A Revolutionary Idea

Williamsburg, VA, locals are quite familiar with providing out-of-towners with the royal treatment. As an open-air museum (also known as living history), Virginia's 18th-century colonial capital appears to be frozen in time and is teeming with families and history enthusiasts all year. This May, even Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, visited town to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in nearby Jamestown.

Although Colonial Williamsburg may not often cater to such esteemed blue bloods, it is always prepared to do so. Thanks to philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Williamsburg underwent a massive restoration in the early 1900s and became the preserved educational mecca it is today. At that time, the first-class Williamsburg Inn was constructed and has since become an award-winning stomping ground for the well-heeled masses.

 Guests are introduced to the spa's subdued palette upon checking in at the reception desk.
Guests are introduced to the spa's subdued palette upon checking in at the reception desk.

Today, the Inn remains the crown jewel of the Resort Collection of Colonial Williamsburg, a network made up of hotels and guest rooms in colonial houses throughout the district. With the ability to accommodate thousands of guests and offer a host of amenities, it was a natural progression that led to the addition of The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg earlier this year.

Authenticity is key in Colonial Williamsburg, evidenced in everything from candlelight tavern dinners to the detailed period garb of the reenacters —or the interpreters as they are known—to the robust smell of leather wafting from the Harness & Saddlemaker Shop in town. This commitment to historical accuracy and education was embraced during the development of the 20,000-square-foot spa and is reflected in its menu, which offers packages that are influenced by a variety of cultures and more than five centuries of wellness practices.

The spa's menu offers a modern twist on historic wellness practices, such as the Williamsburg Water Cures Spa Experience ($245, 90 minutes), which employs a Vichy shower to mirror the effects of traditional bathing practices.
The spa's menu offers a modern twist on historic wellness practices, such as the Williamsburg Water Cures Spa Experience ($245, 90 minutes), which employs a Vichy shower to mirror the effects of traditional bathing practices.

One of the most popular treatments is the 17th-century-inspired Cleansing Hot Stones Spa Experience ($265, $525 per couple; 2 hours), derived from the tradition of American Indian sweat lodges. In addition to an aromatherapy hot stone massage, guests also enjoy a detoxifying warm wrap with an application of cool cloths to the face. This marriage between hot and cold is meant to reflect the act of plunging into a frigid stream, which typically completed a visit to a sweat lodge.

The inspired spa experiences are a popular choice for couples.
The inspired spa experiences are a popular choice for couples.

Another popular experience is the 19th-century-inspired Root and Herbal Spa Experience ($285, $565 per couple; 2 hours). Based on African-American healing traditions that involved the use of plants, minerals, and natural waters, the package includes an exfoliation using an herbal powder—made from essential oils, lavender buds, and rose petals—believed to improve self-esteem and attract positive energy. Guests are also pampered with a revitalizing full-body massage and a therapeutic herbal bath.

The Wisteria Lounge is ideal for enjoying a healthy bite between treatments.
The Wisteria Lounge is ideal for enjoying a healthy bite between treatments.

With such a detail-oriented menu, it's no surprise that an exceptional amount of research went into developing it. Known for creating a distinct feel and evoking a true sense of place in her designs, world-renowned spa consultant Sylvia Sepielli was the ideal candidate to develop the spa. According to spa director and former ISPA chair Kate Mearns, "Sylvia brought an authentic energy to our spa, not only in design but in the character of the menu and the integrity of the project."

Many of the treatments offered give a nod to the historic use of herbs as healing aids.
Many of the treatments offered give a nod to the historic use of herbs as healing aids.

Following almost five years of planning, construction, and development, the spa opened in April. The end result is a beautiful and serene haven that wholeheartedly respects its rich heritage. A wisteria-canopied walkway alongside a reflection pool leads guests to the spa's entrance. Located at the former site of a folk art museum, the spa is housed in a brick, Georgian-Revival-style, freestanding building. "Working with an existing building has its advantages and its disadvantages," says Mearns. "At the end of the day, I would much rather be in the building we're in. It has great energy, natural characteristics, and a history not found anywhere else."

Using a quiet palette of white, beige, and light blue, the overall aesthetic of the spa is subdued and clean while managing to escape starkness. The unblemished walls are subtly adorned with images representing southeast Virginia, known as the Tidewater region. "We are proud of this area and feel that the gallery of people, herbs, flowering plants, and architecture of this special place is an appropriate accent to the character of the spa," says Mearns. "It was important to be relaxing, calming, and light, like being outdoors. The intention behind the decor was to be simply elegant."

The spa offers 12 treatment rooms, men's and women's relaxation areas, and a co-ed area called The Wisteria Lounge, where spa cuisine may be enjoyed. Here, guests can opt for healthy choices such as Chilled Poached Salmon on a Stack of Garden Vegetables, Cucumber Dill, and Yogurt Sauce, or lean towards more indulgent chocolate-dipped strawberries with a glass of champagne.

Indulging is also permissible in the spa's locker rooms for men and women, which offer whirlpools, aromatherapy saunas, and showers with colossal rain heads. In addition, gentlemen can kick back in front of large-screen TVs, while women can luxuriate in an experiential shower. Mearns has noticed that once guests arrive, they are in no rush to leave, and the spa caters to this trend. "Our lounges and wet areas are conducive to relaxation, and guests like to spend additional time here," she says.

One reason guests stay put in the wet areas is the Virginia Springs Ritual ($18, approximately 30 minutes). Inspired by practices in 19th-century Virginia, this add-on to any service is a self-guided treat. Guests are invited to cleanse their faces with steamy aromatherapy cloths, exfoliate rough spots with a blend of warm sea salts and essential oils, and apply warm mud to their hair, letting it penetrate in the inviting steam room. For those who want to take the spa home with them, a mini-ritual kit is available for $12, which Mearns says has been selling well.

The placement of the reception desk in the center of the sales area makes it difficult for retail to be an afterthought at the spa. "Our reception staff supports the treatments by answering any questions, explaining products, and getting to know what the guest is looking for following a service," explains Mearns. "We believe in the products we carry and want to share them with our guests."

When the lineup was selected by the spa's founding team, it was important to choose products that complemented the environment and supported the services being offered. While Mearns is happy with how the current lines work together, she's not opposed to introducing others. "I'm always looking for new ideas and products to expand my knowledge and awareness of what is happening in the industry," says Mearns. In addition to ESPA, Naturopathica, and TRUE, the spa also features its own sweet-smelling signature line of lavender-lemongrass products. "The scent was selected because it uses herbs native to our area, and the fragrance is amazing," she says.

Another hallmark of the spa is its close-knit staff. "I would describe them as a great group of people—maybe like your neighbors," says Mearns. "There is something very bonding about tearing through boxes; setting up equipment; learning a new computer system; training, training, and more training; being worn out; and then opening a beautiful facility and seeing the guests walk in."

The neighborly feel of the spa goes a long way, especially with locals. Memberships to the state-of-the-art fitness center are popular, and many clients come from The College of William & Mary, located just down the street. "We have seen parents enjoy the spa with their sons or daughters either while they're visiting them at school or on a college visit," says Mearns. "We also have assisted various departments with group functions and hope to continue to work together." Also promoting the sense of community at the spa is the fact that all profits are returned to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which is the not-for-profit that operates the entire Revolutionary city, to further fund its educational efforts.

As for the future, Mearns has put together an ambitious list of goals for the spa. Developing more of a wellness element and incorporating mind-body experiences is high on her short-term list, as is continually improving the customer experience and expanding facilities. Her long-term goals? Very simple. "To build a phenomenal reputation," she says. "I would also like to see The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg be the trusted resource for how the spa industry developed in America."

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