Thwack Me! Poke Me! Scrub Me With Salt!

One reporter’s journey through the steamy, dreamy world of extreme spa treatments.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Spring is the season of renewal—as spa marketers are quick to remind us. But what they’re really trying to tell us is this: Before you tiptoe through the tulips, you need a pedicure. Also a Japanese sake soak to freshen up dull winter skin. And a hot stone massage to jumpstart your batteries after months of cabin fever.

Assigned to explore treatments beyond the usual massage, I recently visited some of New Jersey’s most advanced-sounding spas to see if these palaces of pampering are staying on their paraffin-wrapped toes to exceed expectations and deliver heightened results. Here is my report.

Illustration by Greg Clarke.

Illustration by Greg Clarke.

Bear & Birch Spa, Freehold

The corporate-park setting does little to prepare you for what’s in store at this Russian banya (bath house). Brace yourself: Once you’ve stripped to your bathing suit in Bear & Birch’s clean, ethereal, music-free locker room, you are handed a bucket hat (think Gilligan’s Island) and led to a cavernous, tiled space with steam room, sauna and shower.

You can hang out and sweat in the sauna—like the two guys I met who decided to try Bear & Birch after watching Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts schvitz at a New York banya on The Sopranos. Or you can try something a little more adventurous, like getting thwacked with birch branches by an employee known as the Beater, who, perhaps to make you feel less self-conscious, also wears a Gilligan hat.

I opted for adventure. The Tsunami Special ($40), Bear & Birch’s name for its popular birch-thwacking treatment, began with a warm shower. Next, the Beater—in my visit, a tall, non-English-speaking guy who smiled a lot—steered me into the Russian Parnaya steam room. It’s a cross between a Finnish sauna and a steaming Turkish bath—and pretty much the heart of any banya, says owner Peter Kizenko, who lives in Jackson. Inside the steam room, towels and a pillow were draped over a wooden riser in preparation for the thwacking, which began promptly after I figured out that the Beater was gesturing for me to lie face down. Then he took a cluster of branches and got down to business.

The thwacking didn’t hurt. The branches were clusters of foliage that felt like bristly pom-poms (fragrant ones: I detected the scent of sea kelp and chamomile). The various beaters, Kizenko explains, will wield the branches only as aggressively as you want. I suspect they generally get the intensity just about right. My Beater, at least, struck me (literally and figuratively) as a sensitive, intuitive professional.

Which is not to say he wanted me to be completely comfortable. After about 10 minutes of thwacking, he led me to Bear & Birch’s “ice-cold plunge”—a tiny pool of 45-degree water. In I went. Yow! After this frigid treat came a 10-minute encore of thwacking, this time with me lying face up. Then the Beater led me past Bear & Birch’s café (it’s BYO, so bring a bottle for a post-thwack glass of wine) to an area equipped with chaise lounges and a bubbling Jacuzzi.

For the finale, the Beater had me lie down on a chaise. Then he draped me in enough towels to render me immobile. Kind of frustrating when you’re thirsty and you can’t reach for the glass of lemon water on the table beside you. I remained thirsty.

The entire treatment took a full hour. By the end, I felt invigorated, and maybe a little stunned. I didn’t doubt Kizenko’s claims that his spa will help detoxify you, alleviate your stress and increase the oxygenation of your cells—especially after he pointed out some areas of blotchiness on my skin, an indication, he said, that the toxins I’ve been harboring had found an exit ramp.

Before I left Bear & Birch, they asked me to surrender the Gilligan hat. That was the only part I didn’t like. 732-780-3354.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Flic Spa, Bloomfield + Cranford

As spa regulars know, the person who treats you can be as important as the treatment itself. But rarely is the personality of a spa professional so compelling that you’d rather schmooze with him or her than be rubbed, slathered or otherwise pampered.

Nonetheless, at Flic Spa Bloomfield, I enjoyed the humor and conviviality of co-owner Lerrick Santos as much as I did his rendition of Flic’s signature and highly specialized massage ($135/60 minutes; $190/90 minutes). It blends Balinese Jamu, Philippine Hilot and Hawaiian Lomi-Lomi techniques.

It may be the most decadent and unusual massage New Jersey has to offer. First, you get a warm foot bath with floating rose petals and a bobbing, lit candle; then a scrub-down with Dead Sea salts; then a brief spell of silence in an in-room sauna. The massage itself involves long, sweeping strokes along your aching muscles, strategically executed to bring about maximum relaxation.

When it’s over, while you’re still lying on the table, a potent overhead rain machine showers you with a tropical cloudburst. During the shower you are also doused with warm water to simulate the effect of surf lapping over you on a Hawaiian beach. The sensation is magnificent.

Santos owns the beautifully appointed spa with his husband, Oliver Dimaya (they live in Bloomfield). He is a former Estée Lauder executive, a one-time Filipino composer and music director and a classically trained opera singer. He has a grand piano he poses in front of for photographs with clients. And he is hilarious, as he demonstrates regularly on his Flic Spa blog. You should read it. 973-429-3542, 908-709-8900.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Benessere Wellness Center & Spa, Summit

It’s okay if you arrive at this 2-year-old rejuvenation retreat scowling or feeling just plain pitiful. Indeed, if you have something to frown or be down in the dumps about, you have come to the right place.

Co-owners Lori Raimondo and Colin Crowley have tasked themselves not just with relieving your stress for a couple hours, but with brightening your inner glow for the long haul. So while you could book just a facial or a massage ($60 to $190, with an impressive menu of options), chances are you will be better served by starting with a free consultation with Raimondo, Crowley or one of their ace diagnostic staffers.

Once they’ve determined what’s ailing you—aching back, low energy, breakouts, you name it—they will recommend a plan of action to be carried out on the tranquil, opulent-looking premises. Options include typical day-spa facials and massage as well as yoga classes, personal training, guided meditation, life coaching…and acupuncture. But, as I discovered on my visit, not just plain-old needle acupuncture.

Karen Rodriguez, Benessere’s acupuncturist, thinks holistically. If needles give you the creeps, but you are drawn to Chinese and Japanese principles of healing, Rodriguez’s table is where you want to be.

Her range of modalities includes Guasha (a smooth-edged instrument is used to stroke the skin, usually in an area of pain or along your spine, to break up stagnation and promote blood flow); Jin Shin Jyutsu (Rodriguez uses her hands as jumper cables to release your body’s trapped energy); and something called moxibustion (which involves burning herbs).

And then there is cupping. Rodriguez suctioned warm glass cups to my skin for 5 to 10 minutes to draw toxins to the surface, break up obstructions and realign my qi (energy). It raised round red welts that soon faded, but I felt like yucky stuff was being vacuumed up and out. Whether that was actually happening I can’t say, but Rodriguez’s purposefulness, combined with Benessere’s beautiful setting, made me a (relaxed, calmed) believer. 908-277-4080.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Jadwig Skin Care, Cedar Grove

Joanna Rolleczek followed her mother into the face business. She is now a master esthetician and has the unlined face to prove it. What she does not have is tolerance for namby-pamby facial treatments. When she does a facial, she expects positive results. So should you.

Jadwig’s exotic-sounding, ever-changing roster of treatments include a caviar anti-aging facial and one that incorporates 14-karat gold leaves or stem cells extracted from an aged, rare Swiss apple (each $175). But Rolleczek, who has been in the business for 22 years and is sought by celebrities such as Edie Falco and Fox News anchor Teresa Priolo, considers these modalities somewhat passé.

If your skin is like mine—in its 40s and showing signs of it—what Rolleczek wants to do is stick it with fine needles, a state-of-the-art process called micro-needling (price on request). It’s not Rolleczek’s own, but she’s a true believer. Using a slim instrument that looks like your dental hygienist’s tooth-cleaning wand—and no more uncomfortable than a hard scrub with a Clarisonic—Rolleczek (or a member of her team) micro-injures your face to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin. That is intended to diminish fine lines and wrinkles. All skin types and colors benefit, she says. Rolleczek recommends six or more one-hour sessions over a few months; but she says most people see results after just one session. I certainly did. When I walked out of Jadwig, my normally fair skin had turned the shade of a Maraschino cherry.

Within a day or two, it felt and maybe even looked the way it did a decade ago. 973-239-7070.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Koi SpaSalon, Princeton

There are actual koi swimming in a large tank you pass as you are led to one of the numerous treatment rooms at the Koi SpaSalon. In my visit to this one-stop beauty and relaxation center, their silent, sinuous grace set the tone for a lovely afternoon that went just swimmingly.

So many options. You can have your silhouette slimmed with an anti-cellulite treatment, or be kissed with sunless tanner. You can have your eyes kindly rescued or your hair and scalp revived. The price range, like the menu, is broad.

Regina Polevoy, co-owner with her husband, says that Koi offers customers the latest in treatments and services. One of those is a Thermal 3i Hydrotherapy Tub. Book it and you will be lowered into a tomb-like apparatus where you will experience a kind of sensory uplift as colors and aromas (ask for the pomegranate extract) swirl around you and water jets stimulate your every muscle. The thermal hydrotherapy tub is a singular experience.

Koi also offers a Geisha Soak, alone or with a partner. Both soaks can be paired with post-soak massages (choose from Swedish or warm stone and various other styles). Don’t skip them. As Polevoy acknowledges, while the Thermal 3i Hydrotherapy Tub is fun and stimulating, there is no substitute for deep-tissue work, especially when performed by a pro.

Polevoy says all her massage therapists are meticulously trained experts. Therapist Susan Lee, who used her magic fingers to perform a post-soak Swedish massage on me, demonstrated to glorious, restorative effect that Polevoy was not telling me a fish tale. 609-720-0099.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Illustration by Greg Clarke

The Urban Muse, Denville

Urban Muse co-owner Kristin Pamperin wears her long red hair in dreads, your first indication that you’ve left standard robe-and-candle territory for a funkier oasis.
Look around the cavernous space she and her sister, Tracy, opened in 2003 after being spooked by 9/11. Both sisters worked in graphic design near the World Trade Center. Post-catastrophe, they decided to devote their days to creating a calmer, more restorative environment.

When you enter, you behold a boutique laden with candles, jewelry, incense, accessories and bath products, including a line of bath salts that melt fragrantly and pleasantly into your skin. The appropriately named Pamperin sisters radiate sincerity and a California vibe.

Crystals can be part of your treatment. In addition to Natural Energetic Healing, which includes touch therapy and spiritual guidance ($85 and up), the spa’s holistic services offers “Coaching With Your Angels.”

Opt in and an “angelic practitioner” will help you “connect with your angels to overcome life’s obstacles.”

As exotic as those services may sound, you don’t have to accept them as the only way to get your spa groove on. For a gratifying experience here, you might cotton to the Sedona Rose Treatment ($245), which the Pamperins rank among their best offerings. First you’re exfoliated with lavender-infused salts, then slathered with rose clay mud. While the therapeutic mud dries, a therapist massages your blissed-out scalp for a full 20 minutes. Then a warm shower removes the goo, after which you are treated to a Surrender massage, the Urban Muse signature.

Surrender is good here: Trust your therapist to figure out the best way to work out your kinks, wherever they may be. After this surrender, you can declare victory. 973-627-3455.

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