It sounded like a slice of serenity: "Cradled in our exclusive saltwater pool set to your body temperature and guided by our Watsu practitioner, you'll close your eyes and gently float while muscles are massaged, joints and tissues stretched, energy pathways opened. Sense a profound physical release as tension and pain melt away from body...and mind. Watsu is a wonder that can return you to the fundamental essence of your being."
Unfortunately for me, it turned out to be closer to slow torture. The nausea set in just a few minutes after the treatment started. A friendly practitioner escorted me into a plunge pool and strapped flotation devices to my calves. Holding me in her arms like a baby, she began swirling me around in the water. As the motion sickness grew more pronounced, I tried various coping strategies—opening my eyes, focusing on the pretty blue tiles that lined the room, staring up at the skylight. But the world kept spinning.
The queasiness wasn't helped by the fact that she was nestling my head in her wet neck or that she flipped me to face her in a kind of awkward underwater embrace, all the time rocking, swaying, and twirling my splayed legs. It was too intimate, too dizzying, too continuous. I was woozily aware of straddling a complete stranger. I finally excused myself as politely as possible and bolted to the locker room, where I felt like kneeling and kissing the plush carpet—so grateful I was for solid ground.
To be fair, some people might love the Watsu I had at Cornelia Day Resort, which boasts the only pool made for such a treatment in New York City. And Cornelia, a sparkling new spa above the Ferragamo store on Fifth Avenue, has many other enticing offerings, such as a bath of oils, milk, honey, tea infusions, and something called Romanian aloe algae, which is reputedly unrivaled for its "hydrating power."
Oils, poultices, stones, spices, salt, sugar, fruit, vegetables, coffee, buttermilk, barbecue sauce—the materials seem to come out of a sorcerer's almanac. "Spas are searching for creative ways to differentiate themselves," says Lynne Walker McNees, president of International Spa Association, which reports that there are approximately 136 million visits made to 12,000 spa locations around the world each year, resulting in over $11. 2 billion in revenues. "They use local environments as an attraction," she adds. "Whether sea salt from the ocean or cactus flower from the desert or grape seeds from a vineyard—local and indigenous treatments and products help guests remember time spent at specific spas."
The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, for example, offers a tequila massage and a sage-oil scrub, claiming that the liquor "has long been known for its healing properties" and that sage oil is an analgesic—good for relieving digestive problems and muscle aches. A treatment at Senses Spa, at the Westin Grand Bahama Resort at Our Lucaya's on Grand Bahama Island, uses rum in its aloe-and-spice body wrap for "the ultimate Bahamian tonic." Even breakfast favorites and dessert treats have been en listed as beauty remedies. Body Bistro's professional division, Asana Spa—which works with spas to develop custom treatments—has developed the French Toast Facial, consisting of milk, egg, and bread. Mysha Day Spa, in Ocean Township, New Jersey, has a Vanilla L'Orange Body Wrap and a Creamsicle Spa Pedicure.
The duration and cost of spa treatments have also increased, as if you couldn't possibly have anything more pressing on your schedule than, say, a three-hour Grande Luxe Facial at Spa Radiance in San Francisco for $750. The sensory extravaganza involves a mild lactic-acid peel, exfoliation with a microdermabrasion wand, microcurrent stimulation of the facial muscles, deep lymphatic drainage (a circular massage meant to unclog and detoxify the lymph system), an eye treatment with dollops of caviar-protein extract (it reputedly repairs and regenerates skin on contact), and a session in front of something called an LED machine, said to stimulate collagen production.
The theory that more is more has become the modus operandi of many resorts. The Wakaya Club's Breeze Spa in Fiji offers a ten-hand massage for holistic synchronous detoxification to purge the entire body of impurities. At the Ritz-Carlton, Bali Resort & Spa, oversize bathtubs perched on the Indian Ocean overflow with fragrant red rose petals. Why? Just because. In the spirit of old-fashioned excess, the Six Senses Spa at the Soneva Fushi Resort in the Maldives uses a blend of oils containing precious gems: ruby, emerald, sapphire, and diamond. The spa says the mixture is meant to assist in eliminating body toxins. Personally, I would rather wear the jewels than be massaged with them.
Nowadays, it seems as though every spa must also have a treatment that draws from the rituals of ancient and indigenous cultures. The specialty of the Kahala Mandarin Oriental in Honolulu is the Lokahi, a two-and-a-half-hour treatment that includes a lomilomi massage with warm pohaku stones. After you're moisturized with special kukuimacadamia oil (said to relieve symptoms of psoriasis, eczema, and other dry-skin conditions), your therapist wraps your legs and feet in freshly harvested ti leaves from the Hawaiian ki plant. These ubiquitous greens are used locally in everything from religious ceremonies and food storage to thatching roofs and making fans, clothing, and liquor.
If you have ever felt a kinship to the outback, you can try the Australian Aboriginal at the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in south Florida, in which you'll experience "the rituals and ancient techniques used by Aboriginal Australians for thousands of years." The spa also provides Sound Therapy with "crystal singing bowls" (made of silica-quartz sand), which "offer powerful vibrations that resonate within the human body." The Green Valley Resort & Spa in Utah features a custom Aura & Chakra Field Analysis, a 24-page color report that includes "your aura and chakra photos and complete detail of your current energetic state, personal profile, and much more."
Caviar facials? Singing bowls? I, for one, understand that it's sometimes important to suspend rational judgment and consider the potential healing power of alternative remedies. But clearly there's a limit. And during my spa spree, I came pretty close to reaching mine. What can chocolate actually do for your toes? J. Paul De Vierville, owner of Alamo Plaza Spa and a history professor at St. Philip's College in San Antonio, has studied the evolution of therapeutic treatments in America. "So much of the industry is market-driven rather than science-driven or health-driven," he says. "There is a need for newness. A lot of it is just exaggerated presentation and really lacks substance." That said, some treatments do have proven physiological effects. If you are wrapped in linen saturated with chamomile (a time-tested sleep aid), for example, "you are going to come out with smooth skin and feel sedated," De Vierville says. Susie Ellis, president of Spa Finder, a spa media and marketing company, adds that it's important to consider the whole package: "You don't always have to find medicinal value in the products used. Really, the benefits are often in the massage itself."
For many spagoers, eliminating stress is what it's all about, and that's the way these treatments ultimately worked for me. Somewhere between the hot chocolate pedicure and the Retexturizing Back Facial, I started to give in to the fun of it all. At Bliss Spa in New York, I soaked my feet in milk sprinkled with chocolate shavings while sipping a cup of hot chocolate and trying to resist a fudge brownie. Chocolate, Bliss says, boosts feel-good chemicals in the brain (endorphins and serotonin). With a selection of Sex and the City episodes to choose from on my personal TV and headset, I managed to lose myself for the hour and emerged with pristine pink toes.
The pedicure was preceded by Bliss's Hang over Herbie: I was covered in oil and mummified in plastic wrap (claustrophobes can keep their arms out upon request), my face was coated in a "complexion-revitalizing" mask, my feet were stroked for 15 minutes, and my head was treated to an antimigraine massage. My face was topped off with a skin-saving oxygen spray. Spritz, spritz!
The general idea, of course, is to make you feel as pampered as possible. That means plush robes, the best shower products, and tranquil anterooms where you can help yourself to fruit, sweets, water, lemonade, and herbal teas. Before my Retexturizing Back Facial at La Prairie's spa in the Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park, the therapist even invited me to select massage music; I chose a sound track of the ocean.
The Mandarin Oriental in the Time Warner building in midtown Manhattan gave me an early preview of the spa's latest treatment, Taste of Traditions. The two-hour experience—in a peaceful sunlit room overlooking the Hudson River—started with my feet in a large shallow bowl of warm water and stones, to which the practitioner added sea salt and oil. I was then covered in an exfoliating body scrub on a heated table. Next came a full body massage with special oils meant to conjure far-off locales. Afterward, I felt like putting on silk pajamas and spending the night.
Day spas, of course, force you to face the real world again faster than you might prefer. A weekend getaway to Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, however, gave me the chance to sustain my relaxed state for a blessed 48 hours. Before the first day's treatment, I had to fill out a card for my therapist, Lisa: Is my strength low, medium, or strong? Is my mind active, sharp, or calm? The purpose is "to discover which elements predominate in your constitution," the card said—ether, air, fire, water, or earth.
Lisa determined that I was a Pitta, with the fire element predominant. Prescription? Treatment with an amalgam of oils—sweet almond, sunflower, and vitamin E; other options are rose and sandalwood; jasmine and ylang-ylang. This was followed by a massage with a mix of coriander, cardamom, valerian, milk powder. Then came a stream of warm sesame oil drizzled onto my "third eye," massaged into the hair and scalp. I wasn't crazy about the drip, drip, drip, and my hair felt like an oil slick afterward.
The next day I had the Remineralizing Bliss: a seawater gel of 104 trace minerals massaged into my skin. "The combined powers of marine therapy and aromatherapy leave your skin feeling silky and your body reenergized," the literature promised.
I don't know about the "reenergized" part. I emerged more like a happy noodle, ready for a nice long nap.
SPA ADDRESS BOOK
ALAMO PLAZA SPA San Antonio; 210-223-5772; www.alamoplazaspa.com
ASANA SPA/BODY BISTRO 877-724-7876; www.asanaspa.com
BLISS SPA 888-243-8825; www.blissworld.com
CANYON RANCH Lenox, MA; 800-742-9000; www.canyonranch.com
CORNELIA DAY RESORT New York; 212-871-3050; www.cornelia.com
FAIRMONT TURNBERRY ISLE RESORT & CLUB Aventura, FL; 305-932-6200; www.fairmont.com
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL LOS ANGELES AT BEVERLY HILLS 310-273-2222; www.fourseasons.com
GREEN VALLEY RESORT & SPA St. George, UT; 800-237-1068; www.greenvalleyspa.com
KAHALA MANDARIN ORIENTAL, HAWAII Honolulu; 808-739-8888; www.mandarinoriental.com
MANDARIN ORIENTAL HOTEL, NEW YORK 212-805-8800; www.mandarinoriental.com
MYSHA DAY Ocean Township, NJ; 732-695-2311; www.myshadayspa.com
RITZ-CARLTON, BALI RESORT & SPA/SPA ON THE ROCKS Jimbaran Bay, Bali; 800-241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com
RITZ-CARLTON NEW YORK, CENTRAL PARK/LA PRAIRIE SPA 800-241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com
SONEVA FUSHI RESORT MALDIVES-SIX SENSES SPA Baa Atoll, Maldives; 949-640-1198; www.sixsenses.com/soneva-fushi
SPA RADIANCE San Francisco; 415-346-6281; www.sparadiance.com
WAKAYA CLUB/BREEZE SPA Fiji; 800-828-3454; www.wakaya.com
WESTIN GRAND BAHAMA RESORT AT OUR LUCAYA/SENSES SPA Grand Bahama Island; 877-687-5822; www.westin.com/ourlucaya