Chicago hotel spas offer winter warm-up

I've finally found a reason to pity the people of Hawaii during winter: They'll never fully appreciate a spa experience.

Steam, sauna, hot tub and massage are a magical combination no matter the weather, but they tingle the senses just a bit deeper when winter is raging outside. Consider The Langham, which joined Chicago's roster of ritzy hotels last year in the iconic steel tower at 330 N. Wabash Ave. Summer is the hotel's high season, but the spa is busiest during winter.

"We have so many cozy spaces where you can just grab a blanket and relax," said William Myers, director of The Langham's Chuan Spa. "You appreciate it more than in summer, when you can just go outside."

And this is where we have it on those poor, poor Hawaiians: They'll never know the joy of discovering warmth in the deepest, darkest cold. (Small consolation, but let's go with it.)

As wintry weather ramps up once again, I went looking for warmth in the heart of Chicago, in this case, at three spas in luxury downtown hotels. (The spas didn't know a reporter was in their mist — get it? — until after my visits.)

There are a few advantages to the local hotel spa.

For one, they can be paired with rooms so you don't have to go outside. Should you want to spend a weekend bouncing from restaurant to spa to your room with vast views of one of the world's great skylines, no problem. Winter can wait.

Spas also offer an entire day of relaxation — like 16 1/2 hours of it. All three spas I visited open most mornings at 5:30, and close at 10 p.m. With the purchase of most spa treatments, that warmth is yours all day.

And then there is proximity. Sure, I could have headed to more tropical climes to warm up. But sometimes the least taxing and most refreshing journey doesn't involve airplanes and taxis and luggage. It's right down the road.

Chuan Spa (The Langham) on a gray, 41-degree Tuesday

Stepping through a round portal into the sleek, marble-floored reception area at the Chuan Spa, I looked across a waiting room of high-backed white furniture and was quickly corrected that it was, in fact, not a waiting room.

"If you would have a seat in our contemplation corner, I do have some light paperwork for you," said the receptionist, wearing a black business suit. He offered a glass of water or hot tea. I opted for tea.

I took a seat and contemplated the fourth-floor view: a sweeping bend in Wacker Drive that glimmered with fresh rain. It was a lovely look at the world I'd be leaving during the next few hours. The man in the black suit handed me a questionnaire.

"There are no wrong answers," he said.

Which season is my favorite? ("Late summer" was included as a fifth season, and it was my choice.) Do I have a tendency to shout, laugh, sing or cry? Which color do I prefer among green, red, yellow, white and black? Whichever I picked, the man in the suit said, the spa would employ the opposite during my massage.

"To balance you out," he said.

Soon I was led to a tasteful locker room of gray marble walls and recessed lighting and given a brief tour: one sauna with a wall of salt rocks from the Himalayas; another, cooler sauna accented with sage, chamomile, mint and rosemary (good for the respiratory system); a chamomile-infused steam room; and a relaxation lounge of ergonomically designed and heated recliners. (The women's locker room has the same offerings.) Somewhere in the streets below, a siren reminded me I was still in downtown Chicago.

After a brief rinse in an aromatherapy shower that spurted tropically tinged soapy water, I headed to a waiting room and perused the reading material — GQ, Cosmo and a book called "The True History of Tea." I noted a warm floral scent, but couldn't tell if it was my skin or the air.

A woman named Sarah, dressed in a black uniform with her dark hair pinned up, introduced herself and led me down a dim, quiet hall.

"You are local?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "Just came in for a day of relaxation."

"Perfect day for it," she said.

I had reserved a two-hour Chuan Body Elements package that included an hour of massage with Sarah and an hourlong Organic Aromatherapy Skin Renewal Facial. Sarah described the massage as a combination of Swedish massage and traditional Chinese medicine.

"It's nice and relaxing," she said. "Not a lot of deep, hard work, but we can adjust the pressure if you want."

Nice and relaxing sounded just right for a winter warm-up. Sarah turned the lights blue (presumably to balance my answer of "green" on the questionnaire) and began slowly, methodically digging her forearms and elbows into me. The table heated to a toasty 130 degrees.

Sarah paid particular attention to my head, hands and feet, which seemed quite useful for blood flow and warming up. As she finished, Sarah dabbed citrusy Neroli oil on my face and wrapped a warm, moist towel around my feet. I was ready for a nap.

Instead it was time to meet Letty, who has primped and polished the faces of Chicago for more than 20 years. I'd never had a facial before, and I'm not sure I would again. I prefer to do my own face-picking. But I see why a certain set loves facials, especially as Letty draped a warm towel across my face and gave me a face massage. It could have lasted another hour. Or 16 1/2.

The good: Arguably the most thorough array of locker room offerings I found, including two types of saunas, a steam room and an aromatherapy shower. The newest of the three spas, and it felt like it — it had an extra glimmer.

The bad: Situated on the fourth floor in the heart of downtown Chicago means sirens will occasionally pierce the calm — which happened for me on the massage table.

(Massage treatments begin at $120. Winter room rates begin at $395. 330 N. Wabash Ave., 312-923-7650, chicago.langhamhotels.com )

The Peninsula on a sunny 31-degree Friday

There's a touch of extra grandeur in the Peninsula spa for a very simple reason; it's situated up high. The Langham and Waldorf spas are both housed on fourth floors. The Peninsula puts its spa where a transcendent experience belongs: on the 19th and 20th floors. (There is a downside to that two-story layout, but we'll get to that.)

The spa's elevator doors parted to reveal a relatively typical spa scene: dark wood furniture, dim lighting and a bowl of apples. At check-in, I again was offered water or tea ("black, herbal or green?") and handed a consultation card. The questions were much simpler this time, caring more about my current medical state than state of mind.

In a tidy locker room of handsome tile and dark wood, I changed into a robe — thin and brittle compared with The Langham's — and padded into The Peninsula's eucalyptus steam room, which, of course, was accompanied by chilled cucumber-infused towels. I mean, what's a steam room without a chilled cucumber-infused towel?

I spent 15 minutes in that steam room warming my muscles in preparation for what would come next: a two-hour hot jade stone massage that wasn't just a two-hour hot jade stone massage; The Peninsula called it "a ceremony." Every pore of my body opened in that eucalyptus steam room, and I breathed as deeply as I could. The city drifted away.

I realized the oddity of the spa's two-floor layout as I headed to the treatment rooms, wrapped in my robe and with slippers on my feet: between the locker room and treatment rooms stands the reception desk. In my robe, slippers and not much more, I passed through a group of people fresh from the cold in their coats and boots. Once entering spa world, it's jarring to leave spa world.

An attendant quickly ushered me with a sympathetic smile into the spa's relaxation room. Most spas have such a room, and the Peninsula's is the height of decadence: full-tilt beds topped with thick, white comforters. As I crawled into one of those beds to await my masseuse, the attendant offered to assemble some snacks. She returned with an array of almond slivers and dried cherries and cranberries.

I munched the snacks and split my attention between the fire flickering in a green tile fireplace and the women tucked into the beds across from me. There were four of them, wearing robes identical to mine, with hefty rocks on their left hands. They took turns lamenting their busy lives and their children's extracurricular activities.

Soon, Mario arrived, and he identified me easily as the only man waiting for a spa service on a Friday afternoon. He led me to a room where the customary massage table sat in the center, but in the corner was the addition of a chair, a bronze bowl filled with soapy water and two towels spread across the floor.

Mario directed me to the chair for a welcoming "ritual foot bath." He squatted on a pillow, placed my feet into the tub and added some oil that included jasmine and lemongrass. It was energizing oil, he said.

As Mario washed my feet, he asked some questions. How would I describe my skin? (OK, I said, maybe a little dry.) Why was I there? ("Warmth and rejuvenation of spirit through relaxation," is what I came up with.)

Based on the answers, he dabbed a few different oils made of varying plants, herbs and botanicals on the backs of my hands. Each had a different purpose, he said — energizing, soothing, detoxifying, restorative and the like. Judging purely by smell, I wound up with the orange-geranium-palmarosa combination, which he told me was restorative and helpful for stress. Mostly I just liked the smell.

I crawled onto the table for what can only be described as a journey. It began with a bodywide exfoliation with a dry brush made of cactus needles. It didn't quite feel good — being scrubbed with dry cactus needles feels just as it sounds — but it did just what it was supposed to do: usher the blood toward my skin.

Mario went on to clean my face with rose geranium and chamomile soap, then oiled my body as thoroughly as it has ever been oiled. One by one, the hot jade stones emerged, and Mario began dragging them across my muscles. He focused on specific points based on how he read my dosha (part of what makes up the body's constitution) and where I needed the most relief.

It was a curious massage in a sense; it never put me in a deep meditative place but felt miraculously freeing. It seemed more like a workout or deep medical treatment than a mere massage. Those hot jade stones reached muscles I didn't know existed. I'd never had a hot-stone massage before Mario. I will be having many more.

The good: Being on such high floors adds a sense of grandeur to the Peninsula spa, especially at the pool and hot tub, which look out onto magnificent city views. The snacks were tasty.

The bad: No sauna. And, passing through the spa lobby in a robe and slippers to reach the treatment rooms is a bit odd.

(Massage treatments begin at $165. Winter room rates begin at $395. 108 East Superior St., 312-573-6860, chicago.peninsula.com )

Waldorf Astoria on a sunny 17-degree Tuesday — with a wind-chill of minus 1

If ever there was a day for a hot-lava shell massage, this was it. And the warmth arrived quickly in the form of a thick polyester robe that was like slipping into a cloud (and narrowly topped the Langham in the spa robe sweepstakes).

I headed off to get my muscles loose in the hotel's 60-foot lap pool, which might be a bit cozy for two people, but on a Tuesday afternoon it was blessedly quiet and all mine. As I cranked out my laps, an employee placed two bottles of water at the edge of the pool.

Though the Waldorf locker rooms don't seem particularly large, they claim the essentials: a lovely tiled whirlpool, a eucalyptus-scented steam room and a roomy sauna set to 166 degrees. Perhaps my favorite element is the "relaxation lounge," a collection of leather chairs and ottomans in a dim room highlighted by an array of dried fruit and nuts, a television and a roaring fire.

Though the television might seem to pierce the transcendent quietude of a spa, there is something luxurious about watching ESPN at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in a bathrobe. The women's relaxation room, curiously, does not include a television or a fireplace. They instead get a series of luxurious chairs and a stack of magazines.

"The thought was that men would prefer to watch TV and the women would prefer to read," said Kerri Stokes, spa director.

Guilty!

"Though it would be nice to have a fireplace," she said.

My massage therapist, Mark, fetched me from the relaxation room and led me back to a small room where tinkling piano music drifted from above. He presented me with a tray featuring a polished tiger-striped clamshell that would be used during the massage. It was surrounded by four small, shallow spoons, the kind on which amuse-bouche might be served. Each was filled with a scented oil that had a unique purpose: relieving muscle tension, hydrating the skin, inducing relaxation or energizing the body.

I chose the last of those, mostly for its bright lemongrass-sweet orange smell. Mark soon was slathering it across my body and working the shell, filled with a hot gel, into my back, arms, legs and neck. Whatever part of my body wasn't getting addressed usually would get a warm towel or a heat pack. Plus the table was heated to about 120 degrees. I eventually began sweating lightly and didn't mind a bit.

The shell felt different than the jade stones — lighter and a touch less penetrating. It may well have been hotter, though.

When Mark finished and stepped out of the room, I lay on the table for a bit swimming in the heat that had been put into my body. Winter was just on the other side of the walls but seemed impossibly far away. Possibly as far as Hawaii.

The good: A wonderful lap pool and excellent relaxation rooms. Each locker room has its own hot tub for a naked soak, which of course is the best kind of soak.

The bad: The treatment room was the smallest of the three I saw and did not have a private bathroom, as did the other two. The smallest gym of the three.

(Massage treatments begin at $80. Winter room rates begin at $345. 11 E. Walton St., 312-646-1310, waldorfastoriachicagohotel.com )

jbnoel@tribpub.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

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