Joining spa nation

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

"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."


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