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A Feel-Good Christmas Story

By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 23, 2007

It was cold, and storm clouds were gathering over our house. Just back from three weeks in Kabul, my wife was jet-lagged and exhausted, and I was snowed under with deadlines. We'd missed an anniversary, the roof had sprung a leak, a significant-decade birthday was imminent and the nightmare of Christmas -- with its annual plea for a pony -- was closing in fast.

And then there was the issue of my feet.

"Look at those things," she muttered one night, as I read barefoot on the couch. "They're a disgrace."

I looked down at the thick calluses, the ripsaw nails, the skin that only an iguana could love. I'd always thought my feet were honest, workmanlike things, good for getting from one place to another. But now they'd been revealed for what they really were: damnable objects of shame.

"You need -- repeat, need -- a pedicure," she said. "Let's go to a spa. You'll like it. You'll have baby feet. Giant baby feet!"

Now, like many men, I'm instinctively spa-averse. Spas aren't our turf, and we know it. Most of us would no more wander into one than try on lipstick at Nordstrom's. But according to the International Spa Association, there are more than 14,000 spas across the country, they're becoming an inescapable part of modern life. And I had to admit, I was curious. Clearly we both needed a break. Why not get out of town, treat ourselves to some pampering and come home ready to rock the holidays?

So a few days later, we found ourselves on Maryland's Eastern Shore, heading into the quaint resort town of St. Michaels. In summer, it's the go-to place for sailing, fishing and other outdoor fun. But the town has been reinventing itself as a winter destination, too, and not just for people who like dredging for oysters in the snow. With the summer tourists gone, life slows to a relaxing pace, and you can absorb the town's Victorian charms in peace. Or, if you prefer, just get massaged into a coma.

St. Michaels has long had two fine, fully equipped spas, one at the Harbour Inn and the other at the Five Gables Inn. We'd heard, though, about a spectacular newcomer: a state-of-the-art, 6,000-square-foot palace called the Linden Spa, which opened this summer. Not only did it have everything we could possibly need -- yoga classes, a gym, a steam room and a small army of masseurs and masseuses -- it was also attached to the ultra-luxurious Inn at Perry Cabin. If the spa didn't completely relax us, we figured we'd just let the inn itself finish the job.

So within a half-hour of arriving, we found ourselves walking through the Linden Spa and chatting with its sprightly young director, Jenny Farrand. Hotel spas tend to be dim, cavelike places, often tucked into an unused corner of the basement. But the Linden Spa was a light-filled building set apart from the inn, with the clean, open lines of an art museum. Elegantly pressed and framed flowers lined the walls of the "relaxation room," which looked out into a charming brick-walled garden, and everything about the spa seemed designed to soothe, from the color scheme (white and natural wood) to the furniture (wicker and cork) to the bathrobes (organic cotton, of course) that hung in the changing rooms.

"We've come to be rejuvenated," I told Farrand. She confirmed we'd come to the right place.

"But here's the problem," I said, looking around at the bottles of face lotion, the pastel yoga mats, the little soaps made of rare flowers. "I'm not a woman."

"Oh, that's all right, you're not alone," she assured me. Forty percent of her clients were male, she said, and anyway, spas aren't about feminine pampering anymore: They're about health. Most of her male clients just go for massages, she said, but the bolder, more adventurous ones -- the real men -- were venturing into previously forbidden realms.

She opened the spa's catalogue to show me. There were seven kinds of facials and a vast array of massages, from "deep tissue" and "hot stone" to something called "moon and tide." There were pedicures and manicures and body-firming masks by the score, all topped off with a bewildering assortment of "finishing touches." And nearly all, she assured me, were appropriate for men.

My wife looked like she'd just been teleported to nirvana. But I was way, way out of my depth.

"What about the Linden Ritual?" I asked. It was the spa's signature treatment, where they smear you with sage, rosemary and other spices, wrap you in hot towels to bake, and then scrub you down with salt before tenderizing you on the massage table. It sounded delicious, in a vaguely cannibalistic way.

"Sure!" said Farrand, who swore that being wrapped in herbs would make us healthier. "The molecules actually enter your skin," she said, "and draw toxins out of your body."

I'd heard about these treatments; apparently it is becoming increasingly common for spas to baste their clients in the local cuisine. At one spa in Arizona they wrap you up in cactus flowers. In Hershey, Pa., they smear you with chocolate. And in Texas, they use barbecue sauce. Naturally.

Do any of these things have any actual health benefit? Who knows? But the Linden Spa's mantra is "the botanical art of wellness," and it takes its mission seriously. The spa is named after the native linden trees on the property (it uses the leaves to make tea), and it grows most of the other herbs in a greenhouse behind the spa, mixing up the potions in its own apothecary.

It was clear that at least one of us would have to be wrapped in spices, so I volunteered my wife. She quickly settled on the Five Flowers Solace (80 minutes, $165), where you're coated in hot, flower-infused clay; it's cooled to a crust and then the whole mess is scrubbed off. It sounded like a cruel joke, but I kept my mouth shut; better her than me. And I turned to Farrand for one last piece of advice.

"So, what do Cheney and Rumsfeld get when they come here?" I asked.

The veep and the former defense secretary are St. Michaels's two most famous homeowners, and I figured that if they actually did sneak in once in a while to be lathered in organic buttermilk, it would be okay if I did, too. But Farrand just smiled discreetly; if she knows our national primping secrets, she's not telling.

Instead, she suggested the Classic Pedicure ($49) and something called the Herbal Remedy Massage ($185), a treatment involving ginger and lemon grass that ancient Thai warriors supposedly used to recover from battle. Confident that Rummy would approve, I agreed.

So the next morning, swaddled in a fluffy white robe and holding a cup of linden tea in one hand, I met my pedicurist -- sorry, my nail technician -- a charming young woman named Samantha. She guided me up some steps to a white pleather throne with a little whirlpool bath at its base.

"Is this your first time?" she asked. She was speaking in a low, soothing "spa" voice, as if I'd just had a serious brain injury, and I suddenly realized that the spa experience wasn't really feminizing -- it was infantilizing. That's when I began to babble.

"My wife wants me to have baby feet!" I told her.

"That's right," she said, in her calming, don't-panic voice. "You'll have baby feet. Now just put them in the tub for me."

And that's when I began to really understand what spas were all about. For the next 45 minutes, my battered feet were massaged, buffed, oiled and groomed to perfection -- transformed from oafish lumps into objects of innocence and grace. For the first time in their lives, they were, dare I say it, beautiful. Using them for walking seemed an indignity. I wanted to have them bronzed.

But my rejuvenation was just beginning. Samantha passed me to a masseuse named Lakia, who stretched me out on a warm massage bed and, for the next 80 minutes, expertly soothed every shred of tension from my body. Rubbing me with aromatic oils and pressing deep into my muscles with a warm poultice of Thai herbs, she gave me a sort of acupressure massage unlike anything I'd ever experienced. The scent of the herbs was almost intoxicating, and as the tensions dissolved, I drifted into a blissful, oceanic state of peace -- or, as spa people call it, "the drool zone."

"How was it?" Farrand asked us later, after we'd met up in the relaxation room and were floating to the door to check out. I looked at my wife, who was in some peaceful land beyond human speech. The hot clay had clearly done its work.

"Fantastic," I admitted. "But I feel like I should go do something manly now."

"Just relax," she said, with a knowing smile. "You'll be fine."

Stephen Brookes last wrote for Travel about Cambodia.

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