California Hot Springs for Any Body
New York Times | Gregory Dicum | 11/09/07
Article Link - NY Times
Jeanric held my gaze in his, smiling softly. “Close your eyes,” he whispered in a gentle French accent, “and relax.” He took me in his muscular arms, cradling my shoulders from behind as my feet left the bottom of the pool. My naked body swirled through the warm water of a hot spring until I had the distinctly expansive feeling of tumbling across the star-strewn Milky Way.
The promise of ecstatic moments — whether from body treatments or just
the soothing nature of the waters — has drawn visitors to Northern California’s
natural hot springs since people first discovered them thousands of years
ago. The West Coast’s seismic activity provides plenty of opportunities
for water to seep deep underground, where it is heated and mineralized
before re-emerging, transformed and imbued with seemingly magical properties.
In the latter part of the 19th century, as San Francisco blossomed, the
hot springs sprinkled through the Coast Range north of San Francisco Bay
— many of which had long been revered by native inhabitants — became popular
resorts. Some have been forgotten, but others remain, adhering to the classic
formula: a small spa hotel arranged like a campus around the natural spring.
Sampling some of them last spring with my wife, Nina, I found that each
has a distinctive flavor, offering visitors different tastes of California
... Wilbur Hot Springs, a more remote resort established in 1865 at the edge of a bubbling, seething field of springs on the 1,800-acre site of a former silver mine. A gravel road leads through the mountains to the west of the Central Valley up a narrow canyon in Colusa County. Solar panels mushroom on the hill above the big, rough-sawn wooden lodge out of necessity, with eco-chic a happy side effect. There is just one pay phone, and neither cell phone service nor locks on the doors.
In the pools, perched above a stony-bedded stream, we soaked under a shady
roof, gazing across the valley at brawny live oaks studding golden hills.
The sharp smell of sulfur grew alluring as we came to associate it with the velvety feeling of the waters. It mingled with the scent of sun-baked grasses like some airy ptisane. A doe and her twin fawns strolled by as we moved into the cooling waters of the swimming pool.
The vibe at Wilbur is friendly and casual: everyone is clearly there for
deep and probably well-deserved relaxation. Guests prepare their own meals
in a big, well-appointed kitchen the most bustling spot in the otherwise
serene grounds then spread out through the lodge, or sit under a grape
After a light dinner of fresh gnocchi, a green salad and rosé, Nina and
I sat by the fireplace strumming a guitar and chatting with other guests.
Then we went out into the black night, to take the waters one
I lay back in the open-air hot bath, watching the blue glow of the swimming
pool quicken the long gray needles of the pines arching overhead. The afternoon’s
bird song had given way to the hum of frogs and crickets. I tipped my head
back into the ancient water, and far, far beyond the pines, the Milky Way
rioted in the profundity of space, a visible, spangled echo of the water’s
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