered by a deep green arbor that shades a brick walkway. The inside decor is a pleasing combination of Colonial and modern. The women’s locker room features candle chandeliers, pewter hooks and hardware, honey-colored wood lockers and frosted glass.
A wet lounge with rough stone walls includes a eucalyptus steam shower, whirlpool and cooling rainfall shower. A bucket of ice water holds rolled up, lavender-scented face cloths.
Clad in robe and sandals, I began in the 18th century and ended in the 21st. My treatment started with a foot bath and ended with a foot massage.
The foot bath was followed by a body scrub. Made of brown sugar, orange essence, ginger powder and coconut oil, the scrub was pleasantly exfoliating and didn’t sting the way some scrubs do because it contained no salt. My therapist, Laura, explained that oranges were prized in Colonial days because they were imported from Europe, and ginger was used in tea and medicines.
After the scrub, Laura wrapped my feet in hot towels, draped my body in towels, then placed hot cloths that had been soaking in an herbal solution atop the towels. She pulled up the sides of the thermal sheet I was lying on and wrapped me like a mummy. While the heat-infused cloths softened my skin, she massaged my scalp.
Laura left the room, and I showered and got back on the table for a massage. The lemon grass and ginger oil left my skin silky.
From the traditional territory of scrubs and massage, I headed to the high-tech world of ultrasonic dermabrasion and applied oxygen. My modern experience also began with a foot bath and lavender scrub, during which my therapist, Tina, explained the process of cleansing, exfoliating and then hydrating the skin.
Using an ultrasonic wand, Tina exfoliated my face, then worked hydrating products into my skin with the same tool. I actually saw some lightening of brown spots caused by sun damage, but Tina explained that it wouldn’t last without regular treatment.
The next step was a hydrating masque, and while it set, Tina massaged my neck, shoulders, arms and hands. Finally she applied pure oxygen and oxygenated products with the Oxy Oasis machine, whose insistent thump had a distinctly hospital overtone. Bursts of pure air alternated with the soft spray of botanical skin products.
The whole process was markedly gentler than traditional micro-dermabrasion and chemical peels, and there was no redness to my skin when I left.
A long-range goal, Mearns said, is for the spa, with its access to the vast records of the foundation, to become “the library for the American spa experience,” an authority on American therapies that spa owners and designers can consult.
The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, 307 S. England St., Williamsburg. Century-inspired treatments, 1 1/2-2 hours, cost $165-$285. 1-800-688-6479,