Missoula's gray winter days had finally gotten the best of Joy Twite, and she was tired of it.
With short dark days and few precious moments in the sun, Twite realized back in 2007 that she suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder - a type of depression associated with a lack of sunlight, particularly in the fall and winter months.
Normally a cheerful and optimistic person, Twite took the matter into her own hands and bought a "happy light" - a lamp that emits light several thousand times stronger than the average household lamp, and is widely prescribed by physicians to offset the seasonal condition.
"I was so amazed at how much better I felt when I used the light, that I started adding an aroma to the experience and heat," Twite said. "I created my own indoor oasis and I realized if I felt this great, others would, too."
Out of her personal innovation came another idea: a startup business to offer the same relief and a mini-vacation for people who need to escape Missoula's darker days - and for people whose work shifts prevent them from getting enough sunlight year round.
After three years of research and fine-tuning, Twite has pulled back the shades on her unique business.
Staycations Light Therapy opened this month at 1101 S. Third St. W., and it offers more than happy lights - it offers Missoula an ocean beachfront experience Monday through Saturday.
As hard as that is to imagine, consider this: private rooms filled with brilliant white sand that is heated and feels all the world like the sun-warmed sand; a giant fresh towel to lay over a luxurious white leather lounge chair; a room that smells of ocean breezes; a giant flat-screen television that can be tuned to several ocean films and a stereo surround system that amplifies the sound of waves pounding the beach.
"I've dreamed up ideas my whole life," said Twite, a lifelong resident of Missoula and the mother of five children. "I'm 40 years old now and I decided I'm going to do one of them."
"This is it, and I'm really proud of what this offers," she said. "I love to make people feel happy and that's what this whole place is about."
Last week, Twite's business was booked by a local accounting firm that took the opportunity to decompress during the busy tax season. When the Grizzly basketball team was in NCAA playoffs, a couple booked the group room and its multiple lounge chairs to watch the game on the 100-inch flat-screen TV.
"This place is intended to be a vacation for people - a fun getaway," Twite said. "There are so few opportunities in this world to shut the door and close out the world. You can do that here."
Aside from the light therapy treatment, which costs $30 for a half-hour and $45 for an hour, Staycations also offers airbrush tanning and massage services, as well as an oxygen bar.
In a few weeks, Twite will also provide a rental service for high-end designer handbags and sunglasses - accessories such as $2,000 Prada purses that can be rented by the week or month.
"It's the kind of thing people will use if they are going on a vacation and they want to look really great, but they don't want to invest in an expensive purse," Twite said. "At the end of the year, depending on their condition, I'll sell them for 75 percent off."
Libby Latrielle was in the sleek, immaculately clean salon on Thursday for the tanning services. The 29-year-old explained she was getting ready for a wedding she is attending this weekend and didn't want to show off ghostly white skin in her strapless dress.
"I just felt like I needed a little color," Latrielle said. "I've never done this before and it was really easy. I would definitely do it again, especially for a special occasion."
Latrielle's sister-in-law Carlie had come along to the appointment for moral support, and after the session was over she, too, signed up for a tanning appointment.
Shortly after, Lindsey Nelson arrived to book a time for the spray-tan.
"I have fair skin and I try to stay out of the sun," Nelson explained. "This is a far healthier alternative to getting a tan."
Feedback from customers has been so supportive, Twite said she is now in the process of franchising the business.
"I've been thinking about this business for three years, and I have been researching it all that time," Twite said. "I haven't found anything like it anywhere else.
"And I do think it fills a real need - especially for people with skin cancer issues who can't go in the sun, and for people who work in basements or dark places and don't get enough light throughout the year," she said. "I know light therapy has really helped me and I'm happy to help others.
"With this treatment, you get all the benefits of the sun without the harmful UV rays - and you won't get burned."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at email@example.com.