Austin has two wellness retreats that are 30 minutes from downtown: Lake Austin Spa and Miraval Austin. The former is set on 19 lakeside acres, while the latter is on 220 acres in Hill Country, but the differences don’t end there. I recently visited them both in quick succession to draw their contrasts into relief.
The cozy reception area of Lake Austin Spa Resort, with its low ceilings, antique furnishings and chintz fabrics, feels homey and serves to remind guests that this renowned resort has a long history with humble beginnings: It was a fishing camp in the 1940s, then a nudist camp, a rodeo camp and a “fat farm” before becoming Lake Austin Spa in 1994. When it was taken over by the current owners in 1997, they wanted it to feel like a friend’s lake house, and in that they have succeeded.
After a brief orientation, I was given a complimentary water bottle and flip-flops but not the customary welcome bag guests used to receive. When my room was ready, the clerk enthusiastically called out, “Here’s your key!” with no mention of a room number or a location. Upon further inquiry, he ushered me outside and, as helpfully as he knew how, pointed in the general direction of my Luxury Garden room. (This was similar to the laid-back reception I received on my visit in 2019.)
It was a fishing camp in the 1940s, then a nudist camp, a rodeo camp and a “fat farm” before becoming Lake Austin Spa in 1994.
Each of the 40 accommodations has a front porch with views of the gardens and the lake. My Luxury Garden room, with 12-foot cathedral ceilings, was compact but comfortable. The walls and woodwork were awash in sea-foam green, as were the leather headboard and daybed under the window. A California king bed dominated the room; a writing desk and a flat-screen television were opposite it. A worn natural-fiber rug in a Burberry-like plaid covered the Saltillo tile floors. The small bath had a single sink, beadboard ceilings and a large bay window above the tub that looked out to a private courtyard with potted plants, cushioned seating and a fountain urn (which I later discovered wasn’t working). Lake Austin Spa Signature toiletries were available in giant refillable containers — an environmentally friendly touch that seems to be gaining in popularity at hotels.
While check-in is at 3 p.m., guests can arrive early to enjoy spa treatments and a variety of excursions and classes, which they sign up for at the activities desk upon arrival. My first experience was a scenic boat cruise on Lake Austin, where we passed houses on hillsides and learned the history of the area. During my stay, I also attended a strenuous AquaFitness class in the lovely Pool Barn, a private meditation class and a unique Da Vinci Body Board class using resistance bands. Other activities include hikes, wine cruises, water sports, yoga and culinary classes. (Some require an additional fee, and there can be a charge for canceling.)
A short walk up the hill through lush gardens and next to cascading waterfalls is the 25,000-square-foot LakeHouse Spa, which has men’s and women’s locker rooms downstairs with a whirlpool, showers and a steam room. (Upon checking in for my spa appointment, I was fitted for a robe and given a locker, but found that three of the four bathroom stalls wouldn’t lock properly.) Upstairs is the Spa Boutique and tranquil Blue Room, where guests await their therapists or just relax in their robes reading various coffee table books. The space was recently updated with new fabrics and seating and is more inviting than ever. My 50-minute massage was billed as a customizable treatment that you design with your therapist, but the only design decision I made was in choosing between lavender or arnica oil. Still, it was a pleasing session. The 80-minute Signature Facial, using a series of anti-aging masks and gua sha stones to increase circulation, gave me a dewy glow and no redness whatsoever. My only qualm was that the advertised treatment costs don’t include the addition of a hefty 23 percent service charge. Other spa disappointments included there being no table service at the Aster Café and no drink service at the Palm Pool. Both of these may have been the result of staffing issues or COVID-related policies, but guests tend to expect the amenities they’ve previously enjoyed.
The resort’s delightful dining room, where I had breakfast and dinner, features Southern-style décor consisting of natural wicker chairs, white wood ceilings and peach gingham curtains that contrasted with the jade-green lake and hillside beyond. The “Healthy Scramble,” with broccolini, heirloom carrot, smoked Gouda and Parmesan, tasted like a smart start to the day, and the menu’s nutritional information confirmed that. For dinner, both the pasta special and beetroot-and-crab salad were unseasoned and bland. And while my server was friendly, she was not particularly knowledgeable: When asked for the driest white wine they offered, she was unsure what to suggest.
This was the biggest issue at Lake Austin Spa: The staff, which seemed to comprise affable but inexperienced college students home for the summer, didn’t match the polish of the property — or the price. That said, the resort never fails to be a charming place to unwind, whether on a private porch, in a hammock under a pecan tree next to the lake, beside one of the three inviting pools or in the English-inspired Garden Library, with its whimsical touches of chinoiserie.
The lakeside setting; all the places to relax; the quiet Pool Barn.
The lack of service at the Palm Pool and Aster Café; the spa’s service charges.
Children under 16 are not permitted; pets are allowed for a $300 fee (plus service charge); the hotel offers a private water taxi service from five locations in Austin.
Just 11 miles away is Miraval Austin, perched high on a hill within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve overlooking Lake Travis. Formerly Travaasa, this 117-room resort was bought in 2016 by Miraval Group, which itself was taken over by Hyatt Hotels Corporation in 2017. The resort, a sister property of Miraval Berkshires (Lenox) and the flagship Miraval Arizona (Tucson), reopened in 2019 after a multimillion-dollar renovation.
All accommodations at Miraval Austin have an outdoor space, and the commanding view from the balcony of my Dreamcatcher Room on the third floor was a highlight. A neutral palette of whites and grays, along with an abstract painting behind the bed, made the room feel peaceful, but only the intensely fluffy featherbed, whose softness guests will either love or hate, was especially luxurious or notable. The bath, too, was rather uninspired, consisting of a single sink and a walk-in shower of unpolished brown slate that seemed dated. The toiletries, by Boulder-made Zents, were offered in refillable containers. If someone had told me that the staff had refilled the bottles with water, I would have believed them, as the consistency of the products was so thin.
Highlighting how seriously the property takes mindfulness, Miraval is a device-free resort. Upon check-in, you are given a “sleeping bag” for your phone.
The goal of a stay at this resort is to reach a “Miraval state of mind,” that is, to find balance and harmony within. Reminders of this ethos are everywhere: a Tibetan singing bowl is available in your “sanctuary” (or room); New Age music wafts from the Sensory Garden; cairns line the sidewalks to assure that you are on the right path; and a labyrinth walk helps you find your spiritual center. Highlighting how seriously the property takes mindfulness, Miraval is a device-free resort. Upon check-in, not only are you given a complimentary tote bag and water bottle but also a “sleeping bag” for your phone.
Unlike at Lake Austin Spa, Miraval connects you with an experience planner weeks before arrival to schedule your stay. The resort offers myriad yoga, fitness, culinary and wellness programming, with unexpected oddities like cardio drumming, beekeeping and mindful grocery shopping. The more adventurous can try hatchet throwing, jumping off a 25-foot pole to “relearn trust” or swaying from a 35-foot cable to “face your doubt.” (I’m good, thanks!) There are pros and cons to booking in advance, of course. While it’s nice to know exactly what your stay will entail, it’s easy to overschedule because there’s simply so much to do. Even with a competent planner, I found myself rushing between appointments and forcing myself to meditate when I really just wanted to eat breakfast. Note that while many of the experiences are free, others require an additional fee, and cancellation of any of them can cost you.
During my stay, I had a negative and positive experience at the 20,000-square-foot Life in Balance Spa: a deep-tissue massage ended abruptly and never did live up to its name, and a Vitamin C facial, using EmerginC products, was so completely relaxing that I fell asleep during it. Of the other programming, the five fitness classes and World of Wine seminar I took were satisfactory, but it was the Equine Experience, which Miraval is known for, that was the standout. Using specially selected horses, this class is intended to help participants learn to live in the moment — “Horses are creatures of the present, unconcerned with past regrets or future dreams” — by recounting stories to understand what might be holding them back. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after two hours of brushing and grooming my horse, Wizard, and leading him around the paddock — forward and backward — I learned, not for the first time, that confidence is the key to a relationship with a horse. One participant had opted for the experience to help her overcome a fear of horses, while another woman was seeking for ways to cope with a recent bereavement. Three of the five participants ended the session in tears.
Like Lake Austin Spa, all meals and nonalcoholic beverages are included in the rate; however, the Nest also offers complimentary coffee, tea, smoothies and snacks, which is handy if your hunger doesn’t align with dining room hours. Reservations are encouraged at Hilltop Crossings Kitchen, but the host is accommodating should guests arrive late. The restaurant’s outdoor terrace offers beautiful views over the preserve, but the heat kept me inside. With its soaring wood ceilings and concrete floors, the room could get loud, but it always felt more joyful than annoying. The food philosophy here is “conscious cuisine” (oddly close to Lake Austin Spa’s “conscientious cuisine”), and chef Benjamin Baker creates new menus daily utilizing ingredients from the on-site organic Cypress Creek Farm. Breakfasts and lunches offer made-to-order items along with a bar where omelets and salads are prepared while you wait. Dinner presents signature dishes, like the delicious achiote chicken with hominy grits and sautéed farm greens, along with nightly specials like wild boar Bolognese and ratatouille. The wine list will soon be undergoing a makeover, but the new sommelier is committed to continuing to highlight wines made by female winemakers, along with those that are biodynamic, organic and sustainable.
Overall my experience at Miraval was uneven. Guests have innumerable experiences from which to choose, and I was happy with all the classes I attended. But pre-arrival, when I had questions about the resort, getting a human being to answer the phone resulted in long wait times and contradictory information. In addition, I was supposed to be compensated for my disappointing massage but never was.
Walking the Miraval property between appointments in the oppressive Texas heat became a chore, whereas at Lake Austin Spa close proximity to the lake and the streams running through the resort had a cooling effect. After visiting both resorts, I came away feeling that Lake Austin Spa is where I’d take my mother or sister any time of year, but Miraval is where I might join my more unconventional girlfriend — when it wasn’t so hot, and just for the day.
The views from my room; the two infinity pools; the complimentary coffees and smoothies; the no-tipping policy; the well-stocked Preserve Provision Company retail boutique.
Our room’s uninspired bath; the disappointing massage; the locker room’s depressing whirlpool area; the food-stained welcome bag I received.
Guests under 18 and pets are not permitted. Day spa guests have access to the property with a Resort Pass, which comes with a $175 credit.