By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 23, 2007
Saelon Renkes It was cold, and storm clouds were gathering over our house. Just back from three weeks in Kabul, my wife was jet-lagged and exhausted, and I was snowed under with deadlines. We'd missed an anniversary, the roof had sprung a leak, a significant-decade birthday was imminent and the nightmare of Christmas -- with its annual plea for a pony -- was closing in fast.
And then there was the issue of my feet.
"Look at those things," she muttered one night, as I read barefoot on the couch. "They're a disgrace."
I looked down: Thick calluses, ripsaw nails, skin that only an iguana could love. I'd always thought my feet were honest, workmanlike things, good for getting from one place to another. But now they'd been revealed for what they really were: damnable objects of shame.
"You need -- repeat, need -- a pedicure," she said. "Let's go to a spa. You'll like it. You'll have baby feet. Giant baby feet!"
Now, like many men, I'm instinctively spa-averse. Spas aren't our turf, and we know it. Most of us would no more wander into one than try on lipstick at Nordstrom's.
But according to the International Spa Association, there are more than 14,000 spas across the country, and they're becoming an inescapable part of modern life. And I had to admit, I was curious. Clearly we both needed a break. Why not get out of town, treat ourselves to some pampering and come home ready to rock the holidays?
The Linden Spa, St Michaels Stephen BrookesSo a few days later, we found ourselves on Maryland's Eastern Shore, heading into the quaint resort town of St. Michaels. In summer, it's the go-to place for sailing, fishing and other outdoor fun. But the town has been reinventing itself as a winter destination, too, and not just for people who like dredging for oysters in the snow. With the summer tourists gone, life slows to a relaxing pace, and you can absorb the town's Victorian charms in peace. Or, if you prefer, just get massaged into a coma.
St. Michaels has long had two fine, fully equipped spas, one at the Harbour Inn and the other at the Five Gables Inn. We'd heard, though, about a spectacular newcomer: a state-of-the-art, 6,000-square-foot palace called the Linden Spa, which opened this summer. Not only did it have everything we could possibly need -- yoga classes, a gym, a steam room and a small army of masseurs and masseuses -- it was also attached to the ultra-luxurious Inn at Perry Cabin. If the spa didn't completely relax us, we figured we'd just let the inn itself finish the job.
So within a half-hour of arriving, we found ourselves walking through the Linden Spa and chatting with its sprightly young director, Jenny Farrand. Hotel spas tend to be dim, cavelike places, often tucked into an unused corner of the basement. But the Linden Spa was a light-filled building set apart from the inn, with the clean, open lines of an art museum. Elegantly pressed and framed flowers lined the walls of the "relaxation room," which looked out into a charming brick-walled garden, and everything about the spa seemed designed to soothe, from the color scheme (white and natural wood) to the furniture (wicker and cork) to the bathrobes (organic cotton, of course) that hung in the changing rooms.
"We've come to be rejuvenated," I told Farrand. She confirmed we'd come to the right place.
"But here's the problem," I said, looking around at the bottles of face lotion, the pastel yoga mats, the little soaps made of rare flowers. "I'm not a woman."
Linden Spa"Oh, that's all right -- you're not alone," she assured me. Forty percent of her clients were male, she said, and anyway, spas aren't about feminine pampering anymore: They're about health. Most of her male clients just go for massages, she said, but the bolder, more adventurous ones -- the real men -- were venturing into previously forbidden realms.
She opened the spa's catalogue to show me. There were seven kinds of facials and a vast array of massages, from "deep tissue" and "hot stone" to something called "moon and tide." There were pedicures and manicures and body-firming masks by the score, all topped off with a bewildering assortment of "finishing touches." And nearly all, she assured me, were appropriate for men.
My wife looked like she'd just been teleported to nirvana. But I was way, way out of my depth.
"What about the Linden Ritual?" I asked. It was the spa's signature treatment, where they smear you with sage, rosemary and other spices, wrap you in hot towels to bake, and then scrub you down with salt before tenderizing you on the massage table. It sounded delicious, in a vaguely cannibalistic way.
"Sure!" said Farrand, who swore that being wrapped in herbs would make us healthier. "The molecules actually enter your skin," she said, "and draw toxins out of your body."
I'd heard about these treatments; apparently it is becoming increasingly common for spas to baste their clients in the local cuisine. At one spa in Arizona they wrap you up in cactus flowers. In Hershey, Pa., they smear you with chocolate. And in Texas, they use barbecue sauce. Naturally.
Do any of these things have any actual health benefit? Who knows? But the Linden Spa's mantra is "the botanical art of wellness," and it takes its mission seriously. The spa is named after the native linden trees on the property (it uses the leaves to make tea), and it grows most of the other herbs in a greenhouse behind the spa, mixing up the potions in its own apothecary.
It was clear that at least one of us would have to be wrapped in spices, so I volunteered my wife. She quickly settled on the Five Flowers Solace (80 minutes, $165), where you're coated in hot, flower-infused clay; it's cooled to a crust and then the whole mess is scrubbed off. It sounded like a cruel joke, but I kept my mouth shut; better her than me. And I turned to Farrand for one last piece of advice.
"So, what do Cheney and Rumsfeld get when they come here?" I asked.
National spa secrets: safe with usThe veep and the former defense secretary are St. Michaels's two most famous homeowners, and I figured that if they actually did sneak in once in a while to be lathered in organic buttermilk, it would be okay if I did, too. But Farrand just smiled discreetly; if she knows our national primping secrets, she's not telling.
Instead, she suggested the Classic Pedicure ($49) and something called the Herbal Remedy Massage ($185), a treatment involving ginger and lemon grass that ancient Thai warriors supposedly used to recover from battle. Confident that Rummy would approve, I agreed.
So the next morning, swaddled in a fluffy white robe and holding a cup of linden tea in one hand, I met my pedicurist -- sorry, my nail technician -- a charming young woman named Samantha. She guided me up some steps to a white pleather throne with a little whirlpool bath at its base.
"Is this your first time?" she asked. She was speaking in a low, soothing "spa" voice, as if I'd just had a serious brain injury, and I suddenly realized that the spa experience wasn't really feminizing -- it was infantilizing. That's when I began to babble.
"My wife wants me to have baby feet!" I told her.
"That's right," she said, in her calming, don't-panic voice. "You'll have baby feet. Now just put them in the tub for me."
And that's when I began to really understand what spas were all about. For the next 45 minutes, my battered feet were massaged, buffed, oiled and groomed to perfection -- transformed from oafish lumps into objects of innocence and grace. For the first time in their lives, they were, dare I say it, beautiful. Using them for walking seemed an indignity. I wanted to have them bronzed.
But my rejuvenation was just beginning. Samantha passed me to a masseuse named Lakia, who stretched me out on a warm massage bed and, for the next 80 minutes, expertly soothed every shred of tension from my body. Rubbing me with aromatic oils and pressing deep into my muscles with a warm poultice of Thai herbs, she gave me a sort of acupressure massage unlike anything I'd ever experienced. The scent of the herbs was almost intoxicating, and as the tensions dissolved, I drifted into a blissful, oceanic state of peace -- or, as spa people call it, "the drool zone."
"How was it?" Farrand asked us later, after we'd met up in the relaxation room and were floating to the door to check out. I looked at my wife, who was in some peaceful land beyond human speech. The hot clay had clearly done its work.
"Fantastic," I admitted. "But I feel like I should go do something manly now."
"Just relax," she said, with a knowing smile. "You'll be fine."
St. Michaels: It's Not Just For Summer Anymore
It may be most famous as a summer destination, but St. Michaels is perfect for a quick winter getaway, too. Here are some ways to spend a weekend on the Chesapeake.
GETTING THERE: St. Michaels is less than a two-hour drive from Washington. Take Route 50 east across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, stay on 50 when it splits with Route 301 and follow it 30 more miles to Easton. About a half-mile past Easton Airport, bear right onto Route 322. Go two miles, and at the traffic light, turn right onto Route 33; you'll glide right into St. Michaels.
The Inn at Perry Cabin Stephen BrookesWHERE TO STAY: There are any number of comfortable, impossibly charming 19th-century inns in and around St. Michaels, though some -- like the wonderful Wades Point Inn -- close in the winter. At the upper end is the Inn at Perry Cabin (308 Watkins Lane, 410-745-2200) on the banks of the Miles River. Built in 1816, the inn was recently updated by Orient-Express and reeks of elegance and old money; you can even park your 130-foot yacht there. Its 81 quiet, antique-filled rooms and suites run from $330 to $770 per night double, with special packages available.
A more casual alternative is the Five Gables Inn and Spa (209 N. Talbot St., 410-745-0100) -- actually three Victorian houses near the heart of town, with an Aveda spa, an indoor pool and rooms painted in lively Caribbean colors. Its 20 rooms start at $150 a night, and its Pity the Procrastinator special rewards early bookers with a $50 credit toward dining in St. Michaels.
Other choices include Aida's Victoriana Inn (205 Cherry St., 410-745-3368; from $135), the Dr. Dodson House (200 Cherry St., 410-745-3691; from $165) and the Black Walnut Point Inn on Tilghman Island (410-886-2452; from $120). For more modern accommodations, try the St. Michaels Harbour Inn (101 N. Harbor Rd., 410-745-9001; from $180).
WHERE TO EAT: Grab a cappuccino at St. Michaels Perk Coffeehouse (402 S. Talbot St.) or a sandwich at the Carpenter Street Saloon (113 S. Talbot St.), where you can also display your karaoke skills on Tuesday nights. For a lively bar scene in the evening, check out the Characters Cafe across the street.
But don't leave St. Michaels without trying at least a few of its better restaurants -- particularly Bistro St. Michaels (403 S. Talbot St.), whose range of inventive, subtly flavored dishes never fails to delight; I recommend the scallops with coconut curry green beans ($27). The Bistro is always busy, so call 410-745-9111 well ahead for reservations. Also a good bet is 208 Talbot, where I tried the $55 prix- fixe menu offered on Saturday night. The food wasn't quite as memorable, but it's worth sampling the Southern-inflected inventions of chef Brendan Keegan.
Five Gables Inn, St MichaelsAnd it's practically illegal to visit St. Michaels without at least one meal at Sherwood's Landing, the nautical-theme restaurant at the Inn at Perry Cabin. Aside from the superb Continental cuisine (and 10,000-bottle wine cellar), part of the fun is the spectacular view of the Miles River during the day and the roaring fireplace in the evening. The chef's honey-and-tarragon-glazed shank of lamb will warm you up on a winter's night, and the seared jumbo scallops were superb. Dinner entrees run $30 to $39. Call 410-745-2200 for reservations.
PAMPER YOURSELF: There are three pleasant, well-equipped spas in St. Michaels, each offering a wide range of services with their own distinctive character. The newest (and most luxurious) is the Linden Spa at the Inn at Perry Cabin (308 Watkins Lane, 410-745-2200). Signature treatments such as the Linden Ritual (110 minutes, $420) and the Five Flower Solace (80 minutes, $165) use local medicinal plants. The two-story, 6,000-square-foot facility also has a gym, yoga classes, indoor and outdoor relaxation rooms and an infinity pool.
You'll find facial treatments ($95 to $135), massages ($110 to $185) and other treatments at the Spa at Harbour Inn (101 N. Harbor Rd., 410-745-0646). Those in need of more serious pampering may want to try the Winter Detox (herbal wrap, hot stone therapy, reflexology) for $325.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Stephen BrookesThe Five Gables Inn (209 N. Talbot St., 410-745-0100) has an indoor swimming pool and a steam room complementing its Aveda spa. A basic one-hour massage runs $100; for $175 you can have a 90-minute hot stone massage. Other treatments include facials ($110) and a sea-salt body polish (90 minutes, $150). New on the menu is the 90-minute Caribbean Therapy Body Treatment ($165), which includes a seaweed masque, body wrap, face massage and restorative body massage.
DON'T JUST SIT THERE: There's nothing like being rubbed down with warm, aromatic oils when it's freezing outside. But if you feel the urge to actually move around the town, consider visiting the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (213 N. Talbot St., 410-745-2916; $13). It's open all year, and you can spend a fascinating day working with skilled craftsmen as they build wooden boats ($25 fee). There are also kids' programs on Jan. 5 and 19; call for details.
For a more dramatic -- if colder -- maritime experience, try winter dredging for oysters on a traditional skipjack with Captain Wade H. Murphy Jr; call him at 410-829-3976 to arrange a trip. Landlubbers may prefer to visit the Pickering Creek Audubon Center, a few miles north of nearby Easton, for its free Invasives Eradication Workdays held Jan. 26, Feb. 23 and March 22. You'll be put to work yanking up English ivy from the waterfront; you'll feel better, and the bay will thank you. Info: 410-822-4903.
Clay shooting, as well as goose and duck hunting, are other fresh-air options. Duck season runs through Jan. 26, and companies such as Professional Guide Service (410-745-2433) will arrange hunts on private farms.
There's plenty to do indoors as well. The Inn at Perry Cabin (410-745-2200) is holding cooking demonstrations with chef Mark Salter in February and March ($75 per person, including dinner); get him to show you how to make his Grand Marnier Souffle, and you'll never lack for friends. The inn also offers jazz nights (select Saturday nights January through March; packages, including tickets, lodging and dinner for two, start at $525). For more culture, head to nearby Easton, where the Avalon Theatre (410-822-7299) presents performances all winter, including the Temptations (Jan. 31), the legendary Taj Mahal (Feb. 17) and the music of Puccini, Beethoven and Brahms. Tickets $10 to $60.
EXERCISE THE CHARGE CARD: The chief entertainment in St. Michaels may be shopping, and the main drag of Talbot Street boasts gift shops selling a near-endless supply of Chesapeake-theme knickknacks; if you've been looking for a coffee mug that says, "I'm Feeling Crabby," you've come to the right place. Try A Wish Called Wanda and 3 Krazy Ladies for some of the more entertaining stuff, or pick up expensive froufrou for your loved one at Flying Fred's pet boutique. A little more upscale is Artiste Locale & Frivolous Fibers, where you can acquire a meticulously handcrafted thumb piano (as, um, played by the indigenous watermen?) and other intriguing, if occasionally baffling, objets d'art.
If you're out to spend grown-up money, head down Route 33 toward Tilghman Island and take the turnoff toward Sherwood. Immediately on your left will be Sherwood Antiques (410-886-2562). It may not look like much from the outside, but there's a superb collection of carpets, hand-cut crystal and 18th-century furniture inside, and owner Charlie Freeman will happily show you around. (If you're looking for a Christmas present for me, the 1920 model of the clipper ship Mary Knowles -- a paltry $1,250 -- would be perfect.)