News & Politics

A $480 Massage?

The Mandarin Oriental offers a three-hour Thai massage that may be Washington’s most expensive rubdown. What do you get, and is it worth it? We tried the massage as well as two pricey treatments at other spas—a $70 pedicure and a $350 facial. Here’s a loo

Is any massage worth $480? We decide to find out. 

What it is

Three-hour Thai ritual massage at the Spa at Mandarin Oriental, 1330 Maryland Ave., SW; 202-787-6100;

What it costs

$480 Monday through Thursday, $530 Friday through Sunday—plus automatic 19-percent gratuity.

The experience

My spa visit began with a cup of tea and a warm hand towel—the customary Thai welcome. My workday heels were whisked away and replaced with a pair of slippers as I sipped. I already felt far from the office.

Sioux Barry, the Thai-massage specialist, led me to a low-lit room; buddhas and exotic flowers lent a Zen feel.

Barry offered a second cup of tea as she began washing and massaging my feet in a basin of warm water, to which she added salts and other aromatics. My much-abused runner’s feet appreciated the soothing, skin-softening treatment.

“You don’t drink enough water,” Barry said as she wrapped my feet in warm towels. How did she know that from looking at my feet?

Barry said that reflexology, an ancient Asian practice, is based on the belief that parts of the foot correspond to zones of the body. Puffiness around the arch of my foot told her that my bladder wasn’t getting enough water.

I wasn’t here for reflexology—though I’ve heeded her advice to drink more water. I was here for the Thai massage, which—at 21⁄2 hours—was most of the treatment.

Barry, who has lived in Thailand, explained that Thai massage is different from traditional, Swedish-style massage. There is no table—the massage took place on a futon-size mat on the floor—and I remained fully clothed in the spa’s comfy Thai pajamas.

Rather than kneading, Barry stretched muscles by manipulating my body into yogalike positions. She applied pressure using her palms and thumbs and worked on every joint, from toes to lower back.

Barry told me not to assist with stretches—which I found myself doing subconsiously at first—so I relaxed and let her do the work. Other than checking in now and then to make sure nothing hurt, she didn’t talk much as she worked. That suited me.

Before starting, Barry had asked about my daily physical activity. She performed several stretches for my shoulders and back, which were tense from hunching over a bicycle in my weekly spinning classes and sitting at a computer all day at work.

I’m not especially flexible, but nothing felt painful or uncomfortable—more like a good, deep stretch. I’d worried that a Thai massage wouldn’t be as relaxing as a traditional massage. While it was different—it involved more movement—it was just as relaxing. Afterward, my body felt so loose, it was as if I had taken a three-hour yoga class—but without exerting myself.

When the massage ended, I was so relaxed that I wished I could stick around and take a nap on the cushioned mat. Barry said she often does—she has one at home.

Was it worth it?

The Mandarin suggests arriving an hour early to take advantage of its facilities, which include a hot tub the size of a small swimming pool, a steam room, and a shower with settings such as “tropical rain” and “cool mist.” In the relaxation room are plush lounge chairs, magazines, tea, and such snacks as nuts and dried cherries. After soaking and steaming, I was completely relaxed by the time I reached the treatment room.

Although I was skeptical that any treatment could be worth this price, what you pay for is four hours of bliss—from the hot tub and shower to the massage. Those four hours seemed to go by in 15 minutes.

You can use the terrific facilities at the Mandarin no matter what treatment you book—and less-expensive choices abound. Next time I might opt for one of the 80-minute massages, which cost $225 or $250 and include a Thai option for an extra $25, or even a $65 or $75 pedicure.

After my evening massage, I fell asleep early and woke up rested. I can’t say I felt extra limber the next day, but just thinking back to those hours at the spa kept me in a good mood.

What else that money could buy

Six-course tasting menu for two with wine pairings at CityZen restaurant, also in the Mandarin.

A pair of Manolo Blahnik heels.

TaylorMade r7 CGB driver golf club.

An 8-GB iPhone plus 100 songs from iTunes.

—Sara Levine


Want a Thai massage but not at the Mandarin price? Here's a less expensive version. 

What it is

Two-hour Chaan Royal Journey treatment at Chaan Thai Yoga Therapy, 8300 Arlington Blvd., Suite C3, Fairfax; 703-846-8228;

What it costs

$150 plus tip.

The experience

The drab Fairfax office park I pulled into made me hesitate. Still, I climbed two flights of stairs to Suite C3 and was pleasantly surprised to open the door to a bright, pretty space with lots of blond wood and a few well-placed Asian accents such as carved wooden bowls with floating flowers.

Chaan specializes in Thai massage, but there are several types, including a treatment incorporating Thai herbs and hot towels. The place also offers foot reflexology, scalp massages, hand massages, and couples massage. I came for a two-hour classic Thai yoga massage.

Nid Tositrakul, the year-old spa’s friendly owner, gave me a tour and sat me down with a cup of tea to await my foot bath—free with all services. My masseuse, Kanya Kunchaekan, exfoliated my feet in warm water and massaged them. It was soothing, but the hard wooden bench reminded me of a church pew.

Once my feet were soft and towel-dried, I changed into light cotton Thai pajamas in the massage room and made myself comfortable on the floor mat. Kunchaekan stretched my limbs and applied deep pressure to my entire body—using her palms, thumbs, and even feet. I know only because at one point I opened my eyes to see how she could be in so many places at once.

I like some pressure when it comes to massage, but I asked Kunchaekan to lessen the pressure a couple of times, which she did. The massage is advertised—correctly—as deep-penetrating.

The two hours ended with a more traditional rubdown of my arms, legs, hands, and feet.

Another cup of tea waited with my shoes in the lobby, and I took a few minutes to sip and relax on one of the plush couches.

I left relaxed and rejuvenated—Kunchaekan had worked out every kink.

Was it worth it?

Thai massage is definitely more luxurious at the lavish Mandarin Oriental, but for less than a third of the price, Chaan is a hidden gem—and the treatment is similar.

—Sara Levine


Is a facial that's a Favorite with Hollywood Stars worth $350? One writer puts her face to the test. 

What it is

80-minute Kate Somerville Signature facial at Four Seasons Spa, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-342-0444;

What it costs

$350 plus tip.

The experience

Within minutes of arriving, I had sailed from valet parking to check-in at the spa and into a robe and slippers. In the country-club-like locker room, I ducked into the eucalyptus-scented steam room. I tried to relax, but my excitement was growing.

The buzz surrounding Kate Somerville is contagious. The Beverly Hills esthetician boasts clients the likes of Jessica Alba, Paris Hilton, and Felicity Huffman. They and others swear by her patented facials, which use light therapy and oxygen said to produce visible improvements. Because the treatments are noninvasive (as opposed to lasers and Botox, for example), there’s no pain, recovery time, or side effects—just the promise of brighter, dewier, firmer skin.

I got comfortable on a warm, padded table while Lisa White, my esthetician, checked my complexion and told me more about the treatment. The Somerville Signature facial comes in two parts: the DermalQuench, in which a serum is sprayed on with oxygen, and the DermaLucent, in which my face would be bathed under a bright light, which promises to “trick” cells into producing skin-firming collagen.

White was trained by Somerville reps this past September. (Somerville skincare products are available around Washington, but DC’s Four Seasons is the exclusive East Coast outlet for treatments.) Thirty minutes into my session, White correctly surmised that I don’t drink enough water. She cleansed my skin, performed extractions, wrapped my head in towels, covered my eyes, and declared me ready for “the quench.”

She warned me to expect noise before she turned on a spray. I didn’t mind the drone, and the spray felt refreshing. White went back and forth over my face and lips first with a serum containing “hydration boosters” and vitamins, then with oxygen. I was thrilled when she said new radiance was already emerging.

After 40 minutes, we were on schedule to start the light machine. “Start thinking about the sunniest place you’d rather be right now,” said White, warning me that even with eyes closed, the light would seem intolerably bright for a minute or two. She was right, but once she started an arm and foot massage, I was able to stop squinting.

White reassured me that the wavelength of light used is safe. Unfortunately, the massage ended before the 20-minute light treatment, and I got a bit bored soaking up the rays—you can’t read as you do at the beach.

For the remainder of my facial I got smeared with various moisturizers. All felt great, and I appreciated that White didn’t push the products—and even acknowledged their hefty prices. I was tempted by a $150 jar of Deep Tissue Repair cream but settled for the $60 Quench Hydrating Serum.

At the end, White guided me to the locker room so I could get a look at my skin. She, at least, was happy about my results and seemed so genuine that I felt compelled to agree my skin looked “brighter.” But, honestly, I couldn’t see a difference.

Was it worth it?

Each day after my treatment, I looked in the mirror hoping for a younger-looking me. I never saw it, and no one aside from White did either. Maybe my face doesn’t respond to five-star treatment.

Bottom line: I would go back to the Four Seasons spa—it was lovely—but I personally would skip the high-tech Somerville stuff and opt for a less-expensive treatment, like the Naturopathica facial ($115).

What else that money could buy

Shakespeare Theatre season tickets, Friday night, front orchestra.

Midweek round-trip ticket from Washington to Las Vegas with two nights at a three-star casino on the Strip.

Apple iPod Classic, 160 GB.

—Judith Snyderman


Want a good facial —but don't want to pay $350? Here's a more affordable alternative.

What it is

60-minute European Custom Facial at Amenity Day Spa, 44365 Premier Plaza, Suite 120, Ashburn; 703-726-8100;

What it costs

$90 plus gratuity.

The experience

Richly textured fabrics (silk, brocades) and classic furnishings (boudoir vanity, velour slipper chairs) evoke a vaguely Continental feel at Amenity Day Spa. By the time I slipped into a terry smock, robe, and plastic slippers and made my way to a curtained-off relaxation room, it was easy to forget the generic office-park environs.

I sipped cranberry juice and read brochures about laser treatments until Cindy Jarvis, my esthetician, escorted me to one of Amenity’s treatment rooms. True to the brochure’s promise to “spend every quality minute” on treatment during facials, Jarvis got right to work, asking about skin issues and positioning a steam nozzle over my face. To combat dryness, she opted for an exfoliation that she said would make my face more receptive to moisturizers.

Jarvis applied each product with aplomb, swirling, tapping, and massaging it in place. While ingredients seeped in, neck, arms, hands, and feet were treated to hot steamed towels and light massaging.

Sometime after extractions—during either a second exfoliation or the mask—I fell asleep. Embarrassed, I asked Jarvis if clients ever snore. She said a number of Washington Redskins do; many are regulars. As she applied the final cool, gelatinous moisturizer, she assured me that I would leave with skin “as smooth as a baby’s bottom.”

The treatment wrapped up with a written “spa-scription” recommending products from the spa’s GM Collin line. At the reception desk, products had been pulled for me, but there was no pressure to purchase. I passed because I wanted to get a better look at my skin; the spa’s soft lighting made it hard to see.

Was it worth it?

Because it was evening when I left, I let the heavy, greasy moisturizer stay on overnight. In the morning, my skin felt smoother. This basic facial packs in a lot of skin refreshing and relaxation for the money.

—Judith Snyderman


A splurge for the feet… 

Spending $70 for the Red Door Signature Pedicure at Elizabeth Arden buys an hour of pampering in addition to pretty toes.

Clients are seated in plump chairs and provided with warmed, herb-scented neck pillows. First, a skin-softening cream-and-sugar scrub is massaged into feet and calves. In addition to the typical prepolish foot buffing and cuticle trimming, this luxe pedicure includes a paraffin treatment followed by a hydrating, exfoliating foot mask.

Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon and Spa, seven area locations;

… and, at half the price, a steal 

You won’t get a scented neck pillow as at Elizabeth Arden, but Acqua Nails’s comfy pedi chairs—nine at the sunny Sangamore location and ten at the new downtown Bethesda outpost—have massage controls for the seat and back. The $35, 45-minute deluxe pedicure includes a foot and lower-leg massage and a sugar scrub. A shorter version of the massage comes with Acqua’s regular pedicure ($27 for 30 minutes).

Acqua Nails, 4701 Sangamore Rd., Bethesda, 301-320-6245; 7845 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-654-1104.

—Sara Levine


This article is part of the 2008 Great Day Spas Package. To read more articles like it, click here