Virginia – Spa of Colonial Williamsburg


The challenge, said spa designer Sylvia Sepielli, 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.


You can get a massage or facial at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg. You can get a manicure or pedicure or sit in the whirlpool. But the spa’s signature treatments, modern interpretations of healing and relaxation practices of the last five centuries, take you into a time machine. Each incorporates therapies drawn from the prevailing attitudes toward health and wellness in a specific era. In sum, the five experiences highlight wellness traditions not only across time but also across the ethnic groups that have left their imprint on Williamsburg.


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.


Doctors in the 18th century began to make connections between cleanliness and health, theorizing that dirt on the skin prevented the body from perspiring freely, considered to be an essential natural process. Herbs and botanicals were thought to be a cure for a variety of ailments, and these were added to cleansing baths. This ritual has been adapted for the modern-day patron in the Colonial Herbal Spa Experience, consisting of a foot bath, followed by an orange-ginger body scrub, herbal body wrap and massage.


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 thought to cure common diseases when ingested, applied topically or used for bathing. 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.


Among the newest services are laser treatments and microdermabrasion. The spa offers state-of-the-art, particle-free dermabrasion along with the application of pure oxygen to the skin as part of its 21st-century Skin Rejuvenation Spa Experience.


The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, housed in space formerly occupied by a folk art museum, opened in April. All proceeds go to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said Kate Mearns, the spa’s director.


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. The walls are hung with artistic photographs of botanicals such as milkweed, lavender and sage.


Clad in robe and sandals, I chose to begin in the 18th century and end in the 21st. My treatment began with a foot bath and ended with a foot massage. The bath was followed by a body scrub. The scrub, made of brown sugar, orange essence, ginger powder and coconut oil, was pleasantly exfoliating and didn’t sting the way some scrubs do because it contained no salt. My therapist, Laura, said 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 lemongrass 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 said 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 OxyOasis 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 microdermabrasion and chemical peels, and there was no redness to my skin when I left.


With any service, patrons can use all the spa’s amenities, including an indoor pool, outdoor pool in season, whirlpool, steam room, showers and locker rooms.


Massage continues to be the most popular treatment, Mearns said. And while most clients are women, men have responded especially well to services that incorporate baths and water rituals. “The century treatments are gaining in popularity,” she said, “and as we continue to be more branded, we expect this trend to continue.”


A long-range goal, Mearns said, is for the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, 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 field is still evolving, said designer Sepielli, noting two areas that are becoming increasingly prominent: spirituality, which she described as “doing things that enrich your soul, mind and heart to maintain your health,” and healthy aging.


“People want to make sure their health keeps up with their lifestyle,” she said. “This is good news for the spa industry. We’re moving from the realm of luxury into wellness.”


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