Imagine you had a rich aunt with exquisite taste in fabrics, antiques and food. And she owned 19 acres on the banks of an agate green lake. Then imagine a comforting (and elegant) lake house furnished with deeply cushioned sofas fronted by stacks of coffee-table books, softly carpeted floors to muffle sounds, hand-painted floral draperies, fringed lampshades by the pool, padded satin headboards and fluffy comforters. Now imagine your aunt hired a French chef who can hit all your taste buds in under 400 calories.
Got it? Welcome to Lake Austin Spa Resort, a spa that doesn’t look or taste like a spa, but sure does ahh like a spa.
We spent four relaxing and restorative days at this Texas spa — a version of which has been around more than 35 years, though it wasn’t until the current ownership took over in 1997 that it’s been a regular on the “best destination spa” lists of “Travel and Leisure” and “Conde Nast Traveler” magazines.
With just 40 rooms, Lake Austin Spa Resort is a boutique version of its all-inclusive glass and stone mega-cousins. And that’s just one of the differences. This is a place to be pampered and coddled; a place where you come to slow down.
We’ve been to the bigger spas and, while we’re not complaining, the pace can be hectic. First thing in the morning, you rush to the sign-up sheets to secure a spot in the classes you want — and often the popular ones are filled or so crammed you can barely do a leg lift without hitting your neighbor. Then it’s off to breakfast, followed by a dizzying schedule. If it’s 10 a.m. it must be Flying Dragon Yoga, followed by Extreme Core Blast, followed by Aqua Boxing.
Rushing to Cardio Drumming isn’t Lake Austin Spa’s style. Everything’s relaxed. Granted we were there in the dead of winter, their slowest time and we often had the class instructors to ourselves — essentially personal trainer time. But even at the peak, the classes top out at 20. And there is never a rush to sign up, because they don’t fill up. In fact there’s never a rush to do anything at the Lake Austin Spa.
Despite its name, the spa isn’t exactly a lakeside resort. It’s bordered by a dammed-up portion of Texas’ 862-mile-long Colorado River. Sitting in the Spa’s dining room, which is just a few yards from the water, you feel like you’re on a riverboat idly floating with the slow-moving current.
In the morning, the mist is heavy over the river; the sky looks like white cotton candy. As the sun cuts through, you can make out the mallards and shore birds. Occasionally a fishing boat putts by. And the wooded cliffs on the opposite bank are part of the local park system so they are untouched. You feel secreted away in the Texas Hill Country, instead of a 21-mile-drive to the state capitol building in downtown Austin.
Water is the big draw at this spa, at least during the warmer months. There are plenty of water fitness activities: stand-up paddle-boarding, hydro-biking, sculling, kayaking, water-skiing and wake boarding. It was too cold for any of that when we were there; we were content to sit on the dock and watch the river life float by.
Still, we weren’t total chill slugs. We took a pontoon boat ride down the river to a park where we hiked a trail thick with native juniper and pecan trees and punctuated by a gushing waterfall. In cooking classes we learned the trick of home-made queso fresco. (Who knew it was just hot milk and lemon?) And we discovered how to make a healthy Pork Wellington. (Really, it’s possible.)
One morning we tried to improve our balance in the Wake Up BEAMing class where we postured, stretched and flexed atop plastic beams a couple inches from the floor. Sounds easy, until you try it, especially at 8:30 in the morning. After BEAM class, we attempted a kind of self-massage involving Styrofoam tubes. We sat and rolled on them, keying into the hurting parts of our bodies. Which, after BEAM class, was everywhere.
After Styrofoaming, we wandered over to the Spa’s indoor pool for a water exercise class. The instructor, Monica Gutierrez, was from Mexico so we strengthened our abs at a salsa tempo. After we’d run, swam and kicked in the shallow water, Gutierrez ended the session by demonstrating a water-aided myofascial technique on each of us. Instant back-pain relief.
After such a vigorous morning we owed ourselves a treat, which at a spa can mean only one thing: massage for one us, a facial for the other. You can guess who got what.
We waited for our therapists in a room any rich aunt would love. Deep sofas, upholstered chaises, wing-back chairs, all with soft wool throws. A long side table was stocked with flavored waters (lemon, cucumber, mint) almonds and dried apricots, under crystal chandeliers and botanical prints.
But decor is only one of the Spa’s charms. There’s the food. During our introductory tour, a guide pointed to greenery in the pool-side gardens and said, “You’re going to eat this stuff.” A fact that was confirmed by the kitchen staff and Trish Shirey, the “director of flora and fauna,” who’s been taking care of the spa grounds for 31 years. “I’m steward of the land,” she told us proudly.
Among other things, Shirey oversees the spa’s ten 50-foot-long vegetable/herb/flower gardens. It was too wintery for tomatoes or cucumbers, but there were more than a dozen types of lettuce and at least five kinds of kale, including a version whose leaves “are supposed to look like dinosaur skin,” Shirey said.
All of this made it to the spa’s lunch and dinner table, along with a generous spicing of the garden’s herbs. Shirey is a self-admitted herb geek. She showed us some of the garden’s 28 types of rosemary and bragged about her basils. “I collect basils,” she said. “We’ve had as many as 45 different kinds — though this year we only had 35. It’s a total bust,” she said with a laugh.
Guests are encouraged to take home whatever herbs or flowers they want and the front desk is stocked with scissors and plastic bags. “Our cuttings are now all over the country,” said Shirey. We snagged Texas bay leaves and rosemary.
We’ve been to a number of spas and Lake Austin has the best food of them all. Perhaps its because five years ago they hired French chef Stephane Beaucamp who goes by Julia Child’s philosophy, “Everything in moderation.” This is a chef who doesn’t shy away from butter. Just not too much.
From our first meal of Lobster Cake with house-made pickles and ginger aoli (80 calories) followed by an Umami Bison Burger (395 calories) and Avocado Lime Pie with Almond-Date crust (357 calories) to our last meal of Fresh Crab Mini Taco (92 calories), followed by Rack of Lamb (360 calories), followed by Molten Chocolate Cake (553 calories). Every bite was exquisite
Just like the Lake Austin Spa.
Spa Checklist – the top Ahh moments
Body: Myofacial release in water exercise class.
Taste: Avocado lime pie, mushroom risotto
Sight: Mist on the river during breakfast; explosion of colorful fabrics in each room.
Smell: Rosemary bushes by every building.
Sound: Guest performer, Michael Fracasso, singing “Killing the Blues” in the Spa’s “living room” on a Friday night.
Service: Food manager stopping by our table at dinner and saying: “Go ahead, order the scallops”
Two great recipes:
Raw Avocado and Lime Pie with Almond Crust
· 2 cups almonds
· 1/2 cup coconut flakes
· 1/2 cup date paste
· (To make date paste, pit and soak 6-8 dates in 1/4 cup water for a hour, then blend in a food processor)
· 1/8 cup coconut oil, melted
· 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
· 1/8 tsp salt
Add almonds to food processor and blend until ﬁne, add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until blended but crumbly. You want the “crust” mixture to stick together when pinched between your ﬁngers, but not too sticky. Press ﬁrmly and evenly into a tart pan with a removable bottom.
· 3/4 cup fresh lime juice (About 6 limes, or 12 key limes)
· 1/2 cup honey or agave
· 1/4 cup coconut milk
· 1 cup avocado (About 2)
· 2 tsp vanilla extract
· 1/8 tsp salt
Blend in blender until creamy.
· 2 Tbsp lecithin powder
· 3/4 cup coconut butter
Blend well in a high speed blender. Pour into crust and chill about 2 hours in freezer. To serve, unthaw about 10-15 minutes. Alternately, you can pour the filling into bowls or glasses and refrigerate for an hour and serve as a pudding. You can also freeze the filling for a few hours and serve as an ice cream.
Wild Mushroom Risotto
· 2 cups, Arborio Rice (any short-grain rice works)
· 3-4 cups, vegetable stock
· 1/2 cup white wine
· 2 T. Butter
· 1 T. Olive oil
· ½ onion, minced
· 2 cloves of garlic, minced
· 1/4 cup, Parmesan cheese, shredded
· 1/4 cup Herbs, chopped fine (Parsley, Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary)
· 1/4 cup Hazelnuts, toasted then roughly chopped
· 1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
· Combine stock and wine in one pot. Heat over low, boiling is not necessary, the stock just needs to be hot
· In another pot, heat oil
· Add onion, sweat
· When onions become translucent, add garlic
· Add rice immediately and stir until the grains become somewhat translucent
· Add enough liquid to cover the rice and stir
· Adjust heat so the mixture is boiling lightly (Stirring constantly is not necessary, but the occasional stir lets you get an idea of how much liquid has been absorbed.)
· When most of the liquid is absorbed, add liquid to cover. (A good indicator is that the rice separates when a spoon is pulled through.)
· Repeat these steps until the rice, when tasted, has a bit of texture left (“tooth” as it’s called)
· Remove from the heat
· In a separate pan, heat a little oil
· Add the mushrooms and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes
· When the mushrooms are done, add the mushroom, as well the herbs and the cheese into the rice
· Finish with the butter and stir until it’s incorporated
· Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper
· Plate and garnish with more herbs, cheese and the toasted hazelnuts
· Drizzle with a good olive oil