Tahlequah Daily Press

April 25, 2008

Spas offer blissful retreat from reality


TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — When my husband and I go on vacation, we like to treat ourselves to a couple of hours of relaxation at a local spa. On such occasions, we’ve left our teenage son in the hotel room, where we hoped free reign with the TV remote would keep him out of trouble. Thankfully, it always has.

Although many spas are now starting to offer services for teens, I personally don’t think they belong there. I consider a spa a sanctuary for grownups – a way for a couple to reward each other for surviving another protracted period of everyday grind.

Almost every city to which you might travel this summer has a selection of spas, many quite upscale. But there are also a surprising number of places with reasonably priced services, and if you set aside a little cash from your paychecks for a month or two, you can pick from a menu almost as varied as that of a Chinese restaurant.

Since we try to spend a few days in Chicago every year, my husband and I have found a spa there we love. Spa Space (www.spaspace.com) is just off the famed “Loop,” and as guests at the Monaco Hotel (we would never dream of staying anywhere else), we get a discount. We think Spa Space has exceptional service and ambiance, so I can’t say it’s “typical” in that sense. But its list of services can stand as a good example to help me explain the basics of a visit to a “typical” spa, and what you can expect.

Before you call to make reservations, plan to set aside at least two hours. If you’re a first-time spa-goer, I suggest you start with a basic Swedish massage, for at least an hour. If you don’t want a longer massage, throw in a facial or a pedicure to complete your ritual. When you make your appointment, you’ll be asked what services you want, and it’s helpful if you have a list in front of you. The person you talk to will explain anything you don’t understand, but most spas have Web sites detailing their services and price lists. Don’t forget to figure in at least an 18 percent tip for any therapist or technician who works on you. The gratuity is deserved; it’s no easy feat to rub muscles for a couple of hours! You’ll also be asked whether you prefer a male or female therapist; in my husband’s case and my own, we always ask for females, because we feel more comfortable with them.

It’s important that you be at ease at your spa and your therapist, or you won’t benefit from your session. You need to be relaxed (many spas offer soothing herbal teas to help). But remember that you will take off all your clothes except perhaps your underwear, and most folks take that off, too. You’ll be covered by sheets during the procedure; the therapist will only uncover the part of your body she happens to be working on, then she’ll cover it again before she moves to another part. And they only work on your back, neck, head, arms and legs. Interestingly, how far “up” on your thighs they’ll massage depends on the laws of the state you’re in. Most places will massage up to mid-thigh; some go a tad higher, and some not much above the knee. Whatever the case, a reputable establishment will not allow its therapists to massage any “private” part of your anatomy, nor will these parts ever be exposed. Nevertheless, the relatively unclothed state of the client makes some particularly modest folks feel uncomfortable, so that’s something you should consider.

A basic, or Swedish massage, costs $85 for an hour at Spa Space, which is quite reasonable; in some places, you may pay as much as $180 for an hour of basic massage. Usually you can add another half-hour, or go for two hours, at a discount. There are other options, too; you might add aromatherapy, or go for a deep-tissue or sports massage if you’d like a more vigorous workover. And most spas also offer spot treatments of feet, head and neck, or other areas. My husband is fond of stone therapy massages, which cost $100 for an hour at Spa Space. Your therapist applies heated river stones strategically to your body as she works your muscles to relieve tension. This massage can be combined with a Swedish or other types of therapy.

The so-called “body treatments” are another element for indulgence at most spas. These can serve a variety of functions – deep-cleansing, exfoliation, detoxification or simple relaxation. You can be wrapped in seaweed, slathered in oils, or subjected to a vigorous scrub. Different products are used, depending on the effect you want. And all spas offer a selection of facials, pedicures, manicures, waxing, and other services. And if you’re half of a couple, most spas offer side-by-side massages or other couples rituals. Spa packages are a great way to sample all the available pleasures. These combine different services, usually at a discounted rate.

You should always arrive at your spa at least 15 minutes early, and preferably more, because you’ll need to fill out some paperwork and sign waivers. Then you’ll be given a locker for your things, along with a plush bathrobe and some slippers to wear to and from, and in between, your sessions. You may be asked to wait in a comfortably furnished, dimly lit area, where you can enjoy hot tea, ice water spiked with cucumber and lemon, or in some cases, you can bring your own wine. (Spa Space also has an addictive trail mix in its waiting areas.)

When your therapist comes to get you, she will speak to you in muted tones and lead you slowly – almost ceremonially – to your room. She’ll ask you to remove your robe and slippers, lie down on the table, and cover yourself with the sheet. She’ll return momentarily and quietly begin your procedure. Your room will probably be cool, but not cold, perhaps only lit by candle, and soft, earthy music will be piped in. This is usually classical or “easy listening” music, or even “nature” sounds, like waterfalls, birds and rain pattering on a roof.

While most of your treatment will be administered in silence (you may even doze off), it’s important that you let your therapist know what you want. For instance, if the temperature of the room isn’t right or you don’t like the selection of music, tell her immediately. Or, if she’s applying too much or not enough pressure, she’ll adjust that at your request. Generally your therapist will let you know what she’s doing before she does it, and she’ll ask you to turn over, tuck in a leg, or perform other necessary maneuvers. You’ll never be rushed, even when the session is over, the therapist leaves, and it’s time to rejoin the real world.

The point of the whole procedure is to pamper yourself, and to relax. And you can do that best by preparing, taking your time, planning ahead, asking questions, and being forthright with your therapist.

On a recent trip to Walt Disney World, we sampled the fare at the Mandara Spa at Disney’s Dolphin Resort. Mandara has locations all over the world; in the past, we’ve visited the one at Universal Studios’ Portofino Bay Resort in Orlando. Mandara has a distinctly oriental ambiance that clients find supremely soothing.

“Mandara,” the company literature informs us, hails from an age-old Sanskrit legend detailing the search for immortality and eternal youth. The connection is appropriate; upon entering the Mandara at Dolphin, clients are invited to relax in what they call the “Meru Temple,” a beautifully appointed room styled like an Asian pagoda and symbolizing the mythological Meru Mountain, “navel of the universe” and home to the gods. Buddha-type statues sit serenely about, and hot tea is available to sip as you await the arrival of your massage therapist to begin your ritual. And the therapists themselves – as they move quietly through the Temple to enter a room – reflect a sedate attitude perfectly in keeping with Asian tradition. The individual therapy rooms are dimly lit, enhanced by candlelight, and lotus blossoms and other flowers are strewn casually about to enhance the effect.

We enjoyed a combination of Swedish massage and hot stone therapy during our Mandara visit, and at the suggestion of the spa director, ended up in a Jacuzzi tub for two in a cool, dark, high-ceilinged room for a 30-minute treatment. The water was piping hot (perfect for my husband, who prefers a water temperature of about 107 degrees) and was salted with minerals to detoxify our systems.

As with other spas, Mandara offered a number of packages. A cellulite reduction program and special microdermabrasian for the face were on the menu for clients looking for body and facial rejuvenation. Other interesting choices include eye, lip and neck treatments, nourishing body wraps, and cleansing body scrubs. There are a number of facials to choose from, along with the usual plethora of massages, pedicures, manicures and other treatments.

If you’re planning your Walt Disney World trip this summer, consider taking one of the boats from Epcot over to the Dolphin to Mandara. But get an appointment first. Go to www.mandaraspa.com for company details, or for specifically the Dolphin, www.dolphinswan.com/activities/spa.html.

(Incidentally, although I compiled this information for vacationers, you don’t have to go that far from home to lavish a spa treatment on yourself. Reflections Medical Spa offers many such services, thanks to the talents of Dr. Tracey Childers. I’ve never been to Reflections, but I’ve talked to Tracey’s husband, Kelly – we both swim laps at the NSU pool – and he says the services are top drawer. Also, you can get similar services at The Palms Therapeutic Massage and Body Spa.)