Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ojo Caliente Spa - Still Funky Despite Upgrade

Entry to Ojo Caliente

I’m not generally a spa person although I like the acronym, “Salus per Aquas” or health through water.  They’re usually too intimidating and rich for my taste.  But trust New Mexico to blend the funky with the fabulous at Ojo Caliente, a resort/spa 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

This is an old place.  Hundreds of years ago, the ancestors of the Tewa tribe lived near the hot waters in the thousands, building pueblos nearby. In the 1500's,  Spaniards passed through and named the hot springs “Ojo Caliente” or“hot eye”.  They were impressed with the powerful chemicals contained in the waters and valued by the natives.  Today, those minerals of lithium, iron, soda, and arsenic are still believed to rejuvenate and refresh the bathers.
Porch on Historic Hotel

Ojo claims to be America’s oldest health spa.  In 1868,  Antonio Joseph, New Mexico’s first territorial representative to Congress, opened a spa here with overnight lodging.  Known for its curing of invalids, the sanatarium attracted the ill from around the country. The current hotel, built in 1916, is creeping up on its 100th birthday.  Traces of its earlier days remain with real room keys, creaky, wooden hallways, transom windows above the doors, quilt covered beds, and small baths without showers.  One is required to shower in the new facilities close to the hot waters.  With no TV or radio, reading is encouraged in the room’s  rocking chair.

One of the new additions
When Ojo Caliente was renovated and changed into a “luxury” spa, regular clients were worried about the upgrade.  Hippies from the hills loved this place.  I had visited once before the 2005-2010 changes and found it very laid back.  There was a turnstile in the dusty welcoming booth with a small gift store nearby containing primarily t-shirts and soaps.  Staying the night was more an afterthought than a treasured part of the experience.  Today, in addition to the historic hotel, new rooms have been added in front of the cliff with various amenities.  Most are appropriate for families but a few seemed X-rated with private hot tubs on the back porch!

The hot springs area has been significantly upgraded although two pools are holdovers - the Iron Pool to prevent fatigue, and the indoor Soda Pool, to aid digestion. The swimming pool is greatly improved with the coolest of the waters.  Temperatures for the pools range from 95 to 111 degrees.  Forty licensed massage therapists (LMTs) stay busy with the Earthkeeper's Hot Stone Massage being the favorite.  Gratefully, the old-fashioned, deep tubs in the bath house are still available for soaking in the natural light above.

The owners are serious about preserving a tranquility appropriate for a relaxation spa.  A sign at the Iron Pool advises all that only whispers are allowed.  Upon entering the hallway in the historic hotel, a Quiet Zone sign greets you..  And cell phones are only permitted in the lodging units and large parking lots, a rule I particularly appreciated.  Yet, we found it easy to meet other guests in some of the pools and in the restaurant lobby.  A raw food enthusiast shared her raw grain cereal with us as we discussed New Mexico art and we chatted easily with two girlfriends from Colorado in the Arsenic pool.

Restaurant Lobby in Historic Hotel
The greatest surprise was the restaurant.  Three meals - three wonderful experiences.  Thank you Chef Neil Stuart.  I’m hooked on chile rellenos and will even take notes on what can be stuffed in them. The roasted vegetable, sweet pepper and goat cheese relleno for an appetizer in the evening rated an entry and I was tempted by the buffalo sausage and polenta breakfast relleno.  All courses had options with New Mexico twists such as blue corn meal pancakes and pumpkin tamales. Vegetarians will be very happy at the choices as will the carnivores.

The trick to making the visit here more economical is to arrive during the week as prices escalate for the week-end.  Historic hotel rooms are still a bargain and all stays include unlimited use of the hot pools from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m..  A several day stay has more to offer than one would expect with nearby hiking  trails and easy day trips to Taos and Santa Fe.

In perusing reviews of Ojo Caliente, I found one written before the renovations.   It was described as “the buildings are old and solid, the air is sharp and clear, and you have to hunt to find a phone.”  This description is still good for at least part of the spa.  And the pinon infused air, clear New Mexico blue sky and star studded evenings have not changed.  But with the additions and renovations, a larger clientele can be accommodated without sacrificing the magical setting that has drawn humans for thousands of years.
Hammocks by the swimming pool

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