That Time We Paid Spa Prices for a Prison Experience
My mom wanted a spa weekend for her 75th birthday. Since you do not deny a 75-year-old black woman anything she wants, especially for her birthday, my aunt flew in from Chicago to meet me in St. Louis. We flew into Oklahoma to meet my mom. Then the three of us drove to Texas to meet her friend at our hotel at Spa Castle.
That name sounds simultaneously decadent and medieval — and a wee bit terrifying. What part of the castle would we be in? The dungeon? Would we race across the parapet in death-defying maneuvers, like Robin Hood? Would we wait behind arrowslits spying on the enemies encamped beyond the moat with their catapults and flaming projectiles? Would we have to build a battering ram and storm the castle to even get in? Ever since I learned the difference between a castle and a palace on my trip to Vienna, my imagination runs wild whenever castles enter the conversation, which is suprisingly frequent.
So imagine my disappointment when we arrived to find only a hotel, which didn’t look like a castle at all — not a palace, not even a turret. Nevertheless, we checked in and planned our spa activities for the weekend, beginning with a group massage that evening. We went to our room to stow our bags before our services, and our adventure began.
The lights came on when we opened the door, which was great, especially since as soon as we opened the door we were met by an unexpected stairwell. We hadn’t signed up for any sort of lofted room, but we trudged up the stairs with our gear, anyway. Getting one 40-something, three 70-somethings, and all of our bags (yes, lots of bags — we traveled not just with clothes and toiletries but also with car snacks, hotel snacks, cakes, beverages, and a vase of flowers) up those steep stairs took some time. And just as I reached the top, the lights cut out.
In a moment, the glow from our phones illuminated the stairwell, and I spied on the wall at the top of the stairs what looked like a keycard lock you would find on the outside of a hotel room door. I stuck in my keycard hoping for the best, and power returned to the room. My husband tells me that only having power when your keycard is inserted into a device is common around the world, but I had never seen it before. I understand how this is probably a great way to save energy, but it was the first of several occurrences that left me feeling powerless at Spa Castle.
The concept of castle always transports me back to Vienna, where I learned that palaces are sumptuous city residences while castles, also residences, are built to be defensible. Castles discourage unwanted entry by employing defensive building design and fortifications. Castles are usually made of strong materials, such as stone, and placed high for maximum visibility. They have ramparts patrolled by guards and heavily defended main gates. Some even have moats.
You know what else has all of these same castle elements? Alcatraz. Is it a residence? Check. Is it built of strong materials? Check. Is it on high ground? Check. Does it have heavily defended ramparts and gates? Check and check. Does it have a moat? Check — Hello San Francisco Bay!
Yes, Alcatraz, one of the world’s most infamous prisons, is a castle designed not so much to keep people out, but rather to keep people in. And the longer we stayed at Spa Castle, the more I understood why it was called a castle — to cleverly disguise its true identity as a sort of prison.
The prisonification of our spa weekend began as soon as we checked in for services and were stripped of our identities. We each received numbered wristbands that we had to wear at all times in the spa, to scan for entry and exit and to receive services. For the rest of our stay, no one in the spa referred to me by my name, only my number — 237629.
I held my wristband to the scanner to unlock the turnstile to enter the spa section of the building, but not the spa itself. After passing through a metal detector, I noticed the male and female populations herded in different directions. I joined the appropriate line and walked to the women’s entrance to the spa. This entrance led to an anteroom, but before entering, I had to remove my shoes and socks. Several of us lined the walls removing our footwear; we didn’t even have benches to sit on while we did so.
Upon entering the anteroom, I had to find a locker whose number corresponded to my wristband. I found the tiny locker on the lower tier of the locker bank, crouched down to its level, waved my wrist in front of it, and heard it click open. I placed my footwear into the aptly named shoe locker, rejoined the line, and shuffled my way to the processing desk.
At the desk, a brusque woman demanded my wrist, scanned my band, and issued me a uniform. Not to any one of us in particular, the woman repeated her instructional mantra at regular intervals and pointed to the board of printed instructions when not scanning wristbands: Take off all of your clothes, including underwear; put on your uniform; wear your uniform at all times, unless in the pool area; shower before receiving services. This is a barefoot spa — no shoes or socks allowed. Follow all posted signs.
I followed my line to a bay of larger lockers, where we all stripped down, totally devoid of privacy, donned our uniforms, scanned our wristbands, and clicked open our lockers to store our civilian attire.
My mom, aunt, and friend cheated, though. We didn’t shower before heading off to our group massage. We stuck it to the man and giggled about our infraction as we left the dungeon for the elevator to the main spa level.
It took me a moment to realize I was supposed to respond to my number being called rather than my name. The woman, agitated, repeated herself and beckoned me to check in for my massage. I waved my arm over the scanner and was led to one of four tables lined up in a semi-private room. Fortunately I knew the three ladies sharing the room with me, as I had grown up with all of them, and I thanked God we were all able to book the same massage time. I had seen enough of strangers in all their glory for one day.
After our massages we descended back down to holding, waved wristbands by our lockers. Click. Put on our civvies, marched to our shoe lockers. Click. We walked to the door holding our footwear, paused immediately after exiting the spa to put on our socks and shoes, and walked to the exit turnstile. Waving our wristbands to gain egress, we re-entered the world as civilians.
And that ended Day 1.
Day 2 began the same way as Day 1. Days run together in Spa Castle. Enter holding. Wave your wristband. Click. Open your locker. Stow your shoes. Get back in line. Grab your uniform. Wave your wristband. Click. We changed up our routine on Day 2; however, as we set off to the mandatory shower and the pool.
The inner pool resided in the women’s section and was a woman’s only nude pool. The outer pool, where we went, was for the mixed gender general population, where we wore our own bathing suits and told ourselves we were free to act according to the dictates of our hearts. We dipped into one of several hot tubs, but it was just hot. There weren’t any bubbles to whisk away our tension. We looked around for a timer and never found one, but what we did find was a button to depress for jets of water. To keep the jets coming, one person in our party had to get out of the hot tub to press the button every 5 minutes. Life on the inside was better with a crew, and we staked our claim to that hot tub staring down any would-be interlopers.
Only when we were good and ready did we leave the pool area and re-enter the all-female zone. The posted sign limited us to two towels each, which seemed reasonable, until we saw the towels — hand towels. Each person was only allowed two hand towels for the day. Another sign also forbade us from ascending to the spa area proper while still wet. We did the best we could.
Throughout the rest of the day, I answered to my number, scanned for my services and my food, and learned to sign for a tip before the services even ended. That’s how they hooked you. They held up your services until you signed for their tip. I thought it was a fluke when the night before, mid-massage, my therapist stopped, presented me with a receipt to sign for a tip, and then continued my service. But that was no fluke; that was standard operating practice in the Castle. My last service of the day was a manicure, where with wet nails, I had to sign for the tip before they would put my hands under the dryer.
My nails didn’t dry all the way, and I ruined my manicure when I clicked access into my locker and changed into my civvies. I didn’t even care. I was ready to go and not hear the click of a lock again for a long time.
We finally emerged as civilians and ended Day 2, thankful that no Day 3 waited for us.
My mom ended up having a fantastic birthday weekend. We laughed through all of our experiences and have some pretty funny selfies to prove it. I would definitely do another spa weekend someday, but I’ll look for a Spa Palace instead.