Once upon a time people didn't come to the Sonoma Valley for 90-point wines and Michelin-starred restaurants. They came for the waters.
It's true, even if it sounds like a set-up line from "Casablanca." In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the biggest draw in the valley were the hot springs, the so-called wukilawa used by the Pomo and Patwin, and the aqua caliente noted by the Spanish and other early settlers.
A quick Google search yields a sentence seen on various web sites, it reads: "In 1840, Dr. T.M. Leavenworth, an eccentric San Francisco physician, was the first to commercially develop the hot springs." But further details are hard to come by.
The waters found a more successful commercial advocate 55 years later when Capt. Henry Boyes tapped into the aquifer and struck pay dirt (to mix metaphors) at 70 feet, whence came the 112-degree water for his mineral water resort, the Boyes Hot Springs Hotel.
Soon Northern Pacific built a depot nearby, and trains deposited Pullman cars of tourists daily to "take the waters." That now-quaint term was at the time as common as "wine tasting" is today.
The photographic prints on the wall at the Big 3 Restaurant on the Sonoma Highway show crowds of people frolicking in the hot water Plunge, milling top-hatted about the Lawn, canoeing with ankle-length skirts on the lake, and lounging about the Craftsman-era cottages. Frankly, it doesn't look like such a bad life, aside from the skirts.
But it's not just a thing of the past. There is some very serious relaxation going on here now, every day of the year, at the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, peek-a-boo hiding just a block from the Boyes Hot Springs Post Office off Sonoma Highway 12.
Even today, the water is rich with boron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, molybdenum and a dozen other minerals, from aluminum to zinc. The list of benefits is long, and many hydrotherapy practitioners believe these waters help with oxygen transport, bone and teeth growth, neural action, insulin levels, even fertility.
It's built on the same site as the Boyes Hot Springs Hotel, which itself burned down in 1923 and took most of the neighborhood with it. The original Sonoma Mission Inn rose in its place, designed "as an architecturally accurate replica of a California mission," though which mission is not quite clear.
The rise of the Sonoma Mission Inn was stunted by the Depression, and the location never regained the panache it once had. A Sonoma lifer recently told me it stood "run down and empty for many years." Then, in the 1980s a European Spa was developed at the Inn, a lifestyle attraction that began to bring the rich and famous back to Sonoma.
Improvements continued, as the Sonoma Valley itself began to grown in the eyes of the world because of the California wine boom. In 1993 a new well found natural artesian mineral waters 1,100 feet deep (over a thousand feet deeper than Capt. Boyes found), percolating down there at 135 degrees.
That led to the biggest renovation of all, in 1999, that transformed the 33-acre property pretty much to what it is today, a luxury vacation resort built around the 226-room Sonoma Mountain Inn and its private cabins. The international Fairmount Hotels corporation had managed the Inn since the early 1990s, and purchased it outright in 2002.
Which brings us back to the serious business of relaxation, Euro-spa style. In this case it's the Willow Stream, the branded Fairmount Spa experience that focuses on "finding energy through natural elements," as spa treatment manager Heather Ingate told me last week. It's one of 16 Willow Stream Spas in the hotelier's universe, but its big advantage is that, unlike some of the Willow Streams, here natural mineral artesian waters feed the pools, and the spirit.
She took me on a walking tour of the spa complex on the north side of the 14-acre resort grounds. The space reached its current configuration in the 1999 remodel. Today, there are seven pools, including 4 Jacuzzis, an indoor Roman pool, the spa Main pool and -
"There's the Watsu pool right there," Ingate said as we stepped into the palmed-encircled courtyard. A woman floated languidly in the clover shaped pool, her spine supported by a spa hydrotherapist and her legs by a pair of children's waterwings.
"They're doing a session right now," said Ingate. "The pool is heated to body temperature, 98 degrees, and the technique of Watsu - water shiatsu - was pioneered at Harbin Hot Springs." The patient, or customer, guest, or floater, looked what one might call blissed, or at the very least zoned. "There's also soothing music piped under in the water."
In the main Spa - a long domed building reminiscent of, and built upon, a Quonset - guests undertake a number of treatments, called Experiences on the spa menu. We're not just talking pedicures, facials, shampoo and a blow-dry, though those are available. Featured are a number of rejuvenating, revitalizes, energizing Kur -the German term for a holiday for health reasons, or "resort therapy."
Many of these Experiences include or focus around the Bathing Ritual, an hour-long circuit between hot showers, warm waters, warmer Jacuzzis and dry saunas. Center of the Bathing Ritual is the Roman Pool, the ornate 14-by-10-foot spa tempered down (from the 130-degree source water) to a comfortable 96 degrees. Two couples lounged in simultaneous lassitude, deep in the process of their holiday for health. A complete Bathing Ritual should take about an hour, Ingate told me, more in some cases.
I followed her back down the long wide hall, where side-rooms offered Tarot, Chakra Readings, Guided Meditation, Relationship Reading and health sessions.
"They used to show movies in this building, back in the 1970s, I've heard," said Ingate.
And a few minutes later, as we walked outside past the Spa's dining court, "There used to be tennis courts here. Now we have Guided Hiking in the mornings, and the Sonoma Golf Course just down Boyes Boulevard."
The idea of recreation, even of a resort vacation, may have shifted somewhat over the decades, but in Sonoma, it all comes back to the waters. Somewhere on those grounds is the original artesian spring, now plumbed and pumped to provide a steady source of natural healing waters for personal renovation. And all the rest of it - the 268 rooms, the seven pools, the restaurant Santé (yes, it's Michelin-starred), the redwood groves, and the 100,000 annual guests who feel the magnetic pull of the Sonoma Valley - is sustained by the hot springs below our feet.