beauty & fitness

In Florida,
a good facial -
or massage
or body wrap
or sauna
or pedicure
or other spa treatment -
is rarely far away.

........................A Day at the Spaaaaahhhhhhh G. K. Sharman
To find the best Day Spa nearest you, click the map below for listings and links

What price pampering?

Spas aren't just for the well-to-do, though it helps to have disposable income.

For instance, 60 minutes of shiatsu, Swedish or deep-tissue massage will set you back $85 at Greenhouse. Prices and complexity go up from there. One of those trendy hot stone massages at Nirvana has a price tag of $105 for 75 minutes.

On the more affordable end, a one-hour massage costs $55 at MassageWorks Day Spa ($40 for half an hour) and $35 at The Springs.

Spa history

In the beginning, there was water.

It travels deep beneath the earth, then bubbles up into naturally heated, mineral-laden pools. Roman soldiers, according to most accounts, discovered that a warm soak in these special pools soothed their wounded, battle-weary bodies.

One popular ancient hot spot - bad pun intended - was in what is now Belgium, at a place called Spa. The name - thought to be derived from the Latin words "espa," fountain, and "sparsa," bubble up - became synonymous with thermal bath. Toward the late Middle Ages, Spa's fame spread and the city began attracting a host of visitors looking to improve their health. It's still a hit with the hot-water crowd.

Warm Mineral Springs at The Springs near Sarasota

Meanwhile, on this continent, Native Americans also had discovered the relaxing and curative properties of hot mineral water. Here in Florida, the Caloosa Indians knew about a little place on the west coast near what is now Naples. They considered it a sacred place, a healing place, said Robin San Vincente, who's with guest services at the site now known as The Springs in North Port Robin, and guarded it jealously. Then Ponce de Leon got wind of it and figured it to be the fountain of youth he had been searching for on a previous voyage to Florida.

So back he sailed, this time to Charlotte Harbor. But he died in battle with the Caloosa and never made it to the spring.

Both he and the Caloosa were onto something though. These days the site - the only warm-water spring in the Sunshine State - draws some 100,000 people a year to its magnesium- and sulfate-laden waters.

Spa etiquette and other concerns

-- What are they gonna do to me? Spas offer a menu of services, described in detailed, if occasionally flowery, English. Becoming familiar with a service, preferably before your visit, can help you decide what to have done and to feel more comfortable.

-- If you don't know, ask. Good spa operators are happy to answer questions. After all, 39 percent of spa visitors are first-timers, according to figures from the International Spa Association. You can't be expected to know everything right off the bat.

-- Tipping is not a city in China. Tips for staff are generally accepted, but policies vary. If it's your first visit, ask at the front desk when you arrive.

-- Do I have to, um, take my clothes off? Most spas give you a robe to wear during your visit - depending on what you're having done. If you're just getting a pedicure, you usually can keep your street clothes on. If you're having a hydrotherapy treatment, a swimsuit might be a good idea. Underneath the robe, wear whatever is comfortable for you. Spa staff step out of the room if there's any undressing to be done, and during the procedure uncover only the part of the body being worked on.

-- Where the boys are. It's a rare spa these days that isn't coed. The genders get separate locker rooms, of course, and sometimes separate treatment areas. Staff is coed too, and most places let you request male or female therapists.

-- Shhhh!! You don't have to talk during the treatment if you don't want to. Or you can have your therapist explain what's being done. Or, if you're getting a pedicure at the Greenhouse Spa at the Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, you can yak about everything from kids to pets to rock 'n roll with staff and other customers. So this is why Mom went to the salon every week.

Crystal Microdermabrasion

Let's face it - aging sucks. But wait, there's hope - if you consult with a crystal, actually millions of them. A process called Crystal Microdermabrasion, which acts like a tiny sandblaster on the top layer of skin (it feels like an overly amorous cat lick), removes age spots, discoloration, heals sun damaged skin, smoothes lines and gives your face, neck and chest a healthy glow.

Eva Taub of Eva's European Skincare Clinic near Miami Beach gets great results on age spots with crystal microdermabrasion.

Eurpean skincare expert Eva Taub (yup, she's European) discusses this and other skin conditions on her website, . She carries a line of natural products for just about every beauty-related skin condition.


I was lying on a towel-covered table but I could have been reclining on air. An aromatherapy candle burned on the counter and soft, vaguely New Agey music played in the background.

Jennifer's expert fingers massaged my face with so many cleansers, lotions and exfoliants that I lost track after the first three. She massaged my neck. She waxed my eyebrows. She used machines - one felt like little rollers over my face, the other like mild electric tingle - designed to boost circulation and protect my skin with ozone.

Jennifer works at The Greenhouse Spa at the Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, a place where facials go all the way to the shoulders and service is so attentive you can't wait to overtip.

It was my first such treatment. The verdict: Ahhhhhhh... As relaxing as any massage. Almost as good as a whole box of chocolate. My skin had never felt so good. The treatment also was a boost to my mental health and a whole lot more fun than the recent hospital stay that sent me scurrying to the spa in the first place.

There's no way to make a definitive count of spas, but the International Spa Association represents more than 1,900 health and wellness facilities and spa providers in 55 countries.

While "spa" originally referred to hydrotherapy treatments, usually at a naturally occurring hot or mineral spring, today's definition is much broader, with facilities falling into seven basic categories:

  • Club spas, which focus primarily on fitness
  • Day spas, which offer massage, facials and other services on a day-use basis. Use the interactive map to locate a day spa near you.
  • Destination spas, where you go to improve your lifestyle, your weight or your health.
  • Medical spas, which provide medical and wellness care, as well as spa therapies and treatments
  • Resort and hotel spas, which offer spa services (and frequently fitness centers) to guests and day users.
  • Spas aboard cruise ships
  • Mineral springs, which focus on hydrotherapy and are located at naturally occurring mineral, thermal or seawater sites

In Florida, spas range from independent operations such as MassageWorks Day Spa in Kissimmee to Greenhouse at the Portofino, which is owned by the Steiner Spa Network, the largest spa operator in the world.

On the casual side is The Springs in North Port (near Sarasota), a natural warm mineral spring that draws clients from all over the world and costs just $14 to get in. Spa services such as massages are extra, of course. Much swankier is SpaClub at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center near Orlando, the latest branch of Caynon Ranch, whose original full-service destination spa in Tucson, Ariz., is a considered one of the world's best.

Spa Atlantis in Pompano Beach is a popular fitness day spa, resort spa and salon.

If you're looking to lose weight, get fit or eliminate the stress in your life, there's Spa Atlantis, a destination spa in Pompano Beach.

Spas, especially those of the thermal variety, are common fare in Europe. In this country, though, they're thought of as pamper palaces for people - particularly women - with big bank accounts. The perception is changing, although your typical spa-goer still is female, according to studies done by the International Spa Association. Generally she's married, has a college education or better, is employed full-time and has no children under 18 living at home. Most likely she's in her 40s and enjoys a household income of at least $96,000, the average for day-spa users.

More men, however, are getting wise to the spa experience. On cruise ships, the ratio is already close to 50-50, said Denise Williams, director at the Portofino spa and a 13-year ship spa veteran.

One place the guys might be comfortable is Nirvana.Owned

Try an ice plunge after sweating it out in one of several saunas at Miami Beach's Nirvana Spa.

by a Ukranian-born former wrestler, the Miami Beach spa offers four types of saunas - Russian, Turkish, dry (also called Finnish) and aromatherapy - as well as 40 kinds of massage and a variety of other treatments.

Speaking of treatments, the classics - massages, facials and nail and hair treatments - remain the most popular, according to ISPA. The latest craze is hot stone massage.

Hot Stone therapy is offered at many Florida spas.
Ernesto Ortiz photo

Smooth volcanic stones are heated in warm water, then placed at strategic energy points on the body. The heat goes deep into the muscles. Sometimes the stones are used to massage the body as well. A few facilities, including MassageWorks, also offer a hot stone facial. The procedure is completely relaxing, say those who've had one. It's the height of pampering - and while there's nothing wrong with pampering, the latest trend in spa treatment focuses on health.

Spa Atlantis offers a variety of programs with a long and successful history in health education, wellness care and safe effective weight loss.

At Spa Atlantis - which is not some old-fashioned "fat farm," thank you very much - guests start the day with walks on the beach, followed by a day of yoga or exercise classes and workshops on stress, nutrition and weight control. Spa services and a salon round out the offerings, and people can do as much or as little as they please.

The kitchen serves a healthy vegan vegetarian menu - no caffeine, no refined sugar, no white flour or rice, no dairy products, no alcohol. Fish and chicken are available at dinner only, and for an additional charge. And smoking? You're joking. Guests are interested in living better, not just losing pounds.

"It's more prevention than rehab," said program director Shayne Kohn.

Taking the waters at The Springs is said to ease arthritis, rheumatism and a host of other ills. Minerals in the water stimulate the body's electrical system, explained Robin San Vincente of guest services.

Full of magnesium and sulfates, the water "is the energy spark for the whole human body," she said. It even feels softer and thicker than regular H2O.

A 20- or 25-minute soak will make anyone feel better, while a couple hours in the water is a prescription for arthritis relief. It's safe to drink the water too - but only half a glass for beginners. It's a natural laxative, San Vincente said.

The 87-degree spring produces 9 million gallons of water a day with the highest natural mineral content in the world - more than famous European spas such as Vichy or Baden Baden, or domestic sites such as Hot Springs, Ark.

The hourglass-shaped sinkhole once sacred to the Caloosa Indians is also considered to be the original fountain of youth sought by Ponce de Leon. A cyclorama tells his story.

Massageworks in Kissimmee offers fitness training as part of preventive medicine.

MassageWorks is one of a handful of spas to offer colonics - yes, it's what you think it is. Well known in California, the procedure is beginning to gain adherents elsewhere.

"Disease starts in the colon," said spa owner Marilyn Farah.

The Nirvana Spa in Miami Beach offers a wide range of new and old world facilities - from a high tech hyperbaric oxygen chamber to traditional Russian sauna with platza.

"It's the source of health or illness."

The spa also offers yoga and fitness training and encourages clients to have regular massages for their health. People are beginning to understand that good health is more than running to the doctor when we're sick, and a spa visit contributes to both mental and physical well-being.

"We deserve to take care of ourselves," said Nirvana owner Semone Zamyatin. His purpose for starting the spa was "to do something for people who work hard and deserve to relax."

Hot Stone therapy is offered at many Florida spas.

Meanwhile, back at Greenhouse, I munched grapes and reclined in the dry sauna until it was time for my pedicure.

In a special room off the salon, clients are enthroned - there's no other word for it - in what looks like a big, comfy leather armchair complete with heat and massage. Your feet go into a mini, bubble-filled whirlpool that's a treat in itself.

Kathleen administered a succession of foot scrubs, lotions, nail trimming, a mint masque, paraffin treatment and finally nail color. Unlike the serene silence of the facial, the pedicure was a social event full of chat and gossip. I know which of my fellow clients listen to oldies rock and what cute things Kathleen's cats do.

An hour and a half later they had to pry me and my professionally painted piggies out of the chair.

Though they made me go home - where I'm still admiring my lovely toenails and using an array of spa products on my face - they can't keep me from going back.

Next time I'm having that hot stone massage. Excuse me, I have to make an appointment now.