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Spa vs. Spa: A Guide to Healthy Getaways

Sunday, February 7, 1999; Page E01

Berkeley Springs | Coolfont | Four Seasons Georgetown | The Greenbrier
The Homestead | Lansdowne Resort | Yogaville

    A soothing facial is just one relaxing service offered at most area spas. A soothing facial is just one of the services offered at most area spas.
Let's start by acknowledging that it's ridiculous to think one can "get healthy" on a spa getaway. Anybody who's ever watched TV knows that good health results from a well-balanced diet, regular exercise and a big dose of luck, not from the things you do (or don't) for one week or weekend a year.

Which is not to say there are not good reasons to visit a spa. At its best, a spa getaway can remind you about the part of your body located below your collarbone. It can open your pores and release sweat, toxins and maybe leftover fragments of your adolescence. You can eat food you don't have to lie about it. If you work at it, you can make your boss disappear completely.

All of this is good. But it's hard to turn into brochure copy. So most spas just say they can make you feel better and look better in a few days. They do this with an array of therapies and treatments described in language shrouded in hokum --Dead Sea mud wraps, rain forest aromatherapies, odd plunderings of the feet, facial packs made from vegetarian leftovers and (a personal favorite) a form of massage so powerful that the masseur or masseuse does not even touch the client.

Let's just say it's tough to be an educated consumer in this field. On the following pages, we try. To kick off The Post's Fitness Week, we dispatched staff members to sample the offerings of seven nearby health spas and resorts--figuring that spa rookies, as well as anyone carrying a sub-platinum credit card, should think locally. Each reporter went for two or three days. Each attempted to sample the spa's characteristic offerings. The resorts represent a range of healthy getaways, from the urbane luxe of the Four Seasons Spa and Health Club in Georgetown to the un-frilled Berkeley Springs State Park in West Virginia, from the asceticism of Yogaville in central Virginia to the anachronistic indulgence of the Greenbrier. One correspondent was wrapped in seaweed. Another was hosed down with mineral water while taking a shower with 16 heads. One was massaged by two people at the same time (don't worry, it's legal). The map at right shows where they went and where you can find their reports in this section.

Did any of our reporters return "healthier"? Of course not. But they seemed, well, gigglier for a day or two. And these days, who's to question the lasting value of a good giggle?


Going Public – Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Type: Affordable, public natural mineral springs about 90 minutes from the Beltway, with a few nearby privately run spa facilities.

Contact: Berkeley Springs, W.Va., 1-800-447-8797, www.berkeleysprings.com

Treatment Taken: At Berkeley Springs State Park (1-800-225-5982), we took the waters in a vintage Roman bath followed by a shower and a 30-minute massage ($35 each plus $5 tip--a bargain any way you look at it). We were based at the Country Inn (1-800-822-6630; we paid $96 for one night in a nonsmoking room with two twin--!#!@?!--beds) and its Renaissance Spa, where I had a mineral whirlpool bath and massage ($68 plus $10 tip) while my wife had a facial ($55 plus $10 tip). Across the park sits the Bath House (1-800-431-4698), where we each had aromatherapy ($35 each) followed by another half-hour massage ($35, plus $5 tip, each).

Other Services Available: The Country Inn offers numerous packages, among them the Ultimate Spa Experience, which includes two nights' lodging; four breakfasts and two $20 dinner allowances; two mineral whirlpool baths; two manicures; two pedicures; two massages; and two European facials. Cost: $650 for two. Massage rates at the Bath House range from $35 (half-hour) to $80 (90 minutes), with the pre-massage use of a hot tub $10 per person. It also offers classes in integral yoga, traditional tai chi and qi gong--none of which, as far as we could tell, is native to West Virginia. At Berkeley Springs State Park, hour-long massages, with bath and shower, start at $55. A steam treatment with bath and shower is $20. If you want to skip the hands-on stuff and just soak, the park's Roman Baths are $10 per person for a half-hour. At the Atasia Spa (1-877-258-7888), the Almost Heaven package includes a whirlpool, massage, facial, pedicure, manicure and body polish for $185.

The Report: The beauty of Berkeley Springs (besides its natural vibe) is that you're not marooned at a high-rent, money-sucking resort to partake of spa services. Indeed, besides the hotel spa, my wife and I visited two other reasonably priced (if not plain cheap) pamper-and-rub establishments within two blocks.

We first headed to the state park's gender-segregated bath house, where massages are inexpensive and the H2O is hot (the mineral water, a natural 74.3 degrees, is warmed to 102). I'd been primed for its primitiveness, but, geez, the place looks like a high school locker room. I was led, naked, to my "bath," a stark step-down tub where I floated blissfully for 20 minutes, listening as the remnants of an overnight ice storm dripped off the roof. A shower was followed by a "30-minute" massage that lasted closer to an hour. Among topics of conversation: the therapist's mutual funds.

Afterward, we slid across the park to check out the Bath House, a private business whose patrons and employees were chatty and likable. First up: the aromaSpa{reg}--a large, steam-filled plastic tube with a sliding glass door and a chair. Think transporter pod in "The Fly," except that I emerged reeking of lavender. The ensuing massage, which included lots of neck and foot action, was (almost) heaven, easily the best of the three.

The Renaissance Spa, a palace compared with the others, had a tinge of snootiness--but only a tinge. For the most part, its employees were courteous and professional, though the unrelenting quiet was a bit off-putting. After a whirlpool bath, a "30-minute" massage once again stretched to nearly an hour. I liked my treatment at Renaissance; my wife loved hers. "It was the best thing I've ever done," she cooed. "And I'm doing it again. Soon."

High Point: While the aromatherapy was okay, the prep time was terrific--who knew exfoliation could feel so good?

Low Point: Our unwanted 8 a.m. Sunday wakeup cackle from the noisy maids yapping outside our door.

Also Consider: Mineral-waters-rich Eureka Springs, Ark., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In Eureka Springs, baths, facials and massages are available at the 1901-era Palace Bath House (501-253-8400); a half-hour massage and a bath is $39. Spa services are also available at the New Moon Spa (501-253-2879), Healthworks (501-253-7977) and the Healing Benefits Massage Therapy Co. (501-253-6750). Saratoga Springs' Spa State Park houses both the Roosevelt Bath House (being renovated) and the Lincoln Baths (518-583-2880; mineral baths start at $16, massages at $30). The nearby Crystal Spa (518-584-2556) offers 17 treatments, including massages, body wraps, aromatherapy and facials.

Bottom Line: $320 per person for two days/one night.

--John Deiner


That's Rich – The Greenbrier

Type: Five-star resort for the town-and-country set, with an array of beauty, fitness and natural water treatments in a pristine mountain setting.

Contact: Greenbrier Spa and Mineral Baths, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., 1-800-624-6070 or 304-536-1110, www.greenbrier.com.

Treatment Taken: Two-day spa package. Includes two nights' accommodations, three meals daily, afternoon tea and chamber music concerts, welcoming cocktail and hors d'oeuvres, interior tour of the hotel, historical lecture and slide show, almost-first-run movies, use of exercise facilities and indoor heated pool, live music and dancing, hot chocolate and cookies by the hearth at night, and oh yeah, the following spa services: two massages, two soaks (sulphur and spring water), two world-class showers (see below), two saunas or steam baths, manicure and pedicure, shampoo and blow-dry (scalp massage for men), scheduled exercise classes, all tips for spa and dining room personnel, and daily service charges and taxes. Cost: $1,352 per person.

Other Services Available: A five-day spa package at $2,756 per person includes most of the above stuff, plus a fitness evaluation, mud wrap, facial, manicure and pedicure. A five-day spa/clinic program includes a full diagnostic medical exam, fitness evaluation and an array of water treatments and massages for $3,705 per person. Also available a la carte: Herbal wrap, $45; neck and shoulder massage, $55; Dead Sea salt bath with full-body massage, $85; body buffing with herbal body wrap, $75; "body glow" (exfoliation with a loofah) with light massage, $75; mud treatment with light massage, $85; full-body massage, $105.

The Report: If you haven't picked up on this by now, the Greenbrier is priced for the--how shall I put this?--other half. I mean, $1,352 for a two-night spa package? Yes, that price includes three gourmet meals a day, and yes, the place is legendary, with impeccable service and an ideal location in West Virginia's Allegheny Mountains. But $1,352 for two nights?

Then there was the snoot factor--the multi-paragraph dress code, the note in my room about the nightly turn-down service. "Each evening . . . an evening maid will freshen your room and bath, turn down your bed and lay out your night clothes." I looked at my Gap flannel pj's with alarm. Was there time to run down to the gift shop for a peignoir?

But the Greenbrier's vaunted Southern hospitality ("Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen") extends even to the likes of me. I was no lady, I was burned out. I wanted a luxury spa getaway weekend. When I heard that Amtrak traveled from Washington's Union Station right to the door of the Greenbrier--5 1/2 hours of uninterrupted reading time each way!--my decision was made.

Unfortunately, the train broke down half an hour after leaving Washington and the return train was 8 1/2 hours late, so that I ultimately had to rent a car to get home. So much for that little fantasy. But the rest was swell.

The place is a little like Oz--gleaming mansion on a hill, eye-popping colors, staff snapping to attention as you pass by. There's been a spa of one sort or another here since the early 1800s; the most recent version, after a multimillion-dollar renovation in 1987, has miles of marble and soothing green tiles, private carpeted dressing rooms and lots of shiny, high-tech equipment. The attendants are unfailingly cheerful, solicitous and friendly--this is West Virginia, after all. "I feel some tension when I go acrost your back," they'd say in their near-Elizabethan lilts and twangs. "Yew take kayer." Or--my favorite--"Have you a good evening."

After an admirably thorough facial that extended all the way to my fingertips (an armal?), I took my first soak. If you're at all a Type A, it's hard to relax in someone else's tub, even one the size of a horse trough, with the lights dimmed and New Age music wafting from hidden speakers. I lay back and thought of . . . the Travel section.

The massages were much more engaging, and the tables are heated, a nice touch. And there is some flexibility: I swapped one of my full-body massages for a "body polish" (salt-paste exfoliation followed by a lovely hot-oil massage) after two employees mentioned that it was their favorite treatment. Two weeks later, my skin is still baby-soft.

High Point: The mother of all showers. Sixteen showerheads pound down on you from all directions while an attendant simultaneously hoses you down with a high-pressure spray. Trust me--much more fun than a sulphur bath.

Low Point: The complimentary blow-dry. Let's just say I wouldn't have felt out of place at a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader tryout. If you're not into big hair, try to communicate that to the stylist.

Also Consider: Other five-star resorts with spa packages, all much farther afield, include Marriott's Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. Camelback (1-800-242-2635, www.camelbackinn.com) has a three-night "Weekend Spa Revitalizer" package that includes accommodations, three meals daily, six one-hour spa services and use of exercise facilities and classes, for $1,819 (single, taxes and tips not included). The Breakers (1-888-273-2537, www.thebreakers.com) offers an "Indulgence by the Sea" package that includes three nights' accommodations, daily breakfast, five spa treatments, a personal training session, use of the spa's facilities and exercise equipment, and all taxes, tips and service charges. Cost: $1,764, single.

Bottom Line: $1,352 per person for three days/two nights.

--K.C. Summers


Location, Location, Location – Lansdowne Resort

Type: Tony corporate conference center featuring a close-in location, recreation amenities and spa services--which tend to be oriented to relaxation and beauty.

Contact: Lansdowne Resort, 44050 Woodridge Pkwy., Leesburg, 703-729-8400 or 1-800-541-4801, www.lansdowneresort.com

Treatment Taken: The Pamper Package for two. Includes a choice of two spa services (half-hour massage, half-hour mini-facial, pedicure or manicure), one night's accommodations, dinner and breakfast, unlimited use of the health club, valet parking and gratuities (but see below). Cost: $349 per couple per night, plus room tax and tips, for a total of $405. The same package for one (with one spa service) costs $289.

Other Services Available: Salon services include haircuts (men's, $25, women's, from $30), nail tips with overlay ($65), aromatherapy facial ($68), massages (Swedish, deep tissue, aromatherapy, shiatsu and neuromuscular) that range in price from $40 to $110 for 25 to 75 minutes; and various other services such as a seaweed body masque for $95 and a cellulite treatment "to encourage . . . a loss of inches" (!) for $75. Guests have access to indoor and outdoor swimming pools, bike rentals, a well-equipped fitness club, indoor recreation including billiards and darts, and generous grounds which offer hiking and jogging. There's also an 18-hole golf course. A Resort Rascals package for kids between 3 and 12 includes bike rides, nature walks, arts and crafts, tennis and golf lessons, swimming, movies and some meals; cost ranges from $20 to $45 for half- or full days.

The Report: The spa facility at Lansdowne needs a makeover. It lacks the attention to detail and the high-gloss quality found in the lobby, guest rooms, elevators and even the pro shop, all of which shine with marble and polished wood. The facial room is small, with a towel inefficiently covering a rug stain. No one was around to walk me through the procedure, so I slung my clothes onto a door hook, not realizing there was a locker room next door.

Having said that, the facial felt great and left my skin glowing. My face was cleansed, steamed, exfoliated, peeled and masqued. Ruth's speedy fingers managed to soften her harsh, or perhaps just sales-oriented, words: "You're too young for these wrinkles." I left with a free sample of a night cream from the line of products that I was strongly encouraged to buy. The half-hour massage left me relaxed enough to ignore the trappings and visualize the beautiful countryside surrounding the resort. The technicians are experienced and lively.

The pedicure gave me 10 shiny, well-shaped toenails still admired two weeks later, though my fingernails survived only 12 minutes before smudging. And the polish, one of the few products I would have been interested in buying, was not available to purchase for touch-ups.

High Point: The half-hour massage that focused on my neck and back. Yes, Kim Ann, I feel the tension being released.

Low Point: Lansdowne's brochure said all tips were included in the package price; our waitress said she received only 10 percent; spa staff said tips weren't included at all. A later call confirmed that all tips are included.

Also Consider: Kingsmill, a luxury resort and conference center in Williamsburg (757-253-1703 or 1-800-832-5665, www.kingsmill.com), has a Spa Experience package that includes one night's accommodations, unlimited use of the fitness center and choice of one massage or skin care service for $184-$235 (guest room, depending on view) or $243-$284 (one-bedroom suite, ditto) per person. Rates are per night, double, with spa services for one person. Meals, taxes and service charges are not included. Full day, half-day and a la carte services are also available.

Bottom Line: $405 per couple for two days/one night.

--Marty Barrick


Om Improvement – Yogaville

Type: Spiritual retreat focusing on meditation, with some related New Age treatments.

Contact: Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville, Buckingham, Va., 1-800-858-9642, www.yogaville.org.

Treatment Taken: Welcome weekend package. Includes two nights' accommodations, three (vegetarian) meals daily, a yoga class, a guided meditation session, a satang or spiritual gathering, a seminar on integral yoga, and a tour of the grounds and facilities. Cost: $130, plus $50 extra for a mighty fine massage.

Other Services Available: Alternative medicine, sessions in the Alexander Technique, chiropractic treatments, energy therapy (including reiki, chakra balancing and polarity), facials, aromatherapy and massages (deep tissue and shiatsu). Rates for double rooms in the Lotus Inn, a basic but tidy guest house, are $95 a night on weekends. All meals are included. Special weekend or week-long packages are offered throughout the year, focusing on intensive yoga training and other techniques.

The Report: Though located about 45 minutes south of Charlottesville, Yogaville has a California feel to it, circa 1969. The staff, clad in Hari Krishna peach outfits, seemed so in touch with their spiritual side that whenever I looked them in the eye, I wanted to say OM shanthi. Meat is a four-letter word. Dishes made of tofu, dairy products and all manner of vegetables were uniformly excellent. Footwear of any kind is discouraged once you step indoors.

They don't call it Yogaville for nothing. Yoga and meditation are the centerpieces of life at the ashram. My days began with a predawn walk to a guided mediation session. A small group sat on the floor while an instructor guided us through an hour of chants and other meditation techniques. As morning broke, we moved into a yoga training session. The instructor offered lots of personal attention, including assistance hoisting my forty-something body into a vertical headstand.

Spirituality is a strong part of the Yogaville experience. A half-hour meditation session is held daily at the Lotus Shrine, a stunning New Age temple rising above the campus. Satsang, an interdenominational spiritual service, is held every Saturday evening. When Sri Swami Satchidananda, Yogaville's founder and guru, is in residence, he appears at the service to offer guidance. (Many staff and guests are devotees.)

For all of the contortions and chanting, the mood at Yogaville is relaxed and unobtrusive. The motto of the place--"Truth is one; paths are many"--reflects a deeply held respect for the gamut of Western and Eastern faiths and belief systems. A full slate of activities is offered, but guests are not required to participate in any. You can fill your days with yoga, massages and vegetarian meals, or wander the grounds with flowers in your hair.

Those who opt for the latter approach are in for a treat. Sprawled across the undulating hills of Virginia's Buckingham County, Yogaville is in as serene and idyllic an environment as I could imagine. Trails through the woods surrounding the place are great for hiking. The James River, which runs through the property, enhances the mood.

Yogaville has a Spartan feel to it--no lotions with fancy names, no room service (meals are taken cafeteria-style). Many guests sat on the floor and ate at low-lying tables. Plaid shirts and trousers seemed to be the order of dress. Rates are in keeping with the no-frills aura: Rooms in a dorm with a shared bath, an alternative to the Lotus Inn, run as cheap as $40 a night in midweek, including meals.

High Point: The early-morning meditation session, which began in predawn darkness and climaxed with the blue light of morning streaming into the window.

Low Point: The continuous--and, by my tastes, excessive--references to and quoting of the views of Swami Satchidananda.

Also Consider: Hartland Wellness Center (Rapidan, Va., 1-800-763-9355) offers 10- and 18-day programs that focus on physical and spiritual health. The 10-day program is $1,995, 18 days for $2,995; the cost includes accommodations, all meals, massage and hydrotherapy treatments and numerous programs, including health lectures, wellness evaluations and stress management presentations. The Himalayan Institute Center for Health and Healing (RR 1, Box 400, Honesdale, Pa. 18431, 1-800-822-4547) specializes in yoga, rejuvenation programs, holistic medicine and vegetarian diet. Programs, which include education, lodging and meals, start at about $675 for two nights/three days.

Bottom Line: $180 per person for three days/two nights.

--Gary Lee


Spring Forward – The Homestead

    The spa is only one small part of The Homestead's lure. The spa is only one small part of The Homestead's lure. (© Prakash Patel)
   
Type: Venerable mineral springs with updated health and fitness services, plus resort amenities.

Contact: The Homestead 1766, Hot Springs, Va., 1-800-838-1766 or 540-839-1766, www.thehomestead.com.

Treatment Taken: Two-day Winter Spa Package (available through March 25). Includes two nights' lodging, two dinners and three breakfasts; afternoon tea; two nightly second-run movies; daily lift tickets and Old Course green fees; use of indoor pool, steam and sauna rooms, exercise facilities and scheduled fitness classes, plus a European facial, manicure, pedicure and full-body Swedish massage. Cost: $504 per person Sunday-Thursday, $524 otherwise (plus taxes and a 15-percent service fee).

Other Services Available: The spa offers a variety of soaks, baths and spout-massage baths in the renovated spa's original oversize tubs ($25 to $35); clay, herbal or seaweed body wraps ($80) and a chamomile-and-mountain-laurel body polish ($45). The spa's "Cascades" therapy package ($240) includes a "luxury" facial (which adds hand and foot massages and moisturizing soaks to the regular facial), a mineral bath and salt-paste exfoliation treatment followed by a Scotch-spray shower, and a full-body massage.

The Report: Among these forested Allegheny ridges and greenish-blue bubbling pools four hours from the nearest impeachment proceeding, the universe is built differently. Families who've been dispensing towels or waiting tables for generations seem to have no less ease or dignity about them than those who've been dressing for dinner for as many generations. Best of all, nowadays there's even room here at the Homestead for those of us who have been known to eat dinner standing over the kitchen sink.

Of course, Virginia's Homestead is not cheap, but it is neither as expensive nor quite as strictly formal as the Greenbrier, the West Virginia resort with which it is sometimes confused. Purchased six years ago by Dallas-based country-club specialists Club Resorts Inc., the Homestead has been under a revolving, multimillion-dollar renovation since 1994. While much of its appeal is to golfers and high-end corporate conferees, its latest remake--completed in August--addressed its gracious and sunny century-old spa building. And a number of current package deals make it possible to see what you've been missing ever since the first commercial bathhouse was built on this site in 1766.

New plumbing and fixtures are nice, but what really made the weekend healing for my wife and me was the stuff that's been here for a while: the water and the people. Every staff person we met seemed affable, able and sincerely happy to be there--from my sensitive, no-nonsense masseur to the manicurist who talked easily about her daily over-the-mountain commute ("Takes me anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour; depends what I get behind . . .") to the solicitous and soft-spoken locker room attendant who, "if the good Lord is willing," will have been with the Homestead spa 30 years come April.

The spa, of course, is just one neighborhood in the Homestead city-state: The 521-room resort also has three golf courses on its 15,000 acres (including one, the Cascades, consistently rated among the country's top 50); five restaurants; eight tennis courts; a bowling alley, movie theater and sports bar with pool tables and dart boards; 100 miles of hiking trails with guided hikes daily; a skeet and trap shooting club; horseback and carriage rides; falconry, mountain-biking and fly-fishing outfitting; a year-round Kids Club and, in season, a 10-run ski area with ice rink and tubing course.

High Point: My wife's mineral bath. In the newly tiled twilight of her private spa room, Charmaine managed to hook her arms firmly over the sides of a tub large enough to accommodate most domestic minivans and thus managed a kind of weightless, sensory-deprived, Allegheny Mountain high. She said the combined temperature and sound of the 104-degree water as it streamed continuously over the sides of the tub--something she confessed having "always wanted to do" at home--had her grooving to the Music of the Spheres in no time.

Low Point: My mineral bath--which I cut short five minutes before the allotted 20 were up. Aside from the volume control wall-mounted out of reach (Enya!), either my combined height and weight or the slope of the tub made it impossible not to keep sliding southward. I wasn't in fear of drowning so much as forced to hunker precisely at the point where the hot mineral water--which erupts from a drain-size opening in the tub floor--made it, shall we say, difficult to relax. Next time I'll bring an inner tube.

Also Consider: Two farther-afield but comparably luxurious and springs-centered choices: The laid-back Gulf Coast hideaway Safety Harbor Resort & Spa (Safety Harbor, Fla. 1-800-237-0155, www.safetyharborspa.com) has a three-day, two-night Basic Spa and Fitness package for $408 (double) that includes all meals, fitness classes and locker room/sauna/whirlpool/steam room privileges. A mineral bath and 50-minute massage apiece would add $170 to the bill. Far to the northwest, the 867-room, century-old Banff Springs Hotel (Banff, Alberta, 1-800-268-9411, www.cphotels.ca) will provide everything you need to ski or hike the spectacular surrounding Rockies--plus all meals, fitness/sauna needs and spa treatments (one massage, facial or body wrap per day per person), bowling, dog-sledding and sleigh rides--for what translates at today's exchange rates into $385, double, for two nights. If only the air fares to Banff were so reasonable.

Bottom Line: $602 per person for three days/two nights.

--Roger Piantadosi


Urbane Renewal – Four Seasons Georgetown

Type: An urban hotel spa emphasizing physical fitness, general well-being and stress-reduction.

Contact: Four Seasons Health and Fitness Club/Spa, Four Seasons Georgetown, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-342-0444 (hotel) and 202-944-2022 (fitness club/spa).

Treatment Taken: The Four Seasons has no spa packages per se, but hotel personnel will help you put one together. My one-night, two-day program included a personal training session ($75, plus $10 tip), seaweed therapy ($100, plus $15 tip), one-hour synchronized massage ($90 plus $15 tip, for each masseuse), Pilates-based mat-work group class ($25), private yoga class ($85, plus $15 tip), use of equipment, lap pool and whirlpool, and free parking (a great perk in Georgetown). My room cost $326 with tax; three meals in the hotel came to $90.

Other Services Available: Guests and fitness club members may use all exercise facilities, from Stairmasters to the rowing machine. At separate cost are individual ($85) and group ($25) classes in tai chi, qi gong, step, sculpt (in addition to classes mentioned above). Spa treatments range from a honey salt glow treatment for $85 to a 90-minute massage for $145. Full beauty services are available at George's at the Four Seasons.

The Report: A snowstorm closed schools and businesses the wintry day I visited, but it didn't deter club members and guests. The place was jumping. A bank of treadmill and Stairmasters lined up against a window wall overlooked the snow-driven C&O Canal. Every piece of cardiovascular equipment had attached to it a TV/VCR/CD player/radio. A refreshment bar was stocked with complimentary bottled water, fruit and juices, sports drinks and sodas.

I arrived an hour before my scheduled session with a personal trainer, so I stashed my suitcase in a closet (hotel check-in is not until 3 p.m.), claimed a locker and loitered in the luxurious locker room: carpeted floor, upholstered benches, white cotton robes hanging for your use, sauna and steam rooms, an aisle of separate vanities and every toiletry you can imagine. A snippet of conversation between two women:

"What are you looking for?"

"Have you seen 'Shakespeare in Love?' That's what I'm looking for."

What I was looking for, I told Michael Lin, my personal trainer, was to strengthen my arms and shoulders. Warm up first, he instructed, and I did 10 minutes on the stationary bike. Try the scarecrow, he said, and he showed me an exercise in which you raise your arms holding weights to shoulder height, and then drop your elbows slightly. I found this very hard.

Two p.m. found me alone, on a table in a private spa room, covered in a slimy, fishy green paste, and mummied in layers of mylar paper. Emily, my attendant, left me temporarily to stew in my juices--or, allegedly, to bring the toxic, stress-related agents in my body to rise to the surface. She returned and unwrapped me just enough to maneuver me into the adjoining steam room, where the heat and steam, and finally soap and water in the shower, wash away these nasty toxins. Did I feel any different? No. But now was the time for the much-anticipated, two-person!! synchronized!! massage!! Enter Lisette, who proceeded to my feet, as Emily stationed herself at my head, and they began, working toward each other and backing away as they stretched, rubbed and manipulated various parts of my body. Other pleasures were mine during the rest of my stay: a dinner in the hotel restaurant, a beautiful room, a one-on-one yoga class, a swim in the lap pool and a languish in the whirlpool. But it was the synchronized massage that transformed me.

High Point: The two-person massage, of course. The Four Seasons is known for its service, and I found the staff genial and welcoming, without intruding on my privacy.

Low Point: Claustrophobes should avoid the wraps. The health and fitness club has no membership slots available--meaning the only way you can use the pool and health club is to stay overnight. But anyone can sign up for a la carte spa treatments or exercise classes.

Also Consider: The Washington Monarch (formerly the ANA Hotel, 2401 M St. NW, 202-429-2400) houses the Fitness Company West End (202-457-5070). The center is under separate ownership, but it allows hotel guests to use exercise equipment for a $10 charge (executive level hotel guests are not charged). The 17,500-square-foot center is larger than the Four Seasons' and offers more machines and fitness programs, and some spa services, though these are more beauty than health-related. Overnight rates range from $99 to $169 weekends, $199 to $289 weekdays, double.

Just across the street, the Park Hyatt Hotel (1201 24th St. NW, 202-789-1234) also has a fitness center (202-955-1348), not as extensive as the Monarch's, but free to hotel guests. The day spa features beauty related treatments. Overnight stays at the Park Hyatt range from $179 to $199 weekends, $270 to $300 weekdays, double.

Bottom Line: $955 for two days/one night.

--Elise Hartman Ford


Almost Nirvana, West Virginia – Coolfont Resort

Type: A rustic, natural retreat and spa two hours from the Beltway, featuring an eclectic variety of natural and New Age treatments and easily accessible outdoor recreation.

Contact: Coolfont Resort, Conference Center and Health Spa, Berkeley Springs, W.Va., 1-800-888-8768 or 304-258-4500, www.coolfont.com.

Treatment Taken: Spectrum of Wellness visit. Includes two nights' lodging (upgraded to a chalet), three spa cuisine meals daily, stress management programs, five fitness classes a day, hiking and walking programs, access to the pool, sauna and weight training room, and wellness classes on such topics as healthy cooking, yoga and tai chi. Cost: $350 per person, midweek; my bill was $440, which included an a la carte pedicure and manicure.

Other Services Available: A similar, seven-day program costs $1,135. Also available a la carte: facials ($45-$69), herbal body wrap ($69), loofah scrub ($49), "Black Mud-N-Aloe Body Treatment" ($75), and such mind/body treatments as raiki, reflexology, acupuncture and aromatherapy (all $60 to $65 per hour).

The less spa-ish Spectrum of Learning package--offering smoking cessation, yoga/meditation or relationship enhancement--starts at $170 per night and includes three meals, accommodations and other spa and fitness classes.

The Report: Coolfont is just over the mountains and through the woods, an hour's drive from Frederick or Leesburg and about two from your screaming kids or desk full of work. It offers an easily accessible place to relax, with very little pressure to do anything, although there is much to do at the resort's spa center and its 1,350-acre mountain property.

Coolfont is not fancy, which is part of its charm. The owners introduce themselves to guests and live on site. The cabins are cozy, with wood-burning stoves, pine rocking chairs, whirlpools, country decor and no TV (but coffee maker and phone). The Fireside Lounge has two TVs, a bar and, in the main room, a large wood-burning stove and comfortable, novel-worthy sofas. Don't expect to be pampered and you won't be disappointed. You'll carry your own suitcase.

The spa is in a wooden building that looks much like a '70s-era suburban recreation center. In the cozy, paneled massage room, aromatherapy candles scent the air. The staff is up early to greet you with fresh fruit and juice or coffee--before your sunrise stretch class or morning walk. That is, if you want. Spa guests can spend all day sampling activities and classes, and can take meals in the Spa Dining Room or eat in the larger Treetop House restaurant, where the low-fat food is delicious and the large windows offer an HDTV view of squirrels and birds amid the tree limbs.

The best time to visit Coolfont is in the spring and fall, when the bursts of color and moderate temperatures enhance the relaxation effect. A winter visit is great for solitude, although lots of skiers like this time of year, too. However, if you are going to relax, keep in mind that navigating narrow, ice-slicked mountain roads in the darkness is the quickest way to kill a massage high.

High Points: The manicure and pedicure. The manicurist clearly loves her job, and was very gentle. The foot massage was done with just the right touch--almost a reflexology massage--and the paraffin treatment for both my feet and hands reduced them to little-girl softness. Bonus: The salon smelled of fresh flowers and vanilla rather than nail polish remover.

Low Point: If you're a serious exerciser and in good shape, you'll be disappointed by the fitness equipment. The room features Cybex circuit training equipment, a couple of treadmills and a stair climber and some light dumbbells. The aerobics classes are great for someone who hasn't been to a gym in a long time, but a regular aerobic warrior could probably check e-mail during the step classes.

Also Consider: Deerfield Spa in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania (717-223-0160 or 1-800-852-4494, www.deerfieldspa.com) is small, like Coolfont, and offers a variety of aerobics classes and spa treatments, including facials and massage, aromatherapy, body scrubs and detoxifications. It's currently closed for the season but reopens in April. A weekend package costs $414 (single, two nights); a week (seven nights) goes for $1,059 to $1,160 and includes meals, gratuities, use of facilities and two half-hour massages; service charges and taxes are extra. Westglow Spa in Blowing Rock, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains (828-295-4463 or 1-800-562-0807, www.westglow.com), offers aerobics, weight training, skiing, hiking, horseback riding, yoga and assorted spa treatments. One- through seven-night packages are available; the one-night program includes two spa services, all meals, taxes, gratuities and participation in all activities, for $396 single.

Bottom line: $440 per person for three days/two nights.

--Retha Hill


Details: Finding a Spa

If you're considering a spa vacation that will take you beyond the mid-Atlantic region--and dare to dream about such world-class, celebrity- and mogul-attracting health and fitness getaways as the Golden Door (1-800-424-0777, www.thegoldendoor.com) and Canyon Ranch (1-800-742-9000, www.canyonranch.com)--where do you start?

The best resource is a like-minded friend who has been to a number of spas. If you don't have one of those, consider starting with Zagat Survey's U.S. Hotels, Resorts & Spas ($19.95, fifth edition, 1998/1999), which may be the next best thing. The guide, which rates 45 spa facilities across the United States and includes descriptions of 14 resort hotels that offer spa features, publishes the candid opinions of spagoers who have paid their own way. (This is in contrast to most spa guidebooks, whose writers usually stay as guests of the spa and whose objectivity can be compromised.) Another helpful Zagat feature: In addition to the inevitable list of the 10 most luxe spas (which are usually among the most expensive), it also carries a list of spas that deliver the best experience-for-dollar-spent values.

A more comprehensive, if less judgmental, resource is Fodor's Healthy Escapes ($18.50, www.fodors.com), which profiles nearly 250 spas, resorts and retreats. The strength here is the amount of detail on everything from facilities to lodging to dining. And it indexes resorts by category, so if you're more interested in pampering than sports conditioning or diet and nutrition, you can narrow your search quickly. It also tackles the burgeoning arena of the cruise ship spa, offering enough detail (on the QE2 thalassotherapy is a major draw, while Holland America's "Passport to Fitness" program combines fitness, healthy dining and beauty treatments) to contribute to a decision. The current edition came out this year, so the information is fairly recent.

To book a spa package, Spafinders (1-800-ALL-SPAS)--a reservation and information super-agency--represents 220 spas and resorts. But beware: "Our name is a misnomer," said one Spafinders agent. "We are only finding [the spas] we represent." In my experience, agents weren't anxious to do a lot of hand-holding (one request for general recommendations was tossed into voice mail and the call was never returned; on another attempt, the sales agent was crisp, courteous and just a little bit impatient with my vague request for information). The agency hopes you'll do your homework first, either by subscribing to its quarterly magazine ($16 for two years) or researching via its Web site (www.spafinders.com). Just remember that information is limited to those spas who've signed on with the company's reservation service, so the options are not comprehensive.

Elsewhere in electroland, the Mining Company's Spa site (http://spas .miningco.com) is the most useful I've found, combining candid, spagoer reviews with links to facility Web sites. There's also information on products, recipes and books, and you can access articles published in places like Spafinders magazine. The site's only weakness is a lightly used--and badly organized--bulletin board where you can post questions.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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