A Man Embraces the Spa Experience

Matt Sullivan

Mani-pedi, Hydrafcial, CranioSacral Therapy—our intrepid reporter endures it all

Menus don’t usually intimidate me, but this time I felt lost. Sure, I recognized a few familiar ingredients and flavor combinations—kiwi and pomegranate, bergamot and lemongrass, coffee-lemon-olive rubs—but some of the preparations and technique items seemed as if they were written in a foreign language.

Phytopower sea wrap? Back-ial? Vita Flex? Mu-Xing? Bikini with optional full leg?

“I’ll let you order,” I told Rebecca Enrico, my guide.

She agreed. “I’m just going to put you through what I would do for any woman who sent her husband to me and said he was stressed out,” she said.

And that’s how it was when I walked through the doors of the Spa at Montchanin Village, located in the rolling hills of Chateau Country, one unseasonably balmy Friday in early January. I was tired, stressed out. More than a little not wanting to be there. And definitely unclear as to whether men sent here by their wives usually come home with a bikini wax—full leg or no.

Matt, in his "teddy bear robe," enjoys the mani part of the mani-pedi.

Matt, in his “teddy bear robe,” enjoys the mani part of the mani-pedi. (Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli)

Whetting the appetite

After a bit of mandatory paperwork in which I disclosed that I was allergic to cats, definitely not pregnant, and might have rosacea (a mild skin condition on my face that causes redness but little other irritation, except when people ask me if I’m drunk in the middle of the afternoon), Enrico gave me a tour.

Cards on the table here: I’m no stranger to massage therapy. A semi-regular visit to a therapist is what it takes to keep my shoulders from stiffening harder than Frankenstein’s monster. But I can count the number of facials and manicures I’ve gotten on one poorly maintained finger, and I’ve never signed up for any spa treatment with the word “ritual” in it.

That would change today.

But first, time to get changed. Enrico led me into a very well appointed (and private) men’s changing room, showed me to a locker that contained my bathrobe-for-the-day and slippers, and said I could dress underneath said robe to my level of comfort, but I would be taking a shower later. Emboldened by this, I decided to go commando under the large and beautifully plush brown robe. I felt as though I’d hacked my way into the center of a particularly cuddly teddy bear and curled up inside it.

Robed and slippered, I wandered out into the “relaxation room,” where I found a bowl of fruit, herbal tea and seriously delicious coconut water (sweet and refreshing with no added sugar – who knew about coconut water?). Four women were already there, clearly together for a spa day, chatting it up before they were called. I sat quietly and relaxed—as the room seemed to suggest—and waited for the call.

The pedi: Nikki works on Matt's foot, including his "quirky toe."

The pedi: Nikki works on Matt’s foot, including his “quirky toe.” (Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli)

First course: The mani-pedi

For at least the past 10 years, spas have quoted a stat from the International Spa Association that says 30 percent of all manicure/pedicure clients are men. “We get a bunch of guys who are all football coaches who come together to have it done,” Enrico told me. Translation: Not just men. The manliest of men. Tough men who hold clipboards with perfectly maintained fingernails.

I sat in the chair, put my feet up on the footrest, and Nikki sat at my feet. I was instantly regretful that I hadn’t kept the boxers on for this portion of the day. Thankfully, the teddy bear robe had enough to cover me up.

“Your feet don’t look too bad,” she said.

“What would bad feet look like?” I asked.

“Really callousy.”

This is true. I’m a shoe person. My wife is the barefoot contessa, but I wear shoes just about everywhere I go until bedtime, making me a tenderfoot of the first order.

Emboldened by Nikki’s compliment, I pressed on to see if she could settle a long-standing disagreement between my wife and me.

“So what do you think of the middle toe there? That’s normal, right?”

“Well, you had some kind of trauma to that toe?”

“Ahhh, no.”

“Ohh.” Pause. “Well, I think everyone has at least one quirky toe going point.”

Point to my wife.

The pedicure itself had only about 25 percent to do with my toenails. For most of the time, my feet soaked in warm water, nails were cut and buffed, and calves rubbed with exfoliating scrubs, which I don’t care if they worked or not because it was the best thing ever. I felt genuinely relaxed as someone handed me another glass of coconut water and we moved toward the manicure station.

“What do you usually do with your nails?” Nikki asked.

“I peel them off after a shower when they get long.”

This, apparently, is not proper technique. The manicure station had six tools laid out for the work ahead—officially five more tools that I ever had used on my own nails, and one of which looked intimidatingly like needle nose pliers. One hand soaked while she worked on the other and we chatted—pleasant, unforced conversation, the kind of small talk you might make at a cocktail party when no one is scraping away at your cuticles. We talked about her husband in the service, her house in rural Maryland, and the gentle reminders I use to convince my son to use his medicated hand lotion (“It rubs the lotion on its skin! It does this whenever it is told!”)

All in all, it was quite fun. I could easily imaging doing this with my wife, sitting in the side-by-side pedicure chairs, talking about things adults get to talk about when they’re relaxed and someone else is watching the kids.

Perhaps that’s why couples spa days are soaring in popularity. The spa press says that more couples are going to the spa together, and that’s something I can anecdotally confirm based on an uptick of Facebook check-ins I’ve seen from couples the past few years. Enrico will have to add extra beds to handle the volume on Valentine’s Day. (“Book now,” she said.)

Another perquisite: Krazy Kat's serves as the kitchen for the Spa at Montchanin Village.

Another perquisite: Krazy Kat’s serves as the kitchen for the Spa at Montchanin Village. (Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli)

Intermezzo 1: lunch

Back to the relaxation room, and lunch. It’s an added benefit to have Krazy Kat’s serving as the kitchen at the Spa at Montchanin Village, and the abbreviated spa

menu had a nice selection—cheese plates, marsala marinated chicken sandwiches and duck confit salad.

(Groups take their lunch by the fireplace in the comfortable lobby of the inn.) I was tempted by the smoked pork grinder, but in the spirit of the spa, I went with hearts of Romaine and grilled chicken, with parmesan crisps and anchovy.

It was a really nice salad, but even as I enjoyed it, the thought did cross my mind that I was scarfing down anchovies and garlic right before someone was going to be up close and personal with my face pores. To counter that, I drank some coconut water.

Second course: bodywork

Kim and Sally arrived to take me back to a treatment room of low lights, warm tables and a luxurious shower in the corner.

Kim in particular was very excited to introduce me to a new technique she recently learned at the Upledger Institute in West Palm Beach: CranioSacral Therapy. (Enrico told me that one of the things she looks for in the hiring process is whether therapists have sought to expand their education by learning directly from institutes like Upledger. One thing I confirmed from Kim is that continuing education is very important to her. Plus, hey, West Palm Beach.) I’m certainly open to anything, but suspicious about whether anything described as a “light-touch approach” could do me any good, as I usually opt for deep tissue massage that beats my muscles into some degree of submission.

I lay on the bed and Kim placed her hands on opposing sides of by body—legs, torso, head—and held them, gently. As to what she was doing, I’ll defer directly to the Upledger Institute: “CranioSacral Therapy releases these tensions to allow the entire body to relax and self-correct. Using a gentle touch—starting with about the weight of a nickel—practitioners evaluate your internal environment. Then they use distinctive light-touch techniques to release any restrictions they find.”

I had carried some additional emotional weight into this therapy, some facts they hadn’t asked me to disclose on the medical form. The night before, I had lost a close relative—my grandfather—and as the half-hour session continued, my thoughts turned to him. It was a moment of peace in a chaotic week, a quiet time to reflect on what he had meant to me.

And in those moments, as Kim gently put pressure on my spine and limbs and head, I felt my emotions rising to the surface but my body staying relaxed and at peace.

I’m not giving up my deep tissue massages, but in that moment, CranioSacral Therapy was what I needed. And I was grateful.

And then Sally arrived with a smorgasbord of goodies to begin the Hammam Body Ritual. Coffee-lemon-olive oil stone scrub. Cardamom oil. Moroccan mint tea silt purifier.

Tangerine fig body butter. I’m pretty sure I’ve used these exact ingredients before while cooking a chicken, but Sally worked with gentle care and in sequence, always stroking in the direction of my heart in keeping with the proper care of the lymphatic system she was trying to stimulate. She then wrapped me in warming blankets while providing a bit of a scalp rub that I did not mind at all. At the end of the process, she stepped out while I used the shower to take off salts and scrubs, and stepped back into the bathrobe, smelling like all those things.

Intermezzo 2: quick break

Back in the relaxation room, I found myself enrobed and sitting next to a fully clothed young woman in her late teens who was with her mother.

If you’re a young woman, you do not want to be sitting next to a 40-year-old stranger who’s wearing a bathrobe and smelling of tangerine fig body butter. Neither of us was very comfortable in this moment. To calm my nerves, I drank some coconut water while fearing they might cut me off soon.

Third course: the facial

The last time I had a facial, I recall the therapist poking at my dirty, dirty pores with a metal rod, pulling crap out of my face that I had not previously known could live in my face. I was not eager to return.

Good news from the facial world: No more metal rods. Hydrafacials have taken over, and now tiny, powerful vacuums suck all that crap out of your face. This is an improvement.

Before we started the facial, there was a form warning me not to go forward if I have melanoma, autoimmune deficiencies or “unrealistic expectations,” but after getting a clean bill of health there, Macy began.

It’s a four-step process, which my notes describe as “1. Hydration. 2. Throwing acid at my face. 3. Sucking the crap out. 4. Profit.” (That last one was apparently shorthand for “delivery of antioxidants, hyaluronic acid and peptides.”)

The applicator tool never felt much different from a close shave, and the acid peel tingled a bit, but that’s the worst of it. (I later learned that I was given a 7 percent solution, and they go up to 30 percent. I think they correctly sized me up as a wuss.)

Halfway through the facial, I was so relaxed that I fell asleep. That does not happen when people are poking your face with metal rods.

Afterward, Macy pulled a canister from the back of the Hydrafacial machine to show me what she had pulled out of my face. I do not recommend this step.

The bill

And that was it. There would be no bikini wax, much to the chagrin of you readers, no doubt. (“There are men who do it,” Enrico said. “But it’s not very relaxing.”) The prices for individual treatments at the Spa at Montchanin Village are listed on the menu, but there’s distinct value in grouping procedures into spa days. My day would have cost about $300.

Enrico clearly hires good people—therapists with impressive knowledge and experience, many of whom are board-certified in addition to required state experience—and she says she looks for people who love the business and want to pamper people. Plus, no one checks to see how much coconut water you’ve consumed in one day, which clearly benefited me.
But at the end of the day, I thought back to a moment with Nikki, in the pedicure chair, as I made some joke about the process.

“You’re not really enjoying this, are you?” she asked.

That stung a bit. Nikki was doing a great job. And the honest truth was, despite the front I was putting up, I was enjoying it, just about all of it.

Maybe there’s an automatic defense that some guys, including me, put up when it comes to the spa thing. We’re quick to deflect, quick to rationalize, quick to come up with some reason we’re there. Our wife dragged us. I’m writing a story. Old badminton injury. Some reason—any reason—other than the fact that it’s OK to enjoy putting on a plush bathrobe and letting your foot soak in a tiny Jacuzzi and having someone rub that foot with salts and oils just because it feels damn good. Or maybe we can just own that. Try it sometime.

And if you do, ask for Nikki. She’s aces in my book.

Oh, and drink the coconut water. Drink all the coconut water.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.