© Tilke Elkins
World's most unpretentious spa
Five reasons why Oregon's Brietenbush Hot Springs might be your perfect retreat
You want a car-free holiday
Breitenbush Hot Springs is about 95 kilometres from Salem, OR, the capital of the state, an hour south of Portland on the interstate, but you can’t rely on your GPS or MapQuest to get you there. Once you leave I-5 you’ll need detailed directions (see the link that follows). The last mile takes you down a US Forest Service dirt road and into a long gravel driveway.
Park your vehicle, check in at the beautiful, hand-built wooden office, load your stuff into a two-wheeled hauling cart and make your way down the pine-needle lined paths to your cabin, natural hot springs, great outdoor beauty and a whole lot more. It's just walking paths from now on. Goodbye, cars!
You want a spa experience minus the hefty price tag
Breitenbush has it all: soaking tubs, saunas, classes and workshops in the healing arts, miles of beautiful hikes, and delicious organic vegetarian meals. All of it, including three meals a day and lodging in a rustic cabin, is part of one all-inclusive rate.
The seven, clothing-optional pools are open 24 hours a day, except during meal times, when they're cleaned. Three of them, known as the Meadow Pools, dot the edge of a wild field that overlooks the rushing, turquoise Breitenbush River. Lined with smooth river stones, the pools progress in temperature from warm to invigoratingly hot.
Four Spiral Hot Tubs make up the remaining pools. Arranged according to the four directions, the deep, round, concrete tubs vary in temperature and include a cold plunge, an icy dip which elevates the soaking experience to a near-psychedelic realm.
The sauna is more of a steam-room, heated by a steaming river that passes under the cedar floor of a quaint shack. Tiny diamond-shaped windows can be cracked open for a welcome rush of cool air.
Daily Well-Being programs include yoga, meditation, drumming, ecstatic dance and Edgu, a "spinal maintenance" program developed on-site by one of the staff.
You want to relax at your own pace
Wander in and out of class offerings at your whim (no need to sign up), show up for meals any time during mealtime, and soak when it pleases you. Relaxing is the goal here. Breitenbush has a distinctly timeless quality and not much has changed at the place since it opened in 1977. Slickness and sophistication are out; earnestness and sincerity are in.
The tiny cabins are dark and a bit gloomy, but the thick mattresses covered in single white flannel sheets are surprisingly sleep-inducing. (Bring your own bedding, or rent it for an extra US$17 single or US$23 couple.)
The organic, vegetarian meals are served cafeteria-style with an option of a special diet that's vegan and gluten-free. The meals are undeniably tasty: roasted potatoes with peach-smoked aioli and phyllo broccoli pie for dinner, peanut soup with rice balls and chard salad for lunch, and banana quinoa hot cereal for breakfast, to name a few. The salad bar is abundant, and lunch and dinner are accompanied by chilled herbal drinks with names like tamarind lemongrass cooler and hibiscus-mint-ade.
Caffeine alert: bring you own coffee/tea and a way to brew it — hot water provided. But be warned: the soporific effect of the carb-heavy meals may inspire more napping than hiking.
You want to bring the kids
Breitenbush loves kids. Unlike most soaking spas, which have a distinctly for-adults vibe, Breitenbush caters to families. The wide lawn in front of the main lodge is dotted with hula hoops, balls and a mini teepee to play in.
Children are welcome in all the tubs, and while you may imagine that this could disrupt the aura of calm necessary for enjoying a good soak, parents tend to be watchful and considerate.
The spa is run not by individuals, but by a community, which is itself very family-focused. Retreats like, "Shared Heart: Family Spirituality," and "Beyond Mother's Day: A Retreat for Moms," are offered regularly. Specific retreats are an additional cost and a yearly schedule can be viewed online.
You want to be alone
In spite of the crowds that show up for the various workshops in tantra, yoga, homeopathy, medicinal wild plants and a host of other ‘60s favourites, it is quite possible for a guest to have a quiet, inward experience at the spa. In fact, it's a good place to be alone, because you can let your guard down in the company of respectful strangers.
The network of gorgeous hiking trails that encircles the spa winds through ancient trees and ascends sunny cliffs. After a long leisurely hike where you're unlikely to cross paths with more than a handful of other guests, retreat to the Silent Pool, the hottest of the three Meadow Pools. If you're lucky, you'll position yourself in what's secretly understood to be the best seat in the house, an indentation on the pool's side where you can lean back, nestle your head between two smooth stones and put your feet up on the edge. This torso-only immersion allows you to tolerate the heat for longer than usual, so you can sink into an otherworldly reverie to the sound of birds and the rushing river below.
After a hearty dinner, retreat to the lodge's cozy library, also a silent space, where you can peruse a collection of magazines, many of them from the 1980s. But what year is it, anyway? By then, you may have forgotten.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.