Soaking in Salt: A new kind of spa

This past weekend we got the most amount of snow I’ve seen in Charlottesville all winter and not many were out on Saturday, but Michal’s four-wheel drive did well on the roads so we thought we’d try out a Living Social deal we found for a flotation center near the Downtown Mall.

Aqua Float is a totally different kind of spa or wellness center than Michal and I have ever visited – more focused on individual meditation and healing rather than a social experience we could share with each other and friends.  We spent 90 minutes in individual rooms within enclosed tanks, each boasting more than 800 pounds of saltwater with a little ambient lighting.

We took a tour of the facility before getting enclosed in our individual tanks.

When I first saw our individual tanks, they reminded me of that moment when Matt Damon woke up in the film Interstellar.

First impressions:

  • It looks like a space ship or a device from some sci-fi, futuristic film.
  • I need to be extra careful not to accidentally rub my eyes with salt as it will burn.
  • I will probably get bored, but this is supposed to be healing so I’m going with the flow.

Afterward:

  • I fell asleep half-way through and woke up with a start as it took me a minute to re-orient myself. I also started to feel a bit claustrophobic so I opened the lid of tank a bit.
  • I was incredibly thirsty – downing two water bottles immediately.
  • After showering off all the salt, my skin felt amazingly smooth and I was glowing.
  • When Michal and I met up in the lounge, we helped ourselves to complimentary fruit, lemon-infused water and tea while reading a few materials on the benefits of floating, as well as journaling/doodling. This time helped with extending the relaxation experience and alleviated my dehydration.
  • I felt a boost in my mood and energy level that lasted me through the day.

Would I do it again?

Probably not unless there is another LivingSocial deal – We paid $29 each for what normally costs $60 each. Also – the length of the session seemed a bit too long to me as I did get a bit stir-crazy in that tank.

However, I like finding unique, local spots like this and will now consider doing my Epsom salt baths at home as I love the way my skin feels afterward. This was also a very calming, restorative experience that I would recommend if you’re having a stressful or anxious week, as it truly helped me to quiet my mind.

Quotes from the website and brochures that stood out:

“Being a float tank is like relaxing in outer space.”

“Trust the water.” – relating to letting your head fall back and your neck relax, as that isn’t our natural inclination when in deep water (FYI – I prefer using the neck pillow for extra support.)

“No pathogenic organisms can survive salt concentrations above 10 percent.” – helped in making me feel reassured that the water is clean, plus there is an intense filtration system and everything in the facility is spotless, well –maintained and soothing

Have you ever tried a floatation center or are you interested? The employees at the one we visited in Charlottesville told us the majority in the U.S. are out on the West Coast.

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Winter Weekend Getaway: ‘Taking to the Waters’

In my quest to complete my Cville Bucket List in our second and final year at Darden, my husband Michal and I have discovered a few spots in Central Virginia that are a fun alternative to the typical Jacuzzi, whirpool or hot tub in a ski lodge: the Omni Homestead and Jefferson Pools.

Less than two hours away from Charlottesville, these two facilities have the same owner (Omni) but drastically different feels – swanky vs. rustic. The following is recap of a Saturday-Sunday trip that Michal and I took last month when we decided to “take to the waters,” in Thomas Jefferson’s words.

Back to the Basics

After a long day of hiking in the Hidden Valley and Cobbler Mountain trails, we were beat. (And yes, hiking in the winter is somewhat common in the area, especially during this year’s overall mild winter.)

This hike is known for the views on its long walking bridges. The weather and scenery that day make this photo seem like it was during the fall season!

This hike is known for the views on its long walking bridges. The weather and scenery that day make this photo seem like it was during the fall season!

Our legs were ready for some relaxation, so we checked into the Warm Springs Inn. The inn was cozy and had a lot of character with the main building’s beautiful architectural details, as it used to be a courthouse and jail in 1802. Bonus: The inn was lot more affordable of $96/night instead of $180/night or more at the Omni Homestead down the road.

The most advantageous part about staying at the inn was the location – It’s right across from the historic Jefferson Pools. According to the website, “the pools are named for Thomas Jefferson, who sojourned here in 1818 to spend three weeks relaxing within our Virginia mountain spa.”

It felt like we time traveled to Thomas Jefferson's era - except for the neon-colored noodle floaties.

It felt like we time traveled to Thomas Jefferson’s era – except for the floating neon-colored noodles we used.

Although the Jefferson Pools were charming with its history, it seems they haven’t renovated since that time period.

The surrounding walkways and parking lot were muddy after melted snow and rain and no pavement, and the building itself was a rickety wood dome with a “skylight” that looked like a clear plastic tarp that had a rip in it. Not to mention, there were no working public bathrooms or insulation for the dressing rooms. Expert advice: Based on suggestions from the innkeeper across the street, I planned ahead and wore bathing suit underneath my clothes to minimize the amount of time it took to get into the water.

The water was just above body temperature, so they’re not as hot as the springs at the Homestead but the co-ed pool was much bigger so I didn’t feel claustrophobic. Plus, they provided noodles to help with floating and it was deep and wide enough that I could swim or tread water a bit when it wasn’t busy.

For $17 to soak as long as you want, it wasn’t too expensive, but it really should have had a discount as the more upscale Homestead was similarly priced at the time we went.

After freshening up at the inn across the street (again – I must emphasize the convenient location because you’ll then limit the amount of time you’re out of the pools in an unheated environment!) we were starving and ready for dinner at The Waterwheel. We loved this place for the combination of big city-standard gourmet food with the hospitality and modesty of the countryside. My fav dishes were the savory Oyster-Stuffed Mushrooms, fresh Highland County Mountain Trout (sourced only a few minutes away) and the fluffy Sour Cream Maple Syrup Cake.

Best part of dinner: Checking out the wine cellar in lieu of ordering off of a wine menu, where you can take your time to select your own bottle! We scored one for $27 – an incredible steal for a good quality red.

Enjoying our dinner and the bottle of wine we found in the cellar!

We both got fish for dinner – salmon and trout. Both were yummy but I’ll never forget that bottle of wine!

Serenity in the Springs

After church the following day, Michal and I enjoyed the Homestead Spa for its luxurious and plentiful amenities with the indoor Aqua Thermal Suite and the outdoor Spa Garden.

Panoramic view of the Spa Garden that includes the natural warm and hot springs.

Pano view of the Spa Garden that includes the natural warm and hot springs – early on a Sunday before the crowds.

The Aqua Thermal Suite was separated between the males and females so we each took some time on our own to explore these saunas and showers. And the bright tile colors, rushing water sounds and floating scents of lavender or eucalyptus appealed to all my senses.

After some quality alone time, we met in the co-ed, very family friendly indoor pool for a few laps (needed to get our workout in for the day). And then we rested in the co-ed lounge while filling up on some complimentary tea and fruit, along with some yummy turkey croissant sandwiches we purchased at the cafe. After this sustenance and some magazine reading while snuggled up in blankets, we ventured outdoors.

There were two springs – hot and warm. The warm one was a little murky for my liking, but it at least felt very natural/authentic. The hot one was the perfect temp for me, but was a bit small so it got crowded at points. Out here, the majority of people were our age or slightly older and mostly seemed to be couples. Expert advice: There was a co-ed sauna nearby that employees recommended we leave our towels and robes so that they stayed warm.

Overall

This trip was the perfect weekend getaway, as the drive wasn’t too far from Charlottesville but far enough that we got to experience something adventurous. Going to the springs is the best recovery activity after hitting the ski slopes or trekking through mountainous terrain. Not to mention, the overall price tag (especially during the winter season) makes the trip affordable for grad students on a budget looking for a little adventure.

Cashing in

Go during the winter season to maximize discounts.

The Homestead’s pricing in January (not sure how long specials last so call first):

  • Sunday – Thursday: One-day pass: $40 -> $20
  • Friday and Saturday: One-day pass: $55 -> $30

Similar saunas and springs

Michal and I have actually checked out a range of spas and saunas from Korean King Spa & Sauna when we lived in Chicago suburbs to the historic baths of Budapest and thermal springs of Costa Rica during our summer vacations.

Are there any natural spas in the world that you recommend we visit?

Looking back at London during a Darden GFE

One of the best pieces of advice that I could pass on to incoming Darden partners:

When your significant other/student goes on a “Study Abroad” type of experience through Darden, (Global Business Experience, Global Field Experience, a club-sponsored conference, an exchange program, etc.), consider taking the opportunity (if your schedule and finances align) to join him or her for a time – either before it starts, after it ends, and/or during part of the time the trip takes place if possible.

I joined my husband Michal during his GFE last semester, and I couldn’t have been more grateful.

At the end of spring semester of Michal’s first year at Darden, back in May, I couldn’t join Michal during his Israel GBE because it would have been too expensive for both of us to travel there, and his overall schedule did not allow much free time for us to be together anyway. It should be noted that the Israel GBE was an incredible opportunity for Michal, as it included a mix of cultural, business and classroom settings. Read more about Michal’s Israel GBE class here.

At the beginning of fall semester of Michal’s second year at Darden, back in August, Michal applied to more of these types of courses. One in particular stood out: a GFE in London and South Africa that was a consulting project for a Nigerian-based company. The trip occurred partially during Thanksgiving Break, and the company provided a travel stipend for Darden students in exchange for their work. With the ease of some of the financial burden of the trip and the timing during a period I would have been given holiday off of work any way, I couldn’t help but join Michal on his second global experience with Darden.

Michal and I decided to arrive a few days in the UK before he started working in London so that we could spend some time with mutual friends in Cambridge. We found an incredible Airbnb deal that included daily homemade breakfast with a friendly French expat family, and a location on the same block as some of the most popular pubs in town. (We frequented the Elm Tree, for its wide selection of rare Belgian beers.)

Michal and I enjoyed being able to walk everywhere: We toured all the well-known colleges of Cambridge – Trinity, St. John’s and King’s College. We punted down the River Cam so we could get a view of the Backs, and we even attended a choir concert at King’s College Chapel. Almost every moment felt like I was on the set of a Harry Potter movie.

Cambridge

After our jaunt in this quaint university town, we jumped into big city life in London with zest. We stayed at a little townhome-turned-hotel in the South Kensington neighborhood near Imperial College, where Michal would spend his time during office hours on his consulting project. While he worked all day, I visited nearby museums.

Our British friends, who we met back at Darden, recommended all the best restaurants and nightlife in London, along with provided some tips on how to maneuver through all the tourist traps. Of course, we ended up in the rain in front of Buckingham Palace and saw the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.

However, out of all the historic and famous places we visited in the city, my favorite memory with Michal in London was at the end of a long day of sightseeing. At night, we shared a bottle of wine in a dark cavern of London’s oldest wine bar, Gordon’s. Afterward, we walked nearby Embankment Bridge and took in the city and Christmas lights. (Side note: I absolutely adored London’s festive approach to Advent! We went to tons of Christmas markets/festivals, where I found the best Christmas jumper with Olaf from Frozen on it.)

London

Michal ended up going on to the South Africa leg of the trip without me, while I spent a little more time on London on my own before making my way back to the U.S., as it was cheaper to do a round ticket for me. Until that point, I had never explored a foreign city or traveled that much on my own. In total, I spent about a week in London, with the majority of the time by myself.

I’m so glad I took the chance of joining Michal on this experience because this adventure was like the Study Abroad that I ended up never doing while I was in undergrad.

Spring Break – Part 2: Staycation in Cville

For five days of our Spring Break, we were so happy to host two of our close friends from undergrad who are married and live in our home state of Michigan. We met them through the same church where Michal and I met on the campus of Michigan State University, have stood up in each other’s weddings and have kept in touch with each other for almost decade. It was fun to take them around our new stomping grounds! Below are highlights of our time with them:

Tourist in our own town

Michal and I have been saving our visits to the area’s historic landmarks, such as presidential homes, for when our friends and family visit. Best takeaway tip that we discovered through our experience: Show your student ID at Monticello for a discount on tour tickets!

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It’s a good thing one of our visiting friends is a poli-sci professor because we did a very thorough tour of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and of Central and North Grounds at the University of Virginia. A 60-and-sunny day in Cville = summer in Detroit, so our friends were also extremely happy to be able to walk around without a coat. My favorite moment from our touristy times was our picnic dinner on the Lawn in the heart of the “Academical Village” in front of the Rotunda.

Snow day survival 

Ironically enough, our Michiganders didn’t escape the cold too long as we dropped down to 40s on Sunday and had a Snow Day on the Monday after Spring Break. It was a blessing in a way as Michal and I did not have to worry about school and work so we could focus on our friends.

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We kept entertained because the sudden change in cold weather had just the right timing with Selection Sunday for March Madness and St. Patrick’s Day on Monday. We spent a considerable amount of time cheering on our alma mater in the Big 10 tourney, as well as watching UVA in the ACCs with a fellow Darden couple, and then consequently filling in our brackets. And we kept it low-key for St. Patty’s, creating a spiked hot cocoa bar and playing board games like Cranium and Imaginiff.

Michal and I cherish when our friends and family visit us, as we often hosted them when we lived in the Chicago-area for five years. We look forward to hosting more visitors in Cville!

What are your favorite ways to enjoy a Staycation in your area?

Snow Days in the South

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On the left is the view of the Snowpocalypse of 2011 in the Chicago-area from our old apartment. On the right is the view of the snowstorm from our apartment in Charlottesville on Feb. 13-14 of this year. The biggest difference is that we got three days off in 2011 and the snow stuck around for a while in Chicago. Whereas, the snow melted away soon after the storm ended here in Cville.

I’m no stranger to snow.

I grew up in the Detroit area, went to undergrad at Michigan State University in Lansing, and I lived in the Chicago area for five years. I know how helpful it is to put the windshield wipers up on my parked car when a snowstorm is coming, I’m used to keeping a snow brush in my car all year – just in case. I own a formal winter coat, as well as a puffy, ski coat.

But for most of this winter, I have been surprised at being able to wear my fall trench coat around Cville, as it’s been in the 40s and 50s, sometimes getting as high as the 60s. While, my friends and family in Detroit and Chicago have been slammed by the Polar Vortex. One former colleague even remarked that this is the worst winter he’s seen in the Chicago area since the 1960s.

Then, Cville finally got the first official snow days of the year, and I had to fish out my old ski pants and boots from storage.

Because my job is associated with the University, I had two unexpected days off from work, but I found myself home alone for these snow days while my husband interviewed (ironically enough) in Chicago this week. I did the usual – catching up on work and personal emails, watching the Olympics, cleaning the house, reading ahead for book clubs. But I couldn’t stay cooped up for long as I started to develop a bit of cabin fever…yet I didn’t want to venture out into the snow drifts by myself.

Fortunately, some Darden partners came to my rescue!

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Being kids again in the snow with some Darden partners and students! I found out different MacGyver-like techniques for sledding (AKA – riding a shovel like a broom stick, covering large pieces of cardboard with trash bags and re-purposing old tires). And I found out the best method for creating an igloo is to use half melted snow: It’s more pliable, and when it gets colder, it starts to freeze together.

One partner brought his new snow shovel to my apartment complex to help clear the 10 inches of snow from behind my car and my husband’s car. Another partner invited us over to a nearby park with a sledding hill and a field to build an igloo. I’m glad they got me out of my solitary state to appreciate the beauty of the fleeting snow, as it has already mostly melted with the rising temps and sun.

After our outdoor excursion, we warmed up by tossing our socks into the dryer, cracking open a few local craft brews (my fav being the Devil’s Backbone Blonde) and ordering Mellow Mushroom – the best pizza in the area (although I still miss my Chicago deep dish from Lou’s) for dinner. Plus, smores dip for dessert! My new fav, easy sweet snack in cold weather. 

So grateful to have partners and students keeping me company, especially while flying solo during B-school interview season! 

What are your favorite snow day indoor and outdoor activities? Please comment below with your ideas!