SAFETY HARBOR—At the award-winning Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, the message is: relax, feel good. We'll show you how.
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.
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.