Confessions of a Therme Addict – Harbin Hot Springs, Middletown, California, USA

“Oh, it’s clothing optional,” said my friend, looking out the car window at a naked man walking along the side of the road.

We were driving to our lodging on the grounds of Harbin Hot Springs, north of the Napa Valley in California. In my defense, I had urged her to read the website carefully before agreeing to come. I had known what to expect because I’d heard of the place a couple years earlier from a friend whose description had made me desperate to experience it myself.

Fortunately, my traveling companion was open minded and appreciative of the value of warm, bubbling water. We unloaded the rental car and I drove it back to the parking area near the main entrance, then hiked back to our cottage feeling embarrassingly overdressed. Not that everyone else was naked, but sarongs and zorries were more common than jeans and Tevas.

I had booked us into one of the facility’s three private cottages where we had our own private balcony, stone and tile bathroom and a tiny fridge and sink. We’d have to share the one big bed, but we could handle that for a couple of nights. It was the Fourth of July weekend, at $230.00 per night, our cottage was pricier than any of the traditional accommodations we’d be staying in on the rest of our trip. It was worth it for the seclusion provided by surrounding trees and bushes, no television and, unless we cheated and turned them on, no phones.

We soon learned that our private accommodation was not in keeping with the communal tone of the place. Coming from our New York apartments, I don’t think we could have handled the cheaper dorm rooms on this first trip, and we certainly weren’t prepared to camp out. These housing options can be very economical, ranging from $25.00 to $70.00 per person.

As soon as we were settled, we put on our swimsuits and headed for the pool deck. This sprawling, multi-level complex extends across the face of a hillside, with some areas shaded by wooden lattices and others open to the sun. Planters with cheerful flowers and climbing vines separate areas and benches built into the railings. Outer Banks style provides lots of seating.

How strange it is to be out of place wearing a swimsuit! The “clothing optional” comments on their website had failed to convey, at least to me, the truth. Optional means you look like an uptight New Yorker if you wear a swimsuit. As a native Californian transplanted to New York, I automatically reject any eastern stereotype tossed at me, so within moments of slipping into the large recreational pool, I slipped out of my swimsuit.

Ah the pleasures of swimming in the buff – I hadn’t experienced that since moving away from my parent’s home and private swimming pool. It’s actually a little hard to get used to, the way certain parts of the body behave when not restrained by Lycra. I have plenty of parts that, well, wiggle.

From the recreational pool, which is kept at a comfortable swimming temperature, we moved to the heart pool. Named for its shape, it is kept between 95 and 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Both are fed from a cold spring on the property and heated by heat pumps. Children are allowed in them, as well as on the wooden decks surrounding them. Consequently, I found myself naked in a small pool with a boy of about ten, who seemed oblivious to the state of undress of the adults around him, although he was wearing swim trunks. When he asked us if we minded if he jumped in, causing a splash, I decided that this kid is being raised right. But I couldn’t help wondering what he and all the other kids at the springs wrote in their “What I did on my summer vacation” essays on the first day of school.

Finally we moved to the warm pool, which is fed indirectly by the hot springs and also kept between 95 and 98 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the largest of the spring-fed pools, about ten by twenty feet. You can completely submerge yourself vertically in the deep end. Bows of a venerable old fig tree shade the pool with crystals and dream catchers suspended from them on mono filaments just above the bathers’ heads. Underwater jets provide a constant flow of fresh warm water, as well as massages.

Harbin’s hot spring is volcanically heated, the water pushed to the surface by the resulting steam pressure. It’s captured and filtered through a peroxone-ultraviolet system (no chlorine or other chemicals) before being fed into the pools at a rate of fourteen gallons a second. So the water in each pool (except the big swimming pool) is completely changed in an hour.

As we soaked we watched practitioners of Watsu, Harbin’s own style of water massage. The practitioner stood in the pool holding the massagee, slowly moving and holding his or her limbs and body in various positions, head always above the surface. At first I thought these couples were just that – couples engaged in a very intimate public display of affection. Both participants seemed to be in semi-trances, eyes closed, faces relaxed, completely absorbed in one another to a degree that made me, an outsider, slightly uncomfortable. Only later when I reviewed the treatments on offer did I understand what I had been watching.

After our soaks my friend and I, me wrapped in my towel, explored the rest of the facilities around the pool – toilets, showers, and the big common kitchen in the dormitory building. We soon learned that the kitchen is strictly vegan. We had planned to cook some delicious pre-marinated steak that we’d picked up at Trader Joes in Napa. Oh well. Instead we made a dinner of salad, cheese, bread, wine, and other goodies from our cooler, enjoyed on our secluded porch.

The next morning I enjoyed an herbal wrap and massage administered by a professional masseuse in a poolside private room. While I indulged, my friend explored Harbin’s hiking trails (in appropriate attire). Before venturing south to Napa for the afternoon and dinner, we revisited the warm pool and tried out the hot pool and cold plunge. The hot pool is 113 degrees Fahrenheit, fed directly from the spring. It is housed in a small building, uphill from the warm pool with stained glass providing serene lighting in the steamy atmosphere. The cold plunge is in a grotto a few steps above the hot pool building. It is chilly, fed by the aforementioned cold spring. I found these two almost beyond my tolerance level, although I think given more time, I would have gotten used to the extremes.

By the second day my friend had also shed her swimsuit. On the third morning when we were scheduled to drive down to San Francisco, we rose early for one last soak before reluctantly taking our leave. I had not visited either of the cafés, although my friend got us muffins and coffee the second morning. Nor had we made time for any of Harbin’s many classes such as Yoga and meditation. We were not there for any of the special celebrations, such as drumming circles and lunar and solar celebrations.

Harbin is not everyone’s cup of tea. The nudity aside, there’s a high emphasis on spirituality – indeed, Harbin is owned and operated by the Heart Consciousness Church, which is pretty much what it sounds like – a non-denominational new age church. Visitors should be at least tolerant and respectful of a high degree of “hippy dippy” new age atmosphere. But if you’re able to let go of your preconceptions, and your clothes, you might discover a part of yourself that you never knew. Or, you’ll come away totally relaxed and energized.

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