Spa Review: Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs
Palm Springs’ Feel Good Spa attracts young spa-goers in droves, and imparts a buoyant sense of youth to everyone else.
I am strolling the grounds at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs, California, feeling a bit like grown-up “Wendy” dropped into a groovy desert Never-Never Land. Stark sculptural palms line the property, and the chiseled San Jacinto Mountains loom above me like a cubist landscape sprung to life. Ubiquitous vintage metal chairs brighten the monochromatic color scheme with retro pops of 50’s-era hues, and Neil Young and Bob Dylan have been rocking over the hotel’s speaker system since 8 a.m., creating a soundtrack of “desert cool.”
Until a few years ago, this space was a decidedly blah Howard Johnson’s. Then in 2009, the Ace, a Portland-based group with four hip U.S. hotels, seized control and re-envisioned the place, transforming it into a sparse mid-century hideaway for the 20-something Coachella Valley set. Now, the five acres and 173 guest rooms are punctuated by case-study daybeds and outdoor ceramic fireplaces that have been designed by famed hippie artist Stan Bitters.
The Ace isn’t exactly the ideal setting for a fancy spa featuring high-tech French collagen treatments, but it’s a suitable home for an all-organic spa that delights in novel and innovative forms of skin care. And having spent the night observing the Ace’s poolside drum circle—where dancers thrashed under a full moon into the wee hours—I am not quite sure what to expect from my upcoming experience at the Ace’s Feel Good Spa. —By Alison Singh Gee
Finding the Lost Boys (and Girls)
To reach the spa, guests must walk through the main pool patio, which at 9 a.m. on this blazing summer morning is already packed with objectionably sexy post-collegiate boys and girls, and the ever-present rhythmic tapping of poolside ping-pong. (In fact, when Facebook rented out the entire hotel for an event earlier this year, a swim trunk-bedecked Mark Zuckerman reportedly played his share of matches, while his fiancée Priscilla indulged in a Feel Good massage.)
Spa reception is housed in a charming little wooden kiosk that looks like a booth where you’d order fries and hamburgers at a country club, except it’s lined with yummy-looking products from raw and organic beauty line The Body Deli, based a few miles away in Palm Desert. The receptionist, dressed in a black romper and flip-flops, is accommodating but casual as she leads me into a locker room that feels both chic and functional, with high school-vibe lockers painted navy and cream and one big open shower featuring grapefruit-scented body wash and hair care. I pull on a textured cotton robe and head over to the Relaxation Room.
The pressing question driving my sojourn to the Ace—a supremely stylish yet affordable resort—is this: How do you create a spa for the young—one that’s not too expensive, not too fussy, and hits all the right cultural notes? Entering the Relaxation Room, I start to uncover the answer: White and boxy, the facility is cleverly (and simply) made over to feel like a Bedouin camp, with primitive wall hangings, mellow lighting seeping from organically shaped wood lamps, Moroccan-style throw pillows, an animal skin rug and modern furniture featuring clean, classic lines. The aroma of orange-infused iced water fills the cool space, as does Feel Good’s unique soundtrack, currently featuring Nirvana and Nusrat Ali Khan, floating through state-of-the-art speakers.
My therapist, Lita, appears in a pair of scrubs and a fitted T-shirt, and leads me through the pool area and up a flight of stairs to my treatment room. (The original Howard Johnson Resort, built in 1965, didn’t have a spa—no big surprise there—so The Feel Good Spa was cleverly carved out of several adjacent motel rooms. This results in a spontaneous vibe for guests, as if they were crashing a best friend’s motel room with a basketful of beauty masks and nail polish.)
For shade, The Ace has constructed poolside Mongolian yurts, plein-air retreats that reproduce the sensation of blissing out in a commune. My indoor treatment room strikes the same note, via simple, mid-century design and a hip, oversized “God’s eye.” There’s no artificial lighting—only the glow of the hot day seeping in through drawn curtains. And as is the case throughout the property, music sets the mood. “Our playlists combine Eastern instrumental with ambient and vocal mellow tones with some rhythmic upbeat tracks,” explains spa director Amanda D’Anna. “But if guests have something on their iPod that they prefer, that’s totally cool, too.”
I’m here for the Good Body Scrub (60 min./$115), during which my skin is polished with a purifying mineral salt, then treated to a cool, creamy tonic made from chamomile tea. I get to choose a Body Deli essential oil: either Moroccan Mint (a blend extracted from peppermint, rosemary and spearmint) or Desert Sage (concocted from local sage, fir and juniper). As I sniff the oils in Lita’s palms, both transport me to fragrant local dunes, and I eventually settle on the mint. Throughout the scrub, Lita also treats me to a soothing massage. Afterward, I’ve opted for a 30-minute Reflexology add-on ($55), during which Lita manipulates nerve centers on my feet, sending energy to corresponding organs throughout my body and freeing blocked energy.
Pampering Peter Pan
Feel Good’s service menu is chock-full of innovative and tempting treatments. Popular choices among twenty-something guests include Good Vibrations (60 min./$125), a smorgasbord of energy work: guided meditation, craniosacral massage, crystals, sound and prayer; and The Palm Springs Peel (60 min./$125; 90 min./$175), an exfoliating facial harnessing the natural acids of local dates and including a cooling gelee made from cactus. The experience is meant to restore, rehydrate and plump up desert-parched skin.
Myriad local ingredients make an appearance in Superfood (60 min./ $120; 90 min./$170), a facial concocted from raw blueberries, açai and kiwi, that’s meant to feed and nourish all skin types. The coveted Cooling Aloe Wrap (60 min./$115), created as an antidote to long days spent poolside beneath the blazing desert sun, includes a soothing slathering of aloe vera, pressure-point scalp massage and a full-body application
of aloe-infused cream.
Naturally, Feel Good’s menu features a classic Swedish massage, dubbed Basic Goodness (60 min./$95; 90 min./$140). But partners often opt to indulge in Massage Lessons (60 min./$210), billed as a “creative, interactive and partner-building opportunity for couples.” D’Anna explains, “Not only do you emerge buffed and soothed, you also learn professional massage techniques you can use at home together.”
Feel Good’s clientele is a mix of international and national hotel guests and locals, who frequently take advantage of promotions incorporating spa treatments into room packages for a close-by getaway. The spa’s marketing team has devised savvy and comprehensive ways of catching prospective spa-goers’ attention; and many of the coolest offerings are featured on the poolside restaurant menu. So, while slurping up “boozy sno-cones,” cool kids might be tempted into trying out equally sumptuous organic fruit-based skin treatments. And Facebook and Twitter messages attract attention via free-spirited verbiage, aptly reflecting the spa’s aesthetic.
But what else besides youth-centric marketing tactics and a whimsical menu speaks to the sensibilities of this growing but still somewhat uncommon spa-going demographic? “We have an easy vibe that attracts people from a wide age range,” offers D’Anna. “There’s a casual, relaxing ambience that people with an eye for detail, like artists, really go for.”
Feel Good prices are competitive with other spas in the area, but “our treatments are unique and powerful,” D’Anna says. “It’s about pure and basic ingredients that come from nature, and a down-to-earth experience that engages the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of well-being. It’s about getting back in touch with your path in life.”
After my luscious body scrub and foot treatment, I hang out for a while in the spa’s well-trafficked steam room and sauna. After only a few hours in Feel Good mode, I am a few decades lighter. I may have entered the place well aware of all my 40-plus years, but as I wander back to reception through the pool, swaying to Coldplay, I am reminded of what it felt like to be 26, relaxed and free, and I leave smiling.
Alison Singh Gee is a Los Angeles-based author and journalist.
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