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ST. MICHAELS

A Feel-Good Christmas Story

By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 23, 2007; Page P01

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.


Treatments at the 6,000-square-foot Linden Spa include massages, facials . . . and pedicures.
Treatments at the 6,000-square-foot Linden Spa include massages, facials . . . and pedicures. (By Stephen Brookes)
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"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.


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