Thursday, August 4, 2005
There are some three-letter words that hold so much promise and power that to just think of them conjures up bold thoughts of joy and transformation. Among them: God, sex and spa. The latter also conjures up the notion of deep pockets and privilege, and for some, a bit of judgment. While spas have popped up not just in resort towns but even in the smallest cities, there is guilt associated with enjoying one. There’s a type of pride taken in the fact that one has not been so frivolous as to indulge in lazy hours of massage and skin treatments. But to judge without experience is dangerous. In the guise of straight journalism, I visited three spas in the past four months to uncover the truth behind the veil of aromatherapy. Herewith my notes:
Spa#1 >> The Grand Wailea Resort and Spa, Wailea, Maui
An acoustic net of bird calls surrounds me as I turn away from the Pacific and walk down the palm-tree lined path to the Grand Wailea Resort and Spa. Water sounds are everywhere, not just from the sea. A waterfall plunges into a moat filled with bright orange koi fish as I cross a little bridge outside the spa. Inside the cool marble spa foyer is a statue of a Greek goddess in a seashell.
A friendly young woman named Angel greets me and leads me inside the ladies’ treatment area. After changing into my bathing suit (swimwear is optional, but as a virgin spa-goer, I am not comfortable to parade around an enormous facility nude), Angel leads me to a treatment room. She instructs me to lie down on a padded table while she hoses me down with warm water and scrubs me with a papaya loofah treatment. It’s an odd sensation, strange enough to be this intimate with a near stranger, let alone be in a sort of human car wash, but not unpleasant.
Angel then gives me a tour of the spa’s signature treatment: the series of baths known as termé hydrotherapy. Angel gives a peppy running commentary on how to enjoy all the treatments (“the bubbles feel like hot champagne”), including the Roman Whirlpool tub, Japanese sit down shower, the different mineral baths, the eucalyptus steam shower, and the waterfall massage shower.
She recommends the cold plunge pool after the steam shower to prevent fainting, then leaves me to play.
After trying the 35-foot-wide Roman tub, I sit with chilled cucumber slices on my eyes in the steam shower. They keep falling off onto the pretty tiled floor, so I stick with a chilled washcloth. I can’t bring myself to get in the freezing plunge pool past my ankles, so I work on experiencing the five specialty baths. I skip the bright green seaweed bath and the mud bath (apparently they stain bikinis, another reason to go naked) and try the tropical enzyme bath. I’m not sure if toxins are truly being leached out of my pores, but it’s inarguably relaxing sitting in the marble tubs surrounded by river rocks and white flowers, looking up to high windows with views of blue skies and palm trees. After a beating from the powerful waterfall shower, Angel leads me to an upstairs lanai to wait for my scheduled body contouring treatment. I have three glasses of the most delicious substance I have ever tasted—iced guava pineapple juice—an indescribably tangy and sweet ambrosia. I feel like I’ve already experienced emotional transformation: I am now more relaxed and carefree than I can remember. Then it’s off to test the other promise of the spa experience: physical transformation.
My spa technician, Miryam, is pleasant and soothing as she rubs me in kukui nut and coconut cream. But she’s surprisingly evasive when I ask her if the body contouring masque she’s applying to my hips and stomach is really going to “enhance the silhouette and tighten and tone” as promised in the spa brochure. I expect her to make grand promises, but she merely tells me to see for myself later if it works. As the masque warms up, she wraps me in cheesecloth. My midsection feels a bit like it’s being prepared for Thanksgiving dinner. Miryam gives me a little acupressure massage on my neck “to pass the time” as the treatment does its magic. Then she wipes me down and I’m done.
I’m not sure if anything’s happened, but I really don’t care. I feel the blissful effects of being totally pampered.
When I get back to California, my gym buddy tells me my hips look extra small. From a certain angle, she could be right. A few weeks later, back into my normal routine of work and sandwiches at my desk, any glimmer of extra tonedness has faded. Probably my punishment for not purchasing the spa’s firming cream for follow-up home use.
Spa #2 >> The Spa at Pebble Beach, Pebble Beach, California
Feeling I really needed to do my local spa justice, I linger for hours after my massage appointment at the Spa at Pebble Beach. Although the massage is only 50 minutes, I manage to leave behind most of a nasty knot in my neck. The rest of the tension evaporates in the steam shower and the private waterfall shower. The ladies dressing rooms are so much fun—what with the free toothbrushes, combs, and tiny tubes of shaving cream—plus the indulgent lotions and shampoos and conditioners. I read three magazines in the oxygenated lounging area while breathing hyper-pure air and munching on oat bars and fruit. I consider making a stop by the crackling fire in the reception area to read the New York Times, decide reading of the real world is too heavy to suit my mood, and hang out in the beautiful glass conservatory for awhile, snuggled under a fluffy throw and sipping ice water with lemon slices. Although it’s a foggy, sluggish day, after three hours of hanging out with my cell phone turned off and wearing nothing but a robe, I realize that I feel generous, kind, and loving to all humankind. Surely anything that makes me a better person is worth the money, I decide.
Spa #3 >> Garden of the Gods Club, Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Garden of the Gods Club in Colorado Springs is uniquely beautiful. Large windows offer views of lawns with fuzzy-antlered deer and hopping bunnies, red rocks shaped like kissing camels, and a snow-capped Pike’s Peak. It’s a spot of amazing natural beauty, and the spa offers to transmit some of that beauty onto its patrons. In the ladies’ locker room, an ad for a face cream promises “immediate results in as little as two weeks.”
With that disclaimer in mind, I sign up for a massage followed by a sensitive skin facial. The massage is brilliant until the end, when the masseuse decides to treat me to some hot towels across my legs. They are scalding, but I am rendered speechless by my ignorance of spa etiquette, and I suffer silently while I hope the burn isn’t serious.
Unfortunately, my legs are still hurting as I lie in wait for my facialist. I’ve never had a facial before, and am leery of the idea of someone else scrubbing my pores. The woman looks like a model, so I’m comforted by the idea that she knows how to look good.
She is strangely silent as she massages my hands with lotion, encases them in plastic wrap, then puts them inside hot mitts attached to each other by a wire and plugged into the wall. It feels a bit like handcuffs. She then does the same to my feet.
My legs are still aching from the hot towel treatment as the facialist rubs a series of creams into my face. She flips on a switch next to me and a steamer starts to heat up. I’m wondering who decided that this particular succession of creams is beneficial to the skin when the steamer starts spitting scalding hot water onto my bare shoulder. I discreetly try to wiggle underneath the Native-American blanket across my chest, not wanting to break the silence with a complaint. Suddenly the facialist is putting an odd papery material over my face. I can barely discern that it has cut outs for my eyes, nose and mouth. Apparently the cut outs are not completely punched open, because as I inhale through my nose, I suck paper in my nostrils. In panic, I open my mouth to take a deep breath, and the paper makes a thwip sound as I suck it in. I bat at my face with my hot handcuffs as she realizes I can’t breathe. The facialist adjusts the paper so I can breathe, while I picture how entirely ridiculous I look in the name of beauty.
The woman silently leaves the room, and the minutes tick by interminably. I am suffocatingly hot, but I wonder if it is rude to remove the mitts. Where is the facialist and what she is doing: Smoking? Eating? After at least 20 minutes, I realize I am having a full-fledged panic attack. I throw off the mitts, push down the wool blanket, and palpitate my face. It feels rubbery and I still can’t open my eyes because they are partly covered by the strange material. I must look like Hannibal Lecter and I feel like Tom Cruise in Minority Report when he realizes his eyeballs have been stolen. After at least 10 more minutes, the woman finally returns, silently, and sits behind me, feeling my face. I finally break the silence and ask what is on me. She tells me it is an oxygenating mask that she hopes would clear up any “congestion” on my skin. Finally, she peels it off. I run as fast as I can to the changing rooms, pausing to see how I look after 80 minutes of skin treatments. As far as I can tell, I look exactly the same, except the mask has left some strange creases on the bridge of my nose. I buy the “immediate results in two weeks cream,” and bolt.