aerial view of jw marriott in clearwater resort and spa

Coconut palms sway, pelicans dive bomb for fish, as a lone figure on the beach — legs and arms covered as protective shield from the blazing Florida sun — rakes the sand into circles of zen-art lotus flowers. Standing on the terrace of my suite at the new JW Marriott in Clearwater Resort and Spa (opened 2023)  — coffee in hand and overlooking the Gulf of Mexico — I am in heaven. Or rather, I  should be.  I’ve come to Florida for a weekend of sun and seawater (with a side of spa) to escape the still-gray northeast skies. Clearwater is a quick flight and I am eager to explore this coastal enclave — a place I haven’t visited since I was a child. But the truth is, I am in pain, and literally fighting back tears. 

Pre-flight, I noticed a growing tension in my shoulders. Now, 24 hours later, the discomfort has expanded to my neck, rib cage, arm — my entire right side. With the exception of childbirth and a car accident when I was 19 (which involved my derrière being scraped along a hot macadam road; the tar being removed with a giant scrub brush), I have never experienced such excruciating pain. 

palm trees on the beach at jw marriott in clearwater resort and spa
Courtesy of JW Marriott in Clearwater Resort and Spa

“You actually took an Ibuprofen?,” my partner asked incredulously during my phone call home. I’m known to question taking even vitamins. “Maybe you’re dying. Maybe you should go to the ER.”  

His dry humor has some merit. For my entire adult life, my ‘ER’ (sanctuary, refuge, doctor’s office, and yoga studio) has been the spa. It is among low-lit votives, eucalyptus steam, calming music, and wafts of lavender and lemongrass essential oils that I rebalance, reflect, untangle, and regain clarity. And so it is to the “ER” I go, where — in lieu of biking into town, sailing alongside dolphins, or simply lounging on the beach under a blue-and-white-striped umbrella — I surrender my knotted, twisted body into the capable hands of Alaney.

Top-Notch Therapists 

Rarely, if ever, (actually never) do I converse while on a massage table. I also never sleep. I want to savor every movement, feel every hurts-so-good pressure point dissipate. But today I am not only talking and asking a million (why, what, how) questions, I’m also jumping, twitching, and at times, holding back the urge to scream. 

When I booked this ‘emergency’ spa treatment, a 20-minute Irish-harvested seaweed bath (by Voya) followed by an 80-minute customized massage, I had no idea of my therapist’s backstory — that she was deeply rooted in medical massage. During my initial conversation with Spa Director Miranda Hill (who, prior to opening Clearwater, worked with JW Marriott Tampa and JW Marriott Marco Island, among others), assured me her therapists could help me; all were top-notch. And I didn’t doubt her.

complimentary bikes at jw marriott clearwater spa
Courtesy of JW Marriott in Clearwater Resort and Spa

I have been to numerous JW Marriott spas — most recently the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa on Isla Rosa — and my treatments have always been exemplary. The Venice spa (as with most of the JW Marriott spas I’ve visited) is lavish: intoxicatingly fragrant jasmine and roses line the walkways next to olive trees and royal palms; an outdoor spa pool overlooks the Venetian lagoon; and treatments are by Bakel — an exclusive, plant-based, Italian product line.

In comparison, the JW Clearwater spa is small — tiny even — with just four treatment rooms, separate men’s and women’s steam rooms, saunas, and experiential showers, and an inviting coed relaxation area. There is no water view (or view of any outdoor element, not even a palm). Instead, the spa  — with its neutral grays and soft cream hues; Babor, Voya, and Tara skincare products — is quietly tucked away on the seventh floor. But as I’ve learned in my decades of wellness writing, every spa experience (and treatment) comes down to one grounding attribute: the talent and intuitive prowess of the therapist. And it is this trait that has put Clearwater on the map. Although the spa is only a year old, it has already earned accolades within its own brand: #1 JW Spa of all JW Marriott Spas in US/Canada in 2023.

While hotel guests are utilizing the spa, so too are in-the-know locals. Home to a growing moneyed set including celebrity Tom Cruise who has a home here, local residents are booking both staycations at the hotel and stand-alone spa days. One local reportedly comes every week to the spa; she arrives wearing a flowy kaftan, takes the express elevator to the seventh floor, steams, saunas, and spends the entire day having treatments. 

It’s a Wow

spa at jw marriott clearwater resort and spa
Courtesy of JW Marriott in Clearwater Resort and Spa

“Your muscles are definitely congested, and your body is fighting. I can feel it.” 

I have just emerged from my hot seaweed soak, helpful in relieving joint and muscle pain, and am lying facedown on the massage table as Alaney assesses the severity of my shoulder, back, and ribcage knots. She spends forever on my right side, pausing to apply ‘yoga balm’ (for cooling relief) and then employs a sliding form of cupping to draw out the ‘stuck’ fascia (connective tissue). “Don’t worry, this [sliding cupping technique] won’t leave any marks. It’s subtle but you will feel the relief.” 

Little by little I do. I follow the miracle treatment with three self-imposed rounds of hot sauna, cold shower, and relax before stumbling back to my room where I slip into a cushy white robe and slippers, and order in room service.  Over a bowl of creamy Gulf seafood bisque (Floridian comfort food), I curl up on the terrace and watch first, a pod of playful dolphins dancing below me, and later, a slow-moving manatee (affectionately known as  a ‘sea cow’) glub along just below the water’s surface.

Not surprisingly, I wake up early (in time for sunrise), order coffee to the room, and make my way to the water. I am the only one on the beach and for the next hour, I soak, twirl, float. Fellow early birds arrive to practice yoga on the beach and for a brief moment, I consider joining them — certainly stretching would help. But ultimately, I allow my battered muscles to simply rest and stay, instead, in the warm healing seawater. 

Forgiving Results 

mediterranean dining at latitude 28 jw marriott clearwater resort and spa
Courtesy of JW Marriott in Clearwater Resort and Spa

“Your right side is definitely more forgiving today. Your muscles  are still tender, but nothing like yesterday.” 

Following my languishing sea morning, I am back on the massage table with Alaney. Our pairing is not by chance. In scheduling my return, Hill mindfully reorchestrated the schedule to place us together. Again, Alaney customizes my treatment — spending time on my right side and particularly shoulder and clavicle which she presses, holds, releases. More slide cupping follows and by the end of the hour-long session I can not only move, but want to move. 

After passing through the lobby’s ocean-inspired art installations (waving sea grass, blue-glass waves), I pick up one of the complimentary bicycles and pedal along the Gulf of Mexico — palms towering above me, the wind in my hair.  Still feeling revived, I dress (sans heels) for dinner that evening at Latitude 28, the hotel’s Mediterranean restaurant. Warm homemade bread with candlelit butter precedes a parade of roasted  brussel sprouts and pan-seared branzino. But the grand finale comes in the yellow rose-strewn strawberry dessert.

aerial view of the beach at jw marriott in clearwater resort and spa
Courtesy of JW Marriott in Clearwater Resort and Spa

In my choice to ‘live in the spa’ (with sides of seawater soaks) for the weekend, I miss taking a Champagne sail at sunset on a vintage wooden boat, perusing some of the beach town’s upscale boutiques, and visiting one of the area’s  treasures — the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick and injured marine animals. The Aquarium catapulted into the national spotlight when the story of one of its rescue dolphins, Winter, was portrayed in the movie, Dolphin Tale, filmed on location. The movie tells the story of a young dolphin rescued from a crab trap — her tail severed — and life saved (with a prosthetics tail) by a marine biologist and a prosthetics doctor. 

But still, I don’t regret my decision to stay sequestered — to listen to my body, and to use my solo time away for self care. The spa was surprisingly incredible.

On my final morning, just an hour before departure, I return to the spa to say my goodbyes. Alaney is not there but the spa receptionist recognizes and warmly greets me.

“You look bouncy, are you feeling better?”

“So much better,” I reply. “If I didn’t  have to leave within the hour, I’d be back on the treatment table.”

Her eyes brighten; she breaks into a smile. “Oh but you can. Come see.”

I dutifully follow her to a private, express treatment room area, just off the spa lobby. How did I miss this?

And it’s one final (albeit 15-minute) neck-shoulder massage for the road.

Featured image courtesy of JW Marriott in Clearwater Resort and Spa