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updated 5/8/2006 3:47:39 PM ET 2006-05-08T19:47:39

San Franciscans enjoy life. And why shouldn’t they? The air is breathtakingly fresh, great food awaits at every turn and lively conversation appears to be essential to existence. And much as the city has modernized only with great care to preserve its past, its newest spas embrace the clean lines of 21st century aesthetics without forsaking the essence of spa culture and tradition.

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The area just south of Market Street, adjacent to the cultural hub of Yerba Buena gardens and San Francisco MoMA, is rife with hip hotels.

And now, luxury has joined the mix with last winter’s opening of the St. Regis and its elegant Remède spa. As soon as one enters the hotel’s glass-encased lobby, the Zen overtones ring clear as a bell. Passageways lined in rich, dark wood lead to a discreet elevator bank that whisks visitors to the sixth floor spa. I first wandered into the white light of the spa boutique only to be gently directed to the spa concierge waiting peace-fully further along at the end of the corridor. After selecting a pair of sleek Sensi sandals in my size, my concierge led me into the immaculate changing rooms, where the steam, sauna and whirlpool were not yet operational (though I am assured that they now are). Poor me. It would have been great fun to sit on the steam room bench, tiled with iridescent squares, or stretch out in the roomy sauna. Instead, I made the transition from street to spa with some quiet time in the women’s lounge.

A 60-minute Customized Facial ($165) with Tracy was, in fact, a personalized treatment, as she opted for a fruit peel over microdermabrasion because of the condition of my skin that morning. She also chose a masque that dried as a rubbery peel-off layer, the better to seal in the hydrating serums she had worked into my stressed skin. Oh, and the whole session began with my feet being enveloped in a warm, paraffinlike mud that not only softened them but also relaxed my entire body, a touch that helps justify the facial’s price tag. Be aware that although the product pitch is pretty intense in this rarified oasis — Remède skincare is a well-researched anti-aging system — there is much to learn from the pros, and taking home just a single serum can help extend the benefits of your facial.

Further down the block, on the other side of the museum, the W San Francisco is home to a new Bliss spa. The brand is rolling out signature spas at key urban W hotel locations, bringing its tongue-in-cheek approach to beauty to a wider audience. Despite its clinical decor, the spa was impressively busy with pretty, young San Franciscans checking in for midweek spa treatments. The changing areas are city-sized with a narrow sauna and combination steam/shower stall, while the lounge continues the urbane vibe with brownies, wine and lemony water. The music that wafts throughout Bliss makes pains to distance itself from anything “spa” or New Age, offering instead a combination of Ella Fitzgerald–meets–David Grey–meets–Sarah McLaughlin. It’s nice to hear familiar music in a spa, but even mid-massage I found myself making mental notes to dig out some of my forgotten CDs.

The signature Blissage 75 ($125) is that many minutes of soothing muscle unwinding. Aromatherapy oil blends were extra but the standard massage lotion was silky and perfect for the long, forearm strokes that my therapist used on my back. Up front, Bliss has a trio of nail stations, all wired with headsets so you can zone out while watching “Sex in the City” or “Desperate Housewives,” presumably to keep you from having to flip the pages of a celebrity glossy while your nails dry. The Bliss scene isn’t so much about reconnecting with yourself as it is about not disconnecting from your comfort zone.

While there’s nothing like a hotel spa to pull out all the stops (after all, the staff and resources are usually generous), a day spa has to make the most of its assets. At International Orange, the owners make no bones about what they are and turn simplicity into an art. A tree branch, ripe with new leaves, adorns a wall in the reception area; a single red tulip in a bulbous glass vase rests on an open shelf in the hallway; a gallery of small paintings, each with nature as its theme, winds throughout; and consistently pleasant staffers wear T-shirts that read “practice silence.”

Recommended by the concierges of some of San Francisco’s finest (spa-less) hotels, IO has a concise, well-considered menu of therapeutic treatments and offers yoga classes throughout the day. The lounge is small but thoughtfully stocked with a sideboard of water, herbal tea, dried fruit and chunks of dark chocolate. More than anything, IO has a sacred air. It gave me the feeling that my therapist was honoring me, my space and my needs. Its second-floor perch above Fillmore Street is sufficiently set apart from the fray but right in the heart of things to make it accessible to the many San Franciscans that consider this a favorite oasis.

A similar vibe on an even smaller scale pervades Spa Vitale, a three-treatment-room retreat within the recently opened Hotel Vitale. Dreamily located on the waterfront, and just a stone’s throw away from the revived Ferry Building Marketplace, the property instills a sense of spa throughout. Even the hotel room door plaques sport a sprig of lavender.

Sign up for a Bathing Ritual ($60, 25 minutes) before any massage, and a toasty warm bath is drawn for you outside on a small terrace protected from nearby office buildings by planters of tall bamboo. I had no trouble settling into the infinity-edge tub, its waters slightly creamy with tangerine milk bath. On its edge, a comforting collection of ginger tea, water, a chilled washcloth, cucumber slices for my eyes and a pretty bell to ring if I needed anything transformed the unusual setting into a delightful oasis. 

Next, I was off to one of the treatment rooms, all of which have floor-to-ceiling windows that let natural light spill in. (To my mind, there is little that enhances a treatment more than the pure energy of sunlight.) My therapist honored me with a terrific 50-minute rubdown, simply called Massage ($90), that she began with some eloquent work on my feet. Spa-goers not staying at the hotel would be well-advised to wear comfortable clothing, as there are no lockers or locker rooms, only a small changing room and

a tote bag for your folded clothes.

Tru, an early forerunner of San Francisco’s modern spa design trend, has seen better days. The decor is a bit weary and the draping techniques during my TruTherapy 75 ($125, 75 minutes) were downright questionable. What is worth noting, however, is the spa boutique’s extensive selection of Ole Henriksen skincare products, probably the best resource for them in town.

Leaving this spa to step back out into the sunshine of the streets, I filled my lungs with the city’s nearly edible air. For all of its trendsetting design, upper crust refinement and influence in the worlds of technology and cuisine, San Francisco remains an approachable place. Its new spa scene reflects that sentiment to a T.

Hotel Vitale, Spa Vitale, 8 Mission Street, (888) 890-8688, hotelvitale.com

International Orange, 2044 Fillmore Street, (800) 839-3856, internationalorange.com

St. Regis Hotel, San Francisco, Remede, 125 Third Street, (888) 625-5144, starwoodhotels.com

Tru, 750 Kearny Street, (415) 399-9700, truspa.com

W San Francisco, Bliss, 118 Third Street, (888) 625-5144, starwoodhotels.com

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC

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