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Yin and Yang: Balance in the city

Bringing respites of calm and relaxation to urban environments, Peninsula Hotels are making a commitment to wellness -- highlighted with the opening of their new spa in the heart of Hong Kong.
/ Source: Spa Magazine

The heat is intense inside the all-glass sauna overlooking Victoria Harbour at Hong Kong’s legendary Peninsula Hotel, and luxuriously cocooning -- the perfect yin to the city’s chaotic and frenzied yang streets. As I sit in stillness looking out over the city below, I think back to my arrival.

Within moments of stepping from my airport transfer, after passing by white-and-gold-capped bellmen and “door gods” (lion statuettes) said to protect all who enter, I’d left my bags in my room and hit the twisting neon-covered streets. Without a map or sense of direction, I’d meandered past high-tech shops selling the latest cameras and computers, women with porcelain skin wearing stiletto heels racing to work, and rickety stalls overspilling with odd-shaped vegetables and designer knockoff purses. On every street corner, men holding signs hand-written in Chinese pointed at my feet and uttered strange-syllabled words I didn’t understand. I’d walked several blocks before realizing they wanted me to try reflexology -- pressure point foot massage -- delivered communally in groups of two and four. Having heard that these $20 sessions were all the rage here, I was curious to find out why for myself.

“Reflexology very popular in Hong Kong, like ‘Sex in the City,’” my English-speaking therapist, Angel, told me as I slipped into an oversized black leather chair at a place called Happy Foot -- serene with its ocher-red walls and filmy paper lanterns dangling from the ceiling. “Women come in together, gossip, drink tea,” she continued, placing my feet in hot water strewn with tea leaves before expertly applying thumbs to soles. “Reflexology very good for you.” The pressure was deep; deeper than I’ve ever experienced, and I winced -- at times even jolted -- in my chair. A local woman seated next to me smiled in sympathy, occasionally flinching her own foot from her therapist’s strong hands. “No worries, hurt is good,” Angel reassured me. “Hurt means you have blocks in your energy -- but I fix. Reflexology not fancy but good. It massages your organs, strengthens the immune system. Fun too,” she said, ending the 50-minute session with a quick neck-and-shoulder rub. “Bring friend next time. Like ‘Sex in the City.’”

A ferry ride and many winding, look-alike streets later, the new spa at my hotel, The Peninsula Hong Kong, beckoned, so I headed back to the Kowloon side of the city and booked a two-hour Time Ritual. For this treatment, the exact therapies to be used are determined at the beginning of the session with the therapist. A spa attendant wearing a chic, black, short-sleeved tunic and flowing black pants greeted me in the candlelit seventh-floor reception then led me to the spa elevator, which is called the Breathing Wall because it’s fitted with a video fantasia of soothing sounds and water images. The elevator door opened directly onto the ninth-floor tea lounge. Sipping hot organic tea from an earthen pot and watching curtains of shimmering water cascade around me onto dark stones and soft green moss, it was easy to forget there was more to come. But tea service is only the beginning. Seemingly out of nowhere, my attendant reappeared and ushered me to the thermal sanctuary, home to a hammam-style crystal steam room, peppermint-infused cold rain shower mist with lights, and the scenic all-glass sauna where I now bake. Outside, familiar signage -- Canon, Olympus, Siemens -- blends with artful Chinese lettering across tall skyscrapers, and boats appear to sail in slow motion below. I watch meditatively, exhausted from my Central (downtown) sojourn and grateful to cocoon from the extreme yet fascinating city.

“Have you seen the harbor at night?” asks an olive-skinned woman, who up until now has been sharing the sauna with me in silence. “The lights, the laser show?”

“No, I’ve only just arrived,” I reply.

“Just wait,” she says, smiling. “It’s amazing. A symphony of lights. This city is manic — and magic. Seven million people live here; it’s very compact, crowded. But the shopping and the light show are fantastic. And this spa,” she says as she tightens her towel and moves to exit, “I find my balance here.”

As I make my way, in robe and slippers, to the harbor-view relaxation room and sink into one of the private (separated by sheer curtain) Clodagh beds equipped with music, reading lamp, and Egyptian cotton sheets to await my treatment, I begin to better understand that balance.

During a much different foot ritual than the one experienced downtown, my therapist, Mary, gently exfoliates and polishes my feet with aloe, peppermint, apricot, and ginger; adds crystals and sea salts to mineralize and ylang-ylang oil to calm; and discusses my Time Ritual with me. We agree on a combination of stretching, body rocking, reflexology, and shirodhara (a stream of oil dripped onto the forehead and scalp) -- “perfect for someone just off a long-haul flight.” But when Mary hits upon my left shoulder, always my tension area, she pauses. I nod, and in seconds this tiny, iron-strong woman is on the table with me pulling, stretching, pummeling, and pressing my achy shoulder. The rest of the session follows and ends two sweet hours later over lychee tea, conversation (“My dream was always to work at The Peninsula, so famous, so beautiful,” Mary confesses), and my promise to return for two hours of deep tissue work the following day. It isn’t a hard sell. Following a late dinner at Yung Kee in Central, famous for its old Cantonese recipes, and a morning shopping excursion to the neon pink-red-green Shanghai Tang boutique for dresses, shoes, and bags, I am only too happy to tuck back into The Peninsula’s Espa for hours more of needed bodywork.

The concept of retreating into a spa for two-plus hours is still new here, according to spa director Ina Soong, who was born in Scotland but has lived in Asia for nearly a decade. “Hong Kong is an extreme city,” she says. “It’s very hectic, intense, and overcrowded. People work extremely hard here and are very ambitious. They are driven and tend to be highly efficient. They want to look good and feel good despite the stressful lifestyle. That’s why we offer holistic therapies based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, herbs, acupuncture, and massage.” But in terms of spa culture, Soong notes that Hong Kong is about quick treatments -- “people rush in and get back out on the streets. The Peninsula wanted to change that with this new spa -- to bring a portal of calm and relaxation to this manic city; a sense of balance. At first I was nervous about introducing Espa’s famous two-hour treatment policy, but then I realized that this is what people need -- the ultimate escape,” she continues. “Time and space are a luxury everywhere, but especially here, where people dash constantly, never sit still, live in high-rise towers, and walk crowded streets.”

Grant Thatcher, an author and stylish British ex-pat who’s lived in Hong Kong for years and is perhaps best-known for his hip insider’s Luxe City Guides, notes that Hong Kong has long been a hotbed for shopping, nightlife, and style but has never quite earned wings as a wellness destination. “That’s starting to change,” he tells me over lunch one day at the private and trendy Kee club (to which Peninsula guests are privy and where original Picassos grace the walls). “The Grand Hyatt, Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, and now, The Peninsula — have changed the way spas and wellness are perceived here.”

Wellness was, indeed, part of the vision in transforming The Peninsula’s former small, seven-treatment-room spa into the city’s most luxurious, spacious, and calming oasis. “We were late to enter the spa game,” says general manager Ian Coughlan. “We waited and watched; there’s so much happening with spas, particularly in Asia, but we wanted to do something classic. The Peninsula is a celebration hotel -- guests come to honor weddings, anniversaries, milestones in their lives. We wanted to create a spa that was comfortable, luxurious, and classic and that celebrated well-being.” Now under the masterful hands of Susan Harmsworth’s Espa, this 14-room Peninsula flagship spa spans three floors and fuses traditional Chinese elements like rosewood and bamboo with modern granite and chocolate travertine marble.

The Peninsula’s wellness focus is not confined to this new flagship spa in Hong Kong, according to Coughlan. By the end of 2007, the Peninsula Wellness concept will be in place at the New York, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Beijing, Bangkok, and Tokyo properties. Components include Simply Peninsula spa shampoos, soaps, and candles made from ginger lily and nutmeg; Naturally Peninsula, a restaurant and in-room menu of fresh, organic, and light offerings; along with The Peninsula Academy, mini cultural immersions in local healing arts that will vary according to each city (e.g., The Peninsula Hong Kong offers tai chi, feng shui, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and astrology; The Peninsula Chicago centers on Peyow Pilates, an American invention that brings Pilates into the pool).

The wellness concept, I find, extends effortlessly from spa to private room. After outdoor tai chi with master Raymond Chiu, who says the practice “opens you up, balances your body and mind, and keeps you happy and relaxed,” I attend a traditional tea ceremony, then meet with herbalist Troy Sing, “the cat’s pajamas” (according to Thatcher) of Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture (both Academy offerings), before slipping back into the spa for yet another round of the steam-sauna circuit.

I return to my corner room overlooking the harbor just in time to settle into a sunken tub and watch the 8 p.m. fantasia of color and laser lights jumping off the city’s famous skyline. My sauna friend is right; the show is amazing -- and surprisingly long. When it ends more than 20 minutes later, I snuggle into a comfy robe, flip the movie channel to Suzie Wong (for more Hong Kong immersion), and peruse the Naturally Peninsula (marked with an NP) items on my room-service menu -- organic Indian basil and ginger teas; long-grain brown rice risotto; cod fillet simmered in miso broth -- ultimately ordering the egg-white frittata with spinach because my jet-lagged body is still not completely convinced it’s nighttime.

Although NP offerings are light, they’re not about calorie-counting or deprivation, says executive chef Florian Trento, a Switzerland native who’s been with The Peninsula Hong Kong for two decades. “More and more travelers are expressing a desire to eat as healthily on the road as they do at home,” he says. “In our Naturally Peninsula dishes, we minimize fat, butter, and cream and use olive and flaxseed oils instead. Breads, croissants, and pastas are available in whole wheat, and we source our produce whenever possible from local organic farms.”

Trento introduced his specially created NP menu (including vegetarian, lactose-free, and low-carb offerings) both in-room and poolside, before adding options at Spring Moon, the hotel’s 1920s-style Cantonese restaurant. In November, a cookbook, aptly named Naturally Peninsula -- Flavours, was published featuring healthy recipes from Trento and fellow Peninsula chefs worldwide, who are also busy rolling out NP menus.

Although every Peninsula spa and wellness program is different, each shares common threads with its Hong Kong cousin: the same “door gods,” white-capped bellmen, and (with the exception of Beverly Hills) Espa treatments, airy fabrics, Clodagh beds, and even views. (The Peninsula New York’s spa is soon moving to the rooftop, while Bangkok’s stunning new three-story spa with 18 silk-walled treatment rooms features a relaxation room overlooking the Chao Phraya River.)

But the deepest connection comes in Peninsula spas’ focus on balance -- something I truly appreciate during my Hong Kong stay. “Taoists believe the universe is a unified whole comprised of two opposing, yet complementary, forces: yin and yang,” says Coughlan. “When either one -- yin or yang -- predominates, the other shrinks and must assert itself to restore balance.” In Hong Kong certainly, my balance comes in escaping the city’s frenzied yang streets and retreating into the soulful oasis of yin calm that the spa (and its glass sauna and nurturing treatments) provides. It’s here, towering stories above the dashing crowds, neon lights, and wafting scent of roast duck that I find the magic formula for balance in the city.

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