I almost always leave later than I plan to, with too little gas in the car. Now here I sit, stuck in traffic, unable to crawl forward or to switch lanes, my tiny car engulfed in the shadow of a truck that is hauling two stories' worth of calves. This is how I make my way to Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa, the world's first Gold LEED Certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) hotel and spa: having had no lunch, late for an appointment, the tank almost on E and seriously considering vegetarianism. The smell emanating from the cattle truck is strong, and the adrenaline-filled eyes of the calves seek me out through the manure-covered holes in the sides of the truck, as if to say, "You, meat eater! This is your fault."
Running on fumes, I at last reach my destination, the town of American Canyon in Napa County. Due to two accidents on Highway 29, I have had plenty of time to take in the local scenery, and while American Canyon may harbor some hidden nooks of beauty, they are not readily apparent. Maybe if there were some trees, anything, a bush even, this strip of wasteland would be more palatable, but as it is, there is little to see that one might want to call home about.
Once inside Gaia, however, I am soothed. If anything, the lack of natural beauty outside serves to emphasize the sensation of relief once one is embraced by the hotel walls. Thank God, I find myself thinking, I'm not out there anymore.
Being Gold LEED Certified means that the hotel is designed and operated following strict guidelines for environmental sustainability. The building materials have been harvested responsibly, and/or recycled; the paints, coatings, adhesives and sealants are low VOC (volatile organic compound); recycled tiles and granite are used throughout; and the large koi pond is filled with recycled water from the premises. As finishing touches, Gaia uses chemical-free landscaping practices, environmentally friendly cleaning products, bulk soap and shower dispensers, and, as a testament to its mission, provides a copy of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth in addition to the Gideon Bible in every room.
Despite all of these details, Gaia just looks like a nice hotel, but once I start poking around, I discover an array of green innovations. For instance, the bathrooms, the lobby and the upstairs areas are lit by skylights that act as little portholes to the outside world, filled with glass prisms that reflect down sunlight. In the lobby, three computer screens keep a constant measure of the hotel's water and electricity use and CO2 emissions. Next to every trash can is a recycle can. The drought-resistant landscaping promises visual riches in the years to come. The Gaia restaurant, though not yet complete, promises to provide local and organic foods. The hotel linens are exclusively cotton, and down comforters, as opposed to polyester throws, grace the beds.
Spa manager Kate Riley gives me a tour of the premises, and then we discuss the ultimate reason for my visit, the spa. Riley tells me her vision of creating a wellness retreat using only the purest ingredients possible and providing the highest quality service. She envisions Spa Gaia as a place where locals and travelers will be able to take the time to care for themselves. To this end, locals (which to Riley means anyone living in the North Bay) can purchase a yearly pass that provides a 15 percent to 20 percent discount on all spa services, along with use of the pool, the unforgettable seven-headed shower and the steam room.
I am given a robe, a pair of slippers and led into one of the massage rooms. Here, I am lulled almost to sleep while I receive a combination of massage and a Thai coconut scrub. This was the first scrub I've ever had in my life, and I only get a massage about once every three years, which, considering how wound up I am, is pretty sad. (The last time I was lulled to sleep anytime before midnight was when I rode the public transit for a previous Green Zone column.)
As the treatment began, I could feel Riley's words, combined with the massage therapist's hands, working their voodoo, and I soon found myself thinking, "I deserve this. Poverty should not be allowed to get in the way of me and my spa treatments. It's just not right."
The truth is, I am not one who can usually afford to go to spas—no matter how green, no matter the locals discount—and receive body treatments. Yet here I am, getting my back scrubbed with some sort of organic, freshly prepared coconut concoction, and suddenly all of the bad things shrink away: the staring calves, the gas station attendant who didn't want to give me my change, the shock of arriving at the world's first Gold LEED Certified hotel only to find it so awkwardly placed. None of this matters anymore, and as I lay there, soft music floating out of a speaker, warm unbleached cotton towels draped around my neck and over my eyes, I am filled with a temporary sense of serenity that whispers in my inner ear: You should start doing this every month.
Just charge it.
Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa, 3600 Broadway, American Canyon. 707.674.2100. To contact Spa Gaia directly, call 707.674.0168.