I was lying face down on a towel-covered wooden bench in a Russian dry banya, where the air was heated to a toasty 200 degrees. Think Finnish dry sauna, but 60 degrees warmer. Could it get any hotter in here? The answer was yes, it could.
At Voda Spa in West Hollywood, I was about to experience the platza, a traditional Russian spa treatment. Standing next to me was the silent young platza master, who was dipping what looked like a large feather duster made of oak leaves and twigs into a bucket of water. He waved the venik bundle over my body, making the air seem even hotter and heating up the branches. Then he dragged the soft wet leaves down my back and legs; it felt a little like being in a car wash.
He dipped the fragrant branches in the bucket again, waved the bundle in the air and thwacked my back and legs with it, spraying hot water on my skin. From time to time he splashed me with cooler water — a couple of times at my request. This and the cold towel on my head were what kept me from bolting out of the room. Instead, I turned over and he repeated the process.
After about 10 minutes, he led me out of the banya to a cold plunge, where I stepped into 40-degree water and lingered as long as I could stand it (which wasn't long). I staggered to a birch stool, grabbed an icy washcloth and tried not to pass out.
The platza is not for the weak of heart or heat-sensitive. But it's popular among Voda Spa regulars — many of whom are Russian. Essential oils from the wet oak are absorbed into the skin, and the heat increases circulation. Hence the dizziness, which I was told is a desirable reaction (really?), along with reddened skin. The platza is definitely, well, invigorating.
Voda Spa — voda means "water" in Russian — has elements of an old-world bathhouse but is designed for a younger, hipper crowd. The nearly 3-year-old coed spa — co-owned by Leon and Tania Shparaga, both from Ukraine — is clean and modern. Some rooms are sleekly urban, with Russian music videos and ESPN playing on wide-screen TVs. Others are rustic but sophisticated, with exposed wood beams and birch wall treatments.
The website gives a good idea of what to expect, with pictures, videos, treatment descriptions and spa policies. I considered getting Voda's four-treatment sampler at $99, but thought better of it when I was told I'd have to fax or e-mail a copy of my driver's license and credit card to get the package. Instead I signed up for the platza ($25) and the Russian Bear massage ($115 for 50 minutes), which required just a credit card number for a deposit over the phone. The $50 spa fee, which gives you use of the facility for four hours, is waived with a 50-minute body treatment.
Voda is on Santa Monica Boulevard east of Fairfax Avenue and shares the street with Russian and adult businesses and the trendy Bar Lubitsch. The spa has its own parking lot off an alley in back.
When I arrived, I was told to fill out a health history and a liability-release form (which you can download in advance online). Then they asked me to put my valuables in a safe-deposit box and gave me the key. An attendant took me to the locker room upstairs, where I chose my locker combination, changed into a swimsuit and was given rubber sandals and a comfortable white waffle weave robe.
The women's changing room had a northern European feel, with blond surfaces and tangerine-colored locker doors. There were several showers, an open changing area and a couple of blow dryers. The spa provides shower and other personal-care amenities.
Downstairs, a relaxation room looked out onto the spa area, which included a lap pool, a whirlpool, the cold plunge, showers and a series of heated rooms: the dry Russian sauna, where the platza was performed; a cooler wet Russian sauna; a Turkish steam room; and a Finnish dry sauna. In other rooms you could get scrubs (Siberian Wild Berry), wraps (one with caviar serum), massages, facials, skin peels, nail and hair care and waxing.
On the night I was there, the spa had the vibe of a social club, with young couples reclining on chaises and men and women conversing in and around the pools.
People also were hanging out in the V Room, where cocktails include an antioxidant superfruit martini. Voda Cafe serves a full menu of Russian and California dishes. (I had a delicious borscht made from co-owner Leon's father's recipe.) Smoothies are served at the pool and cafe. The spa also has a patio and a VIP lounge.
After my dizzying platza experience, it was time for the Russian Bear. Massage therapist Salvador led me upstairs to the dimly lighted massage room. I slipped inside the sheets and under a fluffy orange blanket on the well-padded table.