The emblematic moment of my two-week swing through Hawaii came at Mauna Lani, where a Hawaiian facialist told me I could get rid of a mole if I put kukui-nut oil on it and prayed every day for a month. She said this while giving me a treatment with a high-end organic line that produced great results—-at a spa that last year added a facial plastic surgeon for Botox.
It sounds contradictory, but in fact it’s this deft combining of soulful, traditional healing (lomilomi massage and plant-based medicine) with a very worldly, sophisticated spa culture (showplace suites and with-it treatments like Watsu) that characterizes the islands’ top spas right now. They’ve become sanctuaries for the Hawaiian spirit and the visitor seeking to encounter it.
ONE OF A KIND
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, Kohala Coast, Big Island
The Kohala Coast stands out for its vast lava fields, and this spa is a volcanic Eden. Real or faux lava forms the walls of the outdoor showers, edges the winding grass paths to the nine outdoor treatment hale, lines the outdoor sauna ($60), and encloses the 1,000-square-foot Watsu ($140) pool. Mauna Lani is the most spiritual—but not at all woo-woo—spa I’ve ever been to. Both the grounds (fragrant flowers and medicinal plants) and every therapist I met exuded healing energy—and I’m not a soft touch about this. I loved the two-hour Fire and Ice Facial ($265), which used hot and cold stones and Eminence products. Native Hawaiian therapist Betty Lau brought her profoundly nurturing touch—she learned massage as a child—to my soul as well as my skin. The spa atmosphere is very different from that of the hotel, which is a straight-ahead golf-and-beach resort, albeit a very good one. Luxe note: Mauna Lani has what are perhaps Hawaii’s most exclusive accommodations, five butler-serviced bungalows ($4,600–$5,300), where therapists come to give spa treatments.
Four Seasons Hualalai, Kohala Coast, Big Island
The fitness offerings here trump anything else I’ve seen at a resort spa (and many destination spas): a 25-meter lap pool, three gyms with expert trainers, a climbing wall, a basketball court, and 50 classes a week. Post-workout, you can see an acupuncturist, physical therapist, or exercise physiologist. As spa director Thad Calciolari, a Canyon Ranch alum with a master’s in exercise physiology and two Hawaii Ironman Triathlons on his résumé, says, “Everyone has pampering down. We have that, plus that extra dimension.” And they do have pampering down, with a handsome indoor-outdoor facility, skilled therapists, and authentic treatments. I especially liked the Hawaiian Wahi ‘Iliahi Wrap ($150), a cooling treatment with sandalwood powder and lemongrass tea that turned my skin to satin. The third leg of the race is the hotel, and Hualalai wins this one, too. The Asian-inflected decor is gorgeous, the food delectable, the top-flight staff addressed me by name from minute one, and my room, an airy oceanfront double ($810) with an outdoor lava shower, was my favorite of the trip.
BEST NO-SPA SPA
Kona Village Resort, Kohala Coast, Big Island
Despite having just three no-frills treatment rooms and two oceanside hale (well worth the extra $20), this low-key resort makes my list because of therapist John Wheeler’s thoroughly unknotting massage ($100). (One of Wheeler’s high-profile Kona Village clients flies him to San Francisco several times a year.) As for the resort, it’s always been a place that you get or you don’t. There are no TVs, phones, or door locks; the dress code frowns on coats and ties, and the building code, marble. The pace is slow, and the decor in the 125 freestanding cottages, spread across 82 lava-filled acres, falls between spare and spartan. If you like hearing the ocean through an open window, it could be for you, but if you’d rather have creature comforts like air conditioning, it’s not. Will the major upgrades being made over the next two years, which include a new spa, dissipate the old-Hawaii atmosphere? Stay tuned. Best rooms: oceanfront Lava Tahitian, New Hebrides, Sand Samoan, and Palau cottages, most of which have Jacuzzis on their wide decks.
Rates $530–$1,160, includes meals
BEST NEW SPA
Hotel Hana-Maui, Hana, Maui
For most of its 59 years, this 66-room old-Hawaiian hotel at the end of the Hana Highway exemplified barefoot luxury (no TV or AC, gracious but informal service). It declined greatly in the ’90s, but now it’s back with new owners, a smart renovation, and an earthy yet sophisticated spa on an acre of gardens with an ancient kukui tree and a lava-bordered “basking whirlpool” as its centerpieces. The nine treatment suites have soaking tubs, showers, and a clean, pared-down look that feels exactly right. To find therapists in isolated Hana (population 1,800), acting spa director Jacque Waters partnered with a massage school in western Maui to start an on-site training program. Eight graduates work here now, under the experienced eye of other therapists who are longtime practitioners. The brief treatment menu emphasizes traditional healing and native plants. I liked the calming ‘Awa (kava) and Spirulina Wrap ($125), in which the therapist painstakingly applied the cool paste with a silk brush. An excellent gentle yoga class is taught every morning.
MOST ELABORATE HYDROTHERAPY
Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa, Wailea, Maui
This resort is a conscious exercise in big: $800 million cost, 780 rooms, nine huge Botero sculptures in the lobby, nine swimming pools, megatons of marble. The palatial Spa Grande follows suit—50,000 square feet and 40 treatment rooms—but even I, an arch-minimalist, was impressed by Termé Wailea, its massive monument to hydrotherapy. An hour here is complimentary if you’re having a treatment ($55 if you aren’t). “We’re teaching guests what it is to spa and relax,” says spa director Cecilia Hercík of the elaborate water course: a 35-foot-diameter Jacuzzi; steam room and sauna; Japanese furo baths; waterfall massages; Swiss showers; and “specialty baths” with Moor mud, limu seaweed, tropical enzymes, Hawaiian botanicals, and mineral salts. (The separate men’s and women’s areas are identical.) The young therapists were oddly casual for such a lavishly formal setting. During the Ali‘i Honey Steam Wrap (25 minutes, $115), my therapist gabbed as though we were buds, showed a cavalier attitude toward modesty, and said the honey was so pure that if I had a sweet tooth, I could lick myself.
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MOST INTERESTING COUPLE'S TREATMENT
Four Seasons Maui at Wailea, Maui
Wailea is wedding central, and the unusual Wailea Cocoon Experience ($260 for two) is designed to be a calming postlude to the vows. Done in the most luxe of the 13 indoor treatment rooms, it’s a three-parter: time to scrub each other with loofahs and coconut gel, a bath, and then a Cocoon Wrap ($175 for two à la carte). The wrap is a stint in a warm dry-float bed with a neck-and-shoulder massage (which made me slightly seasick). An optional add-on ($25) is a guided meditation (distracting). Go instead for the sensational Back Walk massage ($140), a very intense Thai-shiatsu hybrid done with the feet. Therapist Valerie Passion Flower Mandall learned the technique during ten years of studying massage in Thailand, Bali, and Japan. Like the rest of the resort (a study in beige), the spa is aggressively tasteful, but pleasing. Insider tip: The three oceanside massage hale are wonderful, but they’re on the opposite side of the property from the spa. To reach them, you have to walk through the pool area in your robe.
THE 19TH-HOLE MASSAGE
Princeville Resort, Princeville, Kauai
Princeville’s two golf courses are among the best in the world, and even the resort’s spa is golf-centric: It’s located in the Prince clubhouse, a ten-minute shuttle ride from the hotel, and it’s essentially a health-club spa. That means it’s fine for a post-game massage (or post-workout, as the large gym has lots of equipment and a full schedule of classes), but I wouldn’t recommend it for anything fancy—for the Rosemary-Mint Body Wrap ($100), the therapist simply slathered me with the same Aveda lotion that’s sold at retail and laid some towels on top. The Myofacial [sic] Trigger Point Massage ($92) was indistinguishable from Swedish, but it felt good on sore muscles. It wasn’t particularly relaxing, though, as the aerobics class in a nearby studio came through loud and clear. And why did the therapist vanish immediately afterward? The hotel is over-the-top opulent (dark green marble, heavy chandeliers, ice sculptures and chocolate fountains on the buffet) but has a to-die-for location on Hanalei Bay, and the ocean-view rooms ($695) have terrific views, even from their bathtubs.
Pure Kauai, North Shore, Kauai
This is the spa as pure, tailored experience—a luxury vacation home with the therapists and amenities brought in. Private chefs cook delicious healthy meals, personal trainers and yoga teachers come over for private sessions, and facialists and massage therapists (the island’s best) show up with their tools and tables. A massage from Ashley Siebring-Jones transformed my back, hardened into writer’s blocks from sitting at a computer, into the fluid-feeling body part it should be. One from therapist Ocean Wind transported me deep into the realms of mental relaxation that we all seek at a spa. The other side of the Pure Kauai coin is outdoor adventure and exercise—many guests come to lose weight or jump-start a fitness regimen. A stay can include surf lessons in Hanalei Bay, all-day hikes along the Na Pali Coast or through Waimea Canyon, yoga, Pilates, kayaking, outrigger canoeing, and horseback riding, all with fantastic guides and instructors. Demographic tidbit: Pure Kauai is popular with solo women, who make up 30 to 40 percent of guests.
Rates $3,000–$7,000 per person per week
BEST SPA SUITES
Kahala Mandarin Oriental, Honolulu, Oahu
The spa-suite trend is impeccably executed at this stylish hotel in an upscale residential neighborhood on the other side of Diamond Head from Waikiki. There are no common areas; the five 600-square-foot suites have indoor and outdoor sitting areas, daybeds, showers, dressing rooms, and showpiece infinity tubs that fill from above—a column of water falls from the ceiling. The native touches are spot-on, too, like handmade Hawaiian quilts on the massage tables and palm-frond ceiling fans. As at other Mandarins, Espa developed the spa, and the staff is very well trained. My Ho‘ola Hou (the name means “new life”) Aromatherapy Facial ($160) worked a minor miracle on my skin, which was a mess after two weeks of sunscreen and sweat, and it didn’t even include extractions. There’s also an oceanfront gym with excellent equipment and a little hale for exercise classes. Workout highlight: a yoga class or training session with fitness manager Spring Chang, a former champion powerlifter.
Halekulani, Honolulu, Oahu
“It’s hard to do spirituality in Waikiki, because the masses are here,” says spa director Tony Young, explaining why SpaHalekulani coddles guests physically. It gets high marks for its Tongan-, Samoan-, and Tahitian-inspired treatments, which start with a foot pounding (more pleasant than it sounds) with bamboo puili sticks, similar to those used in hula. Young recommends Polynesian Steam Therapy (inhaling herb-infused steam to open the upper respiratory area, $180), especially for jet lag and also pre-travel. I found the Polynesian Nonu massage (lomilomi and hot stones with a cool aloe-like nonu gel, $180), incredibly relaxing, but the stones in my boyfriend’s Pohaku (hot stone massage, $230) were so hot they left big red marks on his back. The spa, which is filled with Asian flourishes, has no public spaces; the seven treatment suites include steam showers, and the couple’s suite has a deep furo tub. Halekulani is easily Waikiki’s poshest high-rise hotel, and its 455 understated rooms are garnished with high-tech touches like bedside consoles that do everything from turning up the air conditioning to calling a porter.
To learn more about American spas, pick up the March/April, 2005 issue of Luxury SpaFinder Magazine.
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