Take a mini-vacation for the body and soul at Tasbey Farm

It used to be that I viewed spas as total indulgences, and whenever I'd enter one, I felt immediately awash with guilt. It seemed decadent to spend the time and the money on what I saw as a frivolous luxury. But over the years, I began to notice the positive results that occurred after experiencing various types of treatments, and now I'm a devotee of these hallowed palaces of body, mind and spirit rejuvenation.

Massage, in particular, has a powerful effect on me and helps to relieve unnecessary stress and tension that's built up within my body. Relaxing and soothing, it allows me to take leave of any emotional baggage I might be carrying around. Equally important is the feeling of being nurtured through touch.

Traditional day spas fall into two categories: upscale posh affairs that strive to impress with their ambiance and amenities, as well as their services; and basic, bare-bones facilities focused solely on delivering treatments efficiently. The bottom line for me is the therapist's ability to work his/her brand of magic on my body. Of course, it's lovely when the environment also plays its part, because then the experience is doubly rewarding. Finding spas that offer gifted therapists in a truly special atmosphere can be challenging, but when I do discover one of these jewels, I rejoice at my good fortune. The key is to be willing to search and to explore the myriad possibilities that exist.

In my hunt for the ideal combo, I came across Tasbey Farm, a massage retreat located in Clinton, on bucolic Whidbey Island. Owner Rosie Hilton opened Tasbey a year ago, after having worked 15 years as a massage therapist, first for a chiropractor's office in Edmonds and then, once she and her family moved to the island, at a local health club. Eventually she opened an in-home practice, which has evolved into a massage retreat for those seeking a peaceful, rural setting to relax, slow down and take time out from their busy lives to reconnect with themselves.

As I drove down the one-lane country road leading to Tasbey, I felt an immediate a sense of serenity from my pastoral surroundings. Hilton's 5-acre property borders wetlands on one side and includes gardens and wild-life ponds, as well as a small lake harboring a pair of seasonally resident geese. Margaret, a domestic chicken, follows visitors around, and Isabel, the potbelly pig, watches curiously from her spacious living quarters nearby.

There are two houses on the farm, and Hilton explained that the older facility used to be the family's dwelling when they first moved to the property. Once a new home had been constructed, the bottom level of the original house was turned into a massage retreat. The cozy living room with fireplace and comfy couches welcomed me in from the damp, gray spring morning, along with Hilton's comforting Mother Earth presence.

Born and raised on the Australian island of Tasmania, Hilton first came to the United States 25 years ago while embarked on what she refers to as her "walkabout." She traveled in Europe and Asia, as well as throughout the States, working as a waitress, nanny, equestrian groom, daycare provider, travel agent, Jazzercise teacher, cook and fish purveyor. Hilton eventually married, and she and her husband lived in several places, including three years in Saudi Arabia, while raising their three children.

In 1998, they took the kids and went back to Australia for eight months to live out in the bush. There the couple built a log cabin that Hilton's father had planned to build 10 years earlier, before his unexpected death. The experience of living in the quiet stillness of the bush without electricity or hot running water transformed Hilton and moved the focus of her massage practice from injury treatment to a nurturing, self-care emphasis within a natural environment.

"When I was in the bush," she says, "I would take a soak at night in the outdoor bathtub, and the air was so still that the candle flame stood straight up. It was so quiet that you could actually hear the bush animals chomping on the grass in the darkness. I realized that nature really has the power to nurture and bring peace to the soul, and I promised myself that I would incorporate the environment into my massage practice."

Several years later, Hilton was able to actualize her dream with the creation of Tasbey - a name she derived from combining Tasmania and Whidbey, her two beloved island homes at opposite ends of the Earth. With the farm, she set out to convey the rustic earthiness of a natural, rural space to which people could retreat to renew their strength and energy.

After chatting with me for a short while, Hilton led me to the outdoor Japanese soaking tub, where I proceeded to spend the next half-hour contemplating absolutely nothing.

Surrounded by misty woods with the intoxicating smell of eucalyptus from a nearby Tasmania Blue gum plant, I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of nature. Every so often, I would rouse myself to nibble on a piece of chocolate or an orange slice, thoughtfully provided by Hilton, and then sink down once again into the enveloping warm water. My skin felt soft and silky from the rose, lavender and other essential oils I sprinkled lavishly into the tub. This was definitely a "Calgon, take me away" moment, and I savored it luxuriously until it was time for my massage.

Hilton specializes in Swedish and deep-tissue work, and all her treatments include hot towels and aroma-therapy. It didn't take long before my body was putty in her hands and I began to feel like a Gumby figure. The tension in my shoulders and neck subsided, and the tightness in my hamstrings disappeared. After an hour and a half of therapeutic bliss, I was a new woman.

Instead of quickly being cast off into the "real" world following my treatment, as is the manner with most day spas, I was delighted to learn that Hilton encourages her clients to slowly ease themselves back to reality with a cuppa tea, Australian style, and a leisurely stroll around her property. "It's so much more civilized," she adds. After languidly indulging in each at my own pace, I left this idyl-lic retreat recharged to face civili-zation anew.

Before catching the ferry back to the mainland, however, I decided to head over to nearby Langley, one of my favorite Whidbey towns.

The sun was finally out, and I spent time strolling picturesque First Street, stopping to take in the water views at the popular overlook, where a life-sized bronze of a man and his dog leisurely stand.

Then it was across the street to grab a bite at the well-known Café Langley, a treat for the senses if you enjoy Mediterranean cuisine amid Old World charm. My Moroccan chicken soup and grilled-eggplant pita sandwich hit the spot and fueled me to do some shopping at the numerous antique stores, boutiques and art galleries that line the street. All too soon, I was back in line waiting for the ferry to take me home from what had been an ideal mini-vacation.

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