Following a 2005 visit to Europe, where he experienced the centuries-old tradition of hydrotherapy, Scot McKay was convinced that when it comes to wellness, water works. It was then that the idea for Refuge (Carmel, CA) was born. Six years later, on the auspicious date of 11/11/11, his idea for a facility that was entirely dedicated to hydrotherapy came to fruition, and the retreat debuted to much fanfare.
Set amid a grove of picturesque oak trees and rolling hills, Refuge entices guests with its 10 mineral pools of varying temperatures, saunas, steam rooms, and relaxation areas. Guests who partake in the Refuge experience follow a straightforward formula that involves heating up, cooling down, and relaxing. The process begins in either the eucalyptus steam room or the Finnish cedar sauna, which can accommodate more than 50 people and is the largest sauna in the U.S. After 10 minutes, guests then step into one of the Nordic waterfall pools, which are cooled to temperatures comparable to the Pacific Ocean and icy mountain streams. The dramatic temperature shift revs the circulation and is a chilly revitalizer, providing such benefits as stimulating the immune system, digestion, and hormone production; reducing pain; and alleviating stress. Guests are then encouraged to unwind in one of three indoor meditation rooms outfitted with zero-gravity chairs and cedar-paneled walls, soft music, and low lighting or curled up in an Adirondack chair next to one of several fire pits. When the weather warms, guests will also be able to kick back in one of several inviting hammocks. “We have six hot and warm pools featuring cascading waterfalls, and two of them run jets permanently,” says Axel Binneboese, general manager. “Those are designed to spend time in between the repetitions of the heat up, cool down, and relax experience. The pools are on various levels and feature beautiful views of the hillsides and magical trees of the surrounding Santa Lucia Preserve.”
The Refuge concept is both simple and affordable. Admission is $39 per person, and guests are encouraged to enjoy the facility for as long as they like between the hours of 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. There is no spa menu. Howev
er, those who would like to partake in a massage in one of the eight treatment rooms can opt for one of three 60-minute options—Swedish Massage, Deep Tissue, or Sports Massage. The $99 price for each includes unlimited use of the hydrotherapy facilities. The aromatherapeutic essential oils were created locally and exclusively for the spa. Refuge sells branded water bottles, sandals, and robes, and robes are also available for rent. Guests, who must be 18 years or older and wear swimsuits throughout the all-co-ed experiences, are simply encouraged to dive in and enjoy after they receive instructions from a member of the team. According to Binneboese, the cycle of heating up, cooling down, and relaxing should be repeated three to four times to get the full benefits of Refuge. “The key for us is that 100 percent of our Refuge guests need to be oriented properly as to which order to enjoy the experience we offer,” says Binneboese. “Following the heating up, cooling down, and relaxing steps is essential to get the Refuge ‘buzz.’”
This simple, yet effective, concept is certainly getting people buzzing. Just a month after opening, Refuge was found on TripAdvisor’s hot list of things to do in Carmel, and guests have periodically had to sign on to a waiting list due to Refuge hitting its capacity. McKay is already considering licensing opportunities to offer the unique hydrotherapy experience in other locales around the country. After all, as Binneboese says, Refuge is the perfect antidote for those who may be drowning in the stresses of their everyday lives. “We live in a very fast-paced environment, and we need to learn to take time for relaxation and rejuvenation,” he says. “It is essential to us, and we believe that Refuge fills this need in our society.”