By Lisa Roberts
Orlando Sentinel Travel Editor
January 19, 2003
Give yourself over to a place like this -- even if just for a morning, as I did -- and you can emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon.
If this seems like so much hyperbole to you, consider: I'm not a spa person. In fact, I came to this resort in small-town Safety Harbor with the notion that the place probably would be pretentious and would seem overindulgent.
It didn't take long for me to see how wrong I was.
The experience at this spa, built over five historic mineral springs, is much more than indulging in the latest massage techniques and wraps. You surely could spend the day going from treatment to treatment at the 50,000-square-foot facility, being peeled, pummeled, waxed, swirled and soothed. But by staying in the subdued lighting of the spa's cubby holes, you'd miss much more of what the place offers. That would be tennis, golf, weight-training, aerobics classes, swimming, yoga and bike-riding.
Of course, you could just loaf. Had I preferred to be outside doing nothing but basking in the cool sea breeze coming off the bay, I could have swung in a hammock tied between tall palms or drawn up a chair to the edge of the vast bay of choppy water.
To be sure, Safety Harbor, like most spas, is about indulgence. But it's the kind that can help you transcend stress and move to the next level of being -- something akin to sloughing away lusterless layers of self to find something new inside.
There must be something to this site on the bay, which has drawn people for hundreds of years. The first were native Tocobaga Indians, who inhabited the area up to 2,000 years ago and who bathed and fished in the mineral springs, which they believed had mystical curative powers. Spaniard Hernando de Soto, who established a base of operations here in 1539 during his hunt for riches in the New World, gave the springs their collective name: Espiritu Santo Springs -- "Springs of the Holy Spirit."
In the early 1900s, a sanitorium was built, and people came to take curative treatments in the water that gushed from the springs -- named Beauty, Pure Water, Kidney, Liver and Stomach, the latter three for the parts of the body the waters were believed to aid.
In 1945, Dr. Salem Baranoff purchased the sanitorium and began offering overnight stays and treatments such as mineral and steam baths, massages and healthy foods, thereby creating a true "health spa." He dubbed it Safety Harbor Spa.
The springs' water still is pivotal to the 22-acre resort, which now has 185 rooms and four suites. Though the resort is built over the springs, the only place you'll see it bubbling in a somewhat natural form is from a fountain in the spa hospitality lobby. Resist the urge to pucker up and sip -- one can more easily sample the water in the resort's restaurant, the Café. If you're staying at the resort, you'll get a carafe of spring water in your room daily. In the spa, you can do as those early visitors did and take a mineral bath in it. Or you can swim in the water, which fills the resort's three pools.
The spa, which has been in a state of metamorphosis for more than 50 years, is a little like the white terrycloth robe an attendant scoots across a counter when I check in for a facial: a little worn in places, but warm and comfortable.
Suggestions of the facility's age and various incarnations are especially evident in its long hallways, which undulate between the foundation heights of new buildings and old.
I find the locker room after asking another attendant if I am going in the right direction. Before I enter the locker room, I notice a waiting area where men and women in robes and exercise clothing are sipping cups of tea brewed using bags set on a sideboard near a carafe of hot water. The lighting in the room is subdued, the music soothing.
The locker room is brightly lighted and lined with wooden lockers. I've been issued a key with my robe, and I find my space in the corner of the room without problem. I stow my clothes, wrap myself in the robe and pluck a pair of plastic-wrapped flip-flops from a bin at the end of a bench.
As I retrace my steps down the hall toward the spa's salon and skin care center, I hear the boom-boom of heavy bass. I backtrack to find a small, glass-front room filled with men and women in leotards and gym shorts. Most of them appear to be decades beyond AARP eligibility. They are "spinning" on bicycles, pedaling madly to loud, upbeat music as the young woman leading them whoops encouragement. Their pace and enthusiasm likely would put younger participants to the test.
In the fitness center beyond the spinning room are two aerobic workout rooms; a cardiovascular room with treadmills, cross-training machine and various forms of cycles; an indoor pool, and an outdoor lap pool -- all the trimmings of a modern health club.
The spa offers more than 20 fitness classes daily, including yoga, "boxercise," step aerobics and water fitness. In order to keep track of the offerings, resort guests get a fitness center schedule at check-in. Today, Friday, there are Morning Warm Up, Total Body, spinning, water aerobics, Step and Sculpt, Water Work, Qi' Gong, tai chi, Pilates and more. Other days bring classes that, from the sound of them, would make my eyes water -- Rock Bottom Blast, for instance, and Aqua Abs.
There are daily enrichment lectures, too, with topics ranging from "How reflexology can improve the quality of your life" and "Let's talk about cardiovascular fitness" to "Stop aging with antioxidants."
Not all fitness takes place inside, which is a boon to those who crave the great outdoors. Out on the lawn by the bay, it is common to see the ghostly silhouettes of yoga practitioners striking poses against the sun as it rises over Tampa Bay. Morning walks are part of the fitness center's regular offerings, and bicycles are available for those who would like to pedal along the bay to Phillipe Park, a 50-acre park about a mile north of the resort. The town of Safety Harbor also has a charming downtown -- good for walking and bike-riding -- that sits practically at the resort's doorstep.
The resort has nine tennis court -- seven clay, two hard -- and offers daily one-hour clinics and private lessons. The resort has joined with Phil Green Tennis Academy -- headed by Aussie pro Green -- to create packages in which guests can get up to four hours of daily tennis instruction, video analysis, unlimited use of tennis courts and more.
Guests can arrange golf tee times through the resort at three area country clubs -- the Eagles, Wentworth and Westchase. Golf instruction is offered daily with a resort pro.
When it's time to eat, The Café pleases palates with a generous, creative menu. Lunch, for instance, features such choices as smoked salmon Caesar salad ($10) and pan-seared jumbo lump crab cakes with mango scotch bonnet, aioli and jicama ($9). Dinner entrees include pan-seared sea bass with sweet butter, braised asparagus, roast red pepper compote and a warm coriander vinaigrette ($20), as well as basil marinated chicken breast with toasted almond rice, cinnamon-scented baby squash and a light chicken broth flavored with peach puree ($15). If this doesn't sound like the kind of fare you want because you've been whittling the pounds away in the fitness center, spa package participants can opt for a pre-selected "spa cuisine" plan that features leaner offerings.
A top choice
As a resort spa, Safety Harbor is highly regarded. In the Reader's Choice Awards in Spa Finder magazine's September/October 2002 issue, Safety Harbor was rated among the top 10 resorts nationwide in the areas of best massage, fitness program, tennis program and "best value for your money." It also was named one of the best resort spas for 1999 by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Unfortunately, time doesn't allow me to sign up for one of those award-winning massages. A 25-minute facial will serve as my introduction to the spa's services, which include reflexology, nail and hair care and treatments such as thalassotherapy, which involves "decongestant" essential oils, a marine mud wrap and special massage movements; and the fango mask, in which Italian mud is smeared on the body to deep-cleanse, nourish and smooth. Massage techniques include shiatsu, during which pressure is applied to stress points; shirodhara, in which warm oil is poured on the forehead; Reiki, which involves channeling energy through the attendant's hands; and Swedish, the classic form of massage. After a massage, you even can have hot basalt rocks applied to your muscles to achieve higher levels of relaxation.
All this sounds exotic compared with my facial, which the resort's booklet describes as a "refresher facial, combining cleansing, exfoliation and hydration appropriate to skin type."
The attendant, a woman in her mid-30s, has me lie face up on a table. When I'm situated, she scoops my bangs out of the way, securing them under a wide hair band. She then dims the lights and gets down to business, first removing my makeup, then cleansing my face and using an exfoliation cream and a chilly toner. She applies a moisturizing mask and leaves me to relax for several minutes. Before she departs, she compliments me on my skin's tone and asks if I have a "program." I tell her I do, hoping she won't give me the hard sell about "essential" salon products I need. She doesn't.
Friends who have gotten facials have told me I should expect a massage of my neck and shoulders during the treatment. The swirling massage the attendant performs on my face is wonderful, but I'm disappointed when she stops there.
Still, my 25 minutes having passed much too quickly, I emerge from the small treatment room relaxed and rejuvenated. I wobble lazily back down the long hall with its undulating floor. When I reach the waiting room, I select a bag of green tea and sit, content to do nothing but dip the bag hypnotically in and out of steaming water I hold in a foam cup.
Safety Harbor, it seems, has quickly worked its magic on me.
Contact Lisa Roberts at 407-420-5598 or Lroberts@orlandosentinel.com.
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