Wed, Jan 05, 2005 - Page 16 News List

New spas offer market-savvy relaxation

A stressed-out US has redefined the spa experience

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Jeane Hays, a licensed massage therapist, massages Kristin Dkada in a treatment room at The Sanctuary Spa. Below, The Infinity pool at sunset at The Sanctuary Spa, Phoenix, near Camelback Mountain.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

It had been a long week. A long month. A long year. The office calls even as we begin the three-hour drive to the spa, meaning I have to finish one last assignment through some jury rigging of cell phone and laptop from the passenger seat of a rented Hyundai in a pounding rainstorm on a Saturday night.

So the next morning, when Milt, the massage therapist, gently knocks on the door to ask if I am ready for my treatment, I practically holler "Yes" and snuggle against the soft chamois of the table, feel the silkiness of the sheets draped over my legs and allow the soft classical music to lull me toward sleep.

As Milt expertly begins to knead my hardened shoulders, a sweet, familiar scent wafts up. It takes me a moment, and then I recognize it: Chocolate. Within seconds, I am carried back to when I was eight, sitting around the kitchen table after school playing crazy eights with my babysitter, Michelle, a college student who indulged me in baking countless batches of brownies, and who first warned me that licking the batter could give me salmonella.

I am at the Spa at the Hotel Hershey, the newest addition to the 72-year-old Mediterranean palace overlooking one of America's most famous company towns, joining the theme park, outlet mall and model chocolate factory that already draw millions of visitors to Hershey each year. And while Milton Hershey himself might ask what a chocolate company in heartland Pennsylvania is doing in the massage and body scrub business, perhaps it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that this resort is doing a brisk business exfoliating half-naked customers with cocoa bean husks.

For Hershey, like a lot of other hotels, has recognized a new truth: In a 24/7 wired world of cellphones, e-mail, BlackBerrys and laptops -- one in which we are constantly under scrutiny and pressure, and our value is determined by how seemingly indispensable we are -- it's not enough to go on a simple vacation anymore. Now, people seem to need to elevate their vacation experience into something more meaningful, where they will come back a changed, detoxed, perhaps even a more spiritual person.

The very word "vacation" almost seems too mundane and trivial to describe the time painstakingly carved out of our busy existence. Instead, people have to go on a "retreat" -- one in which all of life's ills can be solved by a Green Coffee Body Wrap or a Spirit of Life ayurvedic massage.

"It's a badge of honor telling people how busy you are, then because you need to release so much, you go to a spa, because any other vacation wouldn't do," said Jim Root, the director of the spa at Miraval Life in Balance in Catalina, Arizona, which is doubling its number of rooms and adding a satellite location at Kapalua, on Maui. "Spa is all the `re-' words: renewal, rest, rejuvenate, revitalize. You come away with all those redone things."

Thus, like the pool in the 1960s and the fitness center in the 1990s, the spa has become the must-have for today's hotels, whether in a city center or rolling countryside. Starwood, which recently purchased the campy-chic Bliss Spas, is creating entire spa floors in six of its W Hotels from New York to Seoul, which will include spa suites in which guests can control the humidity, light and aromatherapy. Hyatt is building six spas, including one in spa-saturated Scottsdale, Ariz. And Wyndham, which owns the Golden Door spa, is extending the brand to four of its hotels by the end of 2006.

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