De-stress with hot toddy, chocolate, other yummy spa treatments

When did the holidays become an exercise in anxiety, tension mounting with each fa, la and la? Shopping stress. Baking stress. Light-stringing stress. Relatives. And that "Are you ready for Christmas?" thing. Hardly helping.

But the year is winding down — shouldn't we take a cue?

To that end, it seemed a good, scented rubdown couldn't hurt. I took on the not particularly arduous task of searching area spas for a moment or two of Zen, to see if a massage, scrub or perhaps a paraffin pedicure could straighten the star atop the tree and help the Hanukkah oil burn an extra night.

Here comes my hot toddy

Four Seasons Spa

200 International Drive, Harbor East. 410-223-1440.

Hot toddy for the body, $145 for 50 minutes.

The receptionist greets me as though she was expecting me, my name at the tip of her tongue, ready with a choice of cucumber- or lemon-infused water. It's a hint at what's to come, as is the tour through the Far East-vibed back corridors where I trade my clothes for pillowy robe and sandals. All berobed, I wait for my therapist in a bright sitting area where there's organic hot tea to drink and candied fruits to snack on.

The treatment I booked is a seasonal one called Hot Toddy for the Body. Whimsically based on the winter drink, it starts with me lying on a warmed bed so the therapist — or maybe it was a bartender — can scrub me head to foot with a bourbon-and-sugar concoction. Each scrubbed body part is immediately swaddled in heated towels, supposed soaked in milk. The scrub smells exactly like something you might swirl in a snifter. The therapist jokes that it's probably not the choice for anyone with an alcohol problem.

Next, she steps out so I can rinse away the sugar in the shower, which leaves my skin slippery soft — shining even. Then I'm back on the warm cushions for an application of a rich, caramel cream that goes on with the kneading and stroking of a satisfying massage.

Though it's in the books as a 50-minute treatment — here's the extra-delicious part — once you're in, you're in. They welcome you to linger. They tell me some people get a treatment and then stay all day. Still in the robe, I dangle my feet for a bit in the frothing whirlpool, then dry them off with a sit in the sauna. The steam room and a multiheaded shower experience are also options, but I don't want to de-caramel.

I wander over to what they call the relaxation room — stopping first to grab tea and snacks from the waiting area. It's filled with S-shaped chaises designed to support a resting person, each with a thick blanket. They have all the new magazines and a pitcher of jasmine iced tea. You can read or close your eyes and tempt sleep or you could do what I do — walk over to the window, little cup of rooibos in hand, and gaze down at all the people going about their ordinary days, the sadly unmassaged who probably don't smell a bit like caramel.

Brownie bliss

Spa in the Valley

118 Shawan Road, Cockeysville. 410-771-0200.

Chocolate Brownie a la Mode Treatment: 45-minute manicure, $36; 75-minute pedicure $61

It seems to me that if gift-hunting is why anyone's stressed, Spa in the Valley — smack in the middle of a shopping center — has a strategic advantage. Cross a certain number of people off your list and book a reward. Better yet, book something and then bliss your way through Wegmans, not caring how many people bump your cart.

When I call to ask about the brownie pedicure, the receptionist swears that it's worth it. She'd never had it, but her friend had and said the only thing missing was an actual brownie. I'd have to agree.

If Willy Wonka wanted his nails done, he'd get this.

First, the staff mixes cocoa and what might be milk powder into a warming, bubbling foot soak, letting my feet steep in what's more or less hot chocolate. Next comes a scrub that looks and smells like brownie batter. The technician/baker holds the ramekin up to my nose so I can get the full effect. I want to lick it. I don't.

The coarse mixture goes on like sandpaper but leaves my feet — and hands — super smooth. After some typical mani/pedi nail maintenance moves, the technician dunks my feet and hands into plastic bags filled with hot paraffin and tucks them into thick booties for a few minutes while it cools.

She finishes by working in a thick lotion that I'm convinced came right from Wegmans' baking aisle — it smells like exactly like buttercream icing. The technician confides that real butter is the main ingredient.

If chocolate is somehow not your thing, the spa offers similarly extended nail treatments flavored with the likes of mango butter, lavender peppermint, lemongrass and ginger.

A happy face, and a massage, too

About Faces Day Spa & Salon

1501 S. Clinton St., 3rd floor, Canton, and other regional locations. 410-675-0099.

Anti-Stress Facial, $120 for about an hour

Before anything starts, I'm walked past displays of luxe creams and potions to a lounge where I wait to meet the aesthetician. It's a hushed, plush space with suffused light, soft furniture and that New Age spa music playing. These places keep the sitar and flute folks in business.

I can help myself to coffee, ginger peach tea and butter cookies. There's a big bowl of mints, too, perhaps to spare therapists customers with bad breath. Fuzzy throws are available, but it seems a bit soon for snuggling.

I pick the anti-stress facial on a bit of a whim because it's an unexplained mystery on the spa's website — just a name and a price. It turns out to be a facial and massage hybrid. You get a very thorough helping of each — good for the indecisive and the budget-conscious.

The aesthetician/masseuse has me change into a towel wrap and lie on my stomach in a room as small as it is dark. The music is of course filtered in. She starts with a back massage, working in a scrub, erasing it with hot towels and then deftly rubbing on cream.

I'm instructed to flip so she can start the facial, turning on a machine that puffs steam in my direction. There's a cleansing, a mask, exfoliations — lots and lots of anonymous cream. In between each wave of applications, most available body parts have a turn at being massaged. She works her way down. Arm to hand and then all five fingers. Neck, chest, legs — even my sad, neglected winter feet.

At some point she steps out and leaves me in the dark to ... well, who knows what? I'm pretty sure I fell asleep for a minute or two. And then she's back for a final round of warm towels, cream and serum.

When, alas, time's up, this is when I could use a snuggle with those blankets in the other room, but I'm ushered out to the bright, mall-like front to consider $30 soap.

More sitar, please. Please?

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