Special Reports

Shed your burdens, clothes for a few blissful hours

In the dim back rooms of the Olympus Spa, the herbal aroma of mugwort floats through the air as women lounge in thigh-length white cotton robes and pink shower caps.

They read and relax on the heated marble floor and benches, only occasionally talking in hushed tones.

Around the corner in the salt room, a dark bedroom-sized retreat behind a closed door, women lie on a thatched mat covering a bed of salt that crunches underfoot.

You probably wouldn't notice the Olympus Spa, a 7,000-square-foot women-only Korean spa at the edge of South Tacoma Way's International District, unless you'd heard of it from a woman who's been there. The spa is a mecca for many women from Western Washington seeking relaxation and rejuvenation, who often hear about the spa from friends. The low building, positioned just off the road, is just as much a mystery to men, who puzzle over the rumors of an all-nude spa whose body scrubs and element rooms have a cultlike following.

One look at the patrons' bright skin and relaxed smiles is proof enough.

"I quit coffee, I quit cigarettes, I have a migraine - I thought I'd relax," said Rebekah Wotton, who lives in Rochester. She'd spent part of a day off lounging in the mud room and sauna. By the time she was drying her hair and getting dressed, her skin glowed and her eyes were bright.

"I want to go take my blood pressure," she said with a laugh.

The silent, contemplative rooms on one side of the spa are a stark contrast to the pool area, which is big and bright, with deep puddle-sized pools of varying temperatures. The floral scent of lotion mingles in the air with chlorine and more mugwort, and the crash of water falling from a miniature waterfall in one pool overrides most other sound.

In this room, all the women are nude except the few employees, there to vigorously scrub piles of dead skin off customers deposed on massage tables off to the side. The scrubbers wear black camisoles and shorts.

Most of the women lounge in pools. A couple stand near a bay of showers, scrubbing their skin.

Although women often wear the white robes, nudity is part of the spa's Korean tradition - and one that most of the visitors quickly acknowledge.

"It was not an issue," said Jen Lovelady, who was at the spa for the first time on her 34th birthday. She arrived at 9 a.m. and was still there five hours later..

For some, it's therapeutic being comfortably nude.

"I really love the feeling of being a woman and being free with my body," said Necashaw Montgomery, also there for her first time. As she spoke in the dressing room, a nude woman behind her hoisted her leg on the counter and unself-consciously slathered lotion on her body. "It's just interesting to see people's bodies. We spend so much time covering up."

Sunnie O'Brien, manager of the spa, said she loves working there, a fact her rosy cheeks and wide smile attest to.

"I'm proud of introducing Korean culture to the U.S.," she said. She pulled a large stack of slips from behind her desk and began flipping through all the positive reviews customers had left.

"Heaven," read one. Another simply said "100 percent."

Lovelady spent her time in the salt room studying the Bible. Later, in the room with heated marble floors, she perused a selection from the dozens of magazines on a rack.

"I have four kids," she said. "I don't get to read magazines."

With scrubbed-clean skin and her hair piled up in a bun, she looked at ease. But the day left her with one nagging thought.

"I feel so bad my husband will never enjoy this," she said.

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Niki Sullivan: 253-597-8658