Have you been massaged with warm water-filled deerskin pouches? Stuck your hands into a basin of micro bubbles with the power to make you look younger in twenty minutes? Rolled out your hamstrings with a TigerTail? Entrusted your eyelids to an esthetician working with chilled porcelain spoons—Limoges, no less?
I hadn’t done these things, either, which was reason enough to attend the 20th annual International Spa Association (ISPA) media event, held on a mid-August afternoon at Gotham Hall in midtown Manhattan. Your dutiful reporter was first through the door and last to leave (almost missing out on the famous gift bag).
Subtitled "Hello World," the blitz of mini-treatments, infomercials, demos, and give-aways suggested more than geographic range. While one-of-a-kind high-end resorts dominated the show, visitors might have a foot scrub offered by a chain with a thousand-plus clinics. TigerTail’s effervescent spokeswoman was pleased to let us know that her gear (description will follow) is sold at Target, among other places.
And any notion that spas are for sybarites: forget it. Whether U.S. or foreign, spas take terroir seriously these days, offering big doses of indigenous culture along with the unguents. Spa-goers are encouraged to "give back," to be mindful of both the locale and the fragile planet while healing themselves.
Food has always been central to the spa experience (albeit sometimes in very small portions). But cooking lessons as well as fine, wholesome dining are showing up in ever more resort programs. And well beyond salt and sugar scrubs and coffee-scented facials, the newest wrinkle is exquisite coordination between the kitchen larder and the massage cream ingredient lists.
Here’s what I liked best (and least) at ISPA 2014:
Aspira The Spa, Elkart Lake, Wisconsin
|Aspira the Spa: There’s Magic in Those Pouches
When the Sacred Waters Massage was described, I admit it sounded hokey to me. Deerskin pouches would be filled with water precisely measured and warmed, and then the pouches would be placed on my body and gently manipulated. The deer come from the property, I was told, part of the think-local motif. I lay down, face up, and tried not to think of angry antlers as a blindfold was placed across my eyes.
The first pouch was plopped just below my navel and the second on my breastbone. You may find it hard to believe—I’m a little incredulous myself—but I was positively transported by the combination of warmth, weight, the sweet tang of deer hide, and the enforced darkness. Five minutes, nothing much happened, and yet it was both tranquil and energizing, one of the all-time great massage experiences.
Imagine it done on site in Wisconsin, with water from Elkhart Lake, said to be sacred to the Native Americans who once lived there? Zowie.
|Roll your own (happy muscles)
TigerTail With bright orange rubber handles on either end of a slim 10-inch foam roller, The Tiger Tail looks and feels like a high-tech rolling pin. Which is what it is, actually—except that instead of rolling out pasta or pizza dough, it ripples along your muscles to alleviate pain. It was invented by Spring Faussett, an athlete who built the prototype—and the first ten thousand devices—in her garage.
At the ISPA event, people were going happily crazy rolling themselves and also trying the company’s other products, including a ball on a string which you wiggle between your back and a wall to work out knots.
As a former pastry chef, I’ve had many rolling pins in my hands. The moment I picked up the Tiger Tail, I was smitten with its dimensions and heft. It is a truly a righteous tool. I’ve been rolling my calves at bedtime to prevent cramps; so far, so good. And the motion makes my upper arms feel terrific.
The Deborah Lippman Salon at Miraval
|Deborah Lippmann / Miraval manicure : good-for-you glamour
Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? The Tucson resort is ultra-earthy--about balance, harmony, harvest, gratitude and living in the moment. Manicures and pedicures from Deborah Lippmann, paradigmatic New York woman, a fixture in the fashion world?
But Lippmann is also about health. Her nail products are as wholesome as they can be and still confer glamour.
I’ve always known that one shouldn’t cut cuticles, but only after chatting with her at ISPA do I know why. "Cuticle is just like hair," she says." It grows at different speeds after it’s cut. So your nails may look great when you leave a salon, and the next day you’ve got ragged edges."
I‘ve long used Lippman’s matte clear polish, my idea of way cool, so I’m willing to wait until 6:50—ten minutes to ISPA closing time—to sit down with one of her indefatigable manicurists. (Smarter women booked appointments in advance.)
One week later, and my hands still look terrific—no matter that I routinely chop and whisk, handle blueberries and chocolates, wash incessantly. The secret, beyond the great un-polish, is Lippmann’s cuticle repair cream, which I was delighted to find in my gift bag. She calls it The Cure, and the grand name is earned. Unlike the dozens of cuticle creams (plus olive oil, cocoa butter, you name it) I’ve tried over the decades, The Cure actually works!
Now if someone would invite me to test whether a Deborah Lippmann manicure and pedicure at Miraval stand up to a day of rock-climbing . . .
The Spa at Hotel Hershey Chocolate Eye Refresh
|Chilled spoons refresh eyes.
It doesn’t have chocolate in it, alas. But the firm gliding coolness of chilled little porcelain spoons do something amazing (beyond feeling divine). The whites of my eyes are the clearest and brightest I ever remember them. My eyes look bigger.
The treatment at ISPA lasts just ten minutes; at the Hershey Spa itself it lasts 45 minutes (and does include chocolate), But would I be recognizable?
As it is, when I catch up with my beau and his sister at the restaurant where we’re having dinner, they tell me I look sensational.
"Notice anything different?" I wave my pluperfect matte fingernails, I blink my bigger, brighter eyes.
"Your hair!" Ricardo says enthusiastically. "They did something to the gray on the sides. I love it."
No one did anything to my hair, but who’s counting?
Message Envy Spa sugar foot scrub
I really like the down-to-earth folks at Massage Envy, their commitment to raising money to fight arthritis, and their gorgeously talented hands on aching feet. This year they’ve opened three salons in Manhattan; there are more than a thousand elsewhere.
The Essex Resort & Spa
I’ve spent a wonderful weekend at the Essex: I didn’t join in any of the cooking school activities, but I loved the food in both the bar and main restaurant. At ISPA, they offered a watermelon salsa to compliment a watermelon vodka-tini hand treatment. Alas, no room for me on the hand treatment list, unsurprisingly popular, and I couldn’t try the salsa, which contained garlic (an allergen for me).
Mayo Clinic wellness program
Speaking of garlic: Even people who are garlic fans shared my feeling that the Mayo Clinic cooking demo—a bright and beautiful veggie stir-fry--created strong aromas that occluded other experiences, especially those with an aromatherapy component. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from checking out Mayo Clinic’s new healthy living program, where you can spend an hour or four days embracing wellness.
NYC Woman.com, columnist; CEOTraveler, contributing writer