Hotel Watch: Zen in the Forest

by WL Author

Find zen amid the trees at the tranquil North Carolina Umstead Hotel and Spa. 

By Kelly A. Magyarics

All photos courtesy The Umstead unless noted. 

Wood accents are everywhere at the tranquil Umstead Hotel and Spa. Photo courtesy of The Umstead.

Wood accents are everywhere at the tranquil Umstead Hotel and Spa.

Let’s face it – a getaway anywhere sounds nice right about now. We’ve set the clocks ahead, and spring may be right around the corner according to the calendar, but it sure hasn’t felt like it lately. But, The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, NC,a five hour drive from the Washington area, beckons guests with a relaxing, inviting feel inspired in part by the forest. Wood accents abound on the property, from the rich floors, walls and in-laid ceilings, to the boardwalk surrounding the lake that makes for a leisurely morning walk, or the trees you can see from many of the rooms’ balconies. These wooden touches at The Umstead lend a vibe of warmth, comfort and synergy that’s just the antidote to the daily grind, or this seemingly never-ending winter.

Last fall, a friend and I spent the weekend at the twelve-acre woodland resort located in Cary, part of North Carolina’s northeastern Piedmont Region, and a short drive from Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. At that time, the trees were just starting to show their autumnal glory, the temperature was fresh and pleasant, and I have to admit that it seemed to be a perfect time to visit. But, equally inviting would be to plan a visit in springtime, when those trees are budding and the flowers along the lakeside path are beginning to blossom.

The Umstead features 150 guest rooms and suites, including lake-facing rooms with balconies and patio furniture, which my friend and I found to be a great nook for enjoying a glass of wine and watching the sunset through the trees. All rooms received a refresh in 2012 and décor hints at the natural world, with plants, limestone and granite, anigré wood paneling surrounding the beds and calming shades of blue or green throughout the resort. Rooms include Italian bed linens, deep-soaking tubs, double vanities, 42-inch flat screen televisions, complimentary wireless internet, a Keurig coffeemaker and accoutrements, and Umstead Spa Signature botanical bath amenities.

Many of the rooms overlook the lake and adjacent trees. Photo courtesy of The Umstead.

Many of the rooms overlook the lake and adjacent trees.

In 2013, The Umstead unveiled a major transformation to its 16,000-square-foot spa. Spanning two floors, new elements included a coed relaxation lounge, nail salon and open-roof coed current pool. There are now eleven treatment rooms, with three just for couples (each with a private deep soaking tub). Separate men’s and women’s private lounges boast niceties like a head-clearing eucalyptus steam room, deluge shower, sauna and whirlpool, with an adjacent relaxation space for lounging, napping or reading. The menu of spa services lists standouts like the Flower Hammam Ritual, which begins with an exfoliation using a lemon coffee blossom scrub, followed by a warm white clay mask, aromas of Moroccan mint tea and orange quince mist, and an application of spicy, heady cardamom amber oil; and the Red Flower Japanese Ritual, which stimulates circulation through a ginger grass bamboo scrub, mimosa sea algae wash, plum soft water mist and a moisturizing application of Kinmoxei Silk Oil. I opted for the Hot Stone Massage, and was pleased to discover that it also incorporated some deep and therapeutic Swedish elements. Manicures and pedicures in the new nail salon space include massages and paraffin wraps.

The spa recently underwent a renovation. Photo courtesy of The Umstead.

The spa recently underwent a renovation.

For a break from all that relaxation, The Umstead offers many other recreational activities. Get in a workout at the 24-hour fitness studio, with Cybex cardiovascular equipment (with individual flat-screen TV/CD/DVD), strength training equipment, a stretching area and personal trainers by appointment. It was still warm enough in October for us to lay by the seasonal outdoor pool, though a little too chilly to actually take a dip. If you crave a respite from the sun, rent a private poolside cabana and grab a drink at the seasonal pool bar. We started each morning with a walk around the three-acre lake on the walking trail (each lap is a quarter mile), and also went on an ambitious hike one day at the adjacent William B. Umstead State Park, which has several options for hiking and biking. The resort offers complimentary bikes and helmets to explore the park or the cute town of Cary. Guests walking through the lobby and hallways will come across curated, recognized works of art from both national and regional artists. Original works are for sale in the on-site art gallery and artists’ work rotates every three to four months.

Lounging around the seasonal pool is a great way to spend the afternoon. Photo courtesy of The Umstead.

Lounging around the seasonal pool is a great way to spend the afternoon.

Herons is the resort’s 98-seat signature restaurant, offering American regional cuisine overseen by executive chef Steven Devereaux Greene. We began brunch each day with an amuse-bouche smoothie-of-the-day, and after that long hike we indulged our craving for the wildly addictive warm doughnuts, rolled in spiced sugar and served with creamy mascarpone and seasonal jam. The decadent shrimp & grits with Tasso ham, crispy egg, cremini mushrooms and tangy Asiago cheese is a brunch standout, and deftly countered all that sugar we consumed, while the baby greens salad with roasted beets, red grapes, goat cheese and hazelnuts is a flavorful, lighter option. Of course, since we were at a spa, we felt compelled to order one of the healthy pressed juices; I was partial to cucumber, kale and green apple.

Herons is the hotel's signature restaurant. Photo courtesy of The Umstead.

Herons is the hotel’s signature restaurant.

Dinner at Herons is prix fixe, with either three or four courses and optional wine pairings from knowledgeable sommelier Hai Tran, a graduate of nearby Duke University who switched career paths from science to wine after a restaurant stint fueled his interest in the grape. Menu items change frequently, but last fall featured dishes like delicate, citrus-y lobster agnolotti with sun chokes, lemon, truffle and lobster cream; earthy sea scallop with parsnips, cocoa, buckwheat and salted almonds; and local Carolina trout served with baby leeks, fennel, pickled apples, Scarlett potato and consommé. A memorable, whimsical, Japanese dessert served Kabocha squash in a terrine, with coconut gel, chai tea ice cream and vadouvan alongside.

Carolina trout with baby leeks, fennel, pickled apples, Scarlett potato and consommé was a menu stand-out last fall. Photo courtesy Kelly Magyarics.

Carolina trout with baby leeks, fennel, pickled apples, Scarlett potato and consommé was a menu stand-out last fall. (Photo by Kelly Magyarics)

Sip a culinary-inspired classic cocktail in Herons, or at the connecting lounge, like the Manhattan riff “Bitter New Yorker,” with Eagle Rare Bourbon, Carpano Antica Vermouth, Cynar and Peychaud’s Bitters, or a non-alcoholic, light and refreshing “Drinking Vinegar” in flavors like apple, honey, tamarind and pomegranate. The lounge is also the site for afternoon tea, served Wednesday through Sunday, where sweets and savories are served along with an exotic assortment of teas, dessert wines and sparkling wines, accompanied by the live music of a harpist.

Enjoy wine at the hotel bar, or grab a glass of wine on your balcony. Photo courtesy of Kelly Magyarics.

Enjoy wine at the hotel bar, or grab a glass of wine on your balcony. (Photo by Kelly Magyarics)

Kelly A. Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website,, or on Twitter or Instagram @kmagyarics.

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