Comfort Zones

When times get tough, the tough go spa-ing.

While a day of rubs, scrubs and tubs may not seem like the most intuitive personal response to an economy in free fall, the numbers tell a different story: more and more people are going to spas, and more and more spas are opening to accommodate them.

“In bad times people come more to the spa, not less,” says Tom Voss, president of the company that owns the lavish Grand Del Mar spa in San Diego. “People want to feel good.”

Certainly that was true before the big downturn. Spa visits leaped 25 percent to 138 million in 2007 from 2006, generating $10.9 billion in revenue, according to the International Spa Association (ISPA). The number of spas grew 24 percent between July 2007 and June 2008.

“There are now more spas than Starbucks,” says Melisse Gelula, editor in chief of the online publication SpaFinder Lifestyle. True, the recession does seem to be taking a toll. SpaFinder, a marketing and information company, reports that of 400 spas surveyed last September, two thirds reported fewer bookings than a year earlier. More than half said revenue was off. Yet most of that decline was in medical spa visits, not day or resort spa use, says SpaFinder president Susie Ellis. As antidotes to turbulent times, spas still promise a respite.

“The number one reason that people go to spas is to reduce stress and relax, so in times of stress we tend to go to a place where we feel nurtured and safe,” says Lynne McNees, president of ISPA. “Maybe with the economy the way it is now, people are not staying as long or (are) getting one service instead of three, but the most important thing is they are still going. The spa gives us permission to pause, and in this 24/7 world we don’t give ourselves that permission very often.”

Indeed, according to SpaFinder, travel agents reported more bookings for spa vacations last summer than in 2007, perhaps as a result of a weakened dollar convincing people to vacation near home. “The spa industry is resilient,” Ellis says. “And that’s because people are getting more of the basic, stress-reducing treatments like a massage or a facial.”  Spas are also benefiting from the public’s greater interest in health; accordingly, many places have shifted their focus from pampering to wellness. “Going to a spa is not viewed as an occasional occurrence or frivolous pampering anymore, but as part of a health and well-being (-oriented) lifestyle — like shopping at Whole Foods,” says spa editor Gelula.

“I’m not a medical person, but I do know a lot of people are disappointed with Western medicine. And one could argue that there’s a lot more creativity and alternative health options in a spa setting. Acupuncture and massage have been proven to benefit the body.”

Some mainstream doctors agree. “People ‘taking the waters’ for medicinal purposes or having a massage either for general well-being or to help (them) recover from an illness is ancient wisdom,” says Dr. Bill Stewart, founder of the Institute for Health & Healing at California Pacific Medical Center, one of the largest integrative medicine centers in the country. Practitioners there treat health problems using more than 35 holistic therapies, including traditional Chinese medicine, integrative psychotherapy and spa-familiar services like skin care.

“If what you’re providing is doing some good, like a massage, where the risks are small and the benefits are great, then it becomes the kind of healing that’s easier to recommend than even a supplement,” Stewart says. “We all value being cared for, attended to, being touched.” Spiritual wellness is also increasingly a focus; the thinking now is that bolstering the psyche is at least as important as reducing the thighs. At one new spa, a shaman will, for $250, send you home without the emotional baggage you packed in. Of course you can still “spa” for hedonistic reasons — all the way up to a La Prairie facial infused with 24-karat gold. Here’s a look at some new great spas in the West.

The Grand Del Mar, San Diego

When Freud conceived of the pleasure principle he must have been thinking of The Grand Del Mar spa. Part of the $300 million Renaissance-inspired Grand Del Mar resort (voted among the world’s top 100 resorts by Conde Nast Traveler readers), the opulent 21,000-square-foot facility transports you to the glories of that era with its sparkling crystal glass tiles, multiple arches, imported white Carrara marble and warm wood accents.

Enter its hushed women’s lounge and find an embarrassingly sybaritic haven decorated in calming ivory, taupe and robin’s egg blue with gold accents and framed Hermès scarves. The relaxation room has plush canopied daybeds, lush fringed silk draperies, glossy travertine and mosaic floors and glittering gilt mirrors.

The men’s retreat is accented with dark wood, rich brown hues, a stone fireplace and high-back lounging chairs in crimson leather. Every practical essential is anticipated, from the European-style wet rooms and full-height keypad lockers to aromatic teas to sip on while waiting for a massage.

The services menu would make the original hedonist Aristippus weep for joy. One treatment, the Decompression (ask for Claude Jacobs), includes an exfoliating body scrub of salt and organic rosemary, a Vichy shower (Jacobs sets the nine jets and one rain showerhead to the right temperature for you) and a hydrating body wrap of goat butter and blankets enjoyed while you float for 20 minutes on an immersion bed that fills with warm bubbling water at the touch of a button. During that 20 minutes Jacobs massages your feet and neck. Then he does your whole body. Rapture! ($360)


The Spa at Encantado

In contrast to The Grand, the spa at Auberge Resorts’ new Encantado, in New Mexico seven miles north of Santa Fe, is a study in quiet minimalism, with floors of watery limestone and bleached wood, open beamed ceilings, pale stone counters and glass walls that overlook a tranquil, light-filled meditation garden.

Opened last August, the 10,000-square-foot spa’s “warming room”— where you wait for treatment in a robe made of bamboo as soft as a kiss — is octagonal, furthering a sense of coziness. The room has the requisite citrus water and soulful, Enya-like chanting music, but I particularly loved the butter cookies (of which I ate far too many). All 15 treatment rooms incorporate the outdoors with private courtyards that have soaking tubs and rain showerheads.

Many services honor the mystic healing traditions indigenous to the region and incorporate local ingredients such as adobe clay, sage, juniper, apricot and piñon.

Eastern medicine is also on tap.  I feared my classic Indian Ayurvedic massage ($155) would not be deep enough to uncoil the spasms plaguing my back. My therapist, however, a cheerful Austrian named Wolfgang Blumel, begged to differ. He was right. The warm rose-infused oil, repetitive motions and hot compresses were more than enough to provide a therapeutic massage. I, who can never nap, actually fell asleep for a minute. Now if he could only get that nerve pain around my trapezius to disappear forever!

Therapist Kim Plinovich started my Mountain Spirit Purification treatment ($300) with a smudging ceremony to clear negative energies and purify my auric field. Burning sprigs of sage, she whipped the smoke with a feather across and down my body. After an exfoliation, she applied a Sedona clay mask, wrapped me in warm blankets and massaged my scalp with juniper oil while telling me that juniper “is the telephone from the plant world to God.” Say what?! In performing reflexology on my feet, Plinovich divined that the chakra related to my kidney was out of whack. She advised me to ingest more water and iron and get more sleep. Wow, I knew that! After a shower, it was time for a massage using hot stones. Native Americans believe stones hold wisdom and healing properties. After that massage, I just might have to agree.


The Healing Center and Spa at Cavallo Point

The Lodge at the Golden Gate   
With its serene, light-filled atrium lounge, library and fireplace, comfy furniture and wide array of services, this 11,000-square-foot spa is just the place for a soul long under house arrest to come out and play.

Nestled in a stand of pine and eucalyptus with views extending to Coit Tower, the Healing Center and Spa opened last July, part of the new lodge at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in the former Fort Baker. Outside, a heated basking pool awaits and inside is a tea bar with exotic drinks. Try the heavenly Mayan Frozen Cacao—raw chocolate with coconut milk, dates, mesquite pods and maca. The spa offers a complete menu of feel-good treatments, all of which incorporate exclusive blends of organic or wild-crafted ingredients.

But what sets it apart, says director Jenny Helling, is its roster of wellness treatments that range from nutrition guidance and acupuncture to counseling in stress reduction and smoking cessation. During my stress relief consultation ($150), Western herbalist Katie Delwiche assessed my general health and then concocted a tincture of Siberian ginseng (stress), black cohosh and kava kava (muscle relaxants), passionflower (more stress) and wild oats (nerves).

Did I feel calmer afterward? Yes, until I hit the freeway! 

On the spiritual plane, there are shamanic treatments ($250) with healer Jon Rasmussen, who spent three years training with the Q’ero Indians of Peru. He works on unloading emotional histories (more of that baggage) in what he calls the “mythic and energetic levels.”

Using stones, crystals, a snow goose feather, rattles and spritzes of Agua de Florida, Rasmussen worked to clear blockages of what he divined were negative and stagnant energy in my body—accumulated not only during my life but those of my ancestors. Rasmussen also performed soul retrieval on me, designed in part to reveal the source of past traumas. Mine, he said, went back centuries.

And there I was, still blaming that witch who ran off with my boyfriend in high school.


Spa Villagio

Unabashedly indulgent, this 13,000-square-foot haven in Yountville offers pamperings that run from a facial with a mask of crushed pearls, citrus, bearberry and licorice extracts ($145) to a reshaping cellulite treatment ($145) aimed at diminishing that horrid dimpling on the thighs. My therapist applied a warm full-body wrap of exotic active ingredients designed to improve skin compactness, encourage fluid reabsorption, accelerate metabolism and reduce fat accumulation. After a shower, there was a brief but vigorous massage to oxygenate and reshape tissues. 

The Villagio Inn’s original 4,500-square-foot spa grew too small too quickly. The new, Tuscan-style one gives the feeling of being in someone’s luxurious but comfortable living room, replete with Napa Valley fieldstone, Douglas fir floors, comfy sofas and European antiques. Plates of truffles, chocolate-covered raisins, fresh fruit kebabs and scented teas make one feel welcome — and can take the place of dinner. Locker rooms have rustic wood-beamed ceilings, polished marble counters and outdoor thermal soaking tubs.

The spa has 16 treatment rooms, but its five suites, designed for customized multiple services, are the ultimate in luxury. With views of the Napa Valley, the suites have fireplaces, experience showers, wet bars, jetted soaking tubs and private terraces. If you have trouble getting into the groove of the three-and-a-half-hour, $575-a-person treatments, there is Bose surround sound to pipe in jazz or New Age music and a flat-screen television to present a Renoir masterpiece or a calming landscape painting.


Spa Terra at the Meritage Resort

This unique 9,000-square-foot spa in southern Napa Valley is the first to be developed completely underground, carved out of an estate wine cave 40 feet under the resort. Go in and turn right for wine tasting or wander left and enter the spa’s serene and luxurious world of custom mosaics, Florentine masonry, steam grottoes, water walls and lavish treatments. Instead of being claustrophobic, the experience is one of tranquil cocooning.

I had the oxygen facial, an application of a stream of moisturizer, minerals, vitamins, enzymes and amino acids aimed at restoring natural collagen to produce smoother, younger-looking skin. I didn’t look exactly like Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun afterward, boo-hoo. But a girl can dream, can’t she?


Future spa openings

La Prairie Spa at the Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage
One of only four La Prairie spas in the country will be located in a swanky new Ritz-Carlton resort slated to open this fall. Perched on a 650-foot bluff above the Coachella Valley, the hotel is designed to provide vistas of Palm Springs and the dramatic bare Santa Rosa Mountains. The spa will have 15 treatment rooms, 10 with private terraces and outdoor showers.

Because of La Prairie’s history at the forefront of the anti-aging revolution, many of its offerings will be age-defying treatments.


The Spa at L’Auberge, Del Mar
Originally opened in 1989, this hotel in the picturesque seaside village of Del Mar reopened last summer following a $25 million renovation. Its new, larger 4,500-square-foot spa is reportedly set to open in late February or early March with 10 treatment rooms, many with partial ocean views; a complimentary wine bar; and an array of treatments employing organic and exotic ingredients like Indonesian ginger and frankincense, long considered helpful to address inflammatory conditions.


CAPTIONS: (Spas pictured from top to bottom and left to right) Cavallo Point, Spa Villagio, Grand Del Mar, Spa Terra, Encantado