Heads swiveled at a recent Texas dinner party when a CEO announced that a day spa was on his cell-phone speed dial. Massage, he explained, is the only thing that helps when his back coils up like a mattress spring. It's a bizarre picture, a hard-charging tycoon getting buck naked for a rubdown from a total stranger. But as the Forbes cover boy proclaimed, "My portfolio manager can be replaced. My masseuse?Never."
Who wouldn't love a week at a glamorous destination spa such as Canyon Ranch, Cal-a-Vie, or the Golden Door?But who has time in today's frenetic world?Enter the day spa, a not-so-secret weapon against today's stressful pace. It's no longer just pedicures for bored socialites. Now there are meditation rooms, "slumber zones" for snoozing clients, and even "med-spas" that offer the services of plastic surgeons, dentists, and acupuncturists. Often, travelers who jet cross-country for a long weekend book treatments to recover from the flight (at Seattle's Ummelina, many clients are out-of-state visitors referred by hotel concierges).
And such indulgences aren't just for women. Not so long ago, a man in spa land would have stuck out like Manolos at the farmers' market. But no more. Guys are coming in droves—Michael Jordan was spotted at Oahu's Ihilani Resort & Spa; former president George Bush and NBA star Charles Barkley frequent the Spa at the Houstonian—and they have macho therapies all their own. At New York City's ultra-hip Bliss, there's even cold beer and the sports pages.
I recently toured the country in search of outstanding day spas. There were, of course, the standard facials and pedicures, but I also took part in a foot-washing ceremony, enjoyed a massage in a Japanese pagoda, and was basted and wrapped, mummy-style, with seaweed, mud, and volcanic clay. Here, a list of amazing and unusual favorites.
Bliss 568 Broadway, New York; 212/219-8970. Before Bliss, spa treatments generally meant reclining in a darkened room while New Age music and incense wafted through the air. "I hate those singing whales! And I can't relate to Enya and that find-your-inner-child thing," says Marcia Kilgore, the thirtyish founder of Bliss. "My clients want to listen to Van Morrison and Dusty Springfield while getting their pores unclogged." I wasn't wild about the music, but I found other trademarks wonderful—the friendly service, the brownies on the refreshment cart, and the fantastic facials, which start at $95. A steady stream of celeb clients—Oprah, Julia, Uma, Demi, Donatella, Madonna—come for serious skin care, including such treatments as deep pore-cleansing, a blast of oxygen to keep breakouts at bay, and dermabrasion that literally resurfaces the skin. (Men, sign up for the Muscle Manicure, the Mighty Massage, and the Face Bracer.)
Helena Rubinstein Beauty Gallery 135 Spring St., New York; 212/343-9963. There isn't much that can slow down New Yorkers, but the airy 8,000-square-foot Helena Rubinstein day spa, which opened this spring, has brought speed-walkers to a halt. "The spa was laid out in a very deliberate way," says general manager Margaret Sharkey. "You don't feel like you're in the city; you can get lost here." The curved walls, soft lighting, and white-on-white palette instantly filled me with serenity. Japanese barber chairs are positioned so clients can gaze on the bamboo garden; treatment rooms are downstairs to ensure quiet. The spa scores a major coup with its express service: a manicure, pedicure, and facial in an hour for $100. The in-demand Force "C" Megadose Facial comes with a restorative infusion of vitamin C (request top-notch facialist Julie). The beauty buffet offers a 15-foot-long makeup station, and a UV camera that reveals as yet-undiscovered skin damage.
Susan Ciminelli Day Spa At Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave., ninth floor, New York; 888/332-9772 or 212/872-2650. Ciminelli, New York's New Age doyenne of skin care, practices yoga and meditation and goes to mass every day. Her spiritual touch shows: on the wall of every treatment room is the 6,000-year-old mantra "Om Namah Shivaya" ("I bow to my inner self"). My Reiki session (pronounced "ray-kee," an ancient Tibetan healing technique for channeling "universal energy" by the laying-on of hands) was exceptional despite the $150 price tag. Linda, my therapist, explained that she was able to move energy and release the negative emotions trapped in the body. I was skeptical until she untied the knots I get from hours hunched over a keyboard; when I left, my shoulders were no longer up around my ears.
Noëlle Spa for Beauty & Wellness 1100 High Ridge Rd., Stamford; 203/322-3445. After having hot, oiled stones tucked between my toes, then being swathed in a heavenly down comforter, I could understand why Noëlle commands a three-month wait for appointments. Out-of-the-ordinary treatments like acupuncture, men's chest waxing, and Chinese herbology facials are par for the course at Noëlle, one of the country's first day spas (late founder Noel de Caprio began offering treatments in her beauty salon 25 years ago). New York designer Clodagh employed the principles of feng shui to make the soothing interiors a pitch-perfect rest stop. Day-trippers arriving by train (Noëlle is only 45 minutes from Manhattan) are met at the station.
Kiva 196 E. Pearson St., Chicago; 312/840-8120. From the second I was greeted by a chipper receptionist with some kind of receiver on her head, I realized that Kiva isn't your standard-issue day spa. "Nobody who wanders through the door is left to flounder," says an employee, explaining the electronic headgear that tracks arrivals in the two-story, 6,700-square-foot retreat. But it's not a bad place to lose yourself. To my left was Nourishments, a café serving healthful meals. Part apothecary, part outré gift shop, the spa store is like no other: check out the Ayurvedic potions, unusual teas, libido enhancers, and dog vitamins. And if a single treatment defines this combination spa and hair salon, it is the seductive customized exfoliation, a runaway favorite at $55.
Greenhouse Day Spa 5560 W. Lovers Lane, Dallas; 214/654-9800. Long a favorite destination for Southern belles in need of serious pampering, the luxurious Greenhouse in Arlington has branched out. Last year, Greenhouse day spas made their debuts in nine cities, and the owners continue to fine-tune an already stellar program with laser and oxygen treatments. Rooms stay solidly booked because of newfangled therapies like ear candling, a favorite of Star Jones when she visits Dallas. As the sassy lawyer from The View describes it, "They stick a hollow linen candle in your ear and light it. Like a vacuum, it sucks out all the wax and pollen. It doesn't hurt; actually, it's very relaxing." (I tried it and, surprisingly, I could hear better afterward.) In my hometown, Houston, my favorite Greenhouse beauty secret is Korean-born Euncha, who gives a mood-altering facial ($70) and then serves tea in a delightful ceremony.
Brea Sanctuary d'Sante 3637 W. Alabama Blvd., Suite 235, Houston; 713/622-7722. When could I submit to this Houston spa's famed one-hour, 45-minute treatment?"In two months," was the receptionist's answer. Brea Pope built her business around an intoxicating offering called the Cure, and in her funky day spa, men and women fork over $103 for the treatment. When I finally got my turn, I entered a sensual, candlelit room with a waterfall. Brea, who has been in the business for 21 years, whipped up a cocktail of seaweed, algae, and spirulina, "perfect food for the skin," she says. She added pulverized flaxseed, herbs, and seawater to the natural concoctions that are manufactured in her husband's lab, then chose a mix of aromatherapy oils to match my mood. "If you're having a bad day, I use lavender and chamomile." In addition to a delicious facial, Brea bathes clients' feet in warm water infused with essential oils, then massages legs, feet, hands, arms, and back, rubbing from the scalp all the way to the tailbone. It doesn't get any better than this.