On opening day of the holiday shopping season, Waldorf resident Pam Swift took herself out of the game.

While thousands of sale-frenzied Southern Marylanders battled crowds in department stores, Swift had a decidedly different way to spend the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Swathed in a cozy white terry-cloth robe and sipping hot herbal tea, Swift relaxed at Classic Image salon in Smallwood Village Center, ready for a four-hour treatment at Southern Maryland's only full-service day spa. After a recent battle with breast cancer and a grueling daily commute to her job in Washington, Swift splurged on a manicure, pedicure, full-body massage and facial.

"Everybody else is at the mall," Swift said, as a manicurist applied a shiny lacquer to her freshly shaped fingernails. "I wanted to do something non-stressful. When I'm here, I just clear my mind totally."

The package Swift purchased costs $185 and is one of many available at "The Retreat," Classic Image's new 1,400-square-foot spa area, which is holding its official grand opening today. The salon has offered hairstyling for about 15 years, said owner Mary Lou Rutherford, but the spa addition reflects a growing general interest in skin care as well as the increasing number of clients in Charles County who are willing to shell out $60 an hour for the salon's soft, candlelit ambience and experienced beauticians.

Too pricey? Rutherford argues that the services are priceless.

"A lot of people think of spas as a luxury," she said. "I don't. I think of it as a necessity."

Rutherford said the stress-relief benefits of regular massage, aroma therapy and skin care can translate into a happier, more productive daily life. Before opening The Retreat, she and her husband, John, visited several destination spas--those where people go for extended stays--and brought their favorite ideas back to the Waldorf salon.

The Rutherfords are especially excited about their Vichy shower--an apparatus made up of six nozzles positioned over a table where a client lies face-down as the water rushes over the body in varying intensities.

"Hydrotherapy," Mary Lou Rutherford explains. "When I first felt it, I thought, 'Oh, my God!' "

Although 95 percent of the salon's clients are women, services for men--such as the $40 sport facial--are available and are slowly catching on, John Rutherford said. He's no massage enthusiast, but does enjoy facials and other services at Classic Image.

"A lot of men have the barbershop mentality," he said. "They probably view the whole spa, skin-care business as feminine."

Mary Lou Rutherford said business is on the rise in all areas of the salon, where stylists and other workers sift through about 20,000 appointments a year. The area's rapid population growth has meant a swelled roster of women who want to be styled, massaged, made over or just plain pampered.

"The timing is right," Rutherford said of her venture into the day spa industry. "A lot of people who've been here a long time think the growth is a negative thing, but I don't. It gives me the opportunity to have a business like this without having to commute."