New Age Treatments Infiltrate Los Angeles Spas

The massage therapist said: "You basically have one large block of knots." To me, that meant the best way to approach my tight upper back was with an ice pick or, more realistically, a few hard, soothing punches. For her, it meant a full hour of not-so-fun exertion. While there were no ice picks or punches involved, my block of knots melted into sheets with her magic and, eventually, I reached a state of enlightenment, which was—in my opinion—a team effort. Sure, I was simply lying there as most guests do, but behind the scenes, I was manifesting a transcendent sense of relief and pushing my mind to reach a heightened sense of nirvana.

Let me explain. I had just moved to Los Angeles from New York the previous week. I bought a car, rented a one-bedroom in West Hollywood and came to terms with my new life. What I didn’t do was order my bed (or furniture) in advance, so most of my nine-hour days of being a writer meeting deadlines were spent sitting Indian-style with head gravitated toward the computer at feet-level. This back-bending (literally) dedication is perhaps typical of the hard-working Asian in me, an ethnic scapegoat I’m sure I’ll later use to excuse my driving skills. Oh, and while I’m at it, Asians often sleep on the floor, which I did for three days, without a mattress. My back was wishing I was a rich, white girl.

White girl or Asian guy, this slab of knots became explosively uncomfortable. Stretching was like half a yawn when you’re tired, ineffective and awkward. And don’t get me started on how this large block of knots actually felt like a weight on the top of my neck, compromising my otherwise naturally aligned gait. It was just mere coincidence that Exhale Spa opened at Loews Hollywood Hotel, a boutique spa chain that I had visited in New York City and remember liking. I had also taken one of the cultish Core Fusion classes that works every muscle fiber in your body. If you haven’t taken a class, know that the only thing you truly want afterward is a rub down.

So I booked a treatment.

Inside, it felt brand-new. The lobby was well lit thanks to the skylight, and the staff had that new-spa smile. Despite it only being 7,000 square feet, the spa didn’t feel cramped like new spas that have to work around old-space parameters. They really tricked it out. The changing room came equipped with a glass-walled steam room, and there’s not one but two lounges with refreshments and clove-spiced, hot-neck pillows.

But one thing I didn’t expect was the statue of Buddha at the end of the hallway, awash in blue light. It’s not really the Buddha statue that was brow-raising, but the offering just at the foot of the statue. A bowl of fruit. An actual "offering."

While this wouldn’t have fazed me had I been in, say, Korea, I couldn’t help but have a Judd Apatow moment, looking at it with wild confusion. Buddha in a contemporary spa was so LA. I had been warned about things like this.

That moment of dumb numbness, however, didn’t last long, and soon enough, unusually, I was beginning to fill with what I would like to think is zen. It overcame me with a sense of calm in a way that no other spa in New York City had ever done. Call it spiritual, call it holistic, call it "New Age" but I was buying it. And I wasn’t even on a yoga mat. It came out of nowhere, this sensation of zen, and maybe all you need is a Buddha in front of a bowl of fruit to make that happen.

I took my massage, doing things one would do during, say, meditation: seeking a higher sense of self. It somehow came naturally and, as wacky as this sounds, the massage wouldn’t have felt complete without my spiritual assistance. Yep, I went there.

Even though Exhale Spa is progressive, stylish and modern, its ethos falls back on a true holistic experience. Guests can find an array of treatments that embrace non-Western philosophies, like acupuncture, cupping and, interestingly, vibration therapy (see list below). Throw in a Buddha statue, and you have a new believer in the unfamiliar. It also turns out Angelenos are much too familiar with this kind of scene that it would be weird for there not to be a Buddhist statue under a spotlight (with a bowl of fruit offering).

The zen moment sort of disappeared after I left the spa, but I still felt knackered. And good. And restored. And that’s what health and well-being is all about, Buddha statue or not. LA’s fascination with the holistic module (organic foods, yoga, meditation) has a lot of presence and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself in a similar situation (Buddha, bowl of fruit) at the next spa outing. New Age themes in unassuming places is a concept I’m open to, if it helps dissolve the kinks in my back.

And it looks like this non-Western, spa-friendly lifestyle isn’t specific to Exhale. Check out my round-up of LA-based spas that offer treatments deemed unusual for the tourists and oh-so-common for an Angeleno.

Vibration Therapy at Exhale Hollywood

Thanks to the opening of Exhale Hollywood at Loews, the holistic-minded can restore their zen by a number of Buddha statues and some non-Western spa treatments to boot. The Vibration Therapy uses tuning forks to relieve pain, increase mental focus, and create a sense of wellbeing. It will not only target specific points on the body but your overall aura. 30 minutes for $100, 60 minutes for $150

Biomeditation at Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills

Spa Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills is the only spa in America to offer BioMeditation Therapy. It’s an energy healing treatment from practitioner Jeannette Von Johnsbach. Like something of a superhero, she places her hands lightly on your body and activates energy flow, miraculously breaking apart blockages and restoring positive energy. 60 minutes for $175

Spiritual Readings at Chakra Spa

Chakra Spa in Beverly Hills is the only wellness facility that offers spa treatments and spiritual readings. Find out what’s in store for your future, then get a facial. Amazing. Guests can choose among a Mystic Tarot Card Reading, Personalized Palm Reading or go full monty with the Full Life Spiritual Reading. Full Life Spiritual Reading, 30-45 minutes for $85

Shiffa Precious Gemstone Treatments at The Peninsula Beverly Hills Spa

It only makes sense for the Peninsula Beverly Hills Spa to use gemstones in their treatments. Partnering with Shiffa Skincare, the spa is offering treatments that not only work with the energy of the gemstones but also with dried herbs, flowers and color therapy associated with each gemstone (diamond for balance and harmony; emerald for strength and balance; ruby for stimulation; sapphire for tranquility). The gemstones soak in respective bottled concoctions then used in massages. 60-120 minutes starting at $245

Do you enjoy exploring spas, restaurants, bars, and hotels in Los Angeles? Then check out BlackBook’s LA Guide and download our City Guides app for iPhone and Android. And subscribe to BlackBook Happenings, a weekly, non-spammy newsletter, for all the latest openings and events, delivered to your inbox every Monday. 

Dream Catching in the Riviera Maya

Picture this: A very generous relative lends you the keys to their fabulous beachfront house while they’re away on holiday. Score! Now imagine your relative is an Italian Duchess, the house is a Mexican estate in the Mayan Riviera, a celebrated chef mans the kitchen, the spa is award-winning, and the staff has been instructed to treat you as if you were the Duchess herself. It may be a hotel in name, but Hotel Esencia is so intimate and familial that you instantly feel like the fantasy is real.    

Along the stretch of highway connecting Cancun (where you land) with Playa del Carmen (about one hour south), you pass a myriad of resorts easily identifiable by enormous, garish signs demarcating their entrances. Twenty minutes south of Playa, you would be hard pressed to find the entrance to Esencia, denoted simply by a gravelly road flanked by two large potted plants and camouflaged by a phalanx of tropical greenery. It’s as if you’ve just arrived at someone’s intentionally hidden abode. You can almost sense the cab driver’s jealousy as they pull in and knowingly volunteer, “Es muy bonito!”        

Nestled on fifty acres of lush property, Esencia faces a perfect mile of pristine white sand and aquamarine waters. Exuding effortless luxury and understated elegance, it was indeed once the private estate of an Italian Duchess dating to 1988. By 2005, it was converted into a 29-room Shangri-la, now catering to a discerning, well-heeled crowd of Americans, Europeans and Mexicans. Guests run the gamut from young honeymooners canoodling to 50-something couples on a romantic getaway to families in need of some well-deserved R&R. Even at capacity, one seldom notices other guests. It’s the supremely intimate ambiance and the naturally serene environs that set you at ease and ultimately convince you that the place is all yours.                  

Eschewing standard hospitality models, the whole check-in process takes place in the immaculately appointed living room of the main estate house. With no front desk in sight, you instantly feel like this won’t be your typical stay. As you tour the grounds, you take in the seamless blend of colonial Spanish and local Mayan influences. Terracotta rooftops rest majestically atop pristine white stucco walls marked by graceful arches, arcades and balconies—Mediterranean sophistication in full glory. White stucco paths snake among the forest of trees and plant life like the ancient paths that helped the Mayans navigate their way home a millennia ago. In this case they lead to and from a series of two-story, split-entrance houses where the majority of guests stay. One of those paths winds directly to the palapa-styled thatched roof spa where Mayan architecture and heritage meet pampered nirvana. Here, undulating adobe walls and lime floors get the Mayan accent treatment: painted ceramics, carved wooden sculptures, wicker chaise lounges, and bright decorative pillows all painstakingly handcrafted by local Mayan craftsmen. Esencia authentically wears its Mayan inspirations on its sleeve with clear nods to the region’s proud past, a knowing reminder of the ancient ruins (Chitchen Itza, Tulum, Coba, El Bakam) within striking distance.

If there is one unmistakable piece of Mayan décor that dots the property, it is the ubiquitous handmade dream catchers. They hang suspended in various sizes at the entrance to each structure, warding off evil spirits and spiritually cleansing you of all the stress you’ve brought from the real world. Guests seem to stroll around in perfect peace. The zen smile stretching across their faces is contagious. When you’re here you feel completely removed from the outside world and your orientation pivots knowingly towards the beach. The only noise you’ll ever hear will be the birds chirping and whistling in surround sound. To wit: the property is teeming with life. Iguanas, geckos, and pacas roam freely like a natural preserve. It is, after all, their home, too. And they seem to be in the same state as all the guests—one of ethereal bliss.  

For complete peace of mind and utter privacy, travelers sans budget restrictions should opt for one of the two cottages. These two-story zen palaces epitomize luxury and relaxation: private plunge pool, wooden pavilion with hammock, private patio with outdoor dining table, spacious master bedroom terrace with hammock, rain showers, double vanity, expansive den with dining room table, personally stocked wine fridge, TV room, chaise lounges galore, and a separate double bedroom should you have kids (or lucky friends) in tow. However, true luxury is in the details. The array of Molten brown products are replenished daily, as are the handmade exfoliating natural soap bars. The heavenly bed will have you peaking under the sheets to note which mattress brand to upgrade to upon your return home. Ditto for the pillows and duvet that render each sleep as dream worthy as the next. Between the precise digital temperature control, the elegant mosquito canopy netting, and the nightly rotating oil scents positioned at your bedside, you’re assured that extended peaceful slumber you’ve been craving.  

Setting your mind at ease even further, the Esencia team takes the concept of service to another level. From the wait staff to the cleaning ladies to the front office, an overall sense of purpose and natural camaraderie pervades. This familial warmth manifests itself in the hallmark of quality service—eagerness to please, yet never overly intrusive. Before entering your room for housekeeping or turndown, they always call first to ensure uninterrupted privacy. In fact, the staff is in constant communication between the restaurant, spa and beach, cueing maid service on the optimal moment to tend to your room. At morning group yoga, the British instructor, Vicky, patiently walks you through each pose as if it were a personal lesson. One mention of sunburn at the spa and your masseuse disappears into the outside herbal garden and reemerges with an impromptu remedy. Cocktails arrive in chilled glasses without fail at both restaurants. Water and wine glasses get refilled instantly (note: water, ice, fruits and vegetables are safe to consume thanks to Esencia’s in-house water purification system). Request a dinner for two on the beach and arrive to find a line of tiki torches leading to your romantic night under the stars. One waiter, Juan, has worked at the hotel for over five years, and had previously worked with the same owners at their first property—also for five years. That degree of loyalty is telling. The low turnover and impeccable service is a clear indication of happy employees taking pride in their jobs.  

Another mainstay at the property is Chef Bernardo, the kitchen maestro churning out indelible gourmet Mexican dishes day and night. Hit the beach after morning yoga and refuel on outstanding breakfast plates like Chilaquiles, Chile Relleno, or the Frittata Esencia under the shade of your palapa. Bronze yourself on the tourist-free white powdery beach, then switch scenes at the poolside bar and restaurant to sample the Agua Chile, Azteca or Verde—three standouts among twelve delectable house-crafted ceviches. Not to be outshined, lunchtime apps like Cochinita Pibil Panuchos and the Fish and Steak Tacos easily demand repeat orders, while the Tuna Focaccia entrée will have you lapsing out of etiquette and licking your fingers. Head back to the beach, dip into the adult pool (there’s fortunately a separate kid’s pool), then drop into the spa’s herbal-infused steam room unannounced for a quick aromatherapy session before your pre-dinner siesta. You’ll need to recharge to truly savor the meal ahead.

Even if you’re staying in Playa del Carmen or Tulum, dinner at Esencia is not only a must, but also head and shoulders above the purported top-tier restaurants in either resort area. Simplify the dinner menu selection by closing your eyes and just pointing. From Lobster Taquitos and Duck Carnitas to start, Grilled Reef Lobster and Shrimps “Tamarindo” to follow, to daily specials offering unique spins on traditional Mexican classics—you can’t go wrong. The wine cellar is equally top notch spanning New World selections from across South America and Baja, as well as Esencia’s owners’ own Argentinian vineyard, Ikal. Not to be missed is the latter’s rich and velvety 2008 Malbec. Cap the evening with the Chocolate “Bomb” paired with a top shelf tequila flight where gold medal winner, Clase Azul, takes the prize. Finally, retire to your room well sated and confident that every day of your stay you’ll get to relive the fantasy.     

The life of a Duchess certainly has its advantages. Thankfully we can all benefit from her good fortune by way of a visit to this Riviera Maya pearl. After just one day, you feel right at home, completely tranquil. Following one week, despite longing to stay, you’re also prepared to come back to reality with renewed vigor. These disparate feelings should normally be at odds with each other. However, upon leaving the property, you come to realize that the dream catchers were not only warding off the bad dreams and setting you at ease, but also forever capturing the best dream of all—your stay at Esencia.

New York Bathhouses Are Back—But With a Classy, Spanish Twist

Romans, despite many other flaws in their society, knew how to bathe. Their thermae were temples to relaxation and hygiene. Bathhouses in New York, however, have generally had a more checkered, though no less fun, reputation. Now Aire, a Spanish company that already operates baths in Seville and Barcelona, is bringing brand-new ancient baths to Tribeca.

Descending into the catacombs under the Franklin Street 
location, one half expects toga-clad virgins to materialize or 
a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to lurch from the shadows.
 The ceilings are soaring, and the Spanish architect Alonso
 Balaguer has kept the brick exposed. Street level insanity
 already feels far away. Carved deep into the ground, a series
of six baths vary in salinity, size, and temperature. The largest is the warm pool which hovers just below body temperature (97 ̊F), but there’s also a hot pool (102 ̊F), a cold pool, (61 ̊F), and a very cold pool (41 ̊F). In the center of the space, a glass-enclosed, steam-filled hammam looks like a white cube, and throughout the space ornate lanterns—imported from Morocco and filled with Spanish candles—cast a soft glow.

Bathers, wearing soft cotton robes from Spain, pad around like monastics. That’s all great, but the serenity would be fleeting if the Vandal hordes crowded in, besmirching the warmed marble benches and cannonballing into the hot tubs. Bearing that in mind, Aire allows only twenty people into the 16,000 square foot space for two hours at a time each. As in a monastery, silence is insisted upon. Bathers can simply soak ($75), be massaged (from $95), or, if they’re channeling Dionysus, engage in what are called “rituals” ($500). Each four-hour ritual includes a massage in a private room and a soak in a private tub filled with either water, wine, milk, or cava. The only thing missing is a fiddle to play while Rome burns. 

John Travolta Reportedly Banned from Hotel Spa for ‘Inappropriate Behavior’

Another day, another accuser! John Travolta, who was hit with a lawsuit this week related to allegations by three male massage therapists regarding inappropriate sexual advances, is now being accused of such by a fourth one, who says Travolta’s behavior got him blacklisted from the spa at New York’s Peninsula Hotel.

Using statements from Michael Caputo, a former masseur at the luxe Fifth Avenue hotel, the New York Daily News reports Travolta was banished to the spa’s "no-thigh zone" for three years in the early 2000s for "inappropriate behavior" with male massage therapists, though–following a complaint from Travolta’s camp–the ban was eventually lifted (much like Travolta’s towel when in the presence of a masseur).

So what did Travolta do at the Peninsula? Via Us, Caputo divulges some juicy (and gross, because, you know… John Travolta) details:

"Travolta would always request a man for his massage, but after a while no one would take him," Caputo shares. "It got to the point where they couldn’t find any men to take him, and they had to ban him."

According to Caputo, male employees accused the star of "removing his towel, grinding against the massage table and lifting his butt in the air."

Wait, it’s not normal to grind against a massage table and lift your butt in the air? Prudes!

Hotel Spa Treatments Go for the Gold, Silver & Bronze

Every hotel spa we’ve ever been to promises the gold standard in treatment, but a few hotels are taking their devotion to precious metals seriously, working them into their spa treatments for that extra layer of luxury per treatment.

The latest comes from Terme di Saturnia in Tuscany, a spa and golf-centric resort that’s a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. The treatment begins with a ginger, chamomile, and silk protein scrub, followed by a caffeine gel treatment infused with flakes of 24-carat gold, meant to draw out impurities. It’s then massaged thoroughly into your skin, and layer of gold dust and ground ginger is applied, and then locked in with moisturizer. It’s also available as a facial, since gold is said to help stop the formation of wrinkles.

That put us in mind of some other treatments as delightful for their indulgent nature as for their result. Fans of silver are generally out of luck at spas (despite its reputation for healing properties, it seems to be too downmarket to feature), but you can satisfy your urge for a cooler metal with the Platinum Rare Facial at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park (they also offer it at the Beverly Hills Hotel) which uses La Prairie’s Platinum line of products to restore the balance of moisture in your skin and protect cells from damage. Two La Prairie experts will minister to you over the course of 90 minutes, and as generations of the Swiss line’s devotees will tell you, they know what they’re about when it comes to skin.

If you’re looking for a cut above even gold, the Diamond Journey at the Anantara Spa at the Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi is a fitting indulgence in one of the most over the top properties we’ve ever visited. It’s a long and involved process, but we’ll skip straight to the good stuff: the crushed-diamond and mud exfoliating scrub (not as painful as it potentially sounds, we promise), the hot oil massage, the hot stone treatment, and the diamond facial, which uses facial massage and lymphatic drainage to brighten skin.

Of course, if you’d rather not spend your vacation locked inside a spa facility, however luxe, we’d suggest the W Scottsdale’s version of service that will still leave you feeling like you made it onto the winner’s stand. As a part of their Whatever/Whenever concierge service, they’ve introduced a Tanning Concierge to help you take advantage of the local light, by offering expert tips, applications of the best sunscreens and after-sun products, and in-room spray tanning and skin consultations. There’s nothing like a good bronze to give you an excuse to indulge in some spa treatments, after all.