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.
Ten Thousand Waves Japanese Health Spa 3451 Hyde Park Rd., Santa Fe; 505/982-9304. In 1980, an ex-hippie who lived in a van had a vision about creating a spa. "I'd always been a student of Japanese culture," says Duke Klauck, "and I liked their idea of a hot-spring resort in the mountains—a place to be surrounded by nature." Over the next decade, Klauck built his spa on a hillside near the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and his message of simplicity and tranquillity proves that Asian minimalism can have a heart. Word of mouth and referrals from doctors bring people from all over the world for a simple soak, starting at $13 an hour; more than 100 massage therapists offer a dozen kinds of massage including hot stone, acupressure, shiatsu, and an in-water rubdown called Watsu. You can stay in one of the "Japanese-Southwestern-style" guesthouses ($125-$205 per night), but plan ahead. The cabins with private courtyards are in high demand.
Ummelina International Day Spa 1525 Fourth Ave., Seattle; 800/663-4772 or 206/624-1370. When a serene guide (they're not attendants here) led me to a cathedral-like antechamber called the Sanctuary, it was hard not to feel spiritual. Mandy, my guide, knelt to wash my feet while someone fetched tea. They then whisked me off to a Balinese bed—yes, I was actually tucked in to keep warm—for a manicure and pedicure ($95 for both services). Owner Nina Ummel, granddaughter of a Mennonite herbalist, has crisscrossed the globe in search of new remedies and new approaches to wellness. Her spa menu is presented like a passport, with treatments billed as "journeys." An absolute must on such a trip is Ummelina's Tea Spa & Apothecary, which has Seattle's largest selection of organic herbs, custom-blended by an herbalist for special health needs.
Aida Thibiant European Day Spa 449 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills; 310/278-7565. Remember how Gwyneth Paltrow shone the night she won her Academy Award?It may have been the Tahitian Body Scrub from Aida Thibiant ($145). The skin-care expert has created a line of tropical products that exfoliate, smooth, and condition to impart that Gwyneth Glow. I eagerly signed up for the mystical scrub with its blend of peach milk, avocado, coconut, Brazil nut, and Monoi oil (used by Tahitian women to protect their complexion). When I departed, I was a mess—hair wet from the Vichy shower and face slick with cream—but quite honestly, my skin looked fabulous. Product junkies will love the line, especially the Tahitian Bath Milk, which I now order by the gallon.
Billy Yamaguchi Salon & Coastal Day Spa 3260 Telegraph Rd., Ventura; 800/572-5661 or 805/658-7909. Yamaguchi's trendsetting hairstyles have appeared on runways and in fashion magazines, and a cut from this Tokyo-born globe-trotter is something to envy. My session started with a shoulder rub and a cup of Tranquillity Tea served by Billy's bowing mother, then a cut ($85 and worth every penny). Don't leave without the Trilogy (therapists armed with dried Chinese herbs and pure oils work on your scalp and feet to relieve stress) and a session with Vladimir, the masseur who had a 15-year gig with the Russian Olympic team.
Osmosis Enzyme Bath & Massage 209 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone; 707/823-8231. Fifteen years ago, Michael Stusser couldn't sit for meditation without his painful sciatica flaring up. But while studying Buddhism in Japan, he experienced something called an "enzyme bath," and so profound was his recovery that he later opened Osmosis. His five-acre day spa near Santa Rosa resembles a ghost-town country store, but once inside, all the images of old Japan snap into place: tatami mats, shoji screens, and tranquil Zen gardens that Stusser helped to create. His detoxifying bath mixes cedar powder, rice bran, and 600 enzymes from 25 plants; it's like being up to your neck in a sandbox full of mushy wood pulp. (Unlike many who claim an almost mystical experience, I was not transformed. But still, I was very calm afterward.) The wise won't leave without a massage in the creekside pagoda. A bath and massage is $155.
Tea Garden Springs 38 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/389-7123. A third-generation herbal practitioner and feng shui consultant, Jacqueline Sa tends to her clients' health the Chinese way, examining how vital energy, or chi, passes through the body. "A Western doctor is like a mechanic fixing broken parts," she says. "The Eastern way is like a gardener, cultivating good health and caring for the body." The spa's natural concoctions and masks infused with aromatherapy oils are muscle-melting, but I was more interested in an energizing holistic consultation with Sa herself ($90).
Watercourse Way 165 Channing Ave., Palo Alto; 650/462-2000. After many pilgrimages to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near the Big Sur coast, John Roberts and Susan Nightingale decided to open a spa reminiscent of that spare Buddhist monastery. Watercourse Way possesses Tassajara's pervasive aura of peace, and although it gives every appearance of being mystically laid-back, it is extremely efficient. Silicon Valley tech-heads arrive with spinal kinks and request the beneficial water therapies that have made the place famous: polishing scrubs, chlorine-free soaks in wooden tubs, cold plunges, herbal steams. The two-hour "3-D" treatment—an exfoliation, wrap, and essential-oil massage for $130—lulled me to sleep.