Days of Wines and Enzymes

The New York Times

The seaside village Bodega Bay and the neighboring valley hamlet of Bodega are unlikely places for a spa weekend, their chief claim to fame being as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film “The Birds.” But during my stay in early March, I encountered nothing more spine-chilling than the cool hands of a talented massage therapist. The towns themselves, both in Sonoma County about 60 miles north of San Francisco, looked refreshingly untouched by the four decades since the film’s release: clapboard cottages dot the hills and fishing trawlers deliver oysters and Dungeness crabs to a weathered pier as seagulls flap around soothingly. But the Bodega area has quietly imported the wine country’s sophisticated tastes to the coast in recent years. The three very different spas I sampled – two in small luxury hotels, the third a Japanese day spa – all cater, at least partly, to an epicurean clientele of foodies and vineyard-hoppers. And each emphasize sensual, low-impact rejuvenation, where afternoons seemed far better spent lolling at hotel wine hours than working out.

Osmosis Enzyme Bath Lying in a large redwood tub, I was buried up to my neck in a substance resembling soft, springy, steaming hot moss. I felt profoundly relaxed, as if I were floating – so much so that time started playing tricks: what seemed like a few heightened, pulsating moments turned out to be 15 minutes. Afterward, my attendant assured me these were some classic, if rather fantastical, effects of a cedar enzyme bath. Though its name sounds about as alluring as a high school chemistry class experiment, Osmosis Enzyme Bath, a marvelous day spa in Freestone, an inland town neighboring Bodega, has been offering this exotic and exhilarating treatment from Japan since 1985. As I approached the spa on a quiet country road, its two-story clapboard main building looked disconcertingly Western – like a Wild West saloon, in fact. But inside, shoji screens and potted bamboo abound. I’d booked the spa’s signature, two-and-a-half hour treatment ($155, but $170 on weekends): tea, bath and massage. In a private tearoom strewn with black silk floor pillows that opened onto a Japanese garden, Danielle, the attendant, served tea from a cast-iron pot – an herbal peppermint-based blend spiked with crystalline enzymes from Japan, which she said aided digestion and detoxification. The bath, she added, “opens metabolic pathways.” More tangibly, it is a fine, dry mulch of cedar shavings, evergreen fibers, rice bran and some 600 active plant enzymes. Left to their own natural interactions, these ingredients start to heat up and ferment – rather like a compost heap. At its deepest, a bath can reach 140 degrees; near the top – where I opted to remain – temperatures average 20 degrees cooler. We addressed the bathing suit issue; I decided to forgo mine when Danielle mentioned that polyester can singe in the tubs. (The tub room is private, but you can share the baths if you’d like.) After donning a yukata, the Japanese-style robe, in the dressing room, I entered the minimalist bath chamber, which contained two large rectangular tubs filled with the cedar enzyme fluff, smelling intensely – but not unpleasantly – like yeasty bread and hot cedar. I lay in a tub, and Danielle buried me a few inches deep. Thanks to the rhythmic sound track of Japanese chanting and bells, the fermented matter’s dry heat, pleasurably pliant weight and heady fragrance, and – for all I know – the effects of the enzymes, I was soon drifting off. Danielle regularly applied cold cloths to my face and offered water through a straw. At 15 minutes (20 minutes is the limit), I felt cleansed to the bone and climbed out. After a brisk brushing down by Danielle, a long shower and a stop at a water cooler from which I drank voluminously, I proceeded outdoors for the 75-minute massage. Alia, the massage therapist, showed me to a private heated creekside pagoda, where, under an opaque plastic roof fanned by tree shadows, she deftly combined elements of Esalen, Swedish, shiatsu and yoga into a dream of a massage. Of all the treatments I sampled, this one alone had rendered me serene as a Zen monk. The finishing stroke was a stroll through the Japanese meditation garden designed by the owner, Michael Stusser, and Robert Ketchell, president of Britain’s Japanese Garden Society. An acre landscaped with a striking round moon gate, wood pavilion, a pond, ornamental stones, bonsai and tracts of tiny gold pebbles combed with wave patterns, it symbolizes the struggle for enlightenment. At Osmosis, I may not have reached enlightenment, but I certainly discovered bliss.

Our spa is now CLOSED. We will be sending out an announcement to our email list when it is appropriate to reopen again. We look forward to serving you as soon as possible. In the meantime, your support through GIFT CERTIFICATES and/or online RETAIL STORE is greatly appreciated during these unprecedented times.