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Stressed? Rushed? Frazzled?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“It is both our panic and our privilege to be mortal and sense-full,” Diane Ackerman wrote in “A Natural History of the Senses,” to receive messages of pain and pleasure through our luscious five senses.

For the meanwhile--and, with any luck, for the whole new year--let’s concentrate on the pleasure part. Let’s talk about the wonderful ways to feel good, with no ill effects, at a day spa.

These havens for people who don’t have the time or money to spend on a week at Canyon Ranch or the Golden Door seem to be cropping up all over Southern California, reflecting a nationwide trend. Ten years ago, there were 30 day spas in the U.S. Now there are 860, in beauty salons, hotels, office buildings and strip malls, catering to men and women who have discovered the therapeutic benefits of being touched and tended like babies in preemie wards--who researchers have found gain weight as much as 50% faster than those left alone in their incubators.

It started with massage, which remains the chief service for which people visit day spas; the long, sweeping strokes of Swedish body workers is most favored, followed by reflexology, focusing on the feet; and shiatsu, a more vigorous, pressure-based therapy.

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As the day spa clientele (composed largely of aging baby boomers) has grown more sophisticated, treatment menus have followed suit, encompassing a wide and esoteric range of procedures, gathered from around the world and appealing to all five senses. So it’s possible, if one has a yen, to get a papaya-scented European facial while sipping ginseng tea from China, gazing at a Japanese flower arrangement and listening to the sound of waves recorded in California.

I should know, because I visited eight L.A.-area day spas in the last three weeks. Here’s what I found.

Getting really clean is what the Spa at Century Sports Club, improbably located next to a Koreatown driving range, is all about. That and hanging out naked in a hot, wet room where 90% of the clients are neighborhood Korean Americans and the rest are smart outlanders who know a good deal when they see it.

The modest but clean women’s spa is on the second floor (men’s on the first), entered through a YMCA-style changing room (lockers, towels and hospital gown wrap-ups provided). There are a few treatment rooms and a TV lounge, but the spacious bathing area is the main event, tiled from floor to ceiling and pervasively wet. It is lined with door-less shower stalls (this place isn’t for the self-conscious), with spigots and plastic basins for washing off Asian-style, a big wooden sauna and three pools. The first contains murky, blisteringly hot mineral water, the second is a nicely tempered traditional hot tub and the third is full of water as cold as a good martini. For $15, a visitor can soak until the wrinkles have wrinkles but, as with most Asian baths, before getting into one of the tubs, clients must wash.

For those seeking a higher level of cleanliness, there are two treatments done by attendants clad in lacy black bras and panties (in the women’s spa) using a row of padded tables in the bathing area. One is the body scrub ($30), an exfoliating treatment meant to remove the outermost layer of dead skin; and the oil-shiatsu massage ($40).

I’ve had better massages (though none that included hair conditioning and a fresh cucumber facial). But never in my life have I been more vigorously scrubbed. This isn’t a car wash; this is furniture stripping--with my skin turning pink beneath the attendant’s ministrations and no secret place left untouched. Afterward, I felt as soft as a baby’s belly, but my tan was gone.

I also tried Beverly Hot Spring on the northern fringe of Koreatown, where the changing area is decorated with ersatz Asian urns and rugs. The sex-segregated bathing rooms are dark and grotto-like, equipped with saunas, steam chambers and hot and cold tubs fed by a local artesian well. Lots of people are devoted to this place, and I must say, the water was pleasing ($40 for 90 minutes). But the shiatsu massage I received there (45 minutes for $60), in the basement, to the discordant strains of traffic on Beverly Boulevard, actually hurt me.

Later I asked Kristin Chou, on the board of directors for the International Spa and Fitness Assn., what to do if a massage is painful.

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“It’s like getting a haircut. If you don’t like what’s happening, speak up.” She also said that body workers should have intuitive hands and that a little pain in aching muscles isn’t untoward. But if they touch a bone or joint and it hurts, cry uncle.

Flame-Burning Saunas

I had no need to protest at Finland Baths, a funky, Big Sur sort of place next to a Sherman Oaks pizzeria. It’s notable for its 140-degree flame-burning men’s and women’s saunas, considered vastly superior to the electric-heated ones found in most in-town spas. With paper flowers and chintz curtains in the women’s locker room, it is a study in dowdiness.

Nonetheless, since it opened in the 1940s, Finland Baths has attracted a loyal following among people in the entertainment industry, offering massages and sauna only. Both are top-notch and reasonably priced.

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A young Romanian woman named Daniela gave me a thoroughly satisfying $60 Swedish massage (with the obligatory candles and taped New Age music), followed by a stint in the sauna. I bought my brother a Finland Baths gift certificate for Christmas.

With branches in Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Pasadena (and a fourth scheduled to open this summer in Mission Viejo), Burke Williams is on its way to becoming the day spa chain that ate L.A.

The Santa Monica facility, which I visited, looks a little like an upscale medical center, with lots of treatments chambers, a relaxation room and prettily decorated men’sand women’s spas where visitors can take a steam or sauna bath and soak in a small, tiled hot tub. Lockers, robes, slippers and plenty of towels are provided, along with pleasing extras like plastic razors, bandages, face cleanser, toner and moisturizer.

The treatment menu includes body wraps and washes, manicures, pedicures and facials. But I went for the latest thing in bodywork--an hourlong Thai massage ($90), performed on a mattress, with the subject fully clothed. Laszlo, my masseur, pressed and pulled me athletically, occasionally walking on my back and bending me into the shape of a pretzel. It left me feeling lanky and loose: It was like yoga without the effort.

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Anticipating a little weight gain over the holidays, I got proactive by booking a slimming Affinoderm treatment (90 minutes for $150) in the recently expanded Peninsula Spa at the Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel.

The women’s changing area, adjacent to the fifth-floor pool and workout room, is tiny but elegant. And the body workers are skilled technicians, specially trained in, among other things, the French Decleor Contour Programme, aimed at making people look and feel thinner. My Affinoderm treatment consisted of an all-over massage using lightly scented Decleor Body Contouring Oil, with particular attention given to the fat that seems to have collected on my hips and thighs, followed by a mini-facial, 20 minutes of reflexology and a detoxifying seaweed wrap.

Halfway through, clad in only towels and silver foil from the wrap, I had to waddle across a public hall to get to the shower. But I weighed myself afterward and found that I’d lost a pound--which I celebrated over cream tea in the hotel lounge.

They gave me ginger tea at the Ole Henriksen Face/Body day spa, easily the most stylish place I visited, with Japanese and Scandinavian decor (imagine a sushi bar in Copenhagen).

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Ole Henriksen, a celebrated facialist who has cared for the skin of Madonna and Ben Kingsley, turned his attention to the whole body about a year ago, when he moved into new quarters next to Chin Chin on West Sunset Boulevard. So visitors can start off with two- to six-step body treatments (the steps are such things as exfoliation, peel and rinse) ($50 to $125) or, as I did, with a respite in a delightful Japanese soaking tub (15 minutes for $25).

Then it was on to the best facial I’ve ever had ($75, plus $20 for a peel), using Henriksen’s own subtly scented skin products and state-of-the-art equipment, including a German-made Pneumopatter II, which massages the face with miniature suction cups. Meanwhile, Laura, my aesthetician, offered advice on complexion-enhancing makeup and nutrition.

Yamaguchi Salon and Coastal Day Spa in Ventura, owned by master colorist Billy Yamaguchi, is a sort of one-stop beautification shop favored by women getting ready for big dates and other special events.

It’s a noisy, busy place that occupies a converted bank building, with a cafe and treatment rooms in the former vault. The menu of services includes Salt Glo body brushes and eyelash tinting, but a friend and I concentrated on our hair. After a $55 session with a stylist, she sported a sophisticated new cut, while I emerged teased, lightly shellacked and coiffed for a role in “Grease.”

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Going Totally Sybaritic

I went totally sybaritic at Amadeus, a tranquil, well-appointed day spa in Pasadena (with plans to open a Newport Beach facility next year), by booking an hourlong Dead Sea Rejuvenation ($90), followed by a manicure ($20) and pedicure ($39). But when I arrived, staff members couldn’t find the treatment on the expansive menu, which is why I ended up getting a $140 St. Malo Supreme Masque for the Dead Sea price.

It included exfoliation underneath a warm Vichy shower, lathering and a seaweed wrap, accompanied by a head and neck massage. But I liked the nail job best, because with my feet submerged in a basin of bubbling water, I met a mother treating herself and her 12-year-old daughter to pedicures. Their pleasure got me in the holiday spirit, as did the sight of their two matched sets of Christmas-red toes.

My own mother would think it an unconscionable splurge. But as a wise man once said, a little of what you fancy does you good.

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BE THERE

Spa at Century Sports Club, 1020 S. Crenshaw Blvd., L.A., (323) 954-1020.

Beverly Hot Spring, 308 N. Oxford Ave., L.A., (213) 734-7000.

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Finland Baths, 13257 Moorpark St., Sherman Oaks, (818) 784-8966.

Burke Williams, 1460 4th St., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3366; 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 822-9007; 39 Mills Place, Pasadena, (626) 440-1222.

Peninsula Spa, in the Peninsula Hotel, 9882 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 551-2888.

Ole Henriksen Face/Body, 8622-A W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 854-7700.

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Yamaguchi Salon and Coastal Day Spa, 3260 Telegraph Road, Ventura, (800) 572-5661 or (805) 658-7909.

Amadeus Spa, 799 E. Green St., Pasadena, (626) 578-3404.


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