Great Escapes: Austin

Relax at a Hill Country spa, where you leave life to come back to it.

By Catherine Matusow May 31, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Kayaking on the Colorado River

“I am willing to let go.” —affirmation left on my pillow at the spa

One morning not long ago, I was driving while running a to-do list through my head, convinced I was forgetting something. Reaching an intersection, I stretched my clenched neck, the place where I seem to store stress, then turned—directly in front of an enormous white truck. 

The driver, apparently believing my mistake to be a teachable moment, stepped on the gas, speeding toward me instead of hitting his brakes. Somehow I managed to elude him, but the experience was shattering anyway. I pulled over, hyperventilating, thanking God for the near-miss, shouting unprintable things over my shoulder, and—suddenly—reflecting on my life. 

Was my to-do list any longer than the next woman’s? Unlikely. Did I almost kill myself? Very likely. Was there any explanation for what had just happened? No.

Oh wait. Yes, there was. Gingerly pulling back onto the road, I had a moment of clarity: I needed a break. It was time to get away.

Which is how I came to spend a long weekend at Lake Austin Spa Resort in the Hill Country, and why, as I left work early on a Thursday afternoon and jumped into the car—glad to let my husband do the driving—I felt like I needed the mini-vacation, never mind wanted it. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d held onto my anticipation like a kind of talisman, plotting which spa treatments to book and staring at the resort map until I could make it to the hot tub blindfolded. 

Escaping, however, isn’t as easy as jumping in a car, not these days. As we drove west on Highway 71, I found myself obsessively checking my phone, so much so that my husband gave up on conversation and turned on the radio. He didn’t say another word until we neared the spa, a half-hour northwest of Austin, and he spied some nearby donut shops and bars, places where we might “escape from our escape,” he joked. Maybe I laughed, I don’t remember.

His comment was provoked by my advance research on Lake Austin Spa, which revealed that the place is devoted to helping its patrons escape not just their workaday lives, but also their subpar mental and eating habits. Translation: there would be lots of yoga, menu items would have small calorie counts and a two-glass limit would be imposed on wine. What the hell kind of escape is that? I remember mumbling to myself, before going back to memorizing the resort map.

From the moment we got there, though, I knew what kind of escape was in the offing, a helluva escape. Lake Austin Spa is located along the Colorado River, across from a pristine, forested bluff, and everything is built to draw your eyes to the still, green water. The original guest rooms were built in the ’40s—more arrived in the ensuing decades—and the place has a minimalist, Zen vibe, with a sense of calm permeating the grounds. I saw a sprawling vegetable garden, hammocks hung riverside, and kayaks. The spa itself, which welcomes day and overnight guests, is a short, beautifully landscaped walk up a neighboring hill.

The gorgeous grounds

Inside, there’s more of a farmhouse feel. Everything is well-appointed yet cozy, almost quaint, with comfortable corners for relaxing with a book or having a meal. Everywhere you look are interesting lamps, pillows, books and antiques, many of them selected by Mike McAdams, who, together with his best friend William Rucks, took over the resort in 1997. 

For some reason, that universal spa soundtrack—you know the one, with babbling brooks, crying gulls and soothing ambient tones—plays in the dining room, and if that’s an odd choice, no matter: it’s easily tuned out, something we discovered as we settled into a table overlooking the river that first day, starving, it must be said, after the drive. 

Adhering to the resort’s cell phone silence rule, I’d left mine behind in our garden room, and soon I felt a wave of relaxation wash over me, albeit one aided by a nice glass of Chardonnay (we never did test the two-glass-max policy, but I feel certain it’s not enforced). Multiple courses are the order of the day here, and I selected the lobster ravioli starter, the beet salad and the scallops. While the rumors about portion size were true—a plate of ravioli meant a single 94-calorie ravioli—each of my three courses was tastier than the last, and I never once felt deprived. They even had chocolate cake for dessert, which I felt justified in ordering. 

After that, it was time to make our way to the spa for our Texas Starry Night treatments—lavender-chamomile oil massages and body wraps topped off with herbal eye pillows and heat packs, in separate rooms at the spa. “I’ve never had a night massage before,” I commented to my masseuse, instantly regretting my choice of phrasing, but not my choice of treatment, which was the very definition of repose. That night, my husband and I both slept more soundly than any night in recent memory. 

Greens come from the resort's own garden.

The next morning, I woke up ready to evangelize. Everyone should take a break like this, I thought. And everyone is, apparently. According to one report, the global spa industry grew 58 percent between 2007 and 2013, when it was valued at $3.4 trillion. Meanwhile, worldwide wellness tourism, for which a trip to Lake Austin Spa definitely qualifies, increased by 12.5 percent from 2012 to 2013 alone. 

Like visitors to Lake Austin Spa—with its teeny-tiny, but tasty and surprisingly satisfying portions—many tourists are escaping to spas to both relax and get their weights in check, leaving with a lighter figurative and literal load. 

I learned too that the spa has a colorful history: it was a fishing camp starting in the 1940s, a nudist camp in the early ’70s, a cattle ranch and bull-riding school in the mid-’70s and something called The Bermuda Inn Reducing Resort starting in 1978, offering severely calorie-restricted meals along with the motto “Bermuda Inn…where you can lose up to a pound a day, the fun way.” When McAdams and Rucks bought the place, the emphasis was already on exercise and healthy eating instead of starvation, and it was called Austin Spa Resort. They only altered the name a bit—Lake Austin Resort and Spa—but altered the rest plenty, expanding the property, upping the luxury factor and, in 2004, adding the 25,000-square-foot LakeHouse Spa and pool barn. The original spa became the resort’s administrative offices and flower-arranging area. 


Guests attend a cooking demonstration.

Over my three-night visit to the resort, my body was scrubbed, brushed, oiled, polished, kneaded and rubbed with stones and jets of water. My nose and ears were massaged, as were my feet and head, and my face was exfoliated and hydrated. I gave myself over to each expert I came across, emerging more refreshed with every new treatment. 

There were a couple of unfortunate moments of anxiety, however, one of which occurred while I was wearing something called a spa thong and wrapped entirely in seaweed and plastic. I realized that I needed the restroom, and badly, but the bathroom was down the hall. The masseuse made me hold it, and I understood—there was really no other option. 

The other moment took place when I committed the criminal act of surreptitiously checking my phone in the locker room at the spa, only to discover an urgent e-mail that once seen couldn’t be unseen. I tiptoed out into the garden, where, suffused with shame and quietly cursing myself, I hovered over my phone in my white robe.

Spa treatment, gourmet meal (always with some revelation along the lines of, surely that tiny serving does not comprise 195 calories’ worth of guacamole), steam room, hot tub—this was our circuit, one that I would be happy to travel in perpetuity, in a kind of trance, lavender trailing behind me. 

I actually blame that trancelike state for making me miss a yoga class on day two—at least I didn’t pull in front of a truck!—although I somehow didn’t forget the cooking demonstration the next day, or, for that matter, the water aerobics class. I didn’t feel too bad about the yoga, though. I didn’t want to be like some of the other Lake Austin guests, the ones my manicurist gossiped about, people who spend so much time racing from class to activity to lecture, they forget they’ve come to the resort to escape their overly scheduled lives. 

As for those other guests, well, first let me state that one of the unintended consequences of the spa’s preternatural serenity is the ability to eavesdrop with abandon. By far the best conversation I overheard was one engaged in by a group of older women, Austin political insiders—lobbyists, perhaps—who gossiped and cackled together, drank wine at lunch and had the distinction of being the only guests I saw hit the women’s hot tub totally nude. 

Also fun to listen in on was a group of half a dozen wealthy Houston 40-somethings whose mealtime conversation flitted among who’s had work done, who’s in an open marriage, and who’s on what diet. “She’s a doctor, so her husband only needs to make like $150,000 per year,” one said to another at lunch, amusing my husband and me to no end.

There were plenty of couples too, including one older, silent pair who had no chemistry whatsoever, and, worse, never ordered dessert. I couldn’t help watching them with fascination, and listening as interminable silences would finally give way to thoughts on the Bible, world events or the history of Spanish ham. They weren’t relaxed around each other, never would be, and had probably been married 30 years. Anxiety, it seemed to me, came off them in waves, and it was not the kind that a long weekend at a gorgeous spa could fix. Oddly, their presence made my own anxiety—which, I should note, had all but disappeared by trip’s end—seem all the more distant, innocuous, minor. 

Maybe, I thought to myself, they were a plant. 

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