LAist takes a holiday
This past President's Day weekend, LAist took a leisurely trip through our sister city, San Francisco, and up through the windy roads north of Santa Rosa and Napa to our final destination, Harbin Hot Springs.
Harbin is reached by a long and winding road up through the mountains, which is often enshrouded by fog and/or rain. This morning, we had both of them. Once you round the final bend of arrive at Harbin, you aren't quite sure what to expect, as all you can see if a guardhouse and a large sign encouraging you to pull over and check in. Rather than ram through the gate Dukes of Hazzard style, we did as instructed, and were given directions to the office to check in.
The paths and roads inside Harbin are all very quaint, as are the buildings. It looks like you might havve stepped through a portal in time into Walnut Grove, in fact. The only things missing were Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert. Once you step inside the office, however, phones ring, and keyboards chatter. We checked in, were given a full set of instructions, maps, and were asked if we were aware that Harbin was "a clothing optional location". We had, indeed, been informed of this fact prior to arrival (thankfully) and nodded. We were then set loose onto the property.
And what a property it is. Over 1600 acres of forest, mountain, hiking trails, soaking pools, and a few man-made buildings. Most notably on the hill opposite Harbin is something that resembles Whoville. This is actually the Waba massage center, but you wouldn't be surprised to see Hobbits or the Grinch lounging around there. It's a strange place, especially when glimpsed only through the fog.
Harbin proper is a collection of strangely mismatched edifices, quaint cottages, and low-slung buildings. In fact, it looks like someone bought a few different dollhouses and set them up at random, scattering them around the property. Everything was bright and cheery (even in the fog), and this is when we first noticed the wave of "new age" that would permeate the entire stay. Off to one side is a "meditation" garden, complete with mandalas and buddhas, which actually looks like it would be a nice place to read a book, if it weren't raining. To the right was the Harbin market, restaurant, library, coffeeshop, yoga room, and theater, all bundled into two connected buildings. One stop shopping.
Further up the hill, we passed by the Harbin massage building, which is where they offer massage and spa services, everything from watsu massage (a sort of shiatsu massage done in the water) to cornmeal and sea salt body scrubs. If you want your back pounded, stroked, kneaded, prodded, or slapped, they can handle it here.
And finally, at the summit of this hill, is the real drawing power of Harbin...the hot and warm pools. Nestled under canopy of trees sits the main warm pool, a sort of elevated pool filled with Harbin's natural spring waters. The pool is constantly filtered and the water is changed automatically every three hours. This is also where we run into our first naked people. And by this we don't mean people soaking in the springs, but folks walking to and fro, chatting, and generally just, well...hanging out. It is a bit jarring at first, as you don't expect to walk up a hill and into a world where clothes suddenly don't exist, but that's exactly what happened. Men and women were filling water bottles, using the outdoor showers, and chit-chatting in the altogether.
Since we came here to soak, we took a deep breath, and dove right in. This may be a "clothing optional" facility, but no one in sight was opting for clothing. In the spirit of "when in Rome", LAist decided to go optional as well. It was a lot easier than you might expect, and two seconds after shucking your skivvies, you've already forgotten about it, because you're relaxing in some of the most amazing springs around. Behind the main warm pool is the hot pool, which is a temperature just short of taking the skin off your bones, and a short walk above that pool is the cold plunge, which is frickin' freezing, Mr. Bigglesworth. On the other side of the main pool sits the sauna, which was always steamy and crowded, and a good place to dry out after you've soaked up as much water as you can stand.
The pools, while amazing, are also where you'll see the heavy new age influence at Harbin. People have developed a term that applies to some of the single men that hang out in these pools, hoping to meet women...SNAGs...Sensitive New Age Guys. They typically are older, have ponytails, and are more than happy to tell you how beautiful your chakras are, offer to give you a watsu, or tell you that you must have been a dolphin in a previous life. Thanfully, Harbin has a very strict "whispers only" rule for the pools, and additonally in the changing rooms they have meditation beads hanging on a peg. You take one of these and hang it around your neck before entering the pools, and it means "Don't bother me please". If only we had those in the rest of the world, especially on long flights. But we digress. At any rate, it certainly seems to be working, and the gender balance at Harbin was surprisingly equal. There were people from all walks of life, and all age ranges, all made equal by the calming waters.
You'll spend most of your time in the water at Harbin, and when you're not soaking, you should be getting a massage. Harbin has dozens of massage therapists in residence, specializing in everything you could imagine. LAist got a watsu (the most amazing massage experience we've ever had), a deep tissue massage (which went something like this, "OUCH, ahhh, OUCH, ahhh, OUCH, ahhh"), and a massage with body scrub, which felt you were being scrubbed with brillo pads. However, our skin was golden and silky smooth afterwards, no pain no gain. Top it off with a hot oil scalp treatment, and you're about as pampered as you need to be.
Harbin also offers it's own restaurant, which doesn't serve meat, but is surprisingly very good. We ate all of our meals here rather than driving back into town because it meant a) we didn't have to drive, and b) we were that much closer to the pools for a soak after dinner. Free yoga classes (of course) are offered three times a day, and than have free movies in the theater at night, although the selections tend to be a bit random. While we were there one evening was a documentary about Iraq, and the next evening was "The Lord of the Rings". Harbin's market sells everything you could ever need, from granola, to water, to sarongs (fashionable!), and the coffeeshop next to the library makes better-than-Starbucks lattes, mochas, and chai tea.
This place is your one stop shopping destination for ultimate relaxation. It's about two hours north of San Francisco at the end of a beautiful drive, and well worth checking out. When we visited, it was raining, but this only added to the feeling of tranquility and relaxation, which on a scale we'd rate as one notch above a coma. C'mon, you deserve a break today.