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Where's the Rub? 

A spa-di-dah guide to getting the treatment (01.19.05)

Published January 19, 2005 at 6:34 p.m.

I lay inert on the table, smelling like a giant cough drop. I'd just had the Eucalyptus Herbal Wrap and Massage, and the toxins, I was certain, had fled my body as promised. It was my first treatment at the Spa at Stoweflake, and already I really did not want to move. But the thought of my massage therapist waiting in the hallway, no doubt offering a glass of chilled lemon water, goaded me into rolling off the table and into a fluffy white robe. Besides, I was scheduled for a Maple Sugar Body Polish in an hour.

While I was waiting, I baked in the sauna, then lolled around on a chaise longue in the "Aqua Solarium," soaking in humidity. I drifted into an alpha state, mesmerized by the white noise of the Bingham Hydrotherapy Waterfall -- hot water, in this case, cascading over a rock wall into a shallow pool. Through the windows, my view of Mount Mansfield was obscured by a flurry of flakes, but how pretty! The prospect of driving back to Burlington in a snowstorm failed to raise my usual anxiety. What, I thought, could be more relaxing than this?

Two hours later, I had an answer: a second massage, which turned me into a puddle of bliss. But not before the latest boon to Vermont's maple industry had sloughed off invisible layers of dead cells and left my skin baby's-butt soft. A body could get used to this.

A lot of bodies, evidently, already are: Spas are rubbing thousands of people the right way in the U.S. and beyond. Resorts in particular are competing mightily in healthful hospitality; so-called "destination spas" could one day rival theme parks for the family vacation. This might be a good time, in other words, to buy stock in fluffy white robes.

If some economic indicators have gone south, "There's no dip in pampering and luxury," says Nicole Ravlin. Until November, the Shelburne marketing specialist had represented Topnotch, the pioneering Stowe resort-spa, for six years; she now handles the new Stephen & Burns day spa/salon in Burlington and Castle Hill Spa at Okemo. In the Burlington area, she suggests, "People are into treating themselves well; there's a demand." Her own favorite service? "The wildflower treatment at Topnotch -- you get three services: a wrap, exfoliation and a massage." (Coincidentally, I recently had that very same treatment; it's amazing -- and employs another Vermont natural resource: flowers.) "I also like a great pedicure once a month," Ravlin adds.

Though she's a little biased, Ravlin thinks shelling out a hundred bucks now and then is a perfectly reasonable investment in body, mind and spirit.

About that investment: In Vermont the span of spa prices is not as wide as one might think. On the low end, a lip, chin or brow waxing costs $10 to $12 everywhere; in the mid-range, body wraps or massages might be $60 to $100 or so. Spa packages vary the most, from around $120 at some day spas to the deluxe, all-day blitz at Topnotch that runs close to $500.

And -- puritans please take note -- the spa experience is not just self-indulgence. A jillion scientific studies, along with that knot between your shoulders and your spiking blood pressure, tell you stress is bad. Just watching the evening news can make you anxious; never mind the everyday juggle of work and family and the continual race against time. And, hey, some of us are still recovering from a demoralizing election two and a half months ago! So it stands to reason: Anything that reduces stress is good.

"A spa is a sanctuary -- a place to just be totally relaxed and pampered," says Susan Malboeuf, manager of Alta Day Spa in Warren.

"My philosophy is more the medicinal end," says Jennifer Goslovich, co-owner of Moon Studio in Shelburne. "Keep your body and mind healthy, and get some T.L.C. when you're having a hard time."

Suggests Peg Tassey, owner of Zerafa Hair Salon and Day Spa in Montpelier, "Some places might be more health-conscious or sports-conscious; I just want people to feel cared for, outside their usual world."

OK, so we all can use a little extra love. The other side of the spa coin, reminds spa designer and former Vermonter Ginny Lopis, is that "It became a revenue stream for salons to add to their services." Lopis and her husband John also have roots in Topnotch: They designed the original spa some 15 years ago, and were vice-president and president, respectively, of the resort for a couple of years during that time.

As the number of health and beauty practitioners grew, they began to look for more ways to be involved, Lopis says -- for example, alliances with the health and medical world. "Everybody has started reaching out into others' domains; spas are adding fitness centers and cafes, and so on. There's kind of an interesting synergy among all those pieces." And it's no coincidence that well-heeled, self-care-savvy baby boomers are happy to contribute to the "revenue stream."

Now the Lopises are designing their dream destination spa in Hawley, Pennsylvania. The Lodge at Woodloch, scheduled to open next year, will be just a couple hours' drive from potential well-heeled clientele in the New York City area. "The explosion in day spas," Ginny Lopis suggests, "is attributable to a filtering down of... the desire for a [resort] spa experience." And they're more affordable, she adds, for those who find the high-end versions out of reach.

The Lopises are co-founders of ISPA -- the International Spa Association -- which comprises more than 2000 health and wellness facilities and providers, from resorts and cruise ships to instructors and physicians. The group sets standards and influences policy regarding the industry. ISPA's definition of spa? "Your time to relax, reflect, revitalize and rejoice."

And here's something for ISPA members to rejoice in: According to the industry-watch website spas.about.com, 33 percent of leisure travelers now say a spa is a "primary consideration" for making travel plans.

Spas aren't just a girl thing, either: Men now make up 29 percent of spa goers, according to ISPA, up from 24 percent last year. And they're signing on for seaweed body wraps and moisturizing facials, not just sports massages. In Vermont, many spa owners claim 30 to 40 percent of their clientele is male. Call it the metrosexual revolution.

This week a Google search for "resort spa" turned up nearly three million hits. Some of the headlines on one such site, SpaIndex.com, indicate where the trends are heading: "Romantic Spa Getaways;" "Pet Friendly Spa Facilities and Treatments;" "Papaya Appeal." From the blingiest luxury accommodations to recipes for facial glop you can whip up at home, the Web is awash in the language of spas. What it's not doing is keeping up with the real world.

Resort or destination spas, and their smaller cousins the day spas, are proliferating so rapidly that most are not yet listed on such sites as SpaFinder.com. That's certainly true in Vermont. When three day spas recently opened on Church Street in Burlington, I decided it was time to survey all the facilities within the Seven Days circulation area and let readers know who was doing what and where. I can't say it was a tough assignment, but still, someone had to do it.

In the past few weeks I have been massaged, wrapped, exfoliated, steamed and polished. From the Baby Boomer facial at Athena's to the fabulous "foot facial" at Dish to the Hydrother-apy with Seaweed bath at Oasis, the collective experience has brought unfamiliar balance to my workaholic lifestyle. I'm sure I haven't been this relaxed since I was an infant -- and I don't mind being told I look "radiant." So I feel duty-bound to issue this warning: Spas could be addictive.

Not all my experiences, of course, were quite so luxurious as that described above. After all, the new Stoweflake and recently renovated Topnotch are the only true resort-spas in northern Vermont. Both offer a huge array of treatments and amenities, not to mention the opportunity to wine, dine and spend the night. But I found that even day spas located in strip malls can temporarily blot out the cold, cruel world and bolster one's ability to live in it.

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