Spa Wars

Times Staff Writer

I'M face down on a thickly padded massage table when I realize I'm smelling my favorite scent: New Construction. The smell of drying paint, fresh carpeting and new wood is getting pretty common at hotel spas around town, and this is the newest, the 3-day-old Aqua Star Spa at the Beverly Hilton.

When the 50-year-old hotel underwent an $80-million renovation this year, it added a spa for the first time in its history and sunk a fair bit of change into the chic, poolside pampering parlor. It had to.

In Beverly Hills, the birthplace of excess, indulgence and entitlement, nearly every top hotel is battling to outdo the others with a showplace spa and decadent treatments -- and they're keeping the massage tables turning by reaching out to the locals, who can extend the experience with a lingering lunch or an after-spa swim.

In just the last four months, the Peninsula, the Regent Beverly Wilshire and the nearby Westwood W have opened lavish new spas where fingertips massage away tension with a fragrant oil saturated with emeralds (emeralds!), high-tech showers soothe you with scented water (would you prefer Atlantic Storm or Caribbean Rain?), spa attendants wear uniforms by St. John and customized options such as "personal time" offer totally passive luxury: Buy a block of time and let the spa therapist decide what you'll need to reach optimum bliss.

After years of fighting the "bed wars" with high-count linens and ever-fluffier padding, the competition has moved to the spa, says Donald Wise, president of Resorts, Marinas and Vineyards Inc., an investment banker for high-end resorts.

"A spa can be a very tidy profit center for a hotel," he says, "as well as providing a level of experience that the customer is demanding."

Two years ago, the Beverly Hills Hotel won the first round of spa wars by opening one of only two La Prairie spas in the United States. Later this summer, Sofitel will open LeSpa, its hipster version, in the renovated hotel near the Beverly Center. Then the Montage Resort will land in the heart of Beverly Hills in 2008, with what may be the best in class.

Spas are so important to the hotel experience that the luxury hotel company Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. in 2004 bought its own spa company, Bliss, and put it in every new or remodeled W hotel.

"The spa is an amenity," says Radha Arora, general manager at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. "It's not a question of coming to a hotel to sleep. You need to be pampered."

Well, yes we do. So we put seven hotel spas through their paces. All had added or upgraded spas within the last two years and are open to non-hotel guests. Overall, the hotels add a level of service that you don't find at a day spa. They have the valet parking, grand lobby, luxury linens, pool, lounge and hospitality-minded staff built in. With one exception, they are all serious about massage techniques and have well-trained therapists.

They all also have startling prices -- a massage at a hotel spa can be more than double the typical dollar-a-minute rate at a day spa.

Are they worth it? I've been scrubbed, buffed, rubbed and polished more often than a Beverly Hills Bentley. Now I know why it purrs.

Water world

This month-old Spa at the Regent Beverly Wilshire is serene, luxurious and a little like a nightclub. Changing into my blanket-thick robe, I explored this fantasy bathroom, where there's no sauna, hot tub or generic steam room, but a huge steam "lounge" that looks like a starlit, foggy grotto. Apres-steam, I was instructed to run handfuls of flaky ice along my cooked limbs (there's a glorious glass ice dispenser ... outside the door) and then douse myself in the scented "experience shower." I tried every one -- Cold Mist (eucalyptus), Caribbean Rain (fruity) and Atlantic Storm (George Clooney's aftershave). The thing whipped from mist to blast to dribble during a mini light show. Marvelous.

But things were awkward during my visit too. A malfunction made the locker room damp and warm, while the cavernous steam room pumped barely a teakettle of heat. Patrons are issued a single towel (soon dampened in the steam room) and terrycloth slippers (not waterproof).

I dried off with a purloined bath mat and squished to the quiet, dim lounge that beckoned with cookies, recliners and Architectural Digest (no brain-candy People or Star in this joint). For $385, I was relieved of making decisions for two hours and put into the experienced hands of a technician who would determine my needs, body and soul. With feet like pine bark, I figured they would send in the emergency pedicure squad.

But the "personalized time" package turned out to be something of a gimmick: It doesn't offer facial treatments or nail services because the therapists follow a prescribed menu for the package. Pay $575 for three hours, or $800 for four, or $990 for five. It turns out the world isn't your oyster.

Still, I had my choice of aromatherapy scents and scrub components and had an almost uncountable number of treatments, including an elaborate foot soak and scrub, a lengthy body salt scrub with clay masque, massage, scalp treatment and, in between, a cup of tea and two back-to-reality treatment-room showers to rinse off the products.

I was so relaxed, I woke myself up snoring.

Signature treatment: Personalized Time

Nice touch: A take-home bag of toiletries

One-hour massage: $160 for Swedish

The Spa at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 385-7023.

Hard hat required

I came to the Luxe Spa at Luxe Hotel Sunset Boulevard an hour early, dreaming of a steam room, sauna and lounge, but found construction crews and a locked spa door. So I walked 185 steps downhill to the lobby, past painters, plumbers and pool planners who are turning the overlooked hillside hotel into an upscale urban resort.

The transformation, a kind of Casa Armani Goes Oriental, looks promising. The soon-to-be-larger pool and sauna will benefit from the redo, but the spa less so. According to spa director Andrea Mansfield, the spa won't get proper locker rooms, just an odd filing cabinet drawer. There are currently no in-spa showers, steam room, hot tub or private lounge area; the sauna's unplugged, and the pool is a hole in the ground. For the inconvenience, there's a 25% discount for first-time spa-goers who are not hotel guests.

Still, the Luxe Spa has its charms. Mansfield, who grew up in the neighborhood, aims to make the tiny, 2-year-old place inviting to locals. She's picked therapists who perform an impressive range of nail, waxing and body treatments, facials and many styles of massage -- Thai yoga, hot stone, craniosacral, myofascial release, shiatsu, reiki and more. There's even a $140 Chocolate Cake Sugar Scrub to go with the Chocolate Massage.

I chose the house specialty, the polarity massage, an 85-minute, $150 treatment that involved an interview about my aches, multiple muscle-release and chakra-realigning techniques and even tuning forks (they do something with my energy). My therapist stretched and yanked my toes, legs and even, somehow, gave my liver more "support," she said.

Though the process was rather New Age for me, I emerged pain- and knot-free for the first time in months and stayed that way for days. While it's nice that hotels everywhere are rushing to devise new therapies and pleasures, in the hands-on world of spas, all the bells and whistles are no substitute for a truly talented therapist.

Signature treatment: Polarity/Transformational Touch Therapy

Nice touch: Dozens of softly glowing candles

One-hour massage: $85 for Swedish

Luxe Spa at Luxe Hotel Sunset Boulevard, 11461 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; (310) 691-7550

Where the babes buff

The 3-month-old Bliss Spa in the W Los Angeles-Westwood Hotel is a cute, cool mecca for the fabulous.

I walked through the uber-hip lobby and lounge, a favorite club-hoppers' prowl, and up to the second floor, where Bliss operates in a world apart: This isn't a hotel spa but a full spa within a hotel.

And that's the problem. The ethic of thorough hotel hospitality escapes most of the too-fabulous employees, who forget to mention little things like how the showers work. A tip: Before you go, read about Bliss on its extensive website, www.blissworld.com.

That's how I knew that the fourth-most popular service is the Brazilian bikini wax. I went for No. 5: The Blissage 75, a 75-minute combination of Swedish and shiatsu massage that includes a warm paraffin wrap to soften your feet. I found it to be a smart treatment because those 55-minute massages are never enough, but two hours of rubbing is like, "Get your hands off of me!" And who among the sandal-wearing doesn't have craggy feet?

I liked Bliss, dollar-for-dollar the best of all the spas, because it's smart all around. There's a fresh, effective approach that's reflected in the modern cocoa, sky blue and lavender decor, the blazing cedar sauna and the 23 full-length cedar lockers. The shower doubles as a steam room, which confused me, since I didn't know how to clear out the steam once I got poached. But all was forgiven in the relaxation lounge, where they offer all the top glossies, drinks and mini brownies (48 made a nice-sized snack).

Modern decor can be a little cold, and walking into the all-white treatment room recalled a hospital, with higher thread counts and Billie Holiday in the air. Still, my masseur was a nice guy, good at understanding a gal's feet and knots.

Post-treatment, I wandered downstairs to the secluded but airy cafe and bar for a post-Bliss lunch. While the pool's too tiny for a proper swim, the place is just right for sinking into a book and forgetting you're not on vacation. Of course, all that Bliss bliss went poof when I found a parking ticket on my car, the result of my vain attempt to thwart the hotel's $31 valet parking fee, for which they don't validate before 5 p.m. Too bad. I could have booked a hot-cream manicure for that price. I could have been fabulous.

Signature treatment: Blissage 75

Nice touch: Two kinds of brownies

One-hour massage: $100 for lymphatic drainage

Bliss Spa at the W Los Angeles, 930 Hilgard Ave., L.A.; (323) 930-0330.

Gems, not the gym

How much luxury can $7 million add to the Peninsula Spa? Enough translucent glass tile, marble, crystal and upholstery to resemble plush mermaids' quarters.

Looks matter. The therapists and the spa coordinators wear uniforms designed by St. John. Every hanger in the 12 lockers has a custom-made linen sheath and lavender sachet. And the embroidered robes are so thick they could insulate a house.

I'd signed up for the house specialty: a $385 Precious Emerald Massage, a multicourse, two-hour indulgence in oils supposedly saturated with gems. The emerald oil is said to aid strength, while ruby gives vitality and diamond, harmony. I chose emerald.

Settled onto my toasty massage table and cocooned in fine sheets, my skin was swirled into softness with a basil-mint salt scrub. I was misted with mineral water infused with healing particles of pure silver. A deep-green clay mask was stroked along my limbs, my back and my chest while a poultice of geranium, arnica and echinacea flowers was laid across my belly.

Heated towels soothed my neck, a lavender eye mask wrapped my eyes, fingertips touched away tension in my temples, toes, scalp and shoulders, and the emerald oil was massaged into my skin.

At the end, I was almost as soft as the 1,500-thread count massage table sheets. I'm so glad I'm naked.

Afterward, I emerged strong enough to face down some difficult tasks. I don't really think the magic oil did the trick, but the physical and mental timeout did.

Signature treatment: Shiffa Precious Gem Treatments

Nice touch: Those 1,500-thread-count sheets

One-hour massage: $135 for Classic California

Peninsula Spa at Peninsula Beverly Hills, 9882 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 975-2854.

Golden glamour

Given its history, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a red carpet and celebrity photo stills in the Beverly Hilton Aqua Star Spa. But thankfully, the Hollywood connection is more gracefully rendered. The vivid green walls, Midcentury furniture and wood accents look more like Sinatra's Palm Springs hideaway. If you don't get the connection, there are photography books documenting star homes in the relaxation lounge, where square, upright chairs force you into rigid posture. There's no lounging in the lounge.

I'm having a Stretch and Massage Combo, a one-hour, $170 (including tip) massage as one of the first patrons at the hotel's first spa. It's steps from the Aqua Star pool, the largest hotel pool in Beverly Hills, and soon there will be a salon, restaurant and lounge nearby, plus an additional poolside dining area for spa guests and perhaps even spa services in cabanas.

Moments into my massage, on a table so padded that I actually sink into it, I realize I'm sniffing a deliciously woozy lavender-patchouli mix. I didn't have to do a sniff test of the three or four aromatherapy oils that I might like, or try to select a massage that wasn't boring Swedish strokes or ouchy shiatsu. This combo treatment automatically included compatible treatments that are effective on muscle soreness and threw in a great foot massage and warm-towel wrap for good measure. I might never move. Good thing the motorized massage table lifted me upright like a hospital bed.

I visited the five-treatment room spa during previews, before it opened to the public on Monday. As such, I can overlook a missing hairdryer or magazine rack but not the omission of a sauna, hot tub or effective steam room (a steam valve heats a too-big shower). Still, the spa, coupled with the pool, is a wonderful new way to enjoy the Hilton.

I slid onto a towel-draped recliner out at the pool, which is indeed large enough that the kids' shouts of "water fight" barely register. And the poolside menu offers smoothies for $6.50, a price that doesn't offend. It was a great place to let the sun dry my hair and the breeze carry my worries away.

Signature treatment: Stretch and Massage Combo

Nice touch: The pool's nearby, and open!

One-hour massage: $170 for most

Beverly Hilton Aqua Star Spa, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills: (310) 887-6048.

*

Petite and pink

In 1995, when the Beverly Hills Hotel reopened after a two-year, $100-million renovation, restrictions regarding landmark properties prevented the historic hotel from adding a spa. By 2004, the need was clear, so the hotel relocated the gym to install La Prairie Spa.

Like the grand dame hotel, the spa is an elegant, private and sophisticated operation that pays attention to little details. There's a Frette wrap that's not too hot like a robe. You can spritz lavender or eucalyptus mist in the superlative, wicked-hot steam room. An in-spa clock keeps you on time. And by virtue of soft, magic lighting, I looked radiant, even with sheet marks on my face.

Though there are only eight lockers and one shower, the spa found space for a steam room and a sauna. Still, the spa seems geared toward hotel guests who won't have to use the tiny waiting area/relaxation lounge that's a pass-through for all spa traffic. The small dressing area encourages hotel guests toward their rooms, unless they hang around to sample La Prairie lotions.

My treatment, the hourlong $170 Total Renewal, incorporated La Prairie products, an exfoliation, a foot massage and an aromatherapy hot-stone massage, my first. My masseuse led me out of the spa into the public hallway and into my rock-massage room. I slid between the extra-smooth sheets, while my choice of Miles Davis played on the stereo.

After so many treatments in such a short time period, I now know that exfoliation is an easily forgotten process, unless it's painful and, thus, leaves you incredibly smooth. Most seem to owe their results to the lotion applied afterward, and here was no exception. However, the hot rocks were memorable, and effective. My masseuse tapped two together to "chisel" apart my knots. Ahh.

It's pool time, but not so fast. Those zoning and insurance restrictions still limit the spa's reach, which I later learned can offer a dip in the pool only to guests of the Pink Palace, says a hotel spokesman. So I opted for a club sandwich in the Cabana Cafe, a shady, poolside respite where it's perfectly normal to be a mess of oils, lotions and water. As a day spa interloper, I'd found my spot.

Signature treatment: Jet Lag Therapy

Nice touch: Ultra-padded massage tables

One-hour massage: $155 for most types

La Prairie Spa at the Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 887-2505

*

Just add lime and salt

The Four Seasons on South Doheny Drive was ahead of the spa curve when it built a luxury facility on the fourth floor six years ago. So instead of merely keeping up with the Joneses, the Four Seasons Spa is keeping several steps ahead of them with nearly constant upgrades.

The spacious facility is smartly laid out to provide privacy and flow. A central, double-sided island with sinks and mirrors divides the area, while a dressing room shelters the shy. Patrons can easily slide from the sauna to the chilled washcloths to the steam room and shower, where a multi-nozzle body spray provides a gentle rinse amid many square feet of mosaic marble.

To keep things fresh, the hotel has added heated massage tables, silky sheets, flat-screen TVs in the spa cabanas and, most noticeably, an ever-changing menu of treatments, which is precisely where things went wrong.

You can, I realized, confuse "exotic" with "luxury" and wind up with something slightly strange.

I'd selected an intriguing option, the Punta Mita tequila massage, among the dozen or so varieties. Tequila and sage oil, touted as natural antiseptics, are massaged into your skin to detoxify your body and improve circulation. I couldn't help thinking it would also make a delicious pork loin.

Perhaps the jaw-dropping luxury of the treatment room had temporarily stunned my senses. Maybe I was too busy taking in the gilt mirror, framed artwork, cashmere-soft blanket and thick marble countertop to have heard right. Yes, my masseuse would be using her forearms and elbows to administer the massage.

If you've ever wrestled with a skinny person or a wiry child, you know the feeling of bone on bone. I wasn't laughing when ulna hit humerus.

After wincing through most of the massage, even after I'd requested a new technique and lighter pressure, I was glad to escape to the relaxation lounge and sip cool ginger tea. But the scent of that tequila sent me to the pool, where I sipped a $14 pomegranate margarita until the sun went down.

But something wasn't right. I didn't smell like a freshly pampered patron of a $155 hourlong massage. I smelled kind of funky, like an Acapulco hangover.

Signature treatment: Four Seasons Synchronized Massage (four hands)

Nice touch: The prettiest treatment rooms

One-hour massage: $125 for Swedish

Four Seasons Spa, 300 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 786-2229.

*

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Hotel Casa del Mar, 1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica; (310) 581-5533, www.hotelcasadelmar.com. The European-style spa uses a dermatologist's line of skin care products, including a "vitamin C infusion." Treatments include a deep muscle "sports massage."

Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles; spa (310) 551-3251, www.spamystique.com. Spa Mystique features Asian-inspired treatments, including deep tissue and shiatsu massage and reflexology. Also has a cafe and hair salon.

Le Merigot Hotel, a JW Marriott Beach Resort & Spa, 1740 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 395-9700, www.lemerigothotel.com. Services run the gamut from a $10 callus treatment for the feet to the $640 Ultimate indulgence package, which includes a mud body wrap, duet massage (two massage therapists at once), a scalp treatment, facial and reflexology. A $20 day fee includes the pool, fitness room, eucalyptus steam center and dry sauna.

Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 458-6700, www.loewshotels.com. Ocean Spa & Fitness Center offers spa treatments and exercise classes, and it sports a fourth-floor pool and whirlpool overlooking the beach. A $30 day pass gives locals access to the pool area and locker room.

Park Hyatt Century City, 2151 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles; (310) 277-1234, www.parklosangeles.hyatt.com.For those who want their retreat wired, Kara Spa features piped-in music, marble loungers equipped with flat screen TVs, infinity soaking tubs and outdoor meditation gardens. Special services include a Thursday night martini and manicure (a complimentary drink with a manicure), or daily "healing by water" poolside massage.

Montage Resort & Spa, 30801 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; (949) 715-6000. www.montagelagunabeach.com. The spa's breathtaking location influences everything, including its skin-care concoctions. Guests are wrapped in local sea mud and bathed in handmade infusions of lavender and citrus. Attention to detail extends to the organic fibers in the robes.

Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa; 900 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; (949) 640-4000. Pure Blu spa (949) 720-7900, www.newportbeachmarriotthotelandspa.com. Pure Blu, which opened in January, employs hot shells in lieu of rocks in massage and offers oxygen facials. Spa guests can use the hotel pool, sauna and fitness center all day.

Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa, 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; (626) 568-3900. Spa (626) 585-6414. Offers the usual facials, massages and body scrubs, plus some alternative mind-body therapies, such as ayurvedic shirodhara massage.

Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, 1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point; (949) 240-2000, www.ritzcarlton.com. On a bluff overlooking the ocean, the newly remodeled spa boasts a crushed crystal ceiling, mood lighting, fountains and a wall of cascading water.

St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa, 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point; (949) 234-3200. www.spagaucin.com. At Spa Gaucin, there are plenty of choices for everyone but especially for couples. Half-day and full-day treatment packages are offered, including an aroma bath, scalp massage, an hour of deep tissue massage and a foot treatment. Some include wine and cheese or champagne and fruit. Italian skin-care products are used, in keeping with their Tuscan theme.

Shutters on the Beach, 1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 458-0030. www.shuttersonthebeach.com. ONE the Spa at Shutters has something for everybody, including temporary tattoos for kids, body scrub and Swedish massage combos, hot lava rocks to unblock your chakras and a star's manicurist to buff your nails.

Surf & Sand Resort & Spa, 1555 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; (949) 497-4477 www.surfandsandresort.com; Aquaterra Spa (949) 376-2772, www.aquaterraspa.com. Aquaterra offers a variety of what they call "rituals" for couples: a series of treatments in a private room, including a body scrub or wrap followed by a bubble bath and a massage. Best bargain: $10 yoga class on the beach.

*

-- Maggie Barnett

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