Destination – Refuge Day Spa in Carmel Valley California

I’m afraid this blog falls between the categories of ‘places I love’, and ‘miscellaneous carping’. I’m sorry for that. Mainly I’m writing so that if you go to Refuge in Carmel Valley, CA for a day of soaking and massage, you can have a better experience than I had. Not that it was a bad experience, but it would have been faaaabulous if I had been better prepared. I think of this as a bit of a public service blog.

Despite the fact that Northern California is full of natural hot springs and people who love to get spoiled with a day of hot soaks, cool plunges, steam rooms and massages, there is a surprising lack of day spas in California’s Central Valley. I say this in the hopes that someone with deep pockets or ambition will get the hint and build one.

Both the heavy hitters in the hot springs game, Esalen and Harbin Hot Springs have suffered some serious bad luck in the past four years and are just now reliably open. More importantly, both places are a 3-5 hour drive (depending on traffic) away from our home in Modesto, CA. [more hints]

So I went hunting for a reasonable substitute. The best I could do was Refuge… a day spa complete with a ‘thermal circuit’ of pools, steam rooms, dry saunas, and relaxation rooms. I would post pictures but they don’t allow you to take them, and there are no public domain images available on Bing – which is silly. But there you have it. If you really want to see what the place looks like go to their website at

Refuge is located an easy drive south of Monterey, CA – which puts it about a 2 hour drive from the San Francisco airport, and 2 1/2 hours from where we live. It’s the best we could find. Having lived in LA for years with the fabulous Olympic Spa just fifteen minutes away, I’m feeling the hardship.

Anyhow, about Refuge. Plan to spend at least three hours enjoying the various pools, steam and sauna, and a bit of leisurely reading in between. Allow extra time for a massage. Also, don’t be surprised when you drive up to the address only to see a large athletic complex. You’re in the right place. I know it doesn’t look like the home of a zen relaxation experience, but it is.

Now on to the preparations.

  1. Wear as small a suit as possible (I’ll explain)
  2. Bring extra towels
  3. Eat lightly just before you arrive
  4. Bring sunglasses and/or a sun hat
  5. Bring a book or magazine to read
  6. Book a massage… definitely
  7. Bring a pair of flip flops (thanks Kim!)
  1. Wear a small suit. By this I mean one that has as little fabric as possible. The suit absorbs water every time you get in a pool, and that water is soaked up by your towel (you get 2) or your robe (also included). The less fabric, the less water you’ll transfer to both. I wore a pair of water shorts with a lining, and a top with lots of floofy extras designed to persuade you that I still have the body of a thirty-year old. BIG mistake. My robe and the towel I allowed myself to use in the thermal cycle (because I was saving one for when I took a shower at the end and got dressed)… was totally soaked in the first twenty minutes. Unfortunately we went in February, so despite the sun, it was chilly. I spent more time than was probably healthy in the hot pool just to stay warm. (I found the sauna too hot to stay for long, and the steam room’s eucalyptus oil was a bit heavy for my tastes). Being February the “cool” pool was as frigid as the “cold” pool and despite my best intentions I never put more than a foot in either.
  2. Bring extra towels. See above. Even if I had been wearing a bikini, getting in and out of various pools for three hours is a damp business. If you want the robe to stay soft and fluffy, you need to dry off before you sit down to read or relax. Every time. Two towels is just not enough.
  3. Eat lightly before you come. There is no food for sale. There are no beverages for sale. They give you a large-ish bottle of water because otherwise many people would pass out or get sick from dehydration. Reasonably enough, they don’t want glass or food by the pools. I’m not sure why there is no restaurant or other place to fuel up, but there isn’t. Don’t eat a heavy meal because all the hot, cold, hot cycle will make it feel like you ate a brick. Soup and salad. Half a sandwich. You get the idea.
  4. Bring sunglasses and/or a sun hat. If the day is bright and sunny, as it was when we visited, the glare off the water is pretty brutal. There are some pools with shady places to rest, but they’re in demand. Sunscreen for your face is also probably a good idea. At least I got that right.
  5. Bring a book or magazine. No photos, right? Ergo, no smart phones, pads, eReaders with a camera, etc… So if your library is electronic, you’re stuck. Also, sitting next to a steamy pool with an electronic device is probably not great for its lifespan. Go old school. Bring a magazine or a book you’ve been planning to read but never got around to because you have so may books on your eReader.
  6. (added thanks to my wife’s good memory) – footwear. Yes! Flipflops or something equivalent. After all the soaking your feet get tender. There are all kinds of drain mats around the property that are brutal if you don’t have something to protect your feet… in the shower, in the meditation room, not to mention the rock paths. Flip flops. A must.

I know all this makes it sound like I had a terrible time. Admittedly, I was wet and cold too much to seriously get my zen on, and I really needed my sunglasses, but overall I’d give Refuge an 8 out of 10 as a place to go and relax. Part of the high score is because of the massages.

I strongly suspect that Refuge has poached more than one massage school instructor from Esalen (which as I mentioned has had a tough time due to access issues with the road washing out in 2015 and 2017… seriously crimping their revenue stream and resulting in layoffs and people being forced to leave their homes on campus).

Although I had requested a female massage therapist for my wife, she got a man. If he is who I suspect he is, she got one of the best Esalen massage therapists around, CJ. So she lucked out. I was about to say something about her preferring a male therapist but she was already trotting off and my own therapist had arrived… looking for Linky… or Limdy… eventually I realized she was asking for me. Lindley. It’s a tricky name. I know that.

Despite that slight bump in the beginning, this woman proceeded to give me the best massage of my life. And I’ve had a lot of them. I had paid for a “Swedish” massage because the “Deep Tissue” was more expensive. What can I say, I’m saving for retirement. I’m not sure why the one is more expensive because there was plenty of deep tissue work involved in my massage. I would have tipped her more than $20 if I’d brought it with me. Seriously. The skies opened up and the angels wept… or maybe that was me. Either way I left that room feeling twenty years younger, and if you don’t know it yet, when you’ve hit your junior senior years, that is a big deal.

So that’s what to expect from Refuge in the Carmel Valley. Do go. It’s a lovely experience and the massages are stellar. You deserve it!  And if you know of other day spas in the Central Valley where we can soak and get a great massage, do tell! Drop me a comment. 

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