A sign at the Stressless Step, an Upper East Side massage haven, is emblazoned with the following directive: NO TIPPING PLEASE. OUR STAFF PREFER TO BE TREATED AS MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS. Over at the Upper West Side’s health-club behemoth Reebok, the Paul Labrecque Salon & Spa has hired three practitioners of Eastern medicine; its competitor Equinox counts chiropractors, dermatologists, and nutritionists among its staff. What happened to sweet-smelling creams and warm booties? As might be expected in a luxury service that started out catering to socialites and the Hollywood elite, spas are going high-concept, with treatments like Reiki – a spiritual massage in which the therapist’s hands barely touch the client – being offered alongside techniques like galvanic currents, abrading acids, and transepidermal therapy. This arsenal of tools was not developed with the mere aim of pampering the clientele – instead, urban spas consider long-term stress relief, anti-aging, even spiritual healing their more lofty objectives.
Whether the wonders of modern spa science can defy genetics, stress, and sleep deprivation is still, of course, up for debate. “There is a real proven benefit to lymphatic massage and ultrasound massage for the face and body in promoting healing,” maintains Alan Matarasso, one of the country’s best-known plastic surgeons, who offers ultrasound treatments to his patients after surgery at no extra charge (lymphatic massage helps reduce swelling; ultrasound massage can promote healing by softening tissue). Some dermatologists question the merits of electronic-muscle-stimulation facials, which are usually performed with ionic and galvanic currents (the concept: to improve circulation and tighten muscles). But Dr. Steven Victor, a dermatologist who has studied the electronic facials carefully, is considering providing them as a service to his clients. “We took masks of 25 women before and after electronic stimulation, and the computer showed 46 percent improvement in visible wrinkling and an average of about a quarter of an inch in picking up sagging,” he reports.
Spas’ movement into treatments that border on the medical has not gone unnoticed by private physicians, some of whom are adding sanctuaries to the services they offer. Dr. Fredrick Valauri, a plastic surgeon, has just divided his East 76th Street office in half – one side is for his regular practice, the other for a day spa that will feature facials, massage, aromatherapy, cellulite treatments, seaweed wraps, and hair removal. Dr. Lionel Bissoon, an osteopath, has hired top massage therapists like Equinox’s in-demand Ken Tucker, and he is in the process of adding on a space for herbal, seaweed, and mud wraps and a cellulite-busting endermologie machine (designed to break down the fibrous bands thought to cause the condition). “I see a real battle brewing between salons and doctors over domain,” says Dr. Victor. “Even now, many salons are doing acid peels, and doctors are not happy about it.”
OLD SCHOOL, NEW TRICKS
The aestheticians – don’t call them beauticians, please – at these traditional European spas have skin care in their DNA and are strong in facials, scrubs, and seaweed or mud body treatments. Now their artful hands are getting a grip on their field’s machine age.
26 East 64th Street
At this exclusive, if clinical, spa, your aesthetician greets you in a white doctor’s coat and leads you into a lablike room filled with beakers and ampoules. You may notice that her face has an otherworldly iridescence – that’s the liquid silk, applied as a final step in the spa’s popular remodeling facial, intended to lock in moisture, protect you from environmental hazards, and add an extra glow. Among the other steps in the one-hour, $165 session are cleansing, exfoliation, toning with electrical currents, and applications of fresh plant and trace-element serums.
Dorit Baxter Day Spa
47 West 57th Street, third floor
”First, we will take a picture of your face with a wooden camera,” explains the owner of this midtown spot. “It shows everything we can’t see with our eyes.” One could argue there are some things better left unseen, but be a sport and pose. Her latest addition – Sonocare – is an ultrasound facial machine well worth the $70 it costs for a half-hour. (One other spa in the city, Helen Lee, offers ultrasound facials, but only in 90-minute sessions, for $150.) After various gels are applied to your face, the machine begins its mission in a relaxing motion, a procedure meant to tone muscles, reduce puffiness, diminish broken capillaries, and reduce dark circles and discoloration. On the way out, you will be presented with your “before” photo. When you look in the mirror and see the “after” version, you’ll wish they’d taken the shot on the way out.
The Elizabeth Arden
Red Salon & Spa
691 Fifth Avenue, between 54th and 55th Streets
A lot has changed behind the red door. To start, it’s no longer pink – instead, expect tasteful taupe walls and rooms with an Armani-meets-Lenox Hill look, all stainless-steel cabinetry and sterilizing units. The $95 oxygenating French seaweed facial (it’s the technique that’s French; the seaweed is actually Italian) is the salon’s fifteen-step program for a revitalized complexion. For sore muscles, try the self-heating herbal mud masque, which bubbles nicely on your skin like an overactive heating pad. Pedicures here go the extra step: The water is strewn with rose petals and stocked with marbles to roll your feet over for tension release.
501 Madison Avenue, between 57th and 53rd Streets
“Electric facials? We don’t have anything so nouveau here,” says the receptionist at this day spa for the debutante-at-heart. The skilled aestheticians (I met Miss Claudia and Miss Ruth) do things here the old-fashioned way: During their steam treatment, for example, they drape a towel around your head and position your face above a pot of steaming chamomile tea. Face and décolleté massage is long, luxurious, and delivers, at long last, the cream of spa memory. The spa has made at least one concession to the approaching millennium: an intensely cleansing oxygen facial that begins and ends with a heavy misting from a mini oxygen tank.
686 Lexington Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets
Lia Schorr’s pristine, no-nonsense day spa offers twelve facials (including one geared for teenagers with problem skin). Skilled hands move with precision across your face, and strong European aestheticians perform body massage. If you don’t have an afternoon to kill in the name of beauty, the accommodating staff will surround you for a 75-minute-long wonder session that includes a facial, a manicure, and a pedicure for a very reasonable $118; an ionic treatment to perk up tired eyes is an extra $35.
Skin and Body Care, Inc.
50 East 78th Street
When Denise Margulies and Diana Ward opened their small, personalized boutique day spa this fall, they decided to keep it strictly state-of-the-art. Their gizmos include an endermologie machine and an electronic facial-toning device that works with galvanic and ionic currents. “I asked the electricians to install a big power box so I can start using all my gadgets,” says Ward. In another room, they offer cellular-memory-release massage – deep kneading that aims to release tension stored from the frustrations of childhood. Are you crying from catharsis? It might just be pain. This bone-reaching massage may be worth it, but brace yourself.
URBAN SPAS, UNPLUGGED
Characterized by candlelight and whiffs of essential oils, L.A.-style spas prefer to go the natural route. Therapists at these places are ready to strangle Enya.
Aveda Institute Lifestyle Store & Spa
233 Spring Street
The New Age music has you unwinding before you even hit the Aveda sanctuary, separated by a door from the SoHo apothecary that’s made aromatherapy a household word. You might opt for the $45 stress-relieving half-hour of neck, shoulder, and scalp massage, but the splurge here is the Himalayan Rejuvenation Body Treatment, available for $125. “First there’s a dry, rough exfoliating massage to get rid of dead skin,” explains an employee. “Then the person lies down and water is dripped in the middle of the eyebrow.” Didn’t there used to be another name for that? Actually, it’s warm essential oil of your choosing that’s dripped onto your third eye.
If you could get an appointment at Bliss, you might be treated to its carrot-sesame exfoliation; or its new Pulp Friction (another near-edible scrub, with fresh grapes in the mix); or its papaya scrub, during which the fruit enzyme begins to break down your epidermis like meat tenderizer. Sad to say, your yearning for facial fruit salad will likely go unmet – Bliss’s staff is generally too busy sloughing the skin off celebrities like Uma Thurman and Julia Roberts (several calls made in November yielded no appointment until January).
119 Mercer Street
There’s an emphasis on earth-mother power at this women-only spa, which features a spa package called the “Goddess Sampler” and displays images of female nudes on the walls. Reflexology comes with a sage foot bath; the heated mud wrap (the Moor Spa minifacial) mixes 1,000 herbs and organic substances meant to purify, tone, and relax the body; the “perfect facial” uses wild herbs intended to restore the skin’s balance. Befitting its name, the SoHo Sanctuary also offers yoga, meditation, and a reading room.
48 East 61st Street
Sixty-first Street between Park and Madison. The address may be swank, but industrial flesh-tone walls, dingy shag carpeting, and treatment rooms the size of a broom closet decorate this spartan day spa with a post-hippie feel. Questionable décor aside, this spa’s great massages make it one of the most popular around. Whoever does the hiring at Stressless Step is choosing well, and at $60 an hour, $35 for a half-hour, it’s a great value. Unfortunately, the “half-hour” massage clocked in at just over twenty minutes, and they’re strict on the cancellation policy.
754 Fifth Avenue, between 57th and 58th Streets
Ciminelli, who recently moved her scented spa to the top floor of Bergdorf Goodman, is renowned for her crystal treatment, which, as one staff member described it, is “like a magnified healing thing,” meant to balance your chakras by positioning the crystals in various places on your face and body. (As an aesthetician once explained when a crystal slid from face to floor, “It was probably time for it to leave.”) Visualization, meditation, Reiki, and more hands-on Swedish and Shiatsu are also available. The masseur’s interest in astrology (the moon was apparently in retrograde that day) didn’t detract from his strong work. Prices are steep – one-hour facials and massages start at $115, and the “ultimate hour,” a body wrap, aromatherapy, and reflexology combo, is $295.
THE SPORTING SPA
We’ve come a long way since a massage at the gym meant locker-room-style treatment spaces. Today’s top fitness spas have soft lighting and serious massage therapists who use hard-core deep techniques like myofascial and neuromuscular release.
The Spa at Equinox
205 East 85th Street
Equinox offers eleven types of facials (including the one-two punch of electronic muscle stimulation and acupuncture), very strong deep-tissue massage, hot-oil aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, even a men’s sports pedicure. Now comes this: American Indian hot-rock therapy (“La Stone therapy”), during which heated smooth stones are placed on different parts of the body, first to balance energy, then to knead out knots of tension. The warmth from the stones relaxes the muscle before the rocks sink in for the deep work, pinpointing tough-to-reach places under the shoulder blades. At the end, the therapist follows the Indian custom of tapping the rocks together as he walks around you in a circle. “This is the rocks saying good-bye to you,” he explains. No such farewell came from the Stairmaster I passed on the way out.
Paul Labrecque at Reebok
160 Columbus Avenue, between 67th and 68th Streets
“Oh, good, the latissimus dorsi are giving way,” reports massage therapist John Wehr as he digs in deep, just before he actually climbs onto the table to work on some particularly intractable knots. The current house special – a luxurious 90-minute, $175 massage – begins with a muscle meltdown using hot fango (otherwise known as mud) mixed with volcanic ash and paraffin. An energizing facial is carried out with a new acupressure tool, which looks something like a space-age pen. Spa director Regina Viotto is cautious about her clients’ expectations: “It finds trigger points and helps clear blocked energy. I don’t promise any lifting. But if that happens, great.”
The Origins Feel-Good Spa
At Pier 60, 23rd Street and the West Side Highway
Head over to the Hudson River, past clusters of children en route to bowling parties, through blocks of sports complexes and a dreary locker room, and finally you hit the Origins spa. Its pine-scented candles and soft moss-green interior make for a welcome refuge at that point. While Origins offers mineral crystal baths, seaweed and mud wraps, energizing and relaxing massages, and a myriad of facials, it also has unique “mindful treatments” that, it is claimed, will stimulate your creativity. Settle into an MRI-like pod that heats up and vibrates while full-spectrum light does what it can to relieve you of the winter blues. During “Lost in Space,” meant to “balance your alpha and beta brain waves,” dark goggles emit a series of rapidly flashing light patterns as you lie on a free-love-era water bed that rocks vigorously as it delivers a pummeling hydromassage. No more stimulating than a so-so amusement-park ride, “Lost in Space” is enough to make you long for a restorative steam facial.