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Posted by on Jul 24, 2013 in Bargains, Spa Reviews | 0 comments

Lia Schorr: Sometimes a Bargain is…Really a Bargain

Lia Schorr: Sometimes a Bargain is…Really a Bargain

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I’m addicted to daily specials on Groupon, Living Social, Spa Sally and others. So I bought a great mani-pedi deal on Spa Sally: two of each for just $22 at the Lia Schorr day spa in midtown Manhattan. These turned out to be really good buys, as the expert pedicures lasted for weeks.

So – when I saw a really tempting Groupon offer of a body scrub, hot stone massage and a pedicure for just $39, I grabbed it. For such a tiny price, I would have been satisfied with a treatment that was pretty good, but the scrub and massage Yolanda gave me were nothing short of superb. And the pedicure — well, my toes are still sporting the shiny silver polish I chose weeks ago.

Despite the above-average treatments offered at excellent prices (even when not on daily specials), the day spa consistently gets lousy reviews on Yelp. (I’m a little suspicious of those because I posted a positive review after my visit to the spa — and it has somehow disappeared from the site.) I think this is because Lia herself is brusque and no-nonsense and because the spa could use a little upgrading.

Because I write about spas, I’ve had hundreds of treatments over the years, so to me, the wrapping is less important the content. Give me solid value and I don’t need fancy trappings. (One of the best facials I ever had was in a tiny place above a Korean grocer.)

I couldn’t help but contrast the experience I had at Lia Schorr with one, the same week, at Skin Spa, also in midtown spa (one location of seven). I had bought a $49 one-hour (supposedly) facial through Lifebooker. The young woman who gave the facial was pleasant and we had a very nice conversation, but she did nothing more than apply products and remove them. After she applied a mask, she left the room for about 15 minutes, which is never done at good spas. Instead, experienced estheticians (and I had to wonder if mine had little or no experience) at good spas will massage hands or feet or scalp will a mask does its work. In short, when this $49 “bargain” facial was over, I felt cheated: I could have done the same treatment I received in my own home, with my own products. Yet this spa, which is brighter and fresher and where the staff is polite and engaging consistently gets top marks on sites like Yelp. Go figure.

Bottom line: A bargain has to deliver solid value, not the illusion of it.

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Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in Resort and Hotel Spas, Spa Reviews | 0 comments

The Royal Treatment Cottage At The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort

The Royal Treatment Cottage At The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort

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The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort on St. Simons Island in Georgia belongs to the Historic Hotels of America. Opened in 1935, its focus was beach and golf. As requests for massages increased, the hotel offered in-room treatments until six years ago, when a cottage became available.
This charming small home was converted into The Royal Treatment Cottage. Sharon Carmical, Cottage Promotions Manager, said they realized that with limited space, they needed to start out focusing on one discipline and do it well. So the focus was massages.

As you walk up the steps, you can immediately enter the cottage or sit and enjoy its porch swing for a while. When you step inside, Sharon greets you and takes you into the relaxation room, provides a glass of water with lemon, and a soothing heated hot herbal neck pack to relax your muscles. It was absolutely delightful.

The cottage has three treatment rooms, and six massage therapists who rotate. In order to keep the atmosphere soothing, they do not book more than three guests at a time, even though one of the three treatment rooms has two massage tables. Sharon said the flow would be uncomfortable with an additional person.

Having been to many small spas that do not have locker facilities, I am frequently unimpressed with how personal items are stored. With The Royal Treatment Cottage, you place personal belongings in nice canvas bags and take them into the treatment room.

Next was the great part of the morning, my massage. Buckey, my therapist, asked a series of standard questions, but it only took a few minutes of his working on my back to determine how tight my muscles were.  So I thoroughly enjoyed the Custom Cottage Massage, which was 60 minutes for $95, or 90 minutes for $142.

My assignment was to breathe and relax. I need to stress that Buckey’s massage skills made it easy, which is not usually the case for me. He kept both hands on my body to balance, massage and relax me and was able to break up muscle masses that had been building a long time.

In addition to the custom massage, The Cottage offers a Swedish Massage, same price; Therapeutic Massage, 60 minutes $105, 90 minutes $160; Sports Specific Massage, same as Custom Cottage; Aroma Therapy, 60 minutes $100, 90 minutes $150; Reflexology, 60 minutes $95; Focused Area Massage, 30 minutes $50; and Side by Side Massage, 60 minutes $190, 90 minutes $285.

The Royal Treatment Cottage is gaining in popularity with resort guests. Since the King and Prince Resort is undergoing many renovations, building a larger full service spa is on the master plan. It may just be a while.

Generally, I’m not as impressed with such a small and limited facility. But The Royal Treatment Cottage treated me royally and allowed me to walk away will fewer  aches and pains. It is reasonably priced for its services and all those provided are exceptional.

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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Bargains, Resort and Hotel Spas, Spa Reviews | 0 comments

Bask, Art and Chips in Atlantic City

Bask, Art and Chips in Atlantic City

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Don’t let your preconceptions of Atlantic City keep you from booking a spa weekend with friends or significant others. For one thing, besides the obvious draw of casinos and star-studded nightlife, Atlantic City is growing its other lively arts – spas are among them, as are dining spots and a little off-boardwalk theater.

Maybe it’s Exhale’s high-profile brand name linked with one-year-old hotel 1,800-room Revel that is the perfect match capable of producing an unexpected AC experience. Both are young, sleek, modern, full of light, sparked with a very broad client profile that distinguishes Revel apart from its AC siblings. Even 10-year–old Borgata does not let you forget that a casino makes its heart pulse.The trip to AC started less than auspiciously. Sure, it was a fam trip and it was sponsored by Atlantic City and the hotel I’d stay at with a colleague, but it did not have to start with a trip to Brooklyn to get to Manhattan from Queens. Luckily, two veteran travel writers had packed their peanut butter sandwiches and were ready for anything including a few laughs and never looked back at the tempting bags of chips that seemed to be part of every stretch limo.

As the Artsy Voyager, she was looking for art in Atlantic City, I was along for that ride and I was about to write a review for this site on the Exhale  Bask Spa at Revel; she and I were planning to compare notes on the spa. The Art spots we visited included the Dante Theater (affiliated with Stockton University), which has its own Ninth Circle Players Repertoire Company in the heart of AC, the Noyes Museum, a short drive to Oceanville from the legendary Boardwalk and we did a long double take at the gorgeous glass sculptures at the Borgata, which get a bit lost in the casino lights, bells and whistles below. In fact, no one seemed to be the least impressed with those incredible sculptures created by American glass-blowing artist Dale Chihuly [he founded the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State].

Circled overhead by Chihuly’s massive works is the casino, smack in the center of your view as you check in at the Borgata. Not so at the Revel. There, you have to take three escalators to arrive at the check-in counter (or find the little three-floor elevator that will take you there as well); to access the casino, you must deliberately be looking for it and take an elevator ride to that particular floor. In other words, you are not perceived automatically as a casino aficionado: you could be staying at the Revel for the view, for the spa, for a getaway and never even SEE the casino.

The Salt Room at Bask Spa.

The Exhale Spa called BASK is on the same floor as the check-in counter, which is set within a nearly endless expanse of lobby floor filled with natural light from the floor to ceiling windows– a hint of what you will find even in standard rooms, walls of windows overlooking the ocean and/or the city.

Away from the rigors of sunlight, pools, bars, eateries, and the casino, is the snug cocoon of an Exhale spa. For non- spa trekkers, almost 20 Exhale Spas dot the country from east to west, north to south. The company has grown exponentially in about 10 short years. Booking from a short list of compelling treatments is always a challenge. I arrived no more stressed out than the next gal, rife, however, with ergonomic injuries [neck, elbows, shoulders], I was scheduled for two signature treatments: the flow massage (one hour, $165), and the power facial (one hour, $225). The spa lists a long menu of treatments and combinations of them.

Check-in was a bit dicey – apparently the spa imposes an 18% gratuity long before patrons have sampled a treatment. Treatments can be added to room charges but the sticking point could be the up-front gratuity for some.

I’ve never had a preference for female over male massage therapists – I think of it as fate and accept who is assigned to me. In this case, a broad, tall 26-year-old Matt introduced himself to me; the next thing I noticed was his handshake, warm, not forced and on the pudgy side. Nothing signaled to me how truly effective a masseur he was, except that given his size, he was very low key as if swallowing up his size somehow to make me (at five feet tall) feel comfortable.

Ever curious I asked what brought him to this career. As a teenager on a swimming team, he found he was very good at discerning just how to loosen a Charlie horse among team members during competitive racing. After he joined the Navy, he returned home with a strong insight: touch heals. He trained at Harris, a vocational school for the basics and through Exhale’s own training program for the signature treatments the company has become known for.

My massage therapist extraordinaire, Matt Poole, explained this was indeed the spa’s signature body massage and it could go on for 90 minutes. After climbing up onto the treatment table, which was coddled in sheets and warmth, overlaid with a satin baby-bunting like cover, he spoke to me about the flow. How it was choreographed to free energy blockages, relieve tension by using more lymphatic drainage techniques over the deep tissue type.

He started with my face, my head and temples, usually reserved for the last gestures, the farewell. I just let myself fall under the spell.

Exhale’s signature massage oils could be one of three: For uplift, a formula that promotes circulation and relieves muscle soreness contains arnica wild crafted from the mountain highlands that acts as a potent anti-inflammatory agent and is blended with warming bay laurel, rosemary and basil to relieve muscle congestion; Detox is a blend of alpine juniper, cypress and lemon, all of which help in the release of toxic build-up in sluggish digestive, circulatory and lymphatic systems; or finally, a relaxing potion that is usually matched with a  deeply calming massage of oils of sandalwood, vetivert, jasmine and cloves, designed to ease fatigue and exhaustion and soothes an over-stressed nervous system. Matt used the detox on me, which was just as well as I love the smell of citrus.

The bathouse at Bask Spa at the Revel Atlantic City.

The treatment reduces inflammation, improves flexibility for me this was in my neck area, which frankly gave me some trepidation as I am already in Physical Therapy to improve my mobility. Tennis elbows or tendinitis such as I have usually begins with the neck. Matt managed to create space between my shoulders and neck on both sides that made me feel I might leave an inch or two taller.

From there, he moved his muscular hands along my spine, creating a flow from up to down to up. Described as a deep tissue massage without the pain, it was clear he had run into some of my trickiest spots without my even mentioning them. This, to me is yet another sign of a person who is truly integrated with his career choice; what I like to call the healing impulse cannot be trained. Either you have it or you don’t. He has it. What he did with my legs is a mystery but they were extended much further than I am ever able to extend them in my yoga classes. Could this be because my spine was warmed up, my hips relaxed, or was it the way he bent my knees deeply into the armpits? Whatever it was, my legs felt lighter than air.

Julissa Bruzek, the Esthetician , tested my skin to decide whether to apply the Cool Beam Laser an LED light or the Ultra Sound. As I have evidence of hyperpigmentation from overexposure to sun, she opted for the Cool Beam Laser and chose Sircuit Cosmeceuticals’  Youth Accelerator, a smart peel pumpkin enzyme mask. Of course, like most facials, this one involved a bit of extraction or squeezing the nasties, but it was done quickly and I emerged without a single red mark on my face. The entire facial relieved the tension that ordinarily builds up around the mouth and the eyebrows. Delicious.

Surprisingly both spa pros suggested hopping into the steam bath or sauna, followed up by a Jacuzzi dip and a relaxing session afterwards. I was surprised — as usually after a massage with rich oils, therapists suggest you stay put, relax, no bathing it off. All clients are encouraged to slip into the Himalayan Salt Room, dominated by Buddha bust; its bricks are made of salt and the room is organized to help you further detox. The temperature is a dash lower than the relaxation rooms, which are amply supplied with herbal teas and fresh fruit.

I finally bumped into my colleague again even though BASK is a beehive of circuitous routes from one treatment to another. Her massage was good but by no means one “to write home about.” We caught up in one of the wet rooms, steam bath, sauna and Jacuzzi, whereupon we hopped in.

Thankfully, there are guides in the hallways kindly escorting patrons to their next station because the last thing you want to do after getting all massaged and calm is to refer to a map in dim lighting.

Deals can be had at the posh Revel. Midweek pricing can drop down to $79 a night, as the warmer months near, that price is apt to go to $129 per night.

Exhale’s BASK offers packages, too: from A Day of Transformation [$310] to customized group packages. Christine Papaspanos, Manager of Guest Experience said 90% of the spa clientele are guests at the property and that year-round her biggest market is bachelorette parties and other affiliated groups. Right now, the spa does not use the travel agent distribution system.

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Posted by on Mar 18, 2013 in Resort and Hotel Spas, Spa Reviews | 0 comments

Mythic Spa Time in Dublin

Mythic Spa Time in Dublin

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The first thing you see on entering The Merrion’s Tethra Spa is a trompe l’oeil mural of classic gardens at the far end of the colonnaded pool. Is it “The Promised Land” of early Irish literature, for which “Tethra” is named, also known as “The Land of the Living” and “The Land of the Young?” The spa in The Merrion, arguably the most elegant of Dublin hotels, has borrowed Tethra as a retreat where the stress and strain of everyday life are banished, and body and soul invigorated and restored. Tethra!

The Merrion’s Georgian entrance. Photo credit The Merriion.

The spa is tucked into the Garden Wing of The Merrion, behind four adjoining Georgian townhouses that have been superbly reconfigured as the hotel’s Main House. A glassed-in walkway through the hedges and patios of the recreated 18th century garden connects the two structures that together house 142 rooms.

The 60-foot French limestone pool is the centerpiece of the spa, where just about everything is equally sumptuous. An Italian marble steam room. Changing quarters finished in white marble, ceramic mosaic tiles, more French limestone, and elm hardwood with underground heating. A state-of-the-art Leisure Center with advanced cardiovascular and resistance training equipment, including a Vectra online Multi-Gym with 29 stations. Overseeing it all, a team of instructors for assessment and personal training.

The spa facility isn’t large: reception, pool and gym on the ground floor, five therapists and just three rooms on the floor above. But it’s never crowded as Tethra is restricted to hotel guests—even children are welcome, and given minirobes for the pool–plus a limited number of members.

Despite the limited space (there are plans to expand), the spa menu offers a wide range of body care and beauty treatments featuring ESPA products that combine therapeutic benefits and aromatherapy. The ESPA collection includes relaxing and anti-stressing oils, revitalizing seaweeds, and organically grown plants known for their purity, potency, and therapeutic qualities to protect, hydrate, firm and purify the skin.

From a generous menu I chose the ESPA Regenerating Facial, 55 minutes of care for “maturing” skin like mine. Laura, my therapist, led me upstairs to one of the rooms which, to my surprise, was among regular hotel bedrooms. Utilizing a battery of regenerating, firming and nourishing creams, masks and balms from the ESPA Concept Range, she administered an intensive facial that left my skin feeling fresh and toned.

Merrion Tethra Spa

Therapy rooms are in the hotel’s Garden Wing. Photo credit The Merriion.

Hot Stone Therapy, 75 mins, €125. Combines water heated basalt lava stones with traditional massage, using aromatherapy and hot oils to warm and invigorate the body.
ESPA Holistic Back Face and Scalp Treatment With Hot Stones, 1hour 55 mins, €170. A deep cleansing back exfoliation, followed by a hot stone back massage. The deeply nourishing facial includes an intensive face treatment mask and Oriental head massage.
ESPA Total Holistic Body Care With Hot Stones, 1hour 55 mins, €170.  After a full body exfoliation, this Chakras holistic treatment places stones along the spine, at vital energy points on hands and feet, and the Chakras around the body. The body massage is followed by an acupressure head massage, and finally with gentle neck and shoulders stretching.
Holistic Back Face and Scalp Treatment, 85 mins €125. An all-encompassing holistic treatment: a deep cleansing and exfoliation of the back; a back massage to ease stress and tension; a hydrating and purifying facial; a therapeutic scalp massage.
ESPA Holistic Total Body Care, 85 mins, €125. An all-encompassing treatment: full body skin brushing and exfoliation; a deep body, face and scalp massage with individually chosen essential oils.
Pre-Natal Treatment, 85 mins, €125. A carefully designed treatment for pregnant and nursing mothers using a Calendula infused oil, various muds and creams, and advanced massage techniques to safe areas.

Detoxifying Algae Wrap, 75 mins, €120. Skin brushing, gentle exfoliation, and detoxifying aromatherapy oil and warm algae boost metabolism, reduce water retention, and speed the elimination of toxins. Includes a full scalp treatment.
Restorative Mud Envelopment, 75 mins, €120. Aches and pains and superficial skin problems are treated with marine mud rich in trace minerals, skin brushing, gentle exfoliation and aromatherapy oils of choice, plus a deep scalp treatment.
ESPA Oshadi Envelopment, 75 mins, €120. Oshadi, giver of life, is the Ayurvedic term for plants and herbs used in traditional healing practices and therapies. After a sea salt and aromatherapy oil exfoliation, an Oshadi-infused mask hydrates the skin and relieves aching muscles and joints; it also includes a deep scalp treatment.

Stimulating Hip and Thigh Treatment, 55 mins, €100. A specialized ESPA treatment to stimulate the circulatory and lymphatic systems, concentrating on areas  prone to cellulite, fluid retention and uneven skin tone that includes seaweed exfoliation, a detoxifying massage, lymphatic drainage techniques, and activating reflex zones and pressure points on the feet.
Body Polish, 30 mins, €50. A complete exfoliation to cleanse and refine the skin, followed by moisturizing balm and body silk spray.
Salt and Oil Scrub, 30 mins, €50. A skin softening body exfoliation combining sea salts, nourishing oils, and essential oils.
Full Body Massage, 55 mins, €100. A Swedish massage designed to ease tension and relieve stress.
ESPA Aromatherapy Massage, 75 mins, €120. A complete face, scalp, and body massage using individually chosen essential oils focuses on acupressure points.
Back Reviver, 30 mins, €55. A revitalizing skin brushing and back exfoliation ends with a deep tissue back massage and moisturizing body balm.
Lifesaving Back Treatment, 55 mins, €75. A treatment for problematic skins that includes body brushing, exfoliation, deep cleansing, an aromatherapy massage, and a soothing mud mask.

Rebalancing Facial, 55 mins, €90. Specific massage techniques and a warm marine mud mask cleanse and decongest the skin.
ESPA Regenerating Facial, 55 mins, €95. Focuses on regenerating, firming and nourishing maturing skin.
ESPA Regenerating Facial With Firming Eye Treatment, 75 mins, €120 . Revives mature, dry or dehydrated skin, particularly around the eyes, with acupressure point massage and lymph drainage to the face, neck and shoulders, plus an Oriental head massage.
Indian Head Massage, 30 mins, €55. This technique is based on the ancient Ayurvedic healing system that massages the head, face and neck, releasing stress and promoting strong and healthy hair.
ESPA Skin Brightener Facial, 55 mins, €90. A rejuvenating facial for all skin conditions that includes a special application of skin brightener.
Rehydrator Facial, 55 mins, €90. Deep cleansing and exfoliation prepare dry dehydrated stressed skin for a rejuvenating massage, followed by a nourishing facial mask and head massage.
THE ESPA Advanced Concept Lifting and Firming Facial, 1hour 25 mins, €140. An anti-ageing facial massage for improved circulation, fewer lines, and firmer, smoother skin with improved elasticity.
Men’s Purifying Facial Shoulder and Scalp Massage, 55 mins, €90. A deep facial to balance and hydrate the skin and a triple cleansing procedure to promote drainage precede an acupressure face massage and purifying mask, plus a deep shoulder and scalp massage.

Merrion swimming pool

A swimming pool and its classic mural is the centerpiece of The Merrion’s Tethra Spa. Photo credit The Merriion.

The Tethra Spa offers ESPA treatments singly, individually tailored to suit the client’s personal needs, or packaged into day and half-day retreats, which include use of the pool, steam room, and gym facilities..

Total Indulgence, 5 hours, €375.  A full day that includes a body polish, a back, face and scalp massage, and a manicure and pedicure, plus a light healthy lunch.
Softest Skin, 4 hours, €320. The Tethra Spa mud envelopment replenishes and restores equilibrium, followed by a luxury facial that includes a reviving eye treatment and a manicure with a softening paraffin masque.
Body Bliss, 2 hours 30 mins, €220. Three steps to detoxify, replenish and revive the body: a salt and oil scrub, an intense aromatherapy massage, and an aromatherapy facial.
Golfers Tonic, 1 hour 30 mins, €130. A relaxing back massage and an ESPA luxury foot treatment, which includes exfoliation, deep aromatherapy massage,  and a warm paraffin wax envelopment to relieve feet aches and pains.

Flight Reviver, 1 hour 30 mins, €130. A full body massage and Indian Head Massage relieve negative effects of travel.
Urban Warriors, 2 hours, €170.  A beauty regime with individualized aromatherapy oils for a massage and facial, including scalp.
Stress Buster, 1 hour, €100. An Indian Head Massage, soothing eye treatment, and steam inhalation to clear sinuses and restore balance.

Great Expectations, 3 hours, €200. A back, face and scalp massage, plus luxury hand and nail treatment.
Pamper Paws, 2 hours 30 mins, €180. A luxury pedicure precedes a special manicure.
Magic Moments, 4 hours, €300. A top-to-toe indulgence that includes an aromatherapy massage, aromatherapy facial, and a Jessica manicure and pedicure.

Finishing Touches
Luxury Hand and Nail Treatment, 75 mins, €90. A holistic manicure incorporating hydrating milk, refining skin polish, hand and arm aromatherapy pressure point massage, and an envelopment of warm paraffin wax in heated mitts.
Luxury Foot and Nail Treatment, 75 mins, €90. A holistic pedicure including a mineral sea-salt foot spa and exfoliation, aromatherapy foot and leg massage, and an envelopment of warm paraffin wax in heated booties.

A variety of wax treatments from 10 mins (€15) to 60 mins (€70); manicures and pedicures from 30 mins( €40); eyelash and brow tints from 10 mins (€15); and tanning that includes body exfoliation from 45 mins (€60).

The Merrion, Upper Merrion Street, 353 1 603 0600 or 800-223-6800 (Leading Hotels of the World). Double rooms start at $290, including taxes.

All photos courtesy of the Merrion.


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Posted by on Feb 26, 2013 in Resort and Hotel Spas, Spa Reviews | 1 comment



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“In 1972 when I was in the timber business, I became the highest bidder in a government sale of some forests near the city of Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh. Working there, I became intrigued by an area on the back side of a nearby village, and one day I decided to take a closer look. I packed a lunch, put on my knapsack, and headed up through the pines. It was all wilderness; there was no water, no road nearby. But it was a beautiful spot with a lake. I thought to myself, ‘I must have this land.’”

Owner of Moksha Himalaya Spa.

Ramesh Garg, builder and proprietor of Moksha Himalaya Spa.

This, essentially, is how the story of Moksha Himalaya Spa Resort begins, and we are hearing it from Ramesh Garg, a sturdy-looking man of middle age and the developer as well as owner of the property that spreads out before us. It is mid-morning. We have recently arrived from Chandigarh, a magical city about a half-hour’s drive on the new Himalayan Expressway to the resorts of Timber Trail in Himachal Pradesh, a state in northern India, where we ascended via cable car to a height of 5,200 feet above sea level. Now, sitting in a lounge with Mr. Garg and drinking cardamom tea, we look out through a glass wall to a seemingly infinite spectacle of mountains continuing from the foreground before us into the far distance beneath a sky that grows from lavender to deep purple. Later on we would explore the resort: a 20-acre complex of  winding roads neatly paved with gray brick-shaped stones, stone walls, 62 cottage-style suites (some appear to be perched on the very edge of cliffs) set among individual pine trees (of irregular height and in unexpected places), fabulous floral displays including cascading bougainvillea (so surprising in this temperate mountainous region), and pillared pavilions that look out to miles-long views. But for the moment, we are transfixed as much by the tale as the scenery.

“In 1977 I went to Kuwait to sell my timber,” Mr. Garg continues. “It was a coming-up country, and I knew such countries need timber. But I saw they were buying logs from Norway and Sweden that were five to six meters long where mine were less than three meters.

“I went see a friend, Dr. Penzer, from Hamburg, Germany, who was a specialist in forest research. ‘Ten years from now there will be no timber business in India,’ he told me. ‘They will be importing timber from other countries. Why not look at Switzerland?’

“I took his advice. In the  Swiss Alps, I saw cable cars for the first time, and they made a strong impression on me. Years later, I would be reminded of them. Meanwhile, I returned to India, and some years later when the Supreme Court of India outlawed timbering in order to protect the forests, I decided to go in another direction.”

The direction would be away from timbering and towards tourism. If he could no longer cut trees on his forested land, Ramesh Garg would build resorts on land he had already cleared.

First came Timber Trail.  Built at the base of a mountain, it opened December 22, 1982. Next  was Timber Trail Heights higher up the mountain. It opened April 26, 1988 concurrent with the debut of the first cable car operation in northern India. He had not forgotten. The sight of cable cars silently drifting over the mountains, seemingly suspended in space, was happening in his own backyard, and he was the one who made it happen. Greeted with excitement and acclaim, they would prove to be a practical source of transportation and available to the local population at no cost, courtesy of the hotelier.

If not for the fact that we were sitting in a lounge of the Moksha Himalaya Spa Resort, we might well think this was the end of the story. But, our host assured us, there remained another chapter in the narrative although it would not take place for another sixteen years. At that time, however, a long-held dream would become reality: namely the opening of a world-class spa resort on the very piece of land he had trekked through the mountains to see up-close a long time long ago.

At this point in his account, Mr. Garg paused. A dark-haired woman in a vivid purple warm-up suit had just entered the lounge, and he stood to greet and introduce us to his spa director Panninee Amornrat.

He’d met Penny (whom we found to be “bright and shining as a penny” – hence our name for her) in Bangkok during the early stages of preparation for his newest quest, Mr. Garg told us. She’d had her own spa in her native Thailand, opened and ran one in Macau, and operated award-winning spas for Centara, the luxury Thai hotel chain. Impressed with her resume, he convinced her to become part of his new project.

“When I met ‘the Boss’ (which is how she refers to her employer) it was so exciting,” Penny said. “And when I came here, I just fell in love with the place. There were very few hotels on the mountain at the time. I thought it was awesome.”

The Boss smiled and leaned back, content to let Penny take over the role of raconteur. “For two years after he decided to build this resort, the Boss traveled around the world, visiting hotels, meeting with architects and designers, always working on and developing his concept,” she continued. “Finally, he narrowed down his search to P-49, an exclusive designing company that specializes in designing spas and luxury properties. But he was very hands-on. All through the process, even after the plans were set, he’d  fly back and forth for a meeting with the builders and designers whenever some question came up. The Boss had his own vision for the resort; he was going to make it happen.”

At the same time, Penny developed a vision of her own. The spa would embody the “courtesy culture” Thailand is famous for. “I wanted it to have the main characteristics of a Thai place,” she told us, “a very soft, very gentle approach. But as we are in India, I knew we would have to combine our Thai rituals with Indian traditions, principally the ancient Aruyvedic style. We would offer a unique dry Thai massage but also many Indian oil massages. And so, we have Thai therapists and Indian therapists. A big part of my job is training them.”

Another big part of Penny’s job turned out to be meeting with clients, discussing and planning programs for them based on the array of rituals, therapies and treatments available in what is referred to as “A Sanctuary for Body Mind and Soul” a multitude of options for massages facials, foot and hand treatments, herbal wraps, yoga sessions, custom-designed rituals for couples, even Turkish Hamman baths(!). A recent addition is the  wellness program introduced and supervised by Penny and an on-site medical doctor. Theirs is a holistic approach that focuses on such issues as stress reduction, weight loss, rejuvenation, and detoxification.

When Mr. Garg suggested Penny show us the centerpiece of his third (and clearly best-loved) resort, we readily agreed. So we left our amiable host and followed her along the road to a white-pillared edifice suggestive of a Greek temple from antiquity, out of place historically, yet in keeping with the aura of sacredness it projects. Standing on a rise on the top of a stairway of palatial dimensions made of the gray Himalayan stone so prevalent in the area, it looked out over a steep, terraced decline into which several rows of teakwood decks lined with chaise lounges, fire pits and Jacuzzis were set, save for the bottom-most row where the waters of an endless swimming pool spilled over the mountain’s edge to heart-stopping effect. In daylight, the image of endless mountain ranges was transfixing. At night, lights from as far away as Chandigarh sparkled; they were as mesmerizing as the adjacent star-filled sky.

That Mr. Garg envisioned the spa being a signature element of his dream resort can be seen by its inclusion in the property’s name. The same can be said of “Moksha” –a term of Sanskrit origin suggesting freedom from the temporal world, something beyond ordinary experience. One senses such a quality throughout the property  —  a letting go of the here and now, a moving into another place.

At the same time, there are all the comforts and pleasures of this luxury resort and its singular stunning spaces from the exceptionally well-stocked bar where the floors, walls and all the furnishings are made of teakwood, the gleaming halls where extravagant light fixtures hang from the soaring ceilings, and walls are made out of the same Himalayan stone one sees throughout the property for patios and terraces, the grand dining rooms and the excellent Indian dishes flavored with exotic spices as well as more familiar foods (for the more timid diner among us) – being guided by the sophisticated executive chef who told us he’d been all over India and has yet to taste all of its the spices.

moksha himalaya spa resort

The Moksha Himalaya Spa Resort.

Most important, there are the people who make up the Moksha family, who – to a man and woman – are so  attentive, eager to please, so warm and engaging. We will always remember their many kindnesses and charms, how in greeting, they would nod and put their hands together as if in prayer.

Such elements were in place by the time Gurmeet Singh Randhawa came on the scene. For the  tall and handsome resort manager, Moksha represented a coming home of sorts. He was born and grew up in Amitsar, the historic city in Punjab, famed for its holy temple, and while he had relocated to Delhi to complete his education and then spent eighteen years in the hospitality industry working for the Hyatt Hotel chain, his heart remained in the Himalayas. Which is why he readily accepted an offer in 2012 from the Indian School of Business in Puni, a city in Punjab close to his hometown.

“It was after I relocated in Puni, that I heard about Moksha,” Gurmeet told us. “I had known about the Timber Trail resorts from the time I was a kid; I’d visited the sites more than once. But Moksha was something else. The scenery was so spectacular! It was amazing!

“I met ‘the Chairman’ (which is how Gurmeet refers to Mr. Garg). He showed me around. We toured the resort in a golf cart (the means of ground transportation on the resort; drivers are available twenty-four hours a day, every day). It was the top of the world. I met the staff; every one of them was full of enthusiasm.

“So I happily accepted the Chairman’s offer and am so glad to be living in my home area once again, to be working in this beautiful setting on this incredible property.”

When Gurmeet arrived at Moksha, it had already been in operation for three years, the official opening of the resort having taken place December 22, 2009 with Prem Kumar Dhumal, Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh making the inaugural presentation 27 years, to the day, of the official opening of Timber Trail, the first of the trio of resorts.

It all had come together for the one-time timber merchant: becoming a hotelier, bringing cable cars to northern India, creating a small, exclusive  hotel that is in the running for “Best Spa Resort in Asia.” And, at the same time, never forgetting the trees.

During construction, landscapers and builders wanted to cut down pine trees that grew here and there, claiming they were in the way of their plans. But, Mr. Garg told us,  he would not allow a single tree to be touched; each one was to be left where it is.

We were reminded of the George Pope Morris poem:

          Woodman, spare that tree!    

                                                Touch not a single bough!

                                                In youth it sheltered me

                                                And I’ll protect it now.

And so they stand, tall and slender trunks, puffs of greenery at the top, a testament to what was and what continues be all over the Moksha Spa Himalaya Resort.

Moksha Spa Himalaya Spa Resort

Parwanoo, 173220

Himachal Pradesh


Telephone: +91 1792 232340







































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Posted by on Dec 12, 2012 in Resort and Hotel Spas, Spa Reviews | 0 comments

At Ashford Castle Don’t Call it a Spa

At Ashford Castle Don’t Call it a Spa

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In a courtly display of diffidence, what would be called a spa anywhere else is known as the Health Rooms at Ashford Castle, the tony baronial resort in western Ireland whose roots go back to the 13th century. Don’t worry, all the necessary facilities are on premises: three treatment rooms and three therapists, a sauna to sweat in, a jacuzzi for lolling, a  workout room and an imaginative range of treatments to soothe mind and muscles. Just don’t call it a spa.

Ashford Castle commands a shore of Lough Corrib, Ireland's second largest lake. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

Ashford Castle commands a shore of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second largest lake. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

The only product used is Yon-ka, a group of essential oils and botanical extracts originally developed 75 years ago in France by two brother botanists. They pioneered what they called esthetic aromatherapy and phytotherapy, the use of essential plant oils and other aromatic extracts from nature to promote health.

Ashford Castle, The Jacuzzi leads to the glassed-in relaxation room. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

The Jacuzzi leads to the glassed-in relaxation room. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

In a nod to evocative branding the brothers named their company Yon-Ka, combining Yon, a French river of fast-flowing purifying water and Ka, a regenerative concept in Egyptian mythology. Together they evoke continuous regeneration, a nice symbol for skin care.

Yon-ka’s broad product line encompasses not only fragrant essential plant oils but such other plant and marine extracts as vitamins and fruit acids. The variety makes possible personalized treatments for all types of skin, including a line for men, as well as different skin conditions.

A few minutes before my appointment, I went down to the Health Rooms on the castle’s lower level to study the treatment menu, and, drawn to the rejuvenating promise of the Yon waters, I zeroed in on the Marine Therapy section. From its eight body treatments I chose “Soins Velours,” a moisturizing body polish with an intriguing choice: marine mineral salts for an invigorating scrub or a moisturizing, exfoliating soft gel peel for a more relaxing, gentler treatment.

The glassed-in relaxation room looks out on the castle battlements and Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

The glassed-in relaxation room looks out on the castle battlements and Lough Corrib. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

Fiona Maye, my therapist, settled me in a cozy room, dimly lit by low candles, and explained the difference between the invigorating and relaxing treatments, both of which end with a light moisturizing massage for soft velvety skin. No contest: I chose relaxing, lay face down on the massage table, and asked Fiona to write down later exactly what she did. A few hours later her notes were delivered to my room.

“I applied Gommage Corps to the back and the back of legs and feet. It’s a plant based gel peel, which leaves the skin invigorated and exfoliated.
I then nipped out of the room to get hot towels to remove the exfoliant. Using brisk hand movements, I removed the exfoliant while getting an excellent peel. I further removed the remaining residue with the hot towels. This helps to loosen the muscles for the massage.
I then applied the oils and cream to the body. I used Phyto 152 which is a firming and tightening cream that contains rosemary which has brightening properties. I also used a relaxing oil with a combination of lavender and lemongrass to further relax.
I then proceeded to the front of the body. I repeated the above steps on the front of the legs, the feet, and the hands and arms. I also included the decollete and face.
I used Phyto 152 on the arms and decollete which is a body and bust tighten cream, and Phyto 52, a moisturizing and firming facial cream.
This treatment concludes with a scalp massage.”

Fiona was as good a therapist as she was a chronicler. As promised, the treatment did indeed leave my skin soft as velvet (“soins velours”), but, hands down, my favorite part was the relaxation lounge, a glassed-in terrace tucked against the castle walls that looks out on round turreted battlements and the tranquil lake beyond.  A cup of herbal tea, an inviting bowl of fruit, a very comfortable lounge, and that view kept me relaxing there a nice long time.

One of three cozy treatment rooms, Ashford Castle. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

One of three cozy treatment rooms. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

Ashford Castle Treatments  
Aroma-Stone Massage
 – 75 min, €130. An aromatic hot stone massage combining the therapeutic benefits of three aromatic oils with the relaxing, rebalancing effects of warm, smooth basalt stones.
Aroma-Luxe Massage – 60 min, €100. An energizing or relaxing aromatic massage with essential oils, including lavender, basil and verbena.
Back Massage – 30 min, €55.
Back, Neck, Shoulders, Face and Scalp Massage – 
45 min, €75.
Swedish Massage
 – 60 min, €100. A full body massage to relax tense muscles, improve circulation, lymphatic drainage and muscle tone.

Gommage Marin
 – 25 min, €55. An exfoliation and toning body polish with Guerande sea salt grains, aromatic oils, verbena and rosemary.
Soins Velours – 60 min, €100. One treatment with a choice of an invigorating or relaxing body polish plus a nourishing soft-skin massage.
Hydralessence Corps – 75 min, €125. A deep hydrating treatment with an exfoliating soft gel peel and a seaweed body mask.
Phyto Marine – 70 min, €115. A slimming body treatment  with a full body mask of either marine clay or micronized seaweed, both with precisely targeted healing and stimulating aromatic oils.
Body Detox – 75 min, €120. A deep detoxifying herbal wrap using brisk massage and specifically targeted herbal treatment creams followed by cocooning in a thermal blanket.
Secret De Beauté – 105 min, €170. A head to toe revive combining marine mineral salts and aromatic oils for full body exfoliation plus a nourishing foot mask and the Hydralessence facial.
Jambes Toniques – 35 min, €70. An anti-fatigue leg treatment  that stimulates surface circulation and leaves legs feeling light and refreshed, perfect before or after a long flight.
Lavish Spa Foot Treatment – 50 min, 100. A smoothing scrub with Guerande sea salt grains and essential oils, followed by a relaxing massage and a warm wrap of marine clay.

The Health Rooms at Ashford Castle favor classical décor. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

The Health Rooms favor classical décor. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

Le Grand Classique
 – 60 min, €90. Cleansing, restoring and relaxing facial with balancing aromatic elixirs of lavender, rosemary and geranium.
Plaisir D’Arômes – 60 min, €95. A cocooning facial combining a warm aromatic compress and an enveloping relaxing massage.
Vital Intense – 75 min, €110. Deep regenerating facial to restore balance, elasticity and vitality.
Escale Beauté – 30 min, €60. A quick beauty break with aromatic citrus fruits and French lavender plus botanical extracts.
Hydralessence Visage – 60 min, €100. A deep hydrating facial for dehydrated complexions.
Optimizer – 70 min, €100. A facial contour “lift” for flawless skin and perfect tone.
Eclat Contour – 45 min, €70. Three eye “contour” treatments: Anti-wrinkle, anti puffiness, and anti-dark circles.

Men’s Grand Classique
 – 60 min, €80. A deep pore cleansing facial for men.
Swedish Full Body Massage – 60 min, €100.
Head to Toe Revive – 90 min, €135. Massage using specific techniques and aromatic oils to ease stressed muscles, followed by 30 minute facial.

Half and full day spa packages are available, as well as a complete menu of beauty services including manicure, pedicure, waxing and tanning.

Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland; 011 353 94 954 6003; Fax: 011 353 94 954 6260; visit the website.  A member of The Leading Small Hotels of the World, 800-346-7007.

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