Inside Lake Austin Spa’s Rich History and Casually Elegant Design
The 19-acre property began as a fishing camp in the ‘40s. Now it’s the country’s top destination spa
By Deborah Hamilton-Lynne
The story of Lake Austin Spa Resort is a fairy tale in many ways: Despite facing several obstacles, the true style of the character is revealed and everything is beautiful in the end. Built as a fishing camp in the 1940s, the spa saw several incarnations (including a brief stint as a nudist camp, a rodeo camp and a weight loss facility) before owners Michael McAdams and Billy Rucks transformed this diamond in the rough into a haven for the spirit and soul. Beneath the surface of this run-down and neglected property, the pair saw something money couldn’t buy—a natural oasis surrounded by the waters of an ancient riverbend. In 1997, Lake Austin Spa Resort was reborn.
Envisioned as a place to connect with nature while enjoying a holistic approach to healthy living—cuisine, exercise and mindfulness—the resort has created a unique atmosphere among destination spas. From the beginning, Lake Austin was not designed in typical hotel style. The goal was to honor the amazing 19-acre property with comfortable spaces that would “bring the outside in and the inside out.” “Casual elegance” was the catchphrase for design, using color palettes of blue, green and ochre to reflect and connect to the natural surroundings.
For McAdams, designing and decorating the resort is a labor of love. “I personally select all of the art, antiques, fabrics and furniture,” he says. “I want it to feel interesting, rich and curated. Most of the pieces are things I have collected over the years and am fond of myself.”
The first renovation started with the demolition of 10 original cabins, rebuilding them to the high standards guests at a luxury resort would expect. The challenge was to design the property in a way that captured the welcoming, rustic ambiance while providing tangible yet approachable quality—referencing the past while adding modern elements to both inspire and relax.
“My vision has not changed from day one,” says McAdams. “From day one we have been connected to this unique place. Design is nature-inspired with a nod to history, and it shows in the architecture and in the interiors. We have a lot of Texas art personally selected that feels like a salon collection. Antiques are scattered throughout and mixed with modern pieces such as the new jute furniture in the Blue Room.”
In July 2020, after a two-year renovation and an unexpected COVID closure, the resort reopened—much to the delight of guests seeking a tranquil sanctuary. Updating everything from cuisine, design and experiences, the comprehensive renovation once again elevated the resort’s signature style. The award-winning day spa also received a refresh.
“Everyone loves the Blue Room at the spa, so we didn’t change the essence. Although it has new furniture, fabrics and draperies, it is going to feel the same,” says McAdams.
To maintain this familiar feeling, McAdams kept the color palette and some existing art, mixing in new furniture to include modern jute pieces and new accessories. Outdoor spaces also received a refresh, including the historic dock. While retaining the footprint of the original dock, the structure has been enlarged, furnished with comfortable Brown Jordan lounges and updated fabrics. New landscaping has enhanced spaces for solitude and social distancing, and the arbor now features a tent for outdoor dining.
Although McAdams was completely hands-on during the renovation, he collaborated with Dallas designer Brianna Wright.
“I am a huge fan of collaboration,” McAdams says, “especially with people who understand the magic of this place. Lots of eyes, legs and hours go into a successful design. Most things are custom, from the furniture to the British fabrics, and it takes a dedicated team to get it all done.”
While McAdams isn’t afraid to take a risk, he is also not afraid to admit when something isn’t working: “Initially, the Garden Library was painted in a very dramatic and beautiful coral, but once it was finished, I knew it wasn’t right,” he says. “It didn’t fit our style, and it didn’t fit the property or feeling we were going for, so we went back to nature, and it is now a peaceful green. My advice in all things design is always be able to say that you made a mistake rather than living with something that just doesn’t feel right. Trust your vision and your intuition.”
This intuitive approach is ultimately what led Lake Austin Spa Resort to its fairy tale ending. For the past 10 years, the resort has consistently earned top spots in Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler. In 2019, it was named the number-one destination spa in the U.S. and number-two destination spa in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. Moving from the original fishing camp and bohemian days to today’s refreshing look, Lake Austin Spa Resort has defined and refined its casual elegance just in time to provide the ultimate wellness retreat for these times.