The Inn at Palmetto Bluffs

In South Carolina’s Low Country, true wellness calls for slowing down, tuning in—and getting into the old-fashioned spirit.
Any place that extolls the art of “porching”—also know as “reclining on one’s porch while enjoying a glass of wine, a good read, quality conversation or inner reflection”—is a destination that takes relaxation seriously. Indeed, The Inn at Palmetto Bluffs, a five-diamond resort located just inland from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, takes cues from its tranquil, low-country surrounds. Inspired by the nearby cities of Savannah and Charleston, the resort consists of a gas lamp-lit village green dotted with gracious Southern cottages, and borders postcard-worthy marshes, rivers and forests. And, once I finally left my Inn porch in pursuit of some hands-on relaxation during a recent visit, it came as little surprise that the on-site Auberge Spa artfully manifests the Inn’s intentional, almost whimsical, ethos of relaxation. It too honors its low-country connection, and has even developed a singular menu of treatments based around local traditions.

The elegant oasis was named Travel & Leisure’s Top Spa in 2010, and has received many more accolades since opening in 2004. Consequently, spa director Raye Fetzner has been able to rely largely on word-of-mouth to drive traffic into the nearly 10,000-square-foot spa. The reason for this becomes immediately apparent as I stroll through moss-draped oaks and across a walking bridge to arrive before the antebellum mansion housing the Auberge spa. And this, I soon learn, is only a first, tiny taste of the spa’s world-class, yet distinctly Southern, charm.

The Spa at Palmetto Bluffs

In catering to the luxury market, it’s the little touches and the service flourishes that set a spa apart. Auberge begins to distinguish itself upon check-in, when I am asked to choose two health elixirs to be added to my post-treatment beverage. I change and settle into a chaise situated beside a roaring fireplace in the genteel lounge to await my therapist, as an attendant drapes a hot pillow around my neck. And, for a healthy twist on a decadent Southern specialty—bananas foster—I’m served banana chips soaked in rum!

Like the Inn itself, the spa exudes an elegant, yet beachy, air via its cottage-style décor. Hues consist of warm neutrals, and stunning abstract paintings provide splashes of vibrant color. A bastion of dark wood floors, wainscoting and whitewashed beam ceilings, the spa feels warm and homey in spite of its sophistication. According to Fetzner, it’s not uncommon for guests to request names of specific paint shades so they can recapture Auberge’s zen-yet-cozy allure at home.

Throughout my treatment experience, service continues to be spot-on—and innovative, despite its diligent respect for local tradition. Before I lie back onto the table to receive the High Cotton Scrub & Rub (90 min./$240), my therapist invites me to inhale several different herb blends while explaining the benefits of each. I settle on Wild Rice and Mulberry Leaf, partially for its singular, earthy smell, but also because the ingredients were picked on property, by my therapist, who also carefully muddles my selection into pine sea salts before performing my gentle sloughing.

Following the luxurious scrub and massage, I take in one of the spa’s signature offerings, a Bath on the Bluff (30 min./$75). Like porching, it is among the most straightforward of experiences: Relax to the soundtrack of nature while soaking in a clawfoot tub on a private outdoor veranda overlooking Palmetto Bluffs’ forests and lagoons. Because the staff so ardently believes in the importance of taking time for this centering ritual, each of Auberge’s eight treatment rooms features a private, al fresco tub. Indeed, I float blissfully as I luxuriate in the tub and drink in the tranquil view.

“The baths are an identity trait for us,” explains Fetzner. “Years ago in the South, grandmothers would heat water on a stove, for bathing in a copper tub situated on the porch. We sought to honor that tradition and celebrate outdoor bathing.”

Another signature offering revolves around “Pluff Mud”—the dark, soft and nutrient-rich mud found on the banks of the nearby salt-water May River. To stay as true to the real thing as possible, the spa analyzed samples of the riverbed to create its own, trademarked Pluff Mud, which Fetzner describes as “food for the skin.” Guests can opt for the Palmetto Pluff Mud Wrap (90 min./$240) or, for a particularly whimsical slice of low-country life, pairs can spring for Spa Boggin’ (150 min./$395 pp).

The Spa Boggin’ is inspired by the traditions of the Gullah, a local culture of indigenous people who still reside in the sea islands off of South Carolina and Georgia. One pastime dating back to the 19th century was for courting couples to go boggin,’ or frolicking, in the Pluff Mud. Auberge brings the tradition alive by allowing recipients to detox together in a private pine and cypress steam room before receiving a pine sea salt exfoliation. They are then left alone with a big bucket of mud to apply to each other, play with and rinse off in a steam shower before getting back onto treatment tables for side-by-side massages, followed by Baths on the Bluff. Champagne and strawberries or oysters (seasonally) are then served to the happily soaking “boggers.”

“We’re really giving couples the gift of touch, and the opportunity to reconnect, with this service,” says Fetzner. “It’s wonderful to hear the playful laughter of adults.”

The Inn at Palmetto Bluffs

Each year, Auberge analyzes industry trends as well as the strengths and talents of its staff to create new menu additions. This year sees the advent of energy-focused services at the spa.

“Guest demand is driving the ‘results-oriented’ trend we’re seeing, so we’ve responded with services we feel fill that need,” says Fetzner. “We’re a group that believes in the physical and emotional elements of the spa.”

Not every attempt is a winner. Apparently, Auberge’s spa-goers often prefer the tried and true. Fetzner recently tried to launch a chakra-balancing service that began with a smudging ceremony, but it wasn’t all that successful.

“It was more of an advanced spa-going service—kind of like a complicated wine—and it scared some people,” she says with a laugh. “Although, those who were willing to experience it really loved it.”

It’s certainly not bad for the spa’s bottom line that the average client prefers massage, as Fetzner notes that bodywork services are among Auberge’s most profitable treatments, due to the limited product required. The Deep South (60-90 min./$170-$240), a full-body smorgasbord featuring Thai, shiatsu, sports and Swedish modalities, is the reigning favorite. Other options of note include the High Cotton Body Dust Massage (60-90 min./$150-$215), which combines pressure-point focus with an application of ultrasoft powder; and the Toning Massage (60-90 min./$150-$215), during which oils of cypress, juniper and grapefruit are applied in conjunction with precise stimulating techniques to help address water retention and circulation imbalances.

The Inn at Palmetto Bluffs

Auberge deftly sets the stage as a true getaway spa at all touch points. Yet, interestingly, resort guests comprise only 50% of the spa’s clientele. Thanks in part to its monthly spa membership program, Auberge attracts an interesting local client mix: high-income residents, many of whom own houses in the nearby Palmetto Bluff development, and a range of modest-income people from within the local community. Fetzner reports that the majority of clients are 35 to 70 years old, and that 75% of them are female.

Because the spa draws from such diverse sectors, marketing tactics are also varied. Internal promotions offered at check-in, especially during slower seasons, help to pull in resort guests, and email blasts and exclusive offers keep the spa high on loyal members’ radar. To hit the local markets, the spa places targeted ads in community publications. To further appeal to the community, Auberge Spa positions itself as a “day stay-cation.”

“Locals feel like they’re really getting away, and on average they come a few times a year,” says Fetzner. “We’re priced at about $20 more per service than a day spa, but we’re not trying to be the place they go every month. Rather, we want to be that special getaway.”

All of these outreach tactics seem to do the job. In fact, 2012 was a banner year for Auberge spa, netting 10% more than the staff anticipated.

“We just exploded,” says Fetzner. “You wouldn’t know there were still economic issues out there. My personal guess is that the luxury market was the first to go down—and it’s now the first to come back. It’s a good sign that mid-market spas are due to follow.”

To keep drawing guests back into the spa, Fetzner has to not only continue to innovate her treatment menu, but must also remain diligent about hiring only the best staff. “Service is the hallmark of a five-star spa,” she explains. Somewhat surprisingly, Fetzner draws mainly from a local massage school, where she has long served as chairman of the board.

“I have a good feel for raw talent, and the personality necessary to thrive in a resort setting,” she explains. “I’m confident I can then train people in my way. I expect growing pains, but with mutual communication and a willingness to grow, it’s a formula for success.”

Apparently so—the spa’s thriving therapist intern program recently resulted in four successful hires, and was evidenced by the flawless approach and talent exhibited by each spa professional I encountered during my visit.

While guests at the Auberge spa are indeed treated to an oasis of relaxation and calm—not to mention the opportunity to immerse themselves, literally and figuratively, in an atmosphere exclusive to its low-country setting—it’s clear that it is this behind-the-scenes business acumen that allows Auberge to dovetail so perfectly with the Inn’s charm. Upon returning to my porch perch, post-spa, feeling clear of head and truly connected to my surrounds, I realize that, like porching, relaxation is truly an art—and one that Palmetto Bluffs’ Auberge Spa has mastered.

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