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[whitespace] Kiwi Eyes Metaphysical Therapy

Hot springs and altered states at (massaged) arms length

By Tracie Broom

Photographs by Farika

Now that the Bay Area is fully awash in digital culture, desk-worn citizens increasingly crave high touch to counteract the side effects of a high-tech lifestyle. Aside from those faraway, super-crunchy Northern California hot springs where hot tubbers drink mulled wine with ex-hippies, the best venue for healing and hedonism is the spa. For one-stop full-body rejuvenation, only the most luxurious day spas will do.

We've covered the big-name local spas as well as the smaller up-and-comers; these days, all are offering deliciously weird services. Spa treatments like Flotation Therapy, Hydrosonic Stress Relief and Magnetic Massage are just a few of the latest (and greatest) trends in the body business, although ancient practices such as Ayurveda and Hot Stone Therapy are being reintroduced as well.

One thing I've learned about day spas: if you're looking for that "Calgon, take me away!" hallucinatory abandon in a day spa, you'll have to do some heavy drugs before you go. Yes, the individual spa treatments are utterly relaxing and even disorienting, but with dermatologist-quality skin services, hair and nail salons, massage, aromatherapy, and even yoga classes, these urban day spas exist to treat the dysfunctions of city life--to soothe, rebalance and beautify.


Spa Glossary: A guide to therapy terms.


What makes a day spa truly exceptional is a central bathing and dressing area with lockers and a private changing area, especially one with hot tubs, steam and saunas. The smaller spas generally don't have room for a bathing hub, but the awkwardness of carrying your bag with you is made up for by very personalized attention and a hip, laid-back scene.

NEVER go to the spa on a weekend. It's just like going out to dinner on the weekend--a zoo. Avoid the madding crowd; take a weekday afternoon off and chill with citizens in the know. Furthermore, always tip your therapist at least 15 percent of the price of each service; handy tip envelopes are stocked at every reception desk.

Mister Lee's Hose 'em Down! When life gets too hectic, the hydrotub at Mister Lee's calms frazzled nerves.

Old-School Hedonism

Mister Lee Beauty, Hair and Health Spa
834 Jones (at Bush)

Lee Bledsoe has been known for years as the king of San Francisco health spas. The society ladies on Nob Hill all come to Mister Lee to day-trade their Chanel suits for spa robes; for the most hedonistic trip in town, head over to Lee's three-story Victorian for a mineralized body wrap or deep-pore back treatment.

Above the mild hubbub of the first-floor salon, with its exposed brick, mirrors and hardwood floors, you'll find a small room amid a stockade of cushy pedicure chairs. Within lies the Hydrosonic Bed ($60 for 30 minutes), which you all must try because it is extremely bizarre and wicked relaxing. Stretching out in the dark under a cotton blankie on a one-man waterbed wearing headphones, you relax to music specially composed by a doctor in Hawaii--New Age stuff similar to those Tangerine Dream soundtracks like Legend (big-time fantasy starring Tom Cruise). The music's frequencies are amplified through special speakers beneath the bed, so as the music swells and drops, vibrations course through the waterbed, pulsing arhythmically in waves up and down your body. It's a quick fix of total dreaminess.

On to the Egyptian-themed third floor, where half the treatment areas are enclosed and half are curtained off. The hydrotherapy tub ($50) is intense; its 77 jets pummel your body in a big, bath-salted tub for more than half an hour while you hydrate with a refreshing glass of ice water garnished with lemon and cucumber. A spa technician comes and goes, adjusting the pattern of the jets to perform a lymphatic massage, which supposedly drains toxins from your lymph system. The concomitant underwater massage ($15 w/hydro tub) is performed by a technician with a special hose, and it, too, is a strong treatment. The actual tubby time is not the most relaxing ever, since the bubbles and jets operate at such a furious pace, but in the end it leaves you in a jellylike state, perfect prep for a massage.

An alternative to traditional massage therapies, the Hopi-inspired Hot Stone Therapy ($90) is one of the latest trends to hit spa culture. Heated in hot oil, these smooth stones are rubbed all over your body and placed over your chakras as you rest on a cushy treatment table in the deep red glow of a heat lamp. One of Mister Lee's best signature products, Anti-fluid Gel (3/4 ounce for $35--the rich man's Deep Heat), is rubbed into your trouble zones to intensify muscle relaxation. A side-jet shower in the treatment room makes for easy cleanup, although the lack of a central vanity area makes it a bit harder to freshen up for the trip back to reality. You'll just have to spring for a blow-dry ($30) and makeup job ($35).

Elizabeth Arden
Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon

Clinical Indulgence

Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon and Spa
126 Post St. (at Kearny), 4th Floor

This sleek urban destination reopened its doors in its new location in 1998, dressed in sandy beige and ocean blue. Elizabeth Arden isn't only about makeup; in her lifetime she was a pioneer of aesthetic treatments in America, and the spa's framed black-and-white photos of wavy-haired Arden women stretching in bloomers is testament to that. The hair and nail salons are kept quite separate from the spa by a main lobby where various products are sold, sometimes at fantastic discounts. In the lobby, makeup artist Zac will lead you through the Custom Color system, a digital machine that mixes foundation to perfectly match your skin tone.

Also pretty nifty is the all-important bathing and changing area with separate men's and women's rooms. In the women's area, there is a curtained changing room with lockers and piles of robes, a huge shower with the greatest water pressure ever, racks of towels, a small vanity area, and a big toilet room with its own sink. As with most spas, it didn't seem as though the shower was being cleaned immediately after each person's use, but I could be wrong, my head muddled from a wonderful Citra-Spa Glow sea-salt body polish ($55) mixed with citrus and lavender. After a good rinse, it's good to follow with a super-relaxing Swedish massage ($70). The transitions between treatments at the Red Door are smooth, since you can easily traipse back and forth between the bathing area, the waiting area and the treatment rooms.

Of 12 different kinds of facials, I sampled the Ceramide Anti-Aging facial ($80) by spa manager/ aesthetician Jessica Solorio. An industry veteran and remarkably sassy woman, Jessica gives one of the best treatments in town, hands down. The Elizabeth Arden corporation gives her team a great deal of creative control over the spa, resulting in a growing acceptance of Eastern techniques. Jessica's facials at the Red Door include a massage for the neck, shoulders, feet and hands, warm mitties for the hands, hot towels for the feet, steam for the face and endless layers of cleanser, toner, cream and special formulas for the face, neck and upper chest. Extraction, easily the most intimate part of the service, is basically a fancy manual zit-popping and blackhead-squeezing. A marine mask rounds out the facial; after an hour and a half of this personalized, ultra-relaxing treatment, you'll feel like a fresh, newborn flower. If you're feeling zany and want to get rid of a few wrinkles, sun spots or blemishes, try the dermatologist-level microdermabrasion treatment.

Claremont Resort and Spa

Bathing Extravagance

The Claremont Resort, Spa and Tennis Club
41 Tunnel Road (straight up Ashby), Berkeley

If you haven't yet treated yourself to a day at the Claremont, you're a shmuck. The white-washed, castle-like Claremont is a mere 20 minutes from downtown SF, straight up into the Berkeley Hills via the Ashby exit. Its 22 acres of landscaped gardens, tennis courts, sprawling conference rooms, restaurants and spa make it one of the best resorts in the West. With any spa service over $100, you get free rein over the sunny pool deck and health club; if your service is less than $100, pay the $15-$20 facility fee for the full ride; it's fantastic.

It's hard to compare urban day spas to the Claremont. As a resort, it's in a different class entirely. The Claremont not only offers a full array of European and Ayurvedic services in separate men's and women's spas but also--and most importantly--boasts two heated outdoor pools, four saunas, three jacuzzis, two steam rooms, a huge sunning area, a small fitness center and a variety of fitness classes from Pilates to Feldenkrais. There is no better high-class bathing anywhere in the Bay Area. Its hair and nail salon is nothing to sneeze at, either. For the most hedonistic return per dollar, the Claremont is the area's best value and best environment for a day of self-love. The outdoor decor is somewhat Caribbean with its white, English castle-style architecture and its mixture of rose stands and tropical gardens. The interior of the spa is more Californian, painted with desert tones of sand and sage.

Although I was dying to try out the seemingly claustrophobic women-only Therapeutic Flotation Tank--a dark, single-user enclosed tank filled with body-temperature water and 800 pounds of sea salt--I remembered seeing William Hurt freak out in Altered States and thought better of it. Instead, I enjoyed the Ancient Rebalancer ($129), an 80-minute head-to-toe Ayurvedic cleansing, exfoliation and heat-wrap treatment. First, I took a little constitutional analysis survey based on three body types. Diane, my therapist, mixed essential oils based on my results, then started the treatment by directing a constant stream of hot oil onto my third eye, mid-forehead. Wow. Then a series of Indian herbal scrubs, hot wraps and oils were applied to my whole body, after which I was given a special tea suited to my constitution.

After the Rebalancer, my skin was so soft, lovely and good-smelling that I didn't want to sully myself with a swim in the chlorinated pool. Instead, I wandered around the women's spa, sipping cool water, nibbling on cantaloupe, lounging in the steam room and taking a prolonged shower to wash the essential oils out of my hair. In the cavernous vanity area, I found every single thing I'd ever need to return to a presentable state, including combs, hair gel, non-aerosol deodorant, mouthwash and Q-Tips. After a cup of green tea and a stint on a sun-warmed lounge chair overlooking the bay, reality once again seemed like a reasonable concept.

Aveda Concept Salon SoMa Soak: Sheirling's Aveda Concept Salon stresses environmental practices in the middle of the industrial South of Market area.

Unique Urbanity

Sheirling, An Environmental Salon & Spa
525 Second St., 415.974.6940

Sheirling is the ultimate express spa. Located in the old Capp Street Project building one block off South Park, Sheirling is the place to go in SOMA to pick up your favorite Aveda products, get a snappy haircut and treat yourself to a 30-minute Cyber Relief massage ($40). If you're blessed with extra time, indulge in an Ayurvedic Himalayan Rejuvenation Therapy ($120 for 90 minutes), replete with lymphatic massage, aromatherapy, steam, essential-oil rub and a hot-oil stream on the third eye--an all-over deluxe relaxer and refresher. It's sure to invoke a dream state, and at $120, it had better.

The decor at Sheirling is full-on SOMA industrial glam in soothing desert tones. Excellent fabrics and stylish metal and wood furnishings show off owner Drew Sheirling's impeccable urban taste. At present, Sheirling's spa is directly adjacent to its salon, so the spa lacks the separation from urbanity that is so crucial to true hedonism. They've got big plans for the spa, though--the intent is to move most of the operation upstairs onto a newly renovated second floor.

A two-hour spa manicure and pedicure ($70) will twinkle your toes and winkle your pinkies with a seemingly never-ending series of soaks, lotions, scrubs, massages, cleansings, exfoliations, clippings, filings, buffings and polishings. Be warned that two hours of nail treatments anywhere can be just as exhausting for you as it is for your provider. If you have a lot of nervous energy, take your Xanax beforehand, although at Sheirling, aesthetician Kindra's warm personality should put you right at ease.

Aveda Concept Salons are terrific, partially because proprietors are often on the young, hip side, but mostly because of the consistency of Aveda's natural, toxin-free beauty products and soothing essential oils. At Sheirling you are offered a number of aromas from which to choose, and if you have more than one service in a day, the staff makes sure that your aroma is omnipresent. Layers and layers of oils, cleansers, toners and moisturizers are a part of nearly every Aveda service, which if you're into products, is very entertaining and, if you ask enough questions, informational as well. Rosemary-Mint Shampoo will wake up your scalp while Hand Relief soothes your fingers. Check out the lipstick: free of all those bad, bad animal fats and icky perfumes, Aveda lipsticks are beeswax-based and flavored with cinnamon, clove, anise and peppermint.

Zendo Urban Retreat
Revitalizing Reveries: The Zendo Urban Retreat breathes life back into world-weary souls.

Living Room Luxury

Zendo Urban Retreat
256 Sutter St., 415.788.3404

Zendo's got the best spa slippers in town, but that's not the only reason why it's a fantastic salon and spa. The ambience at this downtown Aveda Concept Salon and Microspa is what one expects from an urbane, stylish salon in San Francisco. Decorated with sumptuous Oriental rugs, dark-brown antique furniture, fresh flowers, glimmering faux and handmade jewelry, two walls of Aveda products and gigantic plate-glass windows, sister-owners Kristen and Barbara Nelson's Zendo is all class. On the first level, you'll find a highly social dinner-table-style waiting area ringed by a semicircle of hair stations. Before every salon service, you receive a head, neck and shoulder massage with essential oils before being led into a darkened back room for a shampoo. The shampoo chairs at Zendo actually sport comfortable neck rests, a rarity we can all appreciate after a lifetime of ratcheting onto oddly positioned neck rests.

The trip upstairs in the scented elevator leads to the microspa, an operation presently under expansion. With a glass of special Aveda eucalyptus tea in hand, you might find yourself led by excellent stylist Nicole to a satiny chocolate-brown sofa for a footbath in a bowl bottomed with smooth stones. Your feet might find themselves towel-dried and slipped into yummy terry moccasins that actually run larger than a women's size eight (my pet peeve about most spas--tiny slippers). Although there is no central changing or bathing area, the presence of little closets and dressing tables in the naturally lit treatment rooms is reassuring.

An amazing Face and Body Self Renewal ($120 for 90 minutes) with spa manager Stacy Stewart encompasses a mild facial with extractions, a full-body massage, a bit of polarity therapy and those infamous layers and layers of Aveda exfoliants, cleansers, toners and lotions, not to mention hot towels. Heated beanbag-like hand and foot mitts feel wonderful despite being a bit heavy. Patrons choose their own aroma and music, a perk that should be a given in most spas but often is a forgotten detail. Zendo, for its small space, is all about the details, including a complimentary makeup touch-up after every service.

A fantastic spa manicure and pedicure ($85 for two hours) is to be found at the hands of Erin, a beauty with a soothing massage technique for neck and shoulders, hands, arms, legs and feet. Oh, didn't I mention, everyone at Zendo is young and beautiful, and there's not a square pair of shoes in the house. Word on the street is that Gregory and Barbara give wildly excellent haircuts ($50+), and don't shy from requesting massage services from Ayurveda expert Larry Levoir, whose Himalayan treatments are just unreal. Zendo conducts a great deal of business with local hotels and will run on-site treatments for meetings or conventions. They also consult with a local plastic surgeon, who conducts collagen, laser hair removal and botox services at Zendo by request. One Thursday night per month the salon throws an ultra-cool Lounge Night, where you can have a martini, a massage and a haircut in a small cocktail party atmosphere until midnight.

Sanctuary Spa The French Connection: Sanctuary Spa offers a simple Gallic treatment.

Walk-in Wonder

Sanctuary Spa
685 North Point, 415.447.0080

Sanctuary is a little tiny spa in one of those big wharf hotels, the Marriott. Why would you want to travel through the hubbub of North Beach for a spa visit, especially when the spa is so small? The treatments and products, my dear, that's why. Sanctuary's austere white interior belies the richness and warmth of Fareba's full-body massages ($75 for 50 minutes) and the breadth of Thalgo's ultra-French product line. The programmable hydrotherapy tub ($45 for 30 minutes), with 120 jets and a choice of Essentiel Elements bath salts, is the best in the city, mainly because of its body-friendly ergonomics and rails, which keep the body comfortably submerged during treatment. The tub treatment itself is vigorous, but the aftereffect is total relaxation.

Sanctuary makes up for its diminutive state with details. The vanity area is as well stocked as the Claremont's, and the staff are extremely helpful and knowledgable. They offer obscure treatments like the Frigi-Thalgo wrap, a thermal cold wrap which, given in a series of six or eight wraps, supposedly reduces cellulite. Also, you can get a full-body Austrian Moor Mud Mask ($75), then hop your muddy self into the hydrotherapy tub to let your muddy mudskipper's shell melt off and turn into a liquefied mud bath. Pretty cool.

Regal Twinkle

77 Maiden Lane Salon & Spa
77 Maiden Lane, 2nd Floor

Sherlee Rhine used to sell tires. Now she runs a multimillion-dollar salon and spa in San Francisco's most exclusive alleyway. While 77 Maiden Lane is not quite a palace of hedonism, it is one of the most professional and personal salon/spas in the country, offering top-notch treatments to those on the go.

Magnetic massage sounds like something Barbarella would have encountered in outer space, and in fact, astronauts do use magnets to further their health when in orbit. Part manual massage and part massage with magnetic rollers on a magnetic bed, the magnetic massage at 77 Maiden Lane ($85 for 50 minutes) is all it's cracked up to be, especially with able therapist Yolanda. There's a growing fuss about magnets increasing blood flow to injured and tensed areas, and I think that there may well be some truth to it. I certainly felt more alive and refreshed during and after a massage than ever, and it's not hard to believe that the ubiquitous electronics of our age are sapping our bodies' magnetic fields and polluting our cities with invisible electro-whatever forces.

As for the smoothing facial procedure known as the microdermabrasion Diamond Peel ($150), I say, Go for it. An aesthetician scrolls across your face with a small penlike device that shoots microcrystals into your pores while suctioning the crystals back up into the machine. A series of this gentle scouring has been known to heal acne scarring and signs of age. Since I am neither scarred nor terribly old, what I notice after the treatment is that my skin is smoother, my pores are tighter, and I have fewer blackheads. Ah, facials, something the young men and women of San Francisco should rediscover. They're not just for your grandma!

Kabuki Springs and Spa

Zen Elegance

Kabuki Springs and Spa
Japan Center
1750 Geary Blvd., 415.922.6000

Wow. The recent remodel at the Kabuki has done wonders. Director Kathy Nelsen is a pro at breathing life into spas, having done so for the Claremont and for Indian Springs in Calistoga in the recent past, and for Miracle Baths on Fillmore in the '80s. This Japanese-themed bathhouse has it all: haute design; beautiful fabrics; wooden and woven furniture; gorgeous lamps; soothing sage greens, slate grays and deep reds; extensive treatment rooms; a huge steam room and sauna; a large, tranquil hot pool and cold plunge. The cavernous sauna is furnished with Adirondack chairs as well as wooden bleachers. The bathing area is stocked with ice-watered washcloths, cucumber slices, exfoliating salts and water pitchers. Basically, it's the most stylish and laid-back bathing palace in the area.

As for treatments, the Javanese Lulur ($110 for 80 minutes) is the absolute best body treat in the entire city. This is the one I recommend over all others. Traditionally given to Indonesian brides each day for 40 days before their weddings, this massage/body polish/bath is beyond compare and is only offered in one other spa in the country--and that's in New York. The Kabuki's enclosed rooms (there are curtained rooms as well) are tasteful, with wood floors, trickling fountains, modern Asian prints and various objets d'art. During a Lulur, you receive a dreamy long-stroke massage; a delicious rubdown with frangipani-jasmine oil; a scrub with turmeric, jasmine and rice powder; and a final full-body application of yogurt to rebalance pH levels. Afterward, the therapist pours basins of warm water down your back, gives you a back scrub and helps you into a double-deep tub before offering green tea. After such a relaxing treatment, all your brain will be up for is playing rose-petal-boats with all of the pretty flowers floating in the bathtub.

Communal baths are $10 before 5pm Monday-Friday, $15 after 5pm or on weekends. Tuesday is coed (bathing suits required); Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays are women-only; Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays are men-only.

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From the October 11, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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