At Carmel’s Refuge, the ancient ritual of the therapeutic “bath” is alive and well.

BY: Cuyler Gibbons

Images Courtesy of Refuge


As the story goes, when a Roman emperor was questioned by a foreigner as to why he bathed once a day, the emperor replied, “Because I don’t have time to bath twice a day.” While there is some dispute as to the true origins, there is no doubt about the importance of the ritual bath across numerous ancient civilizations, an experience that typically had little to do with scrubbing behind the ears. And with day spas of all types popping up everywhere it seems, new rituals have become exceedingly popular today. Sadly, however, most of us have less time for relaxation now than the emperor of Rome. Which is of course to say, as much of Europe has already discovered, we’d all be well served by an occasional languorous afternoon at the baths.

By 300 B.C., ancient Rome had adopted the practice of the public communal bath from the Greeks, and began developing elaborate bathing rituals, involving a series of consecutive linked activities designed to refresh, relax and reinvigorate the mind and body, along with specially designed edifices dedicated to the pursuit. Never a civilization to appropriate culture without stamping it their own, the Romans emulated the Greek bathhouses, but on a far grander scale. The Roman Baths of Diocletian, for instance, boasted 1.5 million square feet of bathing space, and entertained 3,000 to 6,000 bathers a day.

Fortunately, for those interested in a modern take on this ancient tradition, a somewhat more
intimate alternative awaits at Carmel’s Refuge. As within a Roman bath house, or thermae, many ritual bath traditions from around the world focus on the therapeutic effects of transitioning the body from one temperature extreme to another. The Refuge follows this principle. Billed as the nation’s first co-ed relaxation spa, the manicured two acre grounds encompass the first “purpose built facility featuring the hydro-thermal cycle” in the United States.

The process, as it was explained to me on a recent visit, is simple and straightforward—heat up, cool down, relax, repeat. The profound effect of the actual experience itself however, belied such a prosaic description. The cycle begins by heating up in the eucalyptus steam room, or in the Finnish sauna, an expansive cedar structure said to be the largest sauna in the U.S. Once fully heated—perhaps 15 minutes—a plunge in one of four Nordic waterfall pools awaits. Either cool (Monterey Bay like) or cold (an icy mountain stream), the change in temperature contracts circulation, following the heat induced expansion, and rushes blood to the vital organs. This process not only revs the circulatory system and stimulates digestion, hormone production and the immune system, it also promotes the release of those feel-good brain chemicals known as endorphins.

Step three is a 15 to 20 minute period of relaxation. Stretched out on a zero gravity chair in one of the three indoor meditation rooms, or reclining outside next to a fire pit in a deep-seated Adirondack chair, your body temperature begins to normalize, as you settle back and enjoy the cozy endorphin hug.




Undoubtedly “feeling better already,” as a citizen of the modern age it may be here that your internal timer begins to chirp. Do not listen. Hit the snooze button, or better yet, disable it completely. If the Roman senate could wait, surely whomever or whatever beckons you can as well. The results of the thermal cycle are greatly enhanced by repetition. The Refuge recommends that you complete the cycle a minimum of three times, and you are encouraged to spend at least a couple hours but to stay as long as you wish. In between circuits, for a relaxing change of pace you can lounge in one of six picturesque hot pools spread throughout the grounds, affording beautiful views of the surrounding steep natural hillsides and the stunning trees of the Santa Lucia Reserve.

Now five years old, the Refuge remains uniquely suited to address the most common malady of our time…the inability to relax.


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