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In New York, the Spa That Came In From the Cold

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK -- "Try this."

Cornelia Zicu is pointing at a spoonlet of honey beside a glass of water on a polished silver tray. She's standing in a luxurious little massage room, the lights turned soothingly low.

"It's honey like you never taste in your life," she says in a purring Romanian accent. "I research honey all over the world and the honey in Yorkshire, in England, is the most therapeutic one."

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Therapeutic honey? Don't ask. Eat. Then sip the water, as she tells you. Now, hand over your credit card and submit to the quasi-mystical, budget-crushing mercies of this petite 43-year-old dynamo with the ingratiating smile. She isn't just the queen of this little room. She is the queen of this entire spa. All 22,000 square feet of it.

Cornelia -- that's the name of the place, frosted right on the glass front door -- is a sprawling aerie of pricey indulgence in the gilded heart of midtown Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue right near Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi. It opened earlier this month, on the eighth and ninth floors of the Ferragamo building, hoping to turn up the extravagance dial in the city's crowded spa market.

A daylong stay in one of the private rooms here can cost you and that special someone about $2,200, which includes the price of a round-trip ride in a Rolls-Royce. For that, you can mix and match from a lengthy list of pamperings on offer, from the mundane (pedicures, haircuts) to the exotic ("endermologie," described as "the world's most powerful weapon against cellulite," and a treatment called "lymphatic drainage," which isn't as gross as it sounds).

And while that collagen mask is drying, or you're waiting for the aromatherapy to kick in, clerks from nearby clothiers will be delighted to swing by with their wares.

"Prada, Armani, whatever you want," Cornelia says. "You tell them the size and the occasion and you can be dressed in something new that night."

Of course a spa like this has to have its own high-end retail line. And Cornelia covers it all, the hair conditioner and the hand cream, the handbags and the nail colors (130, actually), votives and throw pillows and even tea, which Cornelia un-ironically calls "result-oriented tea."

"They're almost medical," she says of the tea. The tea for insomnia is packed with herbs that make you so drowsy, she recommends you drink it in bed. "Twenty minutes later, you are knock out."

So who is this woman? And how did she open a "day resort" that cost more than $11 million to build?

Ms. Zicu, it turns out, arrived in this country 20 years ago, flat broke, a refugee from Romania with a husband and a young son. She learned English, got a degree from a beauticians' school and wound up at New York's Peninsula Hotel, where she squeezed pimples in the spa and built a cult following among the well-heeled ladies.

One of those ladies was Ellen Sackoff.

"I used to tell my friends, I think she's a witch," laughs Sackoff, on the phone last week. "A good witch. Most of the time with facials, you can't go out right away because your skin is blotchy. But with her, your skin is rosy and dewy. Plus, she gives the best massage in the world."

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