Once upon a time, eighteen year-old me traveled to Germany and was blown away by the outdoor spa that had a lazy river, eucalyptus caves, steam caves, waterfalls, and other incredibly relaxing activities. I was told it was a normal spa for European standards but I’d never seen anything like it before or since, until I walked into Refuge in Carmel, California with my friend Eric on the last day of our Carmel weekend.
Note: cell phones are not permitted inside Refuge. I took these photos prior to opening with special permission from Refuge to show all of you what it’s like.
I told the manager Kyle (she’s lovely by the way) about my German spa experience, and she said that that’s pretty much exactly the same experience that her dad had in the 1980s. It took him twenty years, she said, but he finally opened his European-style spa in the forest of Carmel on 11/11/11.
Unlike most American spas, you don’t have to pay for individual spa services. (Though you can book a massage if the mood strikes.) Instead you pay a flat-fee for a day pass to enjoy Refuge’s cycle: Heat Up, Cool Down, and Relax. General admission for the day is $52 and the Deluxe pass is $62, which includes the robe and a bottled water. Compared to massage prices and services at spas around the country, that’s a fantastic deal for a day of relaxing.
First you heat up in either the co-ed Himalayan sauna (the largest co-ed sauna in the US) or either of the two Eucalyptus steam rooms. (My favorite was the steam room by the women’s locker room. It was super steamy.)
Next you take the plunge into freezing water for just 10-60 seconds. There are two Cool Pools and two Cold Pools. The Cool Pools are the temperature of the Pacific Ocean. The Cold Pools are the temperature of Icy Nordic Rivers. At first Eric and I decided we were only going to do the Cool Pools but then I thought about all of you reading this article, wishing I could tell you about plunging into an icy Nordic river right after ten minutes in a sauna so in I went.
I actually preferred the Cold Pool! It was so cold that it felt, well, less cold if that makes any sense at all. Kyle had told us that it’s important to submerge your heart so I immediately dropped so that just my head was above water and it was so freezing that I really didn’t feel it once my heart was below the water line. I only stayed in for ten seconds but I felt like a popsicle when I got out!
Next you can bundle up in your delightfully fluffy robe (which, by the way, I now realize are for sale and I totally missed out by not purchasing one) and curl up by one of Refuge’s fire pits or in one of the three relaxing terraces with Eucalyptus air and zero-gravity chairs. You know I never turn down a fire pit so that was my relaxation of choice, but Eric preferred the terraces overt chilly air. (I’m Texan. Give me all the chilly air!)
You should repeat the cycle 3-5 times for the ultimate relaxation experience.
Refuge also has three warm pools and three hot pools with jets for your relaxation and enjoyment. The whole facility is a silent one (no talking, no cell phones) and I was surprised to see that many guests brought books and made themselves comfortable for the coziest Sunday Funday I can think of. There’s a cafe on site (sadly we didn’t have time to try it) so you can settle in for the day.
I kept marveling days later at how incredibly soft my skin felt after the hot-and-cold treatment. “Soft skin” isn’t listed as one of the many benefits of the cycle (such as improved circulation, soothed aches and pains, increased metabolism) but that was my experience. My muscles felt amazing, I breathed better, and I felt fantastic to fly home.
My only request now is that Refuge open a location in Dallas so that I can go every weekend. If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path activity in Carmel, I highly recommend a spa day at Refuge. Now, would you be brave enough for a Cold Pool dip? Comment and tell me!
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Disclaimer: This article is intended to be a general resource. Any recommendations are based on personal opinion. A portion of this trip may have been compensated but opinions are my own, always. I’m not a fan of negativity so if I don’t like something, I don’t write about it. I’m here to tell you about the best of the best!