two bunch palms

There’s the Rub

Palm Springs Life’s massage expert proves it’s nice to be kneaded.

Maggie Downs Health & Wellness

two bunch palms
Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs takes relaxation seriously.

I’m a person who juggles multiple jobs and deadlines, spending entire days bathed in the glow of my laptop computer. I also have a curious, mischievous toddler who constructs ramps to climb over baby gates.

All of this is to say I am an anxious person with a body that contains more knots than a slab of pine.

So when I want to de-stress and unwind, I also want to know my trip to the spa will be worthwhile. And in a valley rich with spas, resorts, and retreats, where do you begin?
Happy to help. Whether you consider massage to be an indulgence or an integral means to health and well-being, one thing is certain — the only thing worse than no massage is a bad massage.

These are my favorites:

Blue is the color of the sea, and the Palm Springs Yacht Club spa at The Parker Palm Springs.

The Parker Palm Springs

From the moment I enter the spa at the Parker Palm Springs, I know this place is unlike any other. For one thing, it has a cheeky name — the Palm Springs Yacht Club — and is designed with a nautical theme, even though it’s landlocked. I relate to the video on its website, “We believe you are only young once, but you can be immature forever.” Humor is the ultimate relaxant, no?

The floor is a plush, navy carpet, with a pattern reminiscent of boating knots. A rich navy curtain hangs from the ceiling. Treatment rooms in the 16,500-square-foot facility are named for America’s Cup-winning yachts, like Constellation and Black Magic. The attendant behind the front desk introduces herself as “commodore.”

“Would you like your complimentary cucumber-infused vodka now?” she asks.

Aye, aye, matey!

The commodore leads me to the locker room, which is crisp white and gleaming, with mirrors and long counters lined with amenities. The locker rooms are also connected to a eucalyptus steam room and sauna. If this is what it’s like to be on a yacht, I’m competing for the next America’s Cup.

I lounge by the indoor saline pool in a fluffy robe awaiting my massage. The patio doors are open, offering a citrus blossom-scented breeze from the outdoors. Even though it’s hot outside, the pool area remains cool and freshening.

The spa’s whimsical manifesto hangs above a nearby Jacuzzi, reinforcing the Parker’s ethos of doing whatever makes you feel good. It reads, in part: “We believe you can swim right after you eat. We believe we should trust those seeking enlightenment and doubt those who claim to have found it. We believe the Earth is three-quarters water, and your body is three-quarters water, and this is purely coincidence.”

My massage therapist Sylvia whisks me away to a private room. Although the Tailor Made Massage is the most popular, I’ve booked the Thai Inspired Massage, available in 60- or 90-minute treatments. It promises “a blending of non-aggressive, fluid movements and compressive stretching release blocked energy.”

For maximum comfort, Sylvia offers choices almost every step of the way. First up, music. I can listen to jazz standards, Broadway, divas, classical guitar, or symphony, but I opt for Tibetan chants, because I relax to monks growling at me. The massage experience includes aromatherapy, and Sylvia offers a selection of six essential oils. I choose sandalwood.

A traditional Thai massage involves acupressure, muscle compression, and a rigorous series of Cirque du Soleil-type movements by the masseuse. This massage wasn’t like that. It’s Thai-inspired, just like the shot of vodka, infused with a hint of cucumber.

The massage consists of deep tissue work, choreographed with gentle stretches along the way. Sylvia bends my legs, presses my knees toward my hip, then pulls each limb outward from my body.

Afterward my body is loose, there’s less constriction in my joints, and I swear I’m taller. I never left the desert, but I guess you could say I got my sea legs.

Two Bunch Palms

Any resort that extolls the necessity of quiet is a place that takes relaxation seriously. And that’s what you’ll find at Two Bunch Palms Spa Resort, an award-winning destination in Desert Hot Springs.

Signs dot the adults-only property with this gentle request: “Please talk softly. This is a quiet place.” Some of the biggest attractions on-site include a rock labyrinth for walking meditation, a yoga dome, and feeding turtles around the pond. This tranquil and rambling property is definitely a place to use your “inside voice,” as my mom might say.

Clients of the spa are given access to the famed Grotto to take the waters, one of the biggest benefits to getting a treatment here. The Grotto’s mineral-rich water comes from a natural aquifer and is cooled before cascading into the pool areas. The smaller pool is a toasty 104 degrees, while the larger pool runs 99 degrees, both low in sulfur and high in lithium. Guests report sleeping more soundly, increased relaxation, and full-body detoxification, simply from soaking.

A man and his spa therapist walk through the lounge. He hugs her and begins to weep.

“This blew my mind,” he says. He hugs his therapist again, clinging to her like a leaf that is reluctant to fall from the tree. “I just know we’ll see each other again.”

She leaves, and I grab the man to ask what treatment he just received. He’s sobbing too hard to speak. Seriously.

“I can’t. It’s just … too good,” he says, then scurries out the door.

So my expectations are high when I meet my massage therapist, Matthew, who is late but friendly. He leads me outside the spa building to a small, clean bungalow with a chugging air conditioner and a CD player.

I’m having the 7 Centers Chakra, a 90-minute treatment, designed to align the chakras so that energy can flow in a balanced way. Chakras are an Indian concept; they are thought to be seven energy points throughout the metaphysical body, each responsible for a different aspect of a being. The blue chakra, for instance, is associated with creativity, communication, and truthfulness, and is situated near the throat.

Matthew makes this treatment a full sensory experience, using seven pungent massage oils. They remind me somewhat unpleasantly of the smell of couches in college. There’s one oil for each chakra, as he massages that part of the body and focuses on cleansing that energy center.

Blame it on the serene locale or my soak in the Grotto. Or maybe Matthew worked particularly hard on my sleep chakra. Whatever the cause, I end up dozing long before the end of this experience.

The watsu pool at The Riviera Palm Springs’ Azure Spa.

The Riviera Palm Springs

The pool scene at The Riviera Palm Springs is intense, with stacks of bronzed bodies on the daybeds and tipsy bachelorette parties downing pitchers of margaritas. Judging from the giggles and shouts, all of them seem to be named “Kimberlayyy!”

So I am surprised — and delighted — to step into the Riviera’s Azure Spa. The ambiance couldn’t be any more different from the frenetic energy that crackles in the rest of the hotel. It’s a soothing, elegant space, with dim hallways and framed photographs of the Buddha head of Ayutthaya, Thailand. The spa’s Buddha Lounge area contains a watsu pool (for aquatic bodywork) with two waterfalls and a hot tub, as well as comfortable seats where clients sip hot tea or bottled water.

Although the spa menu draws inspiration from Thai and Indonesian treatments, the lounge is styled more like a Turkish hammam (communal bath), complete with lanterns, tile, and palm trees growing through the floor. The music is soothing and blessedly nondescript.

My massage therapist finds me in the Buddha Lounge and introduces herself as Aria.

“I bet people sing to you all the time,” I say.

“Actually, no,” she says. “Everyone asks if I’ve been to the casino in Vegas.”

Aria begins the massage with me face-down on the table. She offers several therapies, including a Watsu Water Therapy Massage and Chi Massage. But I’m getting the Detox Massage, an 80-minute treatment unique to this property.

Aria grabs my feet. I don’t know what she’s doing, but it’s so pleasant I don’t want it to stop. I consider saying so, but am lulled to such a happy place, I can’t even speak.

It turns out Aria is employing cupping, an ancient therapy in which suction is created on the skin to increase blood flow and circulation. Sometimes this involves glass cups and fire, which can leave bruises and welts, but that’s not happening here. Aria uses silicone cups, one the size of a Dixie cup, another the diameter of a roll of film, and pumps them to create a vacuum on my skin. It’s remarkable. I didn’t even realize how little blood was getting to my feet until I felt it flowing to my toes.

The rest of the massage is a blissful blur. Aria is responsive to the parts of my body that are tight or sore, and she seems to know instinctively how to make them feel better. Her fingers are like steel. Afterward, I drink a tiny cup of tea that tastes like ginger and tree twigs — oddly delicious.

My plan was to re-tox at the Riviera’s posh Sidebar Lounge after the massage, but I feel too cleansed to even look at a martini olive. Instead, I sit in the steam room, feel the blood throbbing through my veins, and breathe deeply.

Treatments at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage invoke Cahuilla culture.

The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was From the Mixed Up-Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a novel in which a young girl and her brother run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The kids hide in the bathroom at closing time, bathe in the fountain, and sleep in antique furniture exhibits at night. Beyond the adventure of running away, I longed to find a place that felt like it belonged to me, a place in which I felt so comfortable that I’d be willing to squat there.

Decades later, I find my place in The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage Spa. It’s a bright, chic space that looks natural but also luxe, like yoga-studio-meets-Restoration Hardware.

With a spa menu offering a Desert Wildflower Poultice Massage and an aromatic bespoke treatment, I opt for the Sec-He Rock Ritual, because I’m a sucker for anything with the word “ritual.” This treatment derives its name from the Cahuilla word for boiling water — and pays homage to the healing properties of the region’s mineral springs.

The ritual begins with a 25-minute scrub using rough rock salt and oil scented with clove and ginger. Then the lights are dimmed and I’m left to soak in a deep and spacious infinity tub for 15 minutes, surrounded by thick, stately curtains pulled tight around the tub. I feel like royalty.

My massage therapist, Lili, is small in stature but mighty in her work. Each of the hot stones she employs are about 120 degrees, definitely warm but not unpleasant, and Lili handles them like mini wrecking balls, destroying every knot in my upper back and shoulders with deft strokes. I don’t know if this treatment lives up to the promise of honoring the desert surroundings, but it does honor my desire to feel like a human again and not a Hobbit who hunches over a laptop all day.

In total, I experience 100 of the best minutes of my life here and highly recommend that everybody must get hot stoned.

After my treatment, I joke to the spa attendants that I’m not leaving. I could hide in a locker at closing time and sleep at night on the Cleopatra bed, which sits plump and inviting in the middle of the locker room. I’d bathe in one of the aromatherapy showers (your choice of mango, lemon, or jasmine), drink tea and water infused with cranberry and elderberry extracts, and sustain myself with green apples and handfuls of fancy trail mix.

The attendants laugh. But I’m in locker right now. Shhh.