Spa Wellness: The Tea House Spa

Nestled in Santa Cruz, California, Tea House Spa offers peace and tranquility to all who walk through its doors.

Tea House Spa

The Tea House Spa offers a unique respite in the busy seaside town of Santa Cruz, an offbeat enclave situated on the Northern California coast, about 75 miles south of San Francisco. The spa’s exterior waterfall fountains and pond set a peaceful tone, maintained throughout the interior via the spa’s Asian-inspired décor and facilities. Private hot tub rooms boast shoji doors, Chinese slate walls, redwood decks, and a tranquil view of the spa’s secluded bamboo grove. Massage room and common area walls display local art, and a 30-foot, Asian-themed mural lines the hallway. A 300-year old Chinese bench serves as both a focal point and a quaint station where guests can await services as well as the spa’s trademark tea service.

Open from 11 a.m. until midnight every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the spa relies on careful scheduling of its 24 part-time staffers. Given the spa’s proximity to the University of California Santa Cruz, many of those workers are college students. “These are young people with students’ schedules, and this is the kind of place they want to work,” says owner Randall Nelson. “We have a very special group.” Indeed, guests cite the gentle spirit of the Tea House and its employees as key reasons they return again and again. They also love the lavender aroma of the products used and retailed, sourced from the local Bonny Doon Farm.

“A lot of our clients work high-stress jobs, and they need the relaxation of the hot tubs,” Nelson says. The private soak experience also appeals to couples and small groups up to four. Prices range from $100 to $300 for singles or couples, day or evening, with or without cedar sauna. A Frequent Tubber program gives loyal guests a prepaid discount. “We have a lot regulars,” explains Nelson. Grateful for his loyal following, the owner still admits that from 2008 until 2012, business was hurting. “I’ll tell you honestly, we had to lend the Tea House money from my family’s resources,” he says. But spa traffic is back up and seems to have ensured the continued presence of this beloved retreat.

Peace-Making History

“Serenity is a word we use a lot here, because it’s not something most people get enough of,” says Nelson. But the property originated for an even more meaningful mission. In the late 1940s, after the tragedies of World War II and the Japanese internment camps, a peace-loving Santa Cruz native who called herself “Ann Sunlight” sought to ease elevated tensions between East and West. So, she created a bamboo sanctuary and opened a tea house where guests would be served a traditional tea service by Japanese women dressed in traditional clothing. “Local women who came to tea here were making a political statement about East-West relations,” says Nelson. He bought, and then leased, the property, which was eventually converted into a spa. In 1997, Nelson took over operations. And in continuation of the House’s history, complimentary tea service, which includes an extensive tea menu, is an important part of each guest’s visit.

The Tea House Spa

Opened: 1984 (owner-operated since 1997—see “Peace-Making History”, below)
Current owner: Randall Nelson
Size: 2,000 square feet
Facility: 4 hot tub rooms (3 with sauna); 3 massage rooms; lounge/lobby; retail area
Staff: 23 part-time employees (14 massage therapists and 9 receptionists) filling various positions with a cooperative approach
Product used/retailed: Bonny Doon Farm; The Art of Tea
Signature service: Couples Special—One-hour spa (tub/sauna) time plus tandem one-hour massages ($180)
Mission: “East and West meet and everybody gains.”