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A Spa Lover's Sweet Dream

Hershey's world of cocoa baths and chocolate wraps is sealed with a kiss

March 04, 2001|JODY JAFFE | Jody Jaffe is a mystery writer who lives in Silver Spring, Md

HERSHEY, Pa. — At the chocolate factory, cocoa beans are soaked, sprayed, warmed, pummeled, turned into a silky goo and wrapped in silver foil.

A mile away at the chocolate spa, clients are soaked, sprayed, warmed, pummeled, turned into a silky goo and wrapped in silver foil.

Somewhere, Milton S. Hershey is smiling.

Hershey, the man who made millions from America's sweet tooth, may be best known for his candy bars, but it was more than innovative chocolateering skills that made him an icon. He was a master marketer. After all, it isn't a town called Nestle that sees 5 million tourists a year.

Nearly 100 years after Hershey began mass-producing milk chocolate, the hotel he built is following its founder's formula: If you've got a niche, exploit it. So when the Hotel Hershey opened a spa two months ago, it was no surprise the gimmick was chocolate: chocolate wraps, chocolate baths, chocolate lotion and chocolate scrubs.

Dubbed the Chocolate Spa, the $7-million, 17,000-square-foot addition to the already grand hotel opened Jan. 15 to a flurry of media attention.

My companion, John Muncie, and I arrived on a dreary winter day with the sky so heavy it seemed to be held up by the twin brick smokestacks of the Hershey factory. But a weighty sky in this town can be a good thing. Clouds trap the roasting cocoa aromas; open your car windows, and it smells as if you're swimming inside a Hershey's bar. For locals, the enticing scent may mean bad weather.

"In the morning if you can smell the chocolate, you know it's going to be nasty," said Craig Deimler, 28, who lives in nearby Harrisburg. Deimler, fresh from his first facial, was wrapped in a white robe, eating chocolate-covered strawberries and sipping hot chocolate. His wife, Melissa, decided to celebrate her 29th birthday at the Hershey Spa and made her husband come along.

Not that going to the spa was a hardship-except, perhaps, financially. Milton Hershey may have developed inexpensive milk chocolate, but his hotel's spa isn't cheap. John and I would end up dropping close to $1,000 in less than 24 hours.

Such luxury has humble roots. About 130 years ago, a 14-year-old Mennonite boy failed as a printer's apprentice and was sent to Lancaster, Pa., to learn to be a confectioner. Milton Hershey learned his lessons well and went on to develop the world's biggest chocolate factory and an entire town to service it.

Along the way, his company added a theme park with roller coasters and other rides, a museum showcasing Hershey's personal collection of artifacts on Native American and Pennsylvania German life, a school for the underprivileged, a sports stadium, a lodge, gardens and the hotel.

Why add a spa? It's all in the numbers. According to the International Spa Assn., 95 million people went to U.S. spas in 2000, generating $5 billion in revenue. Spa industry revenues surged 152% between 1997 and 1999.

Completed in 1933, the 235-room Hotel Hershey overlooks this little town (population 12,000) with avenues named Chocolate and Cocoa and street lights shaped like Hershey's Kisses. For many visitors, the hotel and its sister attractions-the gardens, theme park, factory and now the spa-make the town a destination in itself. For others, especially Southern Californians with similar attractions closer to home, Hershey is an easy side trip or place to overnight after a day antiquing in Amish Country, about 30 minutes away, or a visit to Philadelphia, about 75 miles to the east.

The resort-built in a Mediterranean style that looks charmingly foreign-would please even non-chocoholics. Hershey based his design on European hotels he visited while vacationing with his wife, Catharine "Kitty" Hershey. A flight up from the reception area is the hotel's centerpiece: an open, two-story-high Spanish-style patio decorated with intricate tile work, carved wood beams, a fountain and a cloud-painted ceiling.

Opposite the patio is Hershey's other pride and joy: the Circular Dining Room, where dinner for two runs into the triple digits. Service is attentive, and the food is as good as any posh, big-city restaurant (don't miss the mushroom soup). The only nod to Milton is butter that carries a tinge of chocolate flavor.

Windows trimmed with ornate Victorian-style stained glass wrap around three-quarters of the space, which overlooks a formal garden. As big as it is, the room has no support pillars, so every guest gets an unimpeded view of fancy gazebos, manicured hedges and pools outside.

At night, a single white taper flickers on each table; branches drape elegantly from potted trees. Gentlemen must wear jackets, and all the ladies I saw wore dresses. There's a Gatsby-visits-Barcelona feel to the place.

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