The secret is out: Men are fighting side by side with women to look young, stay healthy and enjoy pampering. But when men exchange street clothes for terrycloth robes, the trip to spa-land is uniquely male.
For life outside the spa walls — these days especially — one needs thick skin, hard edges, a little fear and tension, every single brain cell. There are no flutes out here, no sweetly scented air, no one waiting on the other side of the door to lead you from one place to the next. You simply have to accept reality: Work hard, make a load of money, and repeat.
But what if you could step off the treadmill and transport yourself to some inner sanctum for an afternoon? Call me a girly-man, but after recently touring spas in Fairfield County, I’m in — with both pedicured feet.
Of course, it used to be that most men wouldn’t be caught dead in a day spa. Now you can hardly keep us out. The International Spa Association reports that men currently account for more than 30 percent of spa clients and 48 percent of spas in the country offer services and packages for men.
As spa services have grown in popularity, they have also evolved into upscale combinations of relaxation, skin care and medical spas, offering high-level surgical and non-surgical services for both sexes. “It’s a way of providing wellness and medical care in a relaxed setting, as the stage just before mainstream doctors,” says Alan Cohen, general manager of Elixir Day Spa & Elixir Skin Spa in Westport. Here, a plastic surgeon, a body surgeon and an alternative medicine physician are on duty several days a week. The result is a menu of services that is still focused on appearances but is increasingly oriented toward what Cohen calls “healthspan.”
Guys today are seeking practically every service available to women — pedicures, facials and massages, as well as peels, laser treatments and Botox injections — and it doesn’t seem linked to what they do for a living. “We see executives who are stressed out, guys who work for themselves and have flexibility throughout the day, and a lot of weekend spa warriors,” says Lori Dodd, manager of Dream Spa in Westport. “The most popular service for men is, of course, massage. Many of our male clients have been coming in weekly for years.”
Prices start at $80 for a sports massage, $80 for a facial, and $50 for a pedicure, a back wax or foot reflexology. The boasted benefits? Rejuvenation, elimination of sun damage, reduced stress, renewed energy and concentration, and better relationships (romantic and otherwise).
Naturally, in order to verify these claims and fully understand the spa experience well enough to translate it for the curious, someone had do the research by actually going to a number of day spas. Why not me?
Getting an early start on this punishing assignment, I recently visited Elixir Day Spa & Elixir Skin Spa, on Main Street in Westport, founded by Joann (Jo Jo) Salerno, who is also a senior medical aesthetician, and Cohen.
French doors lead into a small reception area with sand-colored floor tiles and a large clay jar filled with tall river reeds. The area opens into a spacious, high-ceilinged, central room of makeup stations and cabinets of skincare products, with treatment rooms spinning off like the spokes of a wheel. The space is airy, fresh and filled with light from large windows overlooking the Saugatuck River.
Representative of the new breed of spas, Elixir incorporates medical treatments with traditional spa services, offering skin care and peels, laser and body treatments, relaxation therapies, and plastic surgery. Being deeply superficial, I opt for pure pleasure over substantive change and choose the foundation of relaxation treatments: a foot massage. Monica, a medical aesthetician and licensed reflexologist, leads me into a treatment room that is instantly soothing: low lights, a few candles burning, New Age music filtering the scented air. In the middle of the room is a narrow treatment table, soft and heated, which is the most comfortable, plush surface I have ever lain on.
I begin asking questions and mentally taking notes (I am going to have to write about this at some point) but within minutes give up this foolish business as stress, fatigue and thoughts drain away. By the end of the thirty-minute session, I’m so relaxed that I glide rather than walk and can barely talk (while this may not bode well for writing, either, the good news is that I don’t really care).
Afterwards, I’m led into another room for a facial consultation with Jo Jo. I’m told she has been in the business for twenty-seven years, but this is hard to believe since her skin doesn’t look much older than that. It is china-white and flawless, and this, I learn in the days to come, is one sign of a spa’s potency: How relaxed and pampered the personnel look.
During my facial she administers chroma-light therapy to tone the skin and lympho-energetic drainage to detoxify and improve circulation. She then begins a traditional Chinese facial, applying layer after layer of essential oils and lotions. As if finger painting, she circles the eyes and mouth, brushes the upper lip and chin, strokes the temples and forehead, and massages the scalp. Since the head is connected to the neck and the neck to the shoulders, she massages these areas, too, then moves down my arms and uses reflexology on my fingers and palms. While my face “sets” under a mask of hydrating gel, she calls in Monica again to work on my feet.
I am proof that men do love facials.
Out on the sidewalk, I feel both different than I did before and different from other guys. And I am — I’ve just spa-ed! This distinction between men who spa and men who don’t is one of the more ridiculous and fleeting notions I’ve ever entertained. But for a little while, I feel special.
The next day I visit Halcyon Spa (formerly Stone Water) on Greenwich Avenue. It’s also up on a second floor, overlooking a busy downtown retail scene. If harmonious space and healthy-looking staff create a healing atmosphere, so does how a spa smells, and Halcyon has a clean, soft, fragrant smell. It’s a form of aromatherapy, signalling that you’ve entered an alternate reality where life is sweeter and more serene. In fact, I appeared to have dropped into the land of soaps and cremes and lotions. I’m in lotionworld, and, for some reason, I’m OK with this.
Roberta, the manager, welcomes me and walks me through the lounge, down a hall decorated with smoked-glass counters holding candles and Oriental arrangements of bamboo. Candles seem to make up one layer of the total spa experience; New Age music seems to be another. Here, is it piped in from a collection of forty CDs that are rotated continually. Most men who visit for the first time do so because their wives or girlfriends have given them gift certificates, Roberta tells me. “Either they have bad skin or they’re stressed out,” she says. “More guys are coming in because it’s become more acceptable,” she tells me as we walk. “I think men are realizing that it does feel good, that it’s not taboo. Men are into how they look and feel. It’s also nice to say you’ve been to a spa.” Men, some with standing appointments, account for 35 to 40 percent of Halcyon’s clients.
Since my body is going to be in the hands of many women over the next few days, I say yes to the offer of a backwaxing (fine, it was my idea). I am walked to the end of the hall, past two pedicure stations and three other treatment rooms, to meet Jennifer, a graduate of the New York School of Aestheticians. I don’t see her certificate, but I believe her because I want to believe her.
“Manscaping” — the mowing, clipping, pruning, edging, weed-whacking and eliminating, basically, hair from the shoulders and back, usually, and less frequently the chest, arms and legs — is a cute term for waxing. It’s also pure hell. Women have long known the exquisite sadomasochistic pleasure of having body hair ripped from the epidermis by the roots, but it’s spanking new to me.
In the waxing room, there’s more bamboo, more candles, more New Age music, again involving the flute or other wind instrument. Lots of winds but mostly flutes. Flutes are beginning to get on my nerves.
Jennifer washes my back with a hot towel, then hits the areas with a four percent lidocaine spray. Finding myself worrying about the experience for her, as well as for myself, I ask about this job. “I was always a picker,” she tells me, “so it doesn’t really gross me out.
“Also,” she adds, “compared with Brazilian waxes, this is nothing.” I actually don’t have a response to this.
While waiting for the skin to numb up, she has heated a stick of blue wax and now, with wooden sticks resembling tongue depressors (they are tongue depressors) and a small roller, begins applying hot wax to my back in sections before laying strips of gauze over them, which she’ll tear off and with them the hair.
Let me try to re-create the manscaping experience for you. Imagine a fleet of miniature Phantom F-14s jets making emergency landings, after-burners flaring and tires smoking, on the flight deck that is your back. Or somebody taking a hornet’s nest, shaking it violently, then placing the entrance to the hive against your skin and moving it in short, straight, aggressive strokes.
When it’s over, I not only thank Jennifer, but in perhaps an instance of Stockholm syndrome — you know, where the victim identifies with his captor and tormentor — I also generously tip her.
While in Greenwich, I visit the Greenwich Medical Skincare & Laser Spa on East Putnam Avenue. In the “Tranquility Area,” or waiting area — plush couches, tea service, a flat-screen TV showing boats bobbing in a harbor and waves breaking on a beach — I become aware of the sound of wind instruments, like flutes and recorders.
Despite the New Age vibe, this feels more like a busy medical treatment facility than a relaxation spa. In addition to massages, facials and laser hair removal, it offers chemical peels, thermage (nonsurgical facelift via radio frequencies), microdermabrasion, dermal fillers, and Botox and Restylane injections.
“Botox is becoming popular with men, mostly to remove frown lines in the forehead but also lines between and around the eyes,” says owner Marria Pooya. “They think frown lines make them look mad.”
Botox runs $1,200 for three sessions; laser back hair removal costs $800; and for $180 a guy can get a microdermabrasion, which, basically, is sandblasting the face with bits of crystal. I could be wrong, but I think Marria is eyeing my face as she lists this last service. Since I have friends who are painters and would probably be happy to sandblast me for free, not to mention throwing on a primer coat, I thank her for the tour and leave.
SPACE AND BEYOND
Increased sensitivity is one side effect of extended spa treatments. Another is the urge for more spa treatments. Two days later, I drive to Darien for back-to-back appointments at spas across the street from one another.
The entrance to the Red Door/Elizabeth Arden Spa lies discreetly down a broad walkway between shops on the Post Road. Part of a chain of thirty throughout the country, including destination spas in Mystic and in Manhattan, the company logo appears everywhere, the staff is crisply uniformed, and the manager I’m scheduled to meet, Julie Robinson, is regional vice president for the Northeast. Yet the spa itself is so polished and luxurious, that once I’m inside the Chinese-red door and ascend the steel-and-glass staircase to the sleek, second-floor reception desk, I don’t want to leave.
Beyond the modern, gleaming makeup, nail and pedicure stations, Julie leads me through a tall, smoked-glass door to the five private treatment rooms. It’s another world here, an inner sanctum of serenity and well-being. The dark woodwork of the walls and plush carpeting make it seem like we’re walking in a charmed woods where moonlight through branches lights the moss-covered path. We come to a small clearing — three tables in an Oriental tea room where clients can have lunch brought in from outside — then a large waiting room with lounge chairs, candles, and a juice bar.
My masseuse, Tess, comes for me now and leads me back down the forested hall to the men’s locker room. Inside are cubbies of thick towels stacked like cordwood, stacks of rubber sandals, and terrycloth robes so rich and heavy you could live in one.
When I’m enrobed, she leads me to a massage room. “Lead” is a key concept in spa-land. Everywhere you go, someone is waiting to lead you to somewhere else. This is part of the pampering process, to be sure, but it may also be due to a condition spa personnel call “spa-brain” — a reduction of cognitive functions as a result of an overdose of relaxation and pleasure. Symptoms include not being able to think or talk or write, and not really caring. (Does this make sense? I don’t really care.)
Here at the Red Door, the treatment room is softly lit by candles, the air fresh and sweet. Tess is young, blond, athletic and both professional and friendly. As I lay facedown on the warm bed, she folds the sheet down to my lower back and begins rubbing in lotion. I’m about to receive deep-tissue massage on account of a life of sports injuries. Quickly and unerringly, she finds the knots and tension points and kneads them with her knuckles and heels of her hands to an eight on the ten-point pain scale. But then she massages all of the other muscles and applies reflexology to my hands and feet.
I lay alone for a long time, once again becoming aware of the music in the room. There are fewer wind instruments here, more strings. Now voices join in, chanting in another language. I think I’m in an Oriental art film. I see snowcapped mountains and pen-and-brush bamboo. Asians in dark kimonos shoot one another either meaningful or menacing looks without speaking.
As Tess walks me back to the locker room, I am still in my Red Door robe, drool pooling at one corner of my mouth and my mind scanning the Romance languages for English.
Half an hour later, I somehow cross the Post Road by myself and enter the ground-floor entrance to Williams & Warren, the inviting new spa run by Marylou Williams and Nancianne Warren. In contrast to the darkly atmospheric spas, this space is sunny, spacious and friendly.
Williams & Warren, like other day spas, mixes hair and makeup with laser and injectibles administered by a physician, who comes in on Fridays. Remarkably, it also offers specially designed treatments for cancer patients — Marylou is a survivor — in private salon areas along with a range of treatments for the 25 percent of clients who are men.
“We have a number of male celebrities who come in for spray tanning, facials and massages,” Nancianne tells me, “and a lot of men come in for pedicures and manicures. Some come in just to relax, and pedicures are very relaxing. We also get runners and hockey players; those sports are hard on their feet.”
Fine, but what about writers’ feet? Offered a choice of services, I go with a pedicure and am led by Nancianne to the pedicure station: three European-style lounge chairs that not only are heated but also give massages. Ana, who’s Colombian and has been working at the spa for six years, removes my shoes and socks, places my feet in a Jacuzzi foot-tub of hot water, then washes, dries and goes to work clipping, sanding, digging and scraping before scrubbing my feet and legs up to the knees in a concoction of peppermint lotion and something that my man-mind identifies as sand. Finally, she rinses off the sand, applies a hot towel, dries and massages the feet and asks if I want my toenails buffed.
“No, thank you,” I mutter.
“Are you sure?,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m in your hands.”
“Yes, you are,” she says, and clear-polishes and buffs until I can see my head in my big toenail.
“More younger men are coming in for the same reason younger women are,” she says. “When you look good, you feel good.”
There are two more spas I’m “forced” to visit, for research purposes.
First, Dream Spa, which occupies an 1820 Colonial on the Post Road in Westport, just east of the rejuvenated Carriage Hill mall. It is posh and sleek, staffed with attractive spa-beings and, because it was busy the Saturday I was there, briskly efficient.
Lori Dodd, the manager, offers me the “Basics for the Boys” package: “Man-datory Facial,” Thai massage, and essential pedicure ($280). But in as much as my toes are still buff-looking, I go with the massage.
In my Dream Spa robe and sandals, I am handed over to Darlene, who is tall, attractive and athletic, with large hands that when outspread practically cover my back. She presses on different areas with her palms, releasing toxins, then uses long, strong strokes to relax the muscles. She also works the scalp, limbs and feet.
It takes me longer this time to rise from the massage bed and re-robe. When I step outside, I notice a guy in his late-thirties or early-forties seated at the end of the hall with his female guide, apparently waiting for the massage room. He just stares at me, why I don’t know. A few minutes later, back in the men’s locker room, I look in the mirror and see that my hair is sticking out from the top and sides of my head in total surrender to the spa-ness. I look like Albert Einstein on quaaludes.
Wilton doesn’t readily come to mind as a likely location for a luxurious spa, but I found one in Dermage Aesthetic Center and Spa. Opened three years ago in an 1840 Colonial on Route 7 near Wilton Center, it could pass for a beautifully appointed country inn filled with antiques and polished wood and marble.
“I wanted to make it elegant and warm but not clinical,” says owner David Tortorelli, who worked in the dermatology industry for twenty years. He is a walking advertisement of the benefits of spas for men. He is lean and youthful-looking, with clear, unlined skin and a serene and soothing manner. Most guys would pay a lot to look like him. Many apparently do.
“We’re seeing more men every year,” Tortorelli says. “Especially with the downturn of the economy, they’re looking to advance or change careers and they want to put their best foot and face forward.”
Some regular male clients book treatments three and four months in advance. A staff of nineteen is supplemented by a physician on duty three days a week and nurses, for laser work and photo-rejuvenation, four days. Four treatment rooms, including one for couples with a shower, serve a deep menu of offerings: facial and body treatments, medical and cosmetic services, and eleven types of massage therapies.
The music is kinder to my ears: wind instruments, of course, but also guitar and piano. It occurs to me that the spa industry has been very good for New Age flutists, who otherwise might have no purpose in life.
Since massages are the most popular choice among guys at Dermage — though waxings and facials are gaining ground — and because, truthfully, there’s just about nothing else needing bodily improvement, David schedules me for a Swedish massage with Dalia, an aesthetician and licensed masseuse.
Small, pretty and delicate-looking, Dalia has scarily strong hands. And although Swedish massages typically involve long, fluid, soothing strokes, she finds every knot and source of tension remaining in the muscles and tendons and swiftly eliminates them with fingers, palms, fists, forearms and elbows. That mission accomplished, however, she smooths my skin with profoundly relaxing motions. It is as if all of the treatments I’ve received in the last week and a half have been rolled into this one long massage. Now I just need someone to escort me through the rest of life.
Spas Mentioned in Our Story
Center and Spa
300 Danbury Road, Wilton
Dream Spa & Hair Spa
1220 Post Road East
Elixir Day Spa &
Elixir Skin Spa
163 Main Street
Skincare & Laser Spa
1345 E. Putnam Ave.
Red Door Spas
1077 Boston Post Road
151 Greenwich Avenue
Williams & Warren
1066 Post Road
Other Spas and Spa Services
Salon & Spa
89 Danbury Road
(203) 431-3994 phone
(203) 431-4156 fax
American Laser Centers
222 Railroad Avenue
299 Post Road East
(203) 227-0771 phone
(203) 454-5877 fax
1990 West Main Street
141 Main Street
Faces by Flavia
90 Musket Ridge Road
605 West Avenue
Salon and Spa
14 Pine Street
New Canaan, CT
Lanphier Day Spa
25 Old Kings Highway North
(Good Wives Shopping Plaza)
848 High Ridge Road
Noelle Spa for
Beauty & Wellness
1100 High Ridge Road
Partners Salon and Spa
1200 East Putnam Avenue
50 Holly Hill Lane
Prima Skin and
292 Post Road East
(203) 454-9696 phone
1139 Post Road
(203) 259-8757 phone
1 East Putnam Avenue
Water’s Edge Resort & Spa
1525 Boston Post Road