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Nancy Weber on ISPA

It hurts.It's heaven. Body Work at Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Comes an invitation to cover the 2013 International SPA Association Media Event: an August afternoon of mini-treatments in Manhattan’s Gotham Hall. If this isn’t the very definition of a-tough-job-but-someone-has-to-do-it, what is?

But unlike Vivian Fancher, spa maven sans pareil, (see her coverage of the 2012 ISPA) I’ve never loved massages, facials, or other outsourced improvements. I can wash my own face, thank you.

While I’m grateful to anyone who’ll handle my un-gorgeous feet, I’m too restless to stay put for more than a $20 mani-pedi quickie. I’m a New Englander; I stiffen up when I’m exhorted to relax. Aye, there’s the rub.

When Vivian asked me to stand in for her—lie in for her, I guess I should say—at this year’s ISPA beauty blitz it was as if she’d asked me to cover an Outward Bound whitewater rafting trip. So scary that I had to accept. But, oh no, would there be scented candles and twinkle ding-dong music? A communal un-dressing room populated by beauty writers, one skinnier than the next, all waxed to a faretheewell? Would my bunion disgrace ceotraveler?

Of course you know how the story ends. I had a fabulous time, and not just because I got to keep on my leggings. The event was eye opening, even before I got to the chakra awakening. Uplifting of spirit as well as chin.

Gotham Hall, a pillared, soaring space near Herald Square, was once the headquarters of the Greenwich Savings Bank. In a nod to history. it still has the kiosks where one might fill out deposit or withdrawal forms—complete with three out of four nonworking pens. That’s authentic! The central space has the echoing grandeur of a scaled-down Grand Central Station. What could be more appropriate for an event that’s all about destinations?

From as far away as Maui, the dozen-plus participants brought the flavors of their venues with them. Scenic backdrops and other props cleverly carved the arena into intimate niches with nuanced atmosphere. I arrived early enough to circle the room before taking the plunge. Wow, what stagecraft! It was a World’s Fair in microcosm.

Thanks to technology sponsor ResortSuite—more about them later—I’d been able to orchestrate my treatments ahead of time at home on my laptop, a new wrinkle this year. I opted to begin with a warm/cool hand treatment from the Kohler Spa. Kohler: the folks who made my kitchen faucet. Surely my hands would be safe in theirs.

Kohler Waters Spa (Kohler, Wisconsin)

Awaken Whole Life Center: two eyes closed so third may open

Pristine and cheerful, the Kohler site was staffed by an all-American crew dressed in aqua polo shirts and white pants. Towels enlivened with a splashing water design covered the work surfaces in front of two padded seats. I exclaimed over the towel and was delighted to learn one would be included in my gift bag at the end of the day. In the background, a heap of smooth black ovoid stones chilled in an ice-filled shell-shaped tub.

Oh, the primal bliss of having one hand stroked with a cold stone while the other was stroked with warm! Electrical signals, zigzags of happiness, raced up and down my arms.

I reminded myself that I was there to report, and I duly asked the esthetician for the temperature of the stones. I instantly forgot what she said—fair to say that I was momentarily stoned—but I didn’t really need numbers. I can confidently report: the experience was exquisite. Akin to the particular pleasure offered by crème brulee as one splinters a hot crust of sugar to scoop up smooth, chilled custard.

To console me for the clock running down on the warm/cool hand experience, the Kohler manager offered me one of the chocolates made at their resort. About the size of a poker die, that morsel offered the same brilliant range of contrasting textures as the hand and arm massage. A chef tempering chocolate knows that water is the enemy—even a drop can ruin a batch, but at Kohler water and chocolate are the best of friends.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya (Quintano Roo, Mexico)

From aqua and white wholesomeness, I fell down the rabbit hole into a risky pleasure garden, an alternate universe. The most atmospheric of the ISPA sites, the Grand Velas area shimmered with golden lacquer and vibrant multi-color fabrics. Two bright orange rebozos awaited me on the massage bed.

As I submitted to a blindfold and lay face down, the manager said matter-of-factly, “It will be hard. Let us know if it’s too much.” Next thing I knew, I felt my right leg being wrapped into a rebozo, then swung toward my left hip and back again.

Yup, hard. Hard in a thrilling way. Call it Fifty Shades of Gold. An exercise in trust. (Maybe after all this was an Outward Bound trip.) I knew I was being tested. I knew I’d emerge the stronger if I didn’t fight the pain.

Afterwards the manager told me that the rebozos are handmade by Mexican women for midwives to counterbalance labor pain. Nearly thirty years since my last contraction, but I could feel the logic, the sisterhood.

And my legs felt as though they could take me up the Matterhorn.

“Is that comfortable for you?”

Even the meringues are life-changing at Miraval

Throughout the day, my definition of spa continued to expand and evolve. From the Four Seasons Maui came a HydroPeptide Ultimate Anti-Aging Facial that made me realize my face had been parched. Downright parched! How gratefully it slurped up the unguents being skillfully applied.

“Is that comfortable for you?” the esthetician inquired. “Absolutely,” I said. “Because comfort is a measure of the confidence you have in the person working on you.”

“I’ll take that,” she said.

The Sugar Foot Scrub from the chain Massage Envy made my sandaled feet feel clean and energized. The Umstead Hotel and Spa (Cary, North Carolina) Cherry Blossom Ritual Whole Arm Massage promoted sensory integration with a pastoral slide show and super-refreshing sips of cucumber coconut yuzu water (See recipe below.) Aspira the Spa (Elkart Lake, Wisconsin) regaled my nose with the soft sweet smell of linden . . . and sent me home with a jar of the most flavorful light honey I’ve ever encountered.

I hung out at the table manned by Miraval Resort and Spa (Tucson, Arizona), admiring the array of produce from their farm while taste-testing a shameful number of mint chocolate meringues, stunningly crisp on a damp summer day. The gluten-free tea bread was light and fluffy and just dense enough.

Between indulgences, I chatted with ResortSuites founder and CEO Frank Pitsikalis. He envisions a revolution in the hospitality industry through software enabling travelers to plan it all in advance from home computer or smartphone: not just flights and room reservations but also dining, tee-off times, and—of course—spa treatments. And once you’re on site at a resort, your device could remind you of appointments and map you from point A to point B.

If that sounds too programmatic: have no fear. There’s still room for serendipity. And there will always be the human factor, meaning someone else’s last-minute cancellation will let you add on a pleasure.

So it turned out, software or no, that my day unexpectedly ended in a quiet, barely decorated alcove where the lovely people from Awaken Whole Life Center (Unity Village, Missouri) were offering focus on the inner beauties. A lavender mask across my eyes, a smooth stone in my left hand, I listened to a guided meditation while strong, deft fingers worked the knots in my head, neck, and shoulders, creating open channels.

Nobody told me to relax. So relax I did. And rose up invigorated. I'm still happy with my cold washcloth most mornings. But I'll be back for more peptides on my chakras. Even a New Englander needs that kind of love.

Umstead’s Ultimate Quencher

A Recipe From Herons Kitchen

Cucumber Elixir

Yields: ½ Gallon

  • 8-10 cucumbers
  • 3 cups coconut water
  • 3 ½ oz. yuzu juice (see note)
  • 4-5 sprigs fresh mint
  • 1 pinch kosher salt
  • cucumber slices (for garnish)


Peel the cucumbers and cut them into one inch chunks. Place into a blender and pulse until the cucumbers are blended well. Pass the cucumber mix through a fine sieve. Continue until 4 cups of cucumber water are acquired.

Combine the cucumber water, coconut water and mint in a container and mix well. Allow to sit 3-4 hours or overnight. Before serving incorporate the yuzu juice, mix well and strain.

Serve well chilled in a glass. Garnish with freshly sliced cucumber.

Note: If yuzu juice is new to you, as it was to me: It’s an Asian super-sour, tannin-rich citrus, similar to citron, prized for both its juice and peel. You can buy it bottled (and maybe fresh in winter) at Japanese markets, such as Sunrise Mart in New York City , or online. It’s expensive but a little goes a long way. Once opened, the bottle should be refrigerated. Or make into half-ounce ice cubes. Meyer lemon is probably the best substitute. Though I haven’t yet tried it, I bet you could also get the same tongue-twisting tang (though not the citrus) from a good verjus, such as the one made of gewurtztraminer grapes at Navarro Winery.


Nancy Weber
NYCWoman.com (food columnist)
Ceotraveler, contributing writer

Summer 2013