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I Got (Hot) Stoned

  • Posted on March 22, 2013 at 11:36 pm

I got up off the table after my 90-minute hot stone massage, and I was so woozy it’s a miracle I was able to stand up. Now I know why they have mirrors in the treatment rooms. They’re to make sure you don’t leave with your underwear on the outside.

Hot stone massages feel nothing like traditional massages. No fingers or elbows knead your back, the lotion is used sparingly, and of course there’s the scorching heat. But a really cool thing happens as soon as those stones hit you. The heat instantly drops just enough to feel hot but not Towering Inferno hot.

woman having stone massage in spa salon

My therapist, Heidi, placed one tiny warm basalt river stone on my forehead and palm-sized ones in each hand, as I lay face up on the massage table. The facial stone packed more healing power than I expected it to. It nearly melted blissfully into my third eye. The hand stones were hot and also equally calming.

Heidi started by saying, “I’m going to have you lie down on a row of stones that will sit along your spine.” I thought, “Okay, bulging discs be damned, I’m going to let her do it, even though it sounded only slightly more comfortable than a lumbar puncture. Surprisingly, I hardly even felt them, as they were wrapped in a soft gauzy covering. 

A rectangular black heater was plugged into the wall three feet from the massage table and held an array of black stones of different sizes. I occasionally heard it buzz as my limbs softened into the table. Heidi placed a large hot stone in each of her hands and, like an artist, began drawing large broad strokes across my legs and arms. After a half hour, she flipped me over and did the same on my back and neck. The heat infiltrated my body so deeply and aroused the kind of repose you often feel after emerging from a Jacuzzi.

It looked like Heidi had to work really hard at this, so I asked her if hot stone massages were more difficult for her, and she said, “It’s harder to concentrate on the rhythm of the strokes, but it’s actually easier on the hands.”

When the massage ended, I was so (hot) stoned that all I could manage was a crooked smile. I might have mumbled a “thanks.” After dressing, Heidi handed me a small cup of water and said, “Sometimes you can feel lightheaded after a stone massage because the heat penetrates deeply into the muscles.” I was so glad she said that. She even suggested sitting for a while before leaving. I had had previous experiences with dizziness during and after massages, but this, thankfully, was just an uber relaxation of my muscles. I stopped for a sandwich afterwards at a café, for takeout, and I messed up the entire order. Twenty minutes later, I was back to normal.

It’s so cool to get hot stoned.

Today’s Tip

If you’ve never had a hot stone massage, I strongly suggest trying one. This massage is contraindicated, though, for certain conditions such as pregnancy or high blood pressure. A good massage therapist will ask you if you want stones to rest on certain areas, such as your legs, face, and hands, while she’s massaging the rest of you. If the stones are too hot, you should ask the therapist to place a light covering over them. I suggest getting a hot stone massage when you have nothing planned afterward, as you might feel dazed for a while.

The Nose Knows: Are Aromatherapy Massages Worth the Cost?

  • Posted on March 18, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Last week, I touted the deliciousness of all things crème brulee. Today we’ll discuss the aromatherapy massage. Last year, at Mohonk Mountain House, in New Paltz, New York. I chose the 50-minute “aroma massage,” where I was given the choice of which essential oils I wanted rubbed on me. The choices were pure breathing, relaxation, or clear mind. It took up about half my massage time just trying to decide which one I wanted, but then again, I spend 20 minutes in the produce aisle picking out the perfect banana. The therapist told me that pure breathing would clear my sinuses, relaxation would calm me, and clear mind would awaken my senses and keep me alert. I chose the latter.

Ultimately, this was a visceral decision.I chose clear mind for its hearty scent, because I am nose-oriented above all else. I didn’t really believe it would do what its name promised, but I kept an open mind. Actually, I didn’t feel any more alert when I left than I did when I entered the spa. 

spa arrangement

Studies on the effectiveness of aromatherapy are mixed. We know that smell receptors are connected to the hippocampus and amygdala, the areas of the brain that store emotions and memories, so scents do affect us. But studies on whether peppermint oils can cure headaches or lavender oil can put us to sleep are varied. When I was in camp as a little girl, I was miserable, and the soap we always used was Ivory, and to this day, the smell of Ivory soap stirs sad emotions in me.

Deciding whether it’s worth it to pay the extra $5 to $15 dollars for an aromatherapy massage, for me, comes down to whether or not the scent of the oil pleases me. If it energizes me or helps me edit the next great American novel, perfect. If not, it didn’t cost much, and I might even love it.

Today’s Tip:

Before booking an aromatherapy massage, ask whether or not you will be offered a choice of oils. Ask what they are and what their effects are. Some spas use specific oils that change with each season. For example, the Willow Stream Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, changes its scent each season. The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, located between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California, escorts you to their apothecary and lets you customize your own aromatherapy oil. Others use a variety. If you’re particularly olfactory-oriented, it’s probably worth the extra few bucks just to try something new.

 Please post here and tell me what you’ve discovered.

Spa Travel on a Budget

  • Posted on March 16, 2013 at 5:16 am

Spa lovers who want to nab those massages, facials, scrubs, and jetted tubs without having to auction off your firstborn must read this. I’m going to save you money doing what you love most, and you can thank me by sending a treatment to me, Val the Spa Gal. (Or, you can just post something nice.)

Book Off Season

Your goal is to spa, yes? So, who cares if it’s 20 degrees outside when you’re cozily wrapped in a hot herbal cocoon in Montreal at, say, MBIOSPA? Don’t even think about avoiding Arizona in the summer. Starting 6/15 the rate for a standard room at The Camelback Inn Resort & Spa in Scottsdale plummets from $499 a night to $159 for the summer, and that even includes a nightly $50 credit toward the spa, food, golf, or tennis. You can float in their outdoor pool, oblivious to the melting cactus on the other side of the fence.

Say “No Way” to Friday and Saturday

If you can, travel Monday through Thursday, not only for the best flight deals but because spas often post promotions on their websites for midweek travel. The Lake Lawn Resort in Wisconsin offers a bunch of midweek spa discounts, including day spa deals, through January 2014.

Shuttle Me!

Many resort spas offer a complimentary shuttle to and from the airport. Most spas are so self-contained with on-site dining, fitness (and even stores)— you’ll have little reason to leave the property, unless you want to explore the area. If spa immersion is your goal, ditch the pricey rental car. The Green Valley Ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada, will shuttle you for free to and from McCarran Airport, and they will also take you to the Mandalay Bay Hotel, on the strip.

Check for Specials

Almost every spa posts special packages on their website. You might find a stay-three-nights-get-one-free deal, or a reduced rate on a mother-daughter getaway, or a spa/ski special in the Poconos. Do the math to make sure you will benefit, but these specials are usually better than budgeting a la carte. The Olympia Resort near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offers a huge variety of spa packages that beat the a la carte menu by roughly $15 per package. Some of the packages are small—a 60-minute Swedish massage and a private bath for $110—so it’s worth it to steal a package a day and let the savings add up. Click on “The O-Spa” and then “spa packages.”

Look For Lesser-known Spas

The industry big shots—think Canyon Ranch, or Golden Door—and those associated with names like JW Marriott, or the Ritz-Carlton, are heaven but also costly (although the aforementioned Camelback is a Marriott property!) Look for the less popular spas. Their treatments, amenities, and cuisine are often just as good as the name brands, but cost less. SpaFinder is a great place to find spas anywhere in the world, designed to your specifications.

Bring a Friend

Not only do some spas offer girlfriend-getaway packages, but you can stay in a $400 room for $200. It might be worth bringing along your spa-loving buddy if you’re budgeting.

Today’s Tip

If there’s a spa you have your eye on, but it’s still out of your budget, consider signing up for their e-mail specials. In fact, why not enjoy offers from a few spas? You’ll not only benefit from first dibs on available dates, but you might also receive special unpublished rates not available to the public.

Hooray for Creme Brulee

  • Posted on March 16, 2013 at 4:26 am

I am consumed with all things creme brulee. Whether it’s the one the Santa Fe Italian bistro Pranzo serves, with a perfectly browned paper-thin crust that conceals the warm licentious cream underneath, or whether it’s in my shampoo, body scrub, or hand lotion—doesn’t matter. Even as I write this blog, I am inhaling Laura Mercier’s Creme Brulee Souffle right out of the jar. I also have a Yankee Candle Creme Brulee votive burning two feet away from me, on top of my filing cabinet. I’d pawn a pair of Ugg boots to get my hands on anything creme brulee.

I am a sucker for the decadent food category when it comes to body products. I coat my legs with The Body Shop’s Chocomania Beautifying Oil, lather my bath sponge with Philosophy’s Cinnamon Buns Shower Gel, and drop my Caramel and Toffee Fizz Bath Bomb from Lush Cosmetics in my bath.

Creme Brulee

Is there a psychological component to my attraction to sweet food items in my body products and home scents? I did a little Internet research and found not just an article on the subject, but a term for how businesses capitalize on people like me. “Nebulization Technology” is the science behind converting fragranced oils into dry vapors. The article explains that, upon inhaling something pleasant, the limbic area of the brain wakes up and immediately associates positive emotions connected to those scents—such as baking chocolate chip cookies as a kid, or devouring warm buttered popcorn during a favorite movie.

According to Air Essentials, a company involved in “scent branding,” experiments have shown that enticing the nose can boost sales. They claim a rise of 33 percent in sales for H.H. Gregg, an appliance company, when they gently introduced the scent of apple pie and sugar cookies into their remodeled stores. Cinnabon and KFC are known for pumping artificial shnoz enticers that mimic real food, through special mechanisms, such as vents, to lure customers in.

When I first moved to Santa Fe, I dated a geologist who suffered from anosmia—the inability to detect scent. He visited me one day when I was working at Ten Thousand Waves, and on that day a fire had broken out in one of the massage rooms. We were all nearly choking from the smell. He smelled nothing. Then it hit me that without my sense of smell, not only would creme brulee fail to allure me, but my life could be endangered.

If you crave any particular food scent, let me know. And if you can recommend a product along this line, even better! Meanwhile, I’ll be spritzing Bodycology’s Vanilla Cupcake Fragrance Mist on my pillow before nodding off tonight.

Today’s Tip

One of my latest loves is Laura Mercier’s Creme Brulee Sugar Scrub. It comes with a cute little plastic scooper, but I just dig in with my fingers. After all, with what she charges to indulge CB addicts ($36 for a 12-ounce jar), I don’t even want one sugar granule lost to a scooper. This scrub is very thick and rich. It borders on gooey and requires a lot of water for easier application.

The Price of Needing a Kneading at La Costa Resort and Spa

  • Posted on March 16, 2013 at 4:05 am

So, guess what? I just got back from a week-long meditation retreat with his majesty, Deepak Chopra. While staying at the La Costa Resort and Spa (where the Chopra Center is located), however, I got a massage. This set me back $160, but I wanted to see how it rates compared to the average rubdown at half that price.

The spa at La Costa is an experience in sensual awareness. The sprawling grounds are dotted with villas, a sundries store, the Chopra Center, and an Internet cafe with pricey sandwiches. A 10-foot fountain cascades right outside the spa entrance. The spa’s boutique greets visitors at the entrance. Yoga clothing, balms, and hair products strewn throughout the intimate room of ornate woods and turquoise tiles catch the eye from the outside, and are available to anyone passing by. The boutique is also the waiting area for treatments.

The spa attendant took me inside and offered me the requisite plush white robe. I toured the ladies locker area, which lacks for nothing, with its steam room, massive jetted tub, sauna, brushes combs, blow dryer, and even curling irons. The spa grounds included another whirlpool tub, gardens of rosemary, basil, and spearmint, and even a small reflexology labyrinth, which was piercingly painful on my feet. But all of these ambiance enhancers are designed to justify the $160 cost, because the massage alone will not.

 On a scale of one to ten, I’d give the 50-minute vanilla, cardamom, avocado massage a six. It felt routine and formulaic, and when I asked for her to go a bit deeper, she did, for about five minutes, and then slipped back into a light-to-medium reverie. The massages I receive at the Massage Envy in Santa Fe put this one to shame, at less than half the cost. I did not have time, or funds, to sample any of the other treatments, since the meditation retreat involved 12-hour days of ohm-ing, stretching, eating, and listening to lectures on the neuroscience of meditation.

 Today’s Tip

Before booking a massage, consider whether the treatment justifies the cost. At some resorts, only those booking a treatment have access to the swimming pool, whirlpool, steam room, sauna, and other cushy amenities. If you want to spend the day indulging in these luxuriances and don’t want to spend a lot of money, book the least expensive treatment—usually a manicure or pedicure—and spend the day using the facilities.

Homemade Body Scrubs and Facials…There’s No Place Like Home

  • Posted on March 16, 2013 at 3:28 am

Welcome back! I’ve been thinking about you all week, and am going to help you save some dimes today. True, I buy every body scrub, lotion, hair treatment, facial mask, and massage doo-dad I can find, but I do that only because I’m insane. The truth is, creating homemade body scrubs and facials is inexpensive and easy.

For a luxuriant body scrub, for example, I use a cup of brown sugar, a handful of crushed almonds, extra-virgin olive oil (enough to make it gooey), and a drop of liquid almond extract, and you have a heavenly scented body scrub. Just mix it all up in a bowl. Make only enough for one treatment, and discard whatever you don’t use. Or use a quarter cup of sea salt, a banana, and a cup of plain yogurt for a richer body exfoliant. Easy peasy. One avocado, a half cup of sugar, and five drops of lavender essential oil is the perfect nighttime treatment.

I recently got a facial at Ten Thousand Waves, and the aesthetician said, “Your skin is in great condition. You don’t really need a facial.” She then proceeded to smear a bird poop resin concoction on my face, for a hundred-plus dollars. The Japanese are credited with discovering the benefits of bird dung as a face brightener. Disinfected nightingale droppings from Japan are making headlines as celebrities, including Tom Cruise, are slapping down $180 for a “Geisha Facial,” offered at Shizuka, a New York spa.

I also went for my first annual dermatological check-up, since here in Santa Fe, at an altitude of 7,200 feet, skin cancer is about as common as teen sexting. He said, “Your skin looks perfect. I’d gloat if I were you.” Flattering, but little does he know I’m hardly ever in the sun, and my good skin was inherited, not earned. But now I feel guilty getting facials that I don’t need, so here’s my home remedy.

 Today’s Tip

Making your own facial is FUN. Throw some dried herbs—parsley, mint, and lavender are a good combination—in a pot of hot steamy water, hang a towel over your head, bend over the pot, and breathe. Seven minutes and you’re good to go.Now that your pores are open, use a gentle facial cleanser, such as Prada’s Purifying Milk Face (no, it’s not expensive! It’s fairly scented, though, and can double as a makeup remover). If you want a slightly deeper cleanse, try Borghese’s Crema Saponetta Cleansing Crème. I would avoid exfoliants, since the steam has opened your pores, and scrubbing might be harsh. If you want to add a mask in here, awesome. My faves are Dermalogica’s Active Moist (if you have dry skin) or Borghese Fango Active Mud (for normal to oily skin.) Top off with a toner—I love Arcona’s Cranberry Toner—and then moisturize. I could spend ten blogs on moisturizers alone, so for now, just choose your favorite.

 Next week, we’ll compare the fou-fou massage to the plain Jane version.

Welcome to Val The Spa Gal

  • Posted on March 15, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Since this is my first blog post, I’ll set a few ground rules: I will discuss all things spa, including product reviews. I will not hold back. I will answer questions you post. I will not keep my neuroses in check, and I reserve the right to fall into reveries that are only remotely spa related, because I want more than just you spa junkies to read this, too.

Welcome to Val The Spa Gal. Please help spread the word.

I am a full-time writer and editor. Several years ago, when I first moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I took a part-time job at one of the most renowned spas in the US – Ten Thousand Waves. I still live in Santa Fe where, if you throw a stone in any direction, it will likely hit a massage therapist. Over 130 therapists work at Ten Thousand Waves (and boy was it fun trying to learn all their names)!

I will share with you what I’ve learned about this business where you lie stark naked on a blanketed table and allow a complete stranger to massage warm oil onto nearly every inch of your body. I’ve lain on hundreds of these tables and crawled back into real life with the requisite lines on the sides of my face, from the face cradle. I’ve been kneaded, scrubbed, heated, oiled, and even hummed to. From the sublime to the evil, I’ve endured every kind of therapist, and every kind of treatment. And I own enough body indulgence products to open my own spa. I figured since I’m a writer, it was time to blog about my spa psychosis.

I will entertain your inner spa with a relevant quip, and I will always end with “Today’s Tip,” which will address some fun item, perhaps offer a warning about a product, or just answer a common FAQ, such as “Is it okay to leave my underwear on during a massage?”

Today’s Tip:

My latest obsession is with The Body Shop’s “Shea Body Scrub.” It is so decadent I’m tempted to eat it. Its salt chunks abrade my body, but then leave a thin glowing sheen on my skin, and I revel in that all day. When no one’s looking, I sneak little sniffs on my arm. As exfoliants go, this one’s on the harsher side. But they used to make a “Bergamot Salt Scrub” that skinned me alive. So, this is an upgrade. Its scent—floral and fruity—is subtle, so your limbs won’t offend when you enter a room. Be careful when you use this in the shower, as its oils cause the tub floor to become slippery. I can’t explain why you’ll love this—it’s hard on the skin, and you might break an ankle slipping in your tub—but its lasting patina is seductive.