Joining spa nation

"If one place can be crowned capital of spa nation, it's Scottsdale"
Peter Fish

"We begin with an exfoliation," Isla tells me, "to remove dead skin cells. Then a clay-aloe vera wrap. You'll feel you've died and gone to heaven."

I am not in heaven. I am at the Centre for Well-Being at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona. Isla the massage therapist is coating me in clay for the Desert Serenity Scrub, Wrap, and Massage.

Welcome to spa nation: Gen exfoliate, land of aromatherapy, home of the herbal body rub. According to the International Spa Association, the number of American hotel or resort spas has tripled since 2000. They generate $4.5 billion in revenue per year. And if one place can be crowned capital of spa nation, it's Scottsdale, where a dozen opulent resorts offer countless beauty treatments and massage modalities ― shiatsu, Reiki, raindrop.

I'm not a spa guy. My own modalities are two: clenched and asleep. So when I embarked on a journey through the Scottsdale spa scene, it was with the hopeful yet cynical spirit of a 7-year-old who longs to believe in Santa Claus but can't.

"I'm rubbing you with warm castor oil," says the therapist at the Spa at Camelback Inn. "Very healing for the lymphatic system. Edgar Cayce wrote about it." I lie on the massage table, trying to remember who Edgar Cayce was. Didn't he write about Atlantis? Did they have castor oil in Atlantis? The therapist presses hot rocks between my toes. They're scalding. I swear. "Now," he says, "I'm placing precious stones on your chakras."

The precious stones are at least cool. I and my chakras hit the shower: a 13-nozzle Swiss device that answers the question, What would it be like to go through a car wash without a car?

"Arizona is a place swept clean every night," says Scottsdale architect and author Vernon D. Swaback, explaining why his community has acquired such a concentration of spas. "That kind of vitality is health making."

 

Still, by the time I reach the Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa, I don't feel healthy so much as dazed. I could have worked with the Golden Door's shaman to seek clarity and light. I could have joined the Horse to Heart Experience, choosing a new life path while cleaning horses' hooves. Instead I opt for the Turquoise Wrap, which starts with another exfoliation ― Hopi blue cornmeal this time ― and a turquoise clay wrap.

"Honey," the therapist says as he smears a new substance onto my back. "Rich in vitamins E and A. Sit in the steam room and let it bake on you."

I do. Then, feeling like a giant sopaipilla, I walk out in my robe to the Boulders' labyrinth. I follow its twists, hoping for enlightenment. But partly because the baked honey sticks to the terry-cloth robe and makes every step an agony, I find only doubt. Maybe I should have talked to the shaman. Maybe I should have talked to a horse. Maybe I should work in a car wash.

"The Havasupai Body Oasis Experience duplicates the journey to the Havasu Falls," says Hannelore, my therapist at Willow Stream spa. This I understand. I have hiked to Havasupai, the Arizona canyon that is the most beautiful place in the world. "We start with a chamomile exfoliation for the dead skin cells."

No, I want to tell Hannelore. All the dead skin cells have gone. They're in dead-skin-cell heaven. But I give in. "The idea of going someplace to relax, to release, is so powerful," Swaback had told me. "I don't know of any nicer feeling than being cared for." As Hannelore massages me, I find myself dreaming about the real Havasupai. Maybe we do all need a reminder of life's beauties, a chance to acquire open hearts and open pores, to attain the skin and soul of a newborn.

"Now," Hannelore says, "the aromatherapy wrap." She places a cloth over my face. I smell eucalyptus and roses. "Breathe," she tells me, and, deeply, I do.

INFO: The Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa (480/595-3500); the Centre for Well-Being at the Phoenician (800/843-2392); the Spa at Camelback Inn (480/596-7040); Willow Stream, the Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (800/908-9540)