Manhattan’s New Spas

Roberto Battistini

The city finally got with the program to become a spa capital.

A surprising fact: New York has been seriously lacking in luxury spas (excepting the Mandarin Oriental’s and Cornelia Day Resort). Until now. This past fall the city saw four openings at landmark hotels—Guerlain Spa at the Waldorf-Astoria, Sense at The Carlyle, the Peninsula Spa by ESPA, and the Vinothérapie Spa by Caudalie in the just-renovated Plaza. All debuted almost unknowingly within a month of each other, with the exception of the one at the Peninsula, which opened in December.

Call it Manhattan’s second spa wave. Far from the guest-room conversions and dated day spas like many of the first generation, these were deliberately crafted from the ground up by the leading designers in the industry and with budgets in the millions.

That should help put New York City, ever more thronged with foreigners making the most of the dropping dollar, on par with international cities like Hong Kong, which has added about one luxury hotel spa a year since 2000. But the question remains, How will these new places stand out from one another?

One way, it seems, is through the hotels’ partnership with skincare companies—disproportionately French, with Guerlain, Sisley, and Caudalie, and a dash of British, with ESPA—which helps bring that point of differentiation to the massage table.

Chateau in the City: Vinotherapie Spa by Caudalie

“We have a story, the tale of the grape,” says Mathilde Thomas, who in the nineties pioneered vinotherapy, or skincare treatments and products that use the antioxidant-rich extracts of the fruit’s seeds and skin. She introduced the concept in 1999 at Spa Les Sources de Caudalie (the latter word is French for “the length of time wine lingers on the palate”), on the grounds of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, a boutique Bordeaux estate owned by her parents. Two spas later (in the winemaking regions of Italy and Spain), Thomas and her husband, Bertrand, came to Manhattan to further the theme. “We looked at many locations, but nothing seemed right until The Plaza,” Thomas says. Construction of the 8,000-square-foot Vinothérapie Spa by Caudalie, on the fourth floor, took more than two years and involved creatively incorporating an 1890s exterior wall that could not be moved. That landmark barrier now separates a corridor leading to 14 treatment rooms from not a relaxation area for tea-sipping but a wine lounge called the French Paradox, a comment on how the country’s natives drink plenty of wine yet have very low cholesterol levels. There’s a full-time sommelier, as well as a glass-enclosed cellar with 500 carefully selected bottles, Smith Haut Lafitte among them, of course. The Thomases wax poetic on the (not very spalike) menu: an eight-month-old Comté and the exactly right jamón de pata negra. American waistlines, be damned.

The treatments are just as decadent. They include Caudalie standards like the Vigneron massage ($165)—a small winemaker’s stick, or a dowel, is rolled over the muscles and into the crook of the neck—as well as the deliciously scented Crushed Cabernet scrub with dried grape seeds, the most popular body treatment here ($145). Caudalie was the first to use and stabilize resveratrol, a polyphenol in skins of red-wine grapes, for skincare products, so its facials feature the patented topical age-fighting antioxidants. I’m a fan of the languorous Vinoperfect facial ($185), whose key ingredient is the brightening antioxidant viniferin, a molecule derived from the grape stalk. “American facials can be very brisk and aggressive,” says Thomas, explaining why Caudalie’s include at least a 20-minute face massage.

While the treatment rooms echo the flagship Bordeaux spa, with vine sculptures, slate showers, and warm materials like wood and stone—ask for one away from the lobby and wine lounge or you’ll be doing a post-treatment parade in your robe—the halls and changing areas lack architect-designer Yves Collier’s striking details, seen throughout the Caudalie spas in Europe. The Plaza location, however, does have something the others don’t: Vinothérapie manicures ($85) and pedicures ($95), “services American women always want,” says Thomas. Halved grapes are smoothed over the nails for their potassium and brightening agents. Get one with a glass of the 2003 Smith Haut Lafitte red. Treatments start at $45. 1 W. 58th St.; 212-265-3812; caudalie-usa.com.

A Twist on Tradition: Guerlain Spa

As you might expect from a spa named for a 180-year-old fragrance house, a visit to the Waldorf-Astoria’s Guerlain Spa begins with your nose. An attendant asks how you like to wear your perfume (boldly or subtly) and your treatment objective (relaxation or energization), then pairs several Guerlain fragrances to match. (I chose the calming Shalimar.) Misted over your massage table, the scent follows you through the experience, much like aromatherapy.

Surprisingly, the spa has nothing of the clubby Waldorf-Astoria aesthetic. Where interior designer Andrée Putman infused Paris’s Guerlain Institute on the Champs-Elysées with gold, here everything reverberates in white. A winter flower pattern of white-and-silver Bisazza wall tiles is elegantly dazzling without being showy, and a floor-to-ceiling crystal chandelier in the reception space emulates water droplets as it skims the surface of a narrow pool. Only the Guerlain perfume bottles—collectibles selling from $500 to $5,000—and blooms of blazing purple punctuate the white haze.

There is no changing area here. Instead guests are led directly to one of the 16 treatment rooms spanning the 19th floor; meant to be a private sanctuary, each has its own bathroom and shower. (Note: While the rooms on the Park Avenue side are more expansive, those on the dimly lit Lexington wing are cosseting.) Privacy is privileged here, as the spa’s research showed that clients felt their post-treatment reveries were disrupted most by the presence of others, says spa director Kimani Roquemore.

Mike Canziales, founder and CEO of Spa Chakra, which manages Guerlain, makes sure nothing is out of place. In fact, not a single gadget is visible among the crystal-trimmed mirrors, whitewashed floors, a Philippe Starck Ghost chair, and white custom cabinets. You enter what looks like a relaxation salon but is instead a lounge for hand and foot therapies, with trapdoors in the floorboards that open to “pedicure cockpits.” The couches are hydraulically controlled, eliminating the need to climb into a clunky pedicure throne. Foot rituals are provided gratis with your first treatment and serve as a way for therapists to pleasantly extract information about your muscle aches and skin concerns. (The seamless serenity came after a brutal construction process and some 90 blueprints.)

For such a traditional brand, Guerlain beats to a very new spa drum. Employees are paid a salary, not by the treatment. “We don’t want a therapist to perform eight mediocre massages. We would rather they do four great ones,” Roquemore says. “We think about the work schedules of our clients, especially when the service is in the evening.” There’s also a strict no-tipping policy—gratuities are included in the cost—and there is no charge for add-ons, like extractions, specialty face masks, and foot rubs.

When more than one treatment is booked, like a facial and a body treatment, therapists, not clients, move rooms. One caveat: Guests witness the changing of the sheets (thrown on the floor) with the changing of the guard, incongruous with a firm that shields its guests from the presence of beauty product–laden trolleys.

The entire staff, most of whom have five-plus years of experience, studies the Guerlain Méthode, a facial massage “characterized by grace, elegance, and precision” that dates from 1939 (sounds pretty traditional, no?). Skincare services are exquisitely French, featuring toners, hydrating masks, and creams made with natural extracts. Most luxurious is the two-hour Orchidée Impériale facial ($600), named for the company’s face cream containing “Guerlain’s secret of eternal youth,” a molecular extract from the roots of four orchid species.

Therapists give you the bill in your treatment room to eliminate waiting in reception. If that makes you uncomfortable, pay in advance. And save a minute for a touch-up in the makeup room, where you can try out Guerlain’s greatest hits. Treatments start at $195. At 301 Park Ave.; 212-872-7200; waldorf-astoria.com.

Cool, Chic, and Sexy: Sense Spa

The Carlyle’s Sense, a Rosewood spa, is timeless and chic, the little Chanel bag of spas. Its five neat, trim treatment rooms on the third floor fit perfectly with the residential hotel, known for its famous guests and impeccably designed rooms. That’s why the hotel confidently customized a spa in its own language of luxe: The antiqued mirrors, polished-to-a-shine lacquer walls, modern crystal chandeliers, and opaque glass doors that read treatment room in a script add an almost film noir–ish feel. This is a place where Rita Hayworth’s Gilda would have double-crossed her man, downed his whiskey, and stridden out in stilettos if, alas, tea and Frette robes weren’t today the accoutrements of this glamorous boîte.

Sense may well have the spa world’s first black walls, a detail even spa director Donna Creagh wasn’t sure about. But the effect is unreservedly sexy, a word she has come to use frequently when describing the work of designer Mark Zeff (also behind the Cornelia Day Resort), whose forte is masculine-friendly rather than spa-feminine. His masterpiece is the dramatic tilework outside the bath—a barrel-vaulted staircase ceiling shimmers with platinum squares, beckoning guests to the treatment rooms below. “Men were not an afterthought, but it’s also not a cigar bar,” says Creagh, who wrangled an exclusive on Hommage skincare services for men.

The rest of us are likely to be wooed by the treatments from Sisley, a gentle French botanical brand. Because the brand has been a best seller in 80 countries since the seventies, it’s been largely indifferent about venturing into spas. Before The Carlyle there was only the Byblos in St.-Tropez. As Sisley’s Lynn Julian tells it, commercial ambitions have never been very important to owners Count Hubert d’Ornano and Countess Isabelle, whose family also created Lancôme. “We took ten years to bring our Siselÿa antiaging cream to market, because that’s the time it took,” Julian says. “We aren’t interested in diluting the brand. The right partnership with The Carlyle is what happened to bring it to life.” Surely plenty of spa goers will thank them, particularly after getting the Le Soin Sisleÿa Anti-Age, the hotel’s signature two-hour facial of wrinkle-smoothing exfoliation, hydration, and firming ($400).

The treatment rooms, with space for not much more than their outsize apothecary-style cabinets and massage tables, demonstrate design economy with built-in footbaths used during facials. (Only the minifridge–size towel warmers atop trolleys are an eyesore.) The best room is no. 2, home to the private Carrera marble–encased Kohler DTV shower. It custom combines steam and light therapy with music and water pressure that’s delivered from 13 showerhead tiles. The experience can mimic a sunset or a thunderstorm and be set to, say, Bobby Short, the late, great jazz pianist and fixture downstairs at Bemelmans Bar. The Carlyle currently has the only spa with a Kohler DTV shower, which has an iPod-like dial and is featured in indulgent treatments like the massage-and-facial combo Flowers Hold Life ($375). Treatments start at $195. 35 E. 76th St.; 212-744-1600; thecarlyle.com.

Highly Trained: The Peninsula Spa by ESPA

It was worth the wait for the most recently opened Peninsula Spa by ESPA. Very few spas in Manhattan can boast 35,000 square feet and three floors, not to mention a location 22 stories aboveground with a pool, a gym, and the city’s only atrium-style yoga studio. The views, needless to say, are magnificent. One level down are 12 treatment rooms, a tea lounge, two relaxation areas, and a thermal water oasis with an aromatherapy steam room, Finnish sauna, multisensory shower, and ice fountain in the changing rooms.

Connecting the floors is a staircase with a 35-foot sculpture of tree forms made using different teak wood species that have been laminated together. “There’s a feeling of going up, of great scale, not of going down into basements,” says interior decorator Alexandra Champalimaud, who designed the spa. “Everything was done to create a serene, seamless environment of well-being.”

That’s thanks to the Peninsula’s deep commitment to quality—and pockets to match. For this upgrade, the hotel chose to do without a spa for almost a year, despite a loyal following. There’s the partnership with ESPA, too, a luxury spa standard setter. ESPA founder Susan Harmsworth made sure that for every layer of the construction and operations, a rule book laid out requirements and direction. “We consider the depth, serenity, and quiet scent of a corridor,” says Champalimaud, “the warmth of the woods, the lighting, what the therapists will wear on their feet. The facilities need to be state-of-the-art yet not technical and somewhat glamorous. The curved tile steam-room benches, for example—no one else has any idea of how they’re made to look and feel comfortable.” Nor should they, she implies.

New York’s Peninsula shares these traits with sister spas in Hong Kong and Bangkok, as well as other ESPAs. In fact, the well-traveled client may recognize some of its finely honed standards elsewhere—the circular steam rooms, the customized treatment rituals that are booked by time, and the use of ESPA products—including at the Mandarin Oriental across town. But in this world, it’s the sort of surfeit that feels welcome, like a meal by Gordon Ramsay that’s dependably wonderful anywhere.

The Peninsula’s Manhattan spa has a handful of services all its own, like a two-hour treatment built around the deep- tissue massage ($465). (Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?) Yet many offerings come from the menus of its other outposts, such as the Jade hot stone massage from the Peninsula Beijing ($465) and the Yang Soother from Hong Kong ($465), which includes a calming linen wrap of chrysanthemum and black lychee. In a sense, you get the United Nations effect here, just blocks from that very institution.

But what truly sets the Peninsula spa apart from the other newcomers is the ten-week therapist training, covering products, treatments, customization, Ayurveda, and aromatherapy. “Most spas invest primarily in the physical aspects and neglect the heart of the facility—the therapists,” says Robert H. Rechtermann, the hotel’s general manager. Of course, not all spas can budget for that much time before the doors open, so it’s an investment meant to catapult the hotel’s level of service above everyone else’s. Treatments start at $195. 700 Fifth Ave.; 212-956-2888; peninsula.com.

Eco-Chic Seattle

In spas across the country, ecofriendly, organic products are proliferating, but nowhere is the trend more prevalent than in Seattle. It’s not that residents have given up pampering—they’re just trying to do it in a sustainable way.

At the downtown Mode Organic Salon (206-623-0195; modeorganic.com), stylists use ammonia-free Organic Color Systems, so there’s no harsh smell or painful tingling, as well as Simply Organic products. For facials, head aesthetician Jonie Broecker has chosen the Eminence Organics line because 95 to 98 percent of the ingredients are active and contain whole nutrients. “It’s kind of a raw-food diet for your face,” she says.

Seattle Art of Wellness (206-324-3552; seawellness.com), near the Seattle University campus, also uses Eminence products for facials and offers body treatments full of fruit and vegetable extracts, like yam and pumpkin enzymes. Essential plant oils are key to French aromatherapy line Decléor, a brand of choice at Hotel 1000’s Spaahh (206-357-9490; hotel1000seattle.com). Spaahh’s facials also feature natural ingredients, from brown algae to orange-blossom extract.

While most nail salons reek of chemicals, Seattle offers two healthy alternatives. Jane Park, a former Starbucks executive, has reinvented the mani-pedi experience with her Julep Nail Parlor (877-585-3707; myjulep.com), using polish free of the standard toxic ingredients: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate. Similarly, Butter London (206-525-0847; butterlondon.com), started by transplanted Brit Sasha Muir, offers customers its “3 Free” lacquer. The salon’s quick waterless treatments are an alternative to traditional, time-consuming manicures. And a Butter branch recently opened in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, for that last ecofriendly touch-up before leaving the city. —Juliet Eilperin

High-End Chicago

When the spa’s massage oils are infused with precious stones, you know you’re at the Trump (312-588-8020; www.trumpchicagohotel.com). In September the year-old Trump Chicago—all one- to three-bedroom suites in the city center—added 53 spa guest rooms. These smaller rooms reflect the spa’s relaxing vibe, while pampering comes via customized scents, music, and bath oils; warm neck and eye pillows; and a spa attaché who will handle any request. One room is connected to the couples’ treatment suite with two infinity tubs—get the Romance & Relaxation; it comes with bubbly and raw oysters ($1,325). The grand 23,000-square-foot spa itself offers not only Trump’s signature gemstone massages ($325) but also Kate Somerville facials (from $150) and Chicago-exclusive treatments ($150–$375).

Across from Millennium Park, the Fairmont debuted mySpa (312-946-8945; myspa chicago.com) last February as part of its $50 million facelift. Following David Rockwell’s redesign, the spa has a natural feel with splashes of color in, say, the giant photos of tropical flowers by Aussie Warwick Orme. Guests can play their own iPods in the treatment rooms. There’s something for everyone here: a teen facial ($150), a men’s body scrub ($75), express massages for execs on the go ($70). In the couples’ suite, an infinity tub features a chromatherapy system that uses color and light to promote physical and mental balance.

When it comes to men’s grooming, Halo [For Men] may be heaven (halochicago.com). Late last year two salons opened in the Loop area and another in Lincoln Park; don’t miss The Man: a deep scalp massage, a haircut, a paraffin hand wax, and face toning ($45). Still most impressive is the spa in the Gold Coast district. It’s a guy’s guy kind of place—LCDs, a mini theater, Wii—with services like hot lather shaves ($55) and the Crackberry, a hand and forearm rub to ease those BlackBerrying muscles ($1 per minute). A unique touch is the custom tailor, who’ll create shirts and suits to your specifications. —Christina Ko

29 Spa, Atlanta

Named after the meandering highway that snakes through the verdant vineyards of Napa Valley, Atlanta’s eight-month-old 29 Spa at the Mansion on Peachtree hotel pays homage to the antioxidant powers of grapes which, according to founder Lydia Mondavi, are the ultimate scavengers of wrinkle-causing free radicals.

And she should know. Eight years ago Atlanta native Mondavi married into the winemaking dynasty. She then returned to the South and opened 29 Spa at the Rosewood hotel in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood.

The treatments use ingredients culled from the family’s vineyards as well as organic farms around the world. Vinotherapy services include the Savor the Wine Cabernet Cocoon body treatment ($135–$165), the Cream of the Crop exfoliating facial with crushed grape seeds ($135–$165), and the Trellis the Tresses scalp massage and mask with grape-seed and olive oils ($125).

Created to be a special reserve among Atlanta healing havens, 29 Spa offers amenities like treatment beds complete with custom linens, silk duvets, and heated waterbed tops, as well as a welcome glass of wine or grape-seed tea.

Clients can also imbibe the benefits of the spa’s exclusive accessory partnerships. During a manicure, for example, a guest can request that celebrity handbag designer Jada Loveless sketch a personalized handbag. Or, while enjoying a waterless nailcare service, a client can peruse a display wall showcasing the latest Manolo Blahnik collection courtesy of the nearby Neiman Marcus, select a style, and conclude her treatment with the ultimate pairing—perfectly pedicured feet with a sexy set of stilettos, which will be delivered right to her feet by the hotel’s butler. 404-995-7529; rwmansiononpeachtree.com. —Julie Keller