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Beneath the Pleasure Dome

I am just a guy. . . a guy who, like lots of other guys, has become something of a spa junkie. From Miami to the Maldives, from Trinidad to Tahiti, I have been oiled and kneaded, wrapped and aromatized; and I have lived to tell the tale. Sure, I could carry on quite contentedly if I were never to have another mud bath or living-kelp immersion. But when fate confronts one with the many temptations of a world-class spa, who is one to argue? This particular one will happily roll over on his back like a cocker spaniel and let magic fingers rub his belly. Or whatever else needs rubbing.

So on this day, I arrive early for my treatments. All the better for shedding anxieties, for winding down, for slipping into a spa state of mind, which should approximate that of, say, a geranium.

Just take care of me.

"Your sandals, sir," says the attendant, who also hands me a terrycloth robe that must weigh at least 10 pounds. I put on the sandals. Tiny knobs on the insoles soothe my feet like dozens of diligent, miniature masseuses. I slip into the robe. I feel like a champ, resisting the urge to shadow box like Ali.

Ah, the transformation has begun. I am Spa Guy, hear me roar! Well, not roar exactly, because one simply does not roar in a world-class spa. One speaks softly, so as not to drown out the New Age music, which at this moment seems to be variations on a theme of humpback whales which have gotten lost in a rainforest and swallowed a flute player. But while one can't roar, one can gloat and one can gloat loudly. Because it feels good and one does deserve it, doesn't one?

It is all about water. "sanitas per aqua," the ancient Romans called it. "Health through water." And at this sprawling temple of The Ritz-Carlton empire, there is water, water everywhere. Some of it is to drink (pitchers of spring water afloat with orange slivers). Some of it is to lounge around in (hot baths, cold baths, mineral baths). And some of it is purely for restful effect (the whoosh and gurgle of fountains greet you when you enter and are never out of earshot).

Since opening in April, the spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples has enhanced the 15-year-old hotel's standing as one of the finest resort properties in the world. In the 2001 Travel + Leisure magazine "World's Best" awards poll, The Ritz-Carlton, Naples took the No. 3 spot (behind the Four Seasons Resort/Bali and The Ritz-Carlton, Chicago) for best overall hotel on the planet. The votes were tallied long before the spa was unveiled. So it is only reasonable to assume that once legions of sybaritic travelers have a chance to sample the new spa for themselves, the hotel's popularity can only become even more stratospheric.

Not that any further validation is necessary. With the planned December opening of The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples (guests at the new resort, about four miles east on Vanderbilt Beach Road, will have privileges at the spa) Naples will become the first city (other than Atlanta) to boast two Ritz-Carltons. It might be a tad over the top for local government officials to erect signs that say "Entering Naples: Welcome to Ritz World." Still, all would agree that the advent of The Ritz in Collier County helped usher in an era of growth and prosperity similar to that of Walt Disney World and Central Florida-albeit, considerably more upscale.

The new spa, then, is to The Ritz-Carlton, Naples what, say, Epcot was to the Magic Kingdom-a wondrous addition to an already dazzling domain. Abandon care all ye who enter here...

I squeak through the men's locker room (my sandals make squishy noises on the polished marble) and enter the men's "wet lounge," or what I would describe as the Throne Room of the Hot Tub God. A steaming mini-lagoon-constantly replenished by a cascade of 98 F water-sits behind a plate glass window stretching almost floor to ceiling and running the 100-foot length of the room. There's a grand view of coconut palms, the Gulf of Mexico and the blue, blue beyond.

Another guy is perched on stone steps, half in the water and half out. He is gloating just as loudly as I am.

"You gotta try that thing," the guys says, pointing to a small pool adjacent to the steaming waters. It is the polar plunge pool. And while the water in the main lagoon could practically poach a salmon, the polar plunge pool is chilled to a numbing 54 F.

"Yesterday I jumped into it and I thought it was gonna kill me," says the guy, who I would guess is a Jersey guy. "But, I tell ya, at 2 a.m. I had all the energy in the world. I felt like an 18-year-old. It was great."

I consider the steaming waters. I consider the polar plunge pool. Like an 18-year-old, huh? Then I hear soft footsteps and the attendant appears beside me.

"Time for your massage, sir," he says.

As executed by architects flaton, moore and Schafer and builder Centex Rooney, the spa is an altogether seamless accomplishment, especially so considering its scope and size.

"Guests who haven't visited us in a year or so arrive and scratch their heads and ask: 'Has that always been here?''' says Ann Hughes, the hotel's director of public relations. "It just looks like it belongs."

It is the largest of any Ritz-Carlton spa, and one of the largest spas in the United States. At three stories and 51,000 square feet-more than 30 treatment rooms, an equipped-to-the-max workout suite, studios for yoga and Pilates, a conservatory for reading and re-hydrating, a rooftop Hungarian mineral pool-this is a spa in which it is possible to lose one's self. in every sense of the idiom.

Spas, however, are best measured by amenities, not immensity. And here, too, The Ritz-Carlton, Naples spa proves delightfully overwhelming. The spa menu lists no fewer than 102 individualized treatments. There are straightforward offerings that pretty much speak for themselves-sports massages (pre-activity and post-activity), French manicures and European facials. There are massages for couples and massages for expectant mothers. There are warm-stone massages and hydrotherapy massages. And then there are slightly more esoteric treatments-mustard and eucalyptus therapy, warm calming green tea facials, citrus and honey "body glo" exfoliations, Shea butter enhancements-that tend to blur the line between that which is therapeutic and that which is culinary.

But no matter, since it's all performed by folks who are at the top of their games.

"Lavender oil is soothing and helps you relieve tension," says Michelle, my massage therapist, as she performs a 60-minute relaxation massage. She dabs a drop of oil on my neck and gently continues her work. "Do you like the lavender oil?"

And giving myself over to the moment, relaxed to the point of stupefaction, my response might as well have been scripted by Homer Simpson.

"Mmmmm," I grunt. "Lavender oil. Good."

I wish I could share more details about the other treatments in which I partook-the gentleman's hot-towel facial, the sports pedicure-but the relaxation massage worked almost too well. I was so blissed out that coherence was not an option. My observational abilities and capacity for critical thought were roughly that of a large cabbage. And my notepad contains such inscrutable commentary as: "Tea tree foaming facial cleanser," "herbal recovery gel" and "really awesome chair."

The last note refers to the sports pedicure, during which I sat in what can only be described as the ultimate La-Z Boy. It had a control panel with more buttons and knobs than the latest version of Nintendo. Punch one button and it sent waves of heat up and down my spine. Punch another and I got a butt massage.

It was a truly great chair, probably a $10,000 chair. The pedicure wasn't half-bad, either.

So who amongst us can avail themselves of these unspeakable delights? Who can idle away their days sipping fruited water by the Hungarian mineral pool while awaiting their "Vichy shower rain therapy" or "seafoam body mask?" Who can enjoy a bit of nourishment at the spa café-=H20+, it's called-nibbling away on multi-grain muffins, granola-yogurt parfaits or unique bento boxes that offer such combinations as arugula, citrus and scallops in vanilla syrup or chilled Thai spring rolls with peanut teriyaki dipping sauce?

Well, anyone who checks into the hotel automatically has access to the spa. And a few of the treatments-manicures and pedicures, hair and scalp therapies, hair styling-are available to the public by appointment. Otherwise, the initiation fee runs $25,000 per couple. So far, about 115 have been sold.

"We had 75 members who signed up sight unseen," says Ann Hughes. "They come from all over the world-Denmark, South Africa. In fact, we are approaching the cap of 200 so much sooner than we predicted that we are thinking about raising the initiation fee."

Welcome to Naples, welcome to Ritz World.

Several hours after my arrival, I squish my way back to the Throne Room of the Hot Tub God. I discard my robe and ease myself down into the comforting cauldron. I am alone. Minutes pass. Who knows, maybe entire days pass, maybe the outside world no longer even exists. Like maybe I really care.

I consider the polar plunge pool. All I have to do is drag myself out of the hot tub, take a brief icy dip and the vigor of an 18-year-old can once again be mine.

But to hell with it. I am Spa Guy. I sit in the Throne Room of the Hot Tub God. All is right with the world. Why bother?

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