By Julie Earle-Levine
FT, May 21, 2004
So there I am, being slathered with mayi mapi, a yellow mud from far north Queensland, and inhaling a smoky o'yarang (or old man's beard). Tribal chanting and the hum of a didgeridoo wash over me. A cockatoo shrieks. Children laugh. No, I'm not in the Australian outback, I'm at the enormous MGM Grand in Las Vegas - a 5,000-room hotel - experiencing a spa treatment called the dreaming ritual, based on Australian Aboriginal wisdom. I'm also on the trail of a trend.
As the spa market becomes increasingly competitive - according to the International Spa Association, a US-based industry group, there were nearly 156m spa visits in the US in 2001, generating $11bn in revenues, up from $5bn two years earlier - spas are having to offer more and more outlandish treatments to set themselves apart.
From Las Vegas to Hong Kong, from Australian mud and oils to ancient Chinese herbs, Brazilian bee propolis and chocolate, now you have to be able to get away from the place you came to, to get away.
"People come to Vegas for a real escape, so we wanted a real spa escape - something that was totally foreign to them and the Australian treatment is just that," says Rachel Knapp, MGM's spa director. "The dreaming ritual has had the most significant responses of all treatments in terms of an escapist, or indulgent experience."
By way of example, Knapp recalls one man who seemed unsure about the ritual, but emerged with the comment: "This is the best two hours I have ever spent with anyone. But don't tell that to my wife."
During the dreaming ritual treatment, which has been one of the spa's most popular (and expensive) treatments since being introduced in April last year, the native mud is mixed with macadamia nut oil, yang yang flower and mandarin and sandalwood oils.
Other treatments include a red mud, or pepperberry, that is said to be good for stress and anxiety, macadamia, almond and camellia oil, and an essential oil, blue cyprus, said to improve circulation.
Meanwhile, miles away in Hong Kong, the spa at the Hotel Intercontinental is the city's first to use the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui. To combat jet lag (all those western bankers), the spa recommends the Golden Legend, a Chinese herbal wrap that May Tam, assistant spa director, says is requested most often.
"Many people who come here have travelled far, and this helps to revitalise them," she says. Besides, "the treatment is also not so sticky. You don't have to shower after it and it smells fresh".
It ought to. It begins with huang qi tea (meaning yellow or golden energy) which is pleasantly sweet and intended to stimulate detoxification. This is followed by a herb treatment - gan-coa (liquorice, to rejuvenate and detoxify heavy metals from the skin), shan-zhu-yu (cornus flowers and berries), wu-we-zi (schizandra), to invigorate yang powers and restore yin, as well as ginger, ginko biloba and zizyphus fruit. It ends with a blanket-wrap and herbal spritz.
Back in the States, at Canyon Ranch in Massachusetts, the latest news comes courtesy of the Brazilian rainforest: wrapture treatment. This features propolis, a dark, sticky resinous substance bees collect from leaves, twigs and tree bark. The treatment in effect uses this bee glue to help boost the immunity of the skin and to protect and soften it. The Brazilian rainforest wrapture treatment was introduced at the spa late last year, and is among Canyon Ranch's top treatments, second only to the mango scrub.
Further south, there's the Hershey Spa in Pennsylvania, a Willy Wonka-like, mad fantasy world guaranteed to send chocolate fans into a frenzy. The spa is near Hershey's famous chocolate factory and giant theme park, and not surprisingly, a rich chocolate smell envelops you at the front door (you are also offered a choice of chocolate bars at check in; this is not about weight loss).
Signature treatments here are chocolate whipped cocoa baths, chocolate fondue wraps and cocoa massages - and are so popular the spa has announced plans to double its size. Many guests at the spa apparently like nothing more than being dressed up like a strawberry parfait or a peppermint pattie. For the latter, imagine being scrubbed with peppermint salt, painted with warm chocolate and wrapped in a blanket, just like the peppermint treat.
"The whipped cocoa bath is definitely our most popular soaking service, if not the most popular service overall," says Jennifer Wayland, the spa's director.
"The allure of soaking in a chocolate bath is what seems to be most enticing to our spa guests." Indeed, eight out of every 10 Hershey spa soaks are whipped cocoa baths, while more than half of all exfoliation treatments are cocoa bean polishes.
Hershey also sells its chocolate spa products such as a cocoa latte body wash, so spa goers can continue the treat at home. Truthfully, however, it just wouldn't be the same.
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