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COVER STORY

Spa Wars

Luxury hotels are going all-out to enhance their indulgent treatments. And you're invited.

July 06, 2006|Valli Herman;Maggie Barnett | Times Staff Writer

I'M face down on a thickly padded massage table when I realize I'm smelling my favorite scent: New Construction. The smell of drying paint, fresh carpeting and new wood is getting pretty common at hotel spas around town, and this is the newest, the 3-day-old Aqua Star Spa at the Beverly Hilton.

When the 50-year-old hotel underwent an $80-million renovation this year, it added a spa for the first time in its history and sunk a fair bit of change into the chic, poolside pampering parlor. It had to.

In Beverly Hills, the birthplace of excess, indulgence and entitlement, nearly every top hotel is battling to outdo the others with a showplace spa and decadent treatments -- and they're keeping the massage tables turning by reaching out to the locals, who can extend the experience with a lingering lunch or an after-spa swim.

In just the last four months, the Peninsula, the Regent Beverly Wilshire and the nearby Westwood W have opened lavish new spas where fingertips massage away tension with a fragrant oil saturated with emeralds (emeralds!), high-tech showers soothe you with scented water (would you prefer Atlantic Storm or Caribbean Rain?), spa attendants wear uniforms by St. John and customized options such as "personal time" offer totally passive luxury: Buy a block of time and let the spa therapist decide what you'll need to reach optimum bliss.

After years of fighting the "bed wars" with high-count linens and ever-fluffier padding, the competition has moved to the spa, says Donald Wise, president of Resorts, Marinas and Vineyards Inc., an investment banker for high-end resorts.

"A spa can be a very tidy profit center for a hotel," he says, "as well as providing a level of experience that the customer is demanding."

Two years ago, the Beverly Hills Hotel won the first round of spa wars by opening one of only two La Prairie spas in the United States. Later this summer, Sofitel will open LeSpa, its hipster version, in the renovated hotel near the Beverly Center. Then the Montage Resort will land in the heart of Beverly Hills in 2008, with what may be the best in class.

Spas are so important to the hotel experience that the luxury hotel company Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. in 2004 bought its own spa company, Bliss, and put it in every new or remodeled W hotel.

"The spa is an amenity," says Radha Arora, general manager at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. "It's not a question of coming to a hotel to sleep. You need to be pampered."

Well, yes we do. So we put seven hotel spas through their paces. All had added or upgraded spas within the last two years and are open to non-hotel guests. Overall, the hotels add a level of service that you don't find at a day spa. They have the valet parking, grand lobby, luxury linens, pool, lounge and hospitality-minded staff built in. With one exception, they are all serious about massage techniques and have well-trained therapists.

They all also have startling prices -- a massage at a hotel spa can be more than double the typical dollar-a-minute rate at a day spa.

Are they worth it? I've been scrubbed, buffed, rubbed and polished more often than a Beverly Hills Bentley. Now I know why it purrs.

Water world

This month-old Spa at the Regent Beverly Wilshire is serene, luxurious and a little like a nightclub. Changing into my blanket-thick robe, I explored this fantasy bathroom, where there's no sauna, hot tub or generic steam room, but a huge steam "lounge" that looks like a starlit, foggy grotto. Apres-steam, I was instructed to run handfuls of flaky ice along my cooked limbs (there's a glorious glass ice dispenser ... outside the door) and then douse myself in the scented "experience shower." I tried every one -- Cold Mist (eucalyptus), Caribbean Rain (fruity) and Atlantic Storm (George Clooney's aftershave). The thing whipped from mist to blast to dribble during a mini light show. Marvelous.

But things were awkward during my visit too. A malfunction made the locker room damp and warm, while the cavernous steam room pumped barely a teakettle of heat. Patrons are issued a single towel (soon dampened in the steam room) and terrycloth slippers (not waterproof).

I dried off with a purloined bath mat and squished to the quiet, dim lounge that beckoned with cookies, recliners and Architectural Digest (no brain-candy People or Star in this joint). For $385, I was relieved of making decisions for two hours and put into the experienced hands of a technician who would determine my needs, body and soul. With feet like pine bark, I figured they would send in the emergency pedicure squad.

But the "personalized time" package turned out to be something of a gimmick: It doesn't offer facial treatments or nail services because the therapists follow a prescribed menu for the package. Pay $575 for three hours, or $800 for four, or $990 for five. It turns out the world isn't your oyster.

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