The Tao of Ciao

An Asian-inspired spa in Italy? The Devarana Spa gives Thai-based treatments a Tuscan flair.

Il Salviatino (photos courtesy Devarana Spa)

Whether they’re local or far-flung, simple or jaw-dropping, established or brand-new, spas provide an opportunity to transcend your everyday mind-set, to open up to fresh ideas and fascinating destinations. Let me regale you with a tale of a transcendent spa journey, which left me basking in soothing treatments in an exotic destination, with a mind-opening outcome.

Recently, I geared up for a lengthy red-eye flight to Europe. If touching down in Italy, nine hours ahead of my usual time zone, wasn’t enough of a mind jolt, I soon found myself in the sepia-toned, wintry cityscape of historic Florence, Italy. Notions of strolling across the ancient Ponte Vecchio Bridge, touring museums and galleries, devouring fresh gelato before the Duomo and partaking of Tuscan wineries beckoned. But all that would have to wait until after I’d had a chance to revive myself at the evocative Il Salviatino in the neighboring hills of Fiesole.

More like an elegantly vast and formidable villa than a luxury hotel, the 600-year-old Il Salviatino casts an intriguing spell. Although the property has transformed over the years—from a medieval farm, to a 15th century palace, to an aristocrat’s estate—it was recently restored (to the tune of nearly $60 million) by veteran luxury hotelier Marcello Pigozzo and opened as a hotel in October 2009. Rich in dark-paneled wood, custom Italian leather furnishings, red carpet runners that spill down sprawling stone stairways, handpicked artworks and heart-stopping views of Florence, the 45-room, 11-acre villa hearkens to an era of unabashed splendor. (It was recently awarded Andrew Harper’s 2011 Hideaway of the Year.)

And yet, amid all this pageantry, Il Salviatino’s charming Devarana Spa is gently tucked away in the former caretaker’s quarters. Truth be told, having been completely captured by the spell of the villa, I had disproportionate expectations for what turned out to be a rather inconspicuous Asian spa. (Yes, an Asian spa in Tuscany!)

The Thai-based Devarana (which means “garden in heaven”) Spa is the only one of its brand located outside of Asia. The facility here consists of three simple, but well-amenitied treatment suites (one single, one couples and one Thai massage), each with an enclosed changing area, shower/steam cabinet and bathroom. Beyond the austere reception area, there’s a Devarana product retail section and two chairs where guests can sit as they submit to the Thai ritual of taking off one’s shoes upon arrival and receiving them back at the conclusion of the treatment.

The bright, airy interiors are understated and, but for simple Thai design elements, offer few clues about the personality of this spa. In fact, during my first visit, having taken in the narrow lap pools perched one above each other on the rolling hills fronting the spa, I mistook the building in all its simplicity for the pool house.

So why would an impeccably restored Florentine villa in the heart of Tuscany be paired with an Asian-inspired spa? The answer unfolded quietly during the course of several visits. One of the first clues came through Maho, my petite but incredibly powerful Japanese therapist. Maho, along with the spa’s three other therapists, all women trained at Devarana Academy in Thailand, exude the calm grace intrinsic to the Asian spa experience.

Another clue was the ornately designed, Thai-inspired service menu and the intense cultural flavor pervading its offerings. For example, The Harmony of Tad Si (120 min./$250), which combines Thai massage with herbal compresses, is an energy-balancing journey into Buddhist healing techniques. There are also a host of Tuscan-inspired treatments on the menu, including the After Wine Tasting Retreat (120 min./$340), a detoxifying treatment including a mud wrap and massage; and After Tuscany Sightseeing (120 min./$320), a deep-tissue massage combined with reflexology to remedy tired muscles and aching feet.

I fell in love with the hydrating Lavender Body Scrub (60 min./$170), which incorporates pleasing indigenous ingredients including an organic and entirely edible concoction of Tuscan lavender, olive oil, oatmeal and rice powder. As Maho applied the redolent scrub to my skin, it occurred to me that there was power in all this contrast: After all, here was a Japanese therapist in Tuscany, applying locally sourced ingredients via a technique she learned in Thailand, all of which was taking place within a brand-new, yet very spare facility inside an ancient building within the compound of a luxurious, opulent villa.

According to spa manager and Florentine native Pierangela Flori, the hotel’s owner had long been a fan of Asian spa culture, with its elements of simplicity, mindfulness, nature and energy work. Since Florence and its surrounds lacked an Asian-style spa, he recognized that “importing” such a place to Fiesole would not only create a unique spa-going experience for villa guests, but also for local spa-goers, so vital during off-season months.

The end result? Il Salviatino’s seemingly strange juxtaposition of fancy Florentine villa and subtle Asian spa are in perfect harmonic convergence. One might even say the experience is transcendent. •

L. Brooks Baldwin is a global spa journalist and the president of SpaSafe Solutions in Seattle.