The Pleasure Principle

When we look back on it, we’ll probably forgive ourselves the bad habits we indulged in: the Marlboro Reds for breakfast, the Cherry Garcia for dinner, the habitual consumption of Absolut after another day of struggling to concentrate at the office. It didn’t seem to matter much at all. Until now.

But 2001 is finally behind us; that was a collective sigh of relief you heard in the early hours of January 1, when nothing big happened. Nothing bad. And so we set out to clean up our act, to atone, to build a little forward momentum. Not exactly the way we did in the nineties, when everything, even our bodies, seemed like an investment: thigh-burning spinning classes and salt-scrub exfoliation treatments that felt like an afternoon nap on a belt sander. These days, it isn’t so much that we want to look good; what we want is to feel good.

What we were doing was stopgap indulgence; what we’re after now is deep-tissue indulgence. We set out to find it in the most profoundly pleasurable spa treatments Manhattan can dish up. We were not disappointed.

The Hot-Chocolate Wrap ($75)
Haven, the Mercer Street spa where downtowners go as an alternative to the clinical cool of Bliss, claims to offer the “only chocolate body treatment outside of Hershey, Pennsylvania.” I’m not really sure what the point is of having your naked body slathered in warm chocolate, except that it sounds a lot more alluring than being slathered in room-temperature seaweed. But, hey, I’m on a quest.

The spa itself, decorated in rich browns, evokes chocolate. “The lactic acids in the milk bring the toxins to the surface of the skin, to be washed away,” the therapist, a demure Polish woman named Mariola, explains in dulcet tones.

Within minutes, the buttery hands of Mariola are gliding over me, laying a gooey paste of warm milk across the tops of my thighs. Then comes the “therapy” part – a brisk salt-scrub exfoliation. This salt is mixed with cocoa; the rich aromas do distract me from the mild discomfort of the scouring. Suddenly, Mariola is pouring a warm chocolate syrup over my skin, spreading it with a paintbrush. At this point, my memory becomes a bit hazy – either because of rapture or cocoa fumes – but what I do remember is peering down at my body, glistening like a melting Fudgsicle . . .

When I come to, I feel the warm trickle of water as Mariola gently hoses away the crust of chocolate from my skin. And then she does the whole thing again. The point of this, clearly, is to get in touch with your inner bad girl, even if you’re a guy who can name the starting front four of the Jets. But if you have to ask what’s so appealing about an attractive Polish woman painting your nearly naked body in warm chocolate, what kind of man are you?

The Winter Melon Massage ($95)
The dessert theme, which is big on the city’s spa circuit right now, returned at my next stop, a few blocks away at a salon reassuringly named Life Is Beautiful. I guess they couldn’t call it “Life Is Illicit,” or “Life Is a Bordello,” but that’s the way it feels. Shadowy amber light flickers off aged tin ceilings. Antique sofas are upholstered in red velvet. Rose tea is served before, brandy after, and all along, owner Larry Costa buh-buh-buh-buhs in a surreal Bing Crosby impersonation over a hidden stereo system.

As my body sinks deep into a cushy six-inch-thick foam mat, I munch on chocolates. Soon, I smell citrus, with hints of butter. The aroma is actually melon (which Costa purchases by the armload in Chinatown), and by the time it penetrates my nasal passages, it’s mixed with something else (“natural oils,” I’m informed later) and puréed into a sort of fruit frosting, which is kneaded deep into my muscles. Theoretically, this will wash away four very stressful months from the pages of my body’s history.

Melon or no melon, the treatment is a gentle, enveloping massage with cranio-sacral (that means “head and neck”) touches. Upon finishing, the therapist hovers over me, hands held meditatively over my face, presumably transferring waves of healing energy into my soul. Call me Yanni, but the overall effect is of a laser strike against winter blues – a happy bombardment of sensual pleasure.

The Champagne Wrap ($110)
You make a declaration of indulgence-seeking the minute you walk past the doormen of the Peninsula Spa, in their Sgt. Pepper’s polyesters, as the hotel itself is a temple of gilded luxury. Having been warned that the “Wine and Roses” body treatment is a little too girly for me, I opt for the recently introduced Champagne Wrap. The “champagne” is actually a seaweed-mud mixture that achieves a bizarre effervescence when heated. And heated I am: After being glazed with the gritty, brownish stuff, I’m rolled up like a baked potato in a Mylar sheet, then draped in a heavy electric blanket.

At first the bubbles are unpredictable, rising intermittently from random corners of my body. But as my temperature increases, I’m practically percolating, mud-champagne pockets swelling and bursting all over my sweaty skin. The result is perhaps not what’s expected. I feel less like a flute of sparkling wine than a basting pot roast. Surely, this is what it feels like to be cooked. The bubbles are big, slow, lazy as lava.

With the Champagne Wrap comes the Champagne Rap – lots of reassurances from the friendly therapist in a polo shirt about the healthful benefits of “oxido-reduction,” “rehydration,” and “the absorption of toxins.” I find the effect intoxicating – largely for its oddity. Odd is oddly liberating.

The Float ($50)
In that spirit, I decide to push the limits of oddity. I’ve been wrapped and kneaded and painted and cooked. What’s left but to float?

The tropical-themed La Casa de Vida Natural, on East 20th Street, currently offers one of the city’s rare flotation chambers. A talisman of the Encounter Group seventies, a flotation chamber is actually less sensory-deprivation tank than very large bathtub filled with eight inches of water saturated with 800 pounds of Epsom salts. Because the water is heated to precisely 98.6 degrees, the kindly owner insists, no nerve transmissions circulate from body to brain. As you lie in the tank in total darkness, you achieve perfect zero gravity, your hair snaking like Medusa’s hither and yon. The only information that does make it through to your brain to remind you that you’re still alive is the sound of your own breath echoing off the tiles, slow and eerie, Darth Vader-like. The point is to turn off your mind, relax, and float you-know-where, without an assist from hallucinogens.

Mostly this works for me, though lacking any anchor I tend to drift ever so slightly on the tiny currents my shifting body creates, and my blissed-out reverie is interrupted whenever I bump gently against the wall of the tub. Still, flotation makes a peculiar sense these days. It’s a return to the womb – or at least an innocently dippy era when macrame was hot and people talked to plants. Right about now, that kind of indulgence sounds pretty good.

The Pleasure Principle