Taking the Waters:
When you hear the word “spa,” what comes to mind? Perhaps an upscale urban salon, where you can select from a menu of “spa treatments” and spend a day being pampered? A bubbling hot tub outside on a cedar deck … or even a romantic two-person Jacuzzi tub, with rose petals floating on the water?
In days past, “spa” referred specifically to mineral springs, often with acclaimed healing powers. Such natural spas in the Northwest were discovered and used by native peoples for hundreds of years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, white settlers flocked to these healing waters, seeking cures for their ailments while enjoying the natural environment and nearby recreational amenities.
Today, natural spas are still appealing destinations for a relaxing getaway. The three described here offer year-round accommodations and are within a three- to four-hour drive from Seattle. All are well located for outdoor recreation and interesting side trips, too.
Soap Lake, a mineral-rich lake in the center of Washington, is the subject of ongoing scientific study because of its unique characteristics. Its name may come from the white foam that lines the shores during high winds, or perhaps from the lotion-like consistency of the water. Native people who first came to drink and bathe in the waters centuries ago called it “Smokiam,” which means “healing waters.”
In the early 1900s, sanitariums (health resorts) were built here, utilizing the lake’s water and mud to heal all manner of ailments. By the mid-1920s, tourist guides touted it as “the world’s greatest medical marvel, the world’s greatest healing spot, and the world’s greatest mineral sea,” according to the SoapLakeWa.com Web site. Thousands came each year to “take the cure.” The waters were especially successful at treating Buerger’s disease, a painful affliction that struck many World War I veterans. The federal government even opened a veteran’s hospital in Soap Lake in the late 1930s. But with the advent of penicillin and other drugs, fervor for the natural cure began to subside.
Today it’s hard to imagine such crowds of vacationers in the quiet town of Soap Lake. Yet efforts are underway to restore the town to its former glory as a desert health resort. A feasibility study was completed last year for a project to create a lakeside spa and wellness resort, and the city is now seeking public and private funding for this plan. In recent years, Soap Lake has also been “discovered” by many of Washington’s Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, who testify to the lake’s therapeutic effects.
Two lakefront lodgings, Notaras Lodge and Inn at Soap Lake, offer easy access to the lake’s special waters and mud. Notaras Lodge offers 15 rooms in four rustic log buildings. Each room has a unique theme and name, and some are dedicated to real people, such as “Mrs. No,” in honor of the owner’s mother. All have touches of local history, including photos and mementos displayed under layers of epoxy on wood slab tables and vanities. The rooms each have a kitchenette and a choice of fresh or Soap Lake mineral water in the bathtub. Additional amenities in some of the rooms include whirlpools, lake views, and sleeping accommodations for groups up to six.
Just west of the Notaras Lodge, the Inn at Soap Lake is notable for its river rock exterior. Built in 1905, it was renovated in 1998. The main inn has 20 guest rooms and four whirlpool suites; there are also five family-friendly cottages that sleep six. All rooms have kitchens or kitchenettes; some have fireplaces, too. Bathtubs here also offer a choice of Soap Lake mineral water or fresh water. Décor is “European country” – lots of antiques, cherrywood furniture and floral linens. A pretty garden courtyard and picnic area overlook the lake, and there’s a private beach as well.
Though neither lodging facility has a day spa, there’s a small one in Soap Lake called Healing Waters Spa. The most popular restaurant in town is Don’s, across the street from the Notaras Lodge and under the same ownership. More restaurants are in Ephrata, six miles south of Soap Lake, including Time-Out Pizza, with great pizza and a fun sports-themed eating area, but no deliveries to the lakeside lodgings.
Rates at both Soap Lake accommodations are surprisingly inexpensive (at least for now, until the area fulfills its vision as a desert resort), starting at just $59 a night. Combine your bargain stay with a splurge on dinner by driving about an hour to what has been called Grant County’s best restaurant: Tendrils at the new Cave B Inn, near the Gorge Amphitheatre. This restaurant’s award-winning executive chef, Fernando Divina, highlights foods that are “local, natural, organic, humanely raised, or from ecologically-sound sources.” Inventive pairings of regional cuisine and wines feature wine from the on-site Cave B Estate Winery and other local wineries. Arrive before 5 p.m. to take a tour of the winery, too.
Harrison Hot Springs
In Harrison, British Columbia, at the south end of Harrison Lake, Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa has been welcoming guests to its hot springs-fed pools since 1926. (Even earlier if you count its prior incarnation as the St. Alice Hotel and Bath House which opened in 1886 but was destroyed by fire in 1920.) Long before miners “discovered” the hot springs during the gold rush of 1858, native Coast Salish peoples traveled by canoe to experience the healing benefits of the water.
Today the resort has over 300 rooms and cottages. Those in the recently-renovated east and west towers are the nicest, while the classic rooms of the main hotel and west wing offer the best rates. Rooms facing the outdoor pools are especially convenient for families. Those facing north offer stunning views of Harrison Lake and the Coast Mountains.
The water comes from two hot springs on the resort property near the lake; a nature trail leads to the water source if you’re curious for a closer look. The water (140-150°F at the source) is cooled, filtered and chlorinated before it enters the resort’s three outdoor and two indoor pools. The main outdoor pool has two sections – one for families, and a warmer “sitting pool” that is supposed to be for adults only (some visitors complain that not all parents enforce that rule, however).
The resort has three eating establishments: the historic Copper Room, the more casual Lakeside Café, and Miss Margaret’s for coffee and snacks in the lobby. In 2001, the resort’s aptly-named Healing Springs Spa opened. Local mineral waters are used in all treatments, which include a range of facials, body treatments and massage therapy. To fully immerse yourself in the spa experience, try one of the half-day packages.
Packages are also available for resort stays, including ones that include meals, spa treatments, and recreational activities. A “Mothers, Daughters & Friends” package includes midweek accommodations, meals, and spa treatments.
The resort’s outdoor grounds are attractively landscaped, with a Japanese garden and pool, vibrant rhododendrons, and herb gardens throughout the grounds for use by the restaurant chef. Across the street from the hotel, the resort operates the Adventure Park Marina on Harrison Lake. Boat cruises and boat rentals are available seasonally.
Harrison Lake also features a big swimming beach a short walk from the resort, for those who prefer their water on the very cool side or want to play in the sand. In September, the annual World Championship Sand Sculpture Competition takes place on the beach. The town has an assortment of restaurants and shops, several other lodging establishments, and an indoor public hot springs pool for those not staying at the resort.
A new boutique hotel, Harrison Beach Hotel, opened last year with roomy suites equipped with kitchens for longer stays. The hotel’s rooms have views of the lake and mountains. While there is no mineral water available here (Harrison Hot Springs Resort owns the rights to the town’s hot springs water), there’s an indoor pool, and the public hot springs pool is just a few minutes away.
Bonneville Hot Springs Resort & Spa
About 45 minutes west of the Vancouver/Portland area, Bonneville Hot Springs Resort & Spa, which opened in 2002, is the newest Northwest resort that features both a day spa and natural hot springs. The water comes from Moffett Hot Springs, which was discovered by a miner in the 1800s. Over a century later, a man who used the local hot springs water to cure his arthritis was so inspired that he bought land here to create Bonneville Hot Springs Resort.
The resort’s 74 rooms and four suites, located on three stories, are modern, standard-size hotel-style accommodations, each with a balcony. The mini-fridge in every room is a handy feature in case you get a craving for a midnight snack.
The upper floors each have a spacious lobby with tables, chairs, and books to peruse. The open sitting area looks down on the main floor lobby with its three-story stone fireplace. Free wireless Internet access is available in these lobbies.
To experience the mineral waters in the privacy of your own room, reserve one of the 16 rooms equipped with its own outdoor hot tub on the balcony. The tubs are filled with the natural hot springs water for each new guest.
Besides soaking in your own hot tub, you can “take the waters” at Bonneville Hot Springs indoors in the two soaking pools and lap pool, or in the outdoor soaking pool that’s surrounded by a serene garden courtyard. The spacious Day Spa uses the natural waters in all treatments, and offers some specific mineral water treatments, including mineral baths and wraps. The spa menu is quite comprehensive, with more than 40 different treatments to try, including several “samplers”; half-day packages to “detoxify,” “relax,” and “refine”; and “bride-to-be” and “couple’s retreat” packages.
If you come to Bonneville Hot Springs Resort with the intention to simply rest and relax, you may not want to leave the premises. The great room-style lobby, with its massive stone fireplace and comfy sitting spots, provides the perfect setting for quiet conversation and reading. The Pacific Crest restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and offers room service.
The more energetic will find much to do within an hour’s drive, including ethnic restaurants, shopping, and culture in Portland, and abundant outdoor recreation activities in the Columbia Gorge area. The resort offers packages that combine outdoor activities with your lodging, such as the whitewater adventure package, and several packages for enhancing your stay right at the resort – including the special occasion package, bed & breakfast, spa getaway, and romance packages.
Though none of these resorts make specific claims that their mineral waters will heal physical ailments, one account of a therapeutic visit to Soap Lake may be interesting to read for those who would like to learn more. Sheri Decker, who was the deputy CEO of the National Psoriasis Foundation when she visited Soap Lake in 2002, shares her personal experience with climatotherapy in an Internet article (see sidebar for link). A printed guide to the minerals in Bonneville Hot Springs water explains the potential therapeutic benefits of each, including relief of joint and muscle pain, osteoporosis, and skin conditions. They include a disclaimer, too: “We make no medical claims.”
Regardless of specific scientific proof of the water’s therapeutic value, these natural spa destinations all offer the opportunity for restful, rejuvenating, de-stressing getaways – and that may be the best healing effect of all.
©2006 Caliope Publishing Company
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