Insider's Guide to Spas
Mandarin Oriental San Francisco

My Spa Experience

San Francisco Spa Tour

Pamela Redmond Satran

The High Level Problem: A long weekend in San Francisco, when you need to relax and indulge but can’t eat or drink anything thanks to your crazy-ass diet.

The Higher Level Solution: A rolling visit to the Bay Area’s wide range of spa resorts, from hip downtown hideaway to luxe Napa Valley retreat.

When I started on the Accuweight diet right after New Year’s, the only major disturbance on my weight loss horizon was a mid-February trip to a conference in San Francisco. My ice-weary body and psyche craved the kind of indulgence California excels in: Amazing international food, top-flight native wine, creamy caramels hand-crafted by yurt-dwelling goat farmers. And spas, of course. With burritos carnitas, Le Cigare Volant wine, and chipotle caramels off the menu, where could I turn but to an extra helping of spa treatments?  Good thing that in the Bay Area, spas are as plentiful and various as artisanal cheeses.  The visitor (or the native) can choose from options – earthy to elegant, specialized to comprehensive – to suit every neighborhood and mood.  Or, as I did, sample them all.

Mandarin Oriental

Are you a super-rich supermodel, or do you just want to feel like one?  Then slip into the hushed, hidden-away spa at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco’s financial district, where the mood is Luxurious Asian Enclave. Slip off your Louboutins and sip a perfect cup of herbal tea as you arrive, calmed by the tintinnabulation of water fountains and Japanese bells. What the spa at the Mandarin Oriental lacks in size, it more than makes up for in opulence. Its four treatment suites – there’s also a nail salon and a tea relaxation lounge – each include a private shower and changing room, and most of its treatments are exclusive to the spa. Guests are encouraged to book time rather than specific treatments, during which therapies can be custom-designed to soothe your particular soul. The Mandarin Oriental is the only spa in Northern California to offer treatments with the luxurious Natura Bisse products from Spain. I had a facial, which smoothed away the ill effects of my six-hour flight.  Bonus: On the cable car back to my hotel after the treatment, a woman leaned over and asked me what fragrance I was wearing.  No fragrance, only Natura Bisse moisturizer, which I might have brought home with me were it not for the $168 price tag. 222 Sansome Street, San Francisco.  Telephone 415-276-9608.

Kabuki Springs & Spa

Hard by a busy street corner in Japantown, Kabuki Springs shares its Asian theme with the Mandarin Oriental, but that’s about all the two spas share. A gathering place for hip young San Franciscans, Kabuki Springs is the place to go when you want to relax and indulge like the natives do. Its most distinctive feature is the capacious communal Japanese baths, candlelit and atmospheric, with hot and cold plunging pools, sauna and Jacuzzi, and steam room complete with little bowls of salt for self-administered scrubs. Kabuki Springs alternates women’s and men’s days in the communal baths, with bathing-suit-mandatory coed sessions on Tuesdays. Reservations are essential, perhaps thanks to the affordable price: $25 for a full day in the baths, only $15 if you also book a treatment. I added the bath visit onto a 25-minute shiatsu massage, which I chose because it wasn’t like any of the other treatments I was getting during my four-day spa marathon. This turned out to be an over-the-sheet fast-paced rubdown, starting out great, thanks to my female therapist’s man-hands, but devolving as the session progressed. Round about Minute 16, it felt like my therapist started focusing on her Valentine’s Day plans rather than on my aching shoulders. 1750 Geary Blvd, San Francisco. Telephone 415-922-6000.

Claremont Hotel 

Staying at the grand old Claremont Hotel, in the hills on the border of Berkeley and Oakland, is like staying at The Greenbrier or The Breakers or any of the enormous old grand dame resorts of Europe – except with better weather and a killer view of San Francisco Bay. In keeping with its majestic size, The Claremont offers the largest spa facility in the Bay Area.  With 32 treatment rooms, a full-service hair and nail salon, and two heated year-round outdoor pools plus hot tub, The Claremont offers every kind of treatment and conversion you can think of – and then some. Take my Bio-Energy Reviving Body Treatment, which my therapist described as “a car wash for your body.”  The Claremont is one of the few facilities anywhere to offer this treatment, mainly because it takes place on special rubber table suspended over a bathtub, not the kind of equipment found in most regulation-size spas. And if you aren’t cleansed enough following this treatment, you can treat yourself to a turn in The Deluge, which is like getting a barrel full of water dumped over your head (but in the nicest possible way!). Not only is The Claremont a well-seasoned facility, but so are its therapists, highly experienced and professional. I also had a Seasonal Facial to prepare my winter-worn skin for the spring sun and my husband indulged in what he reported was a fantastic massage. We ate excellent oysters for dinner at the convivial and casual Paragon restaurant in the hotel, where they managed to find us a table even though we arrived without a reservation on Saturday night, and had a spectacular swim in the pool before driving off into the morning mist. 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley.  Telephone 510-549-8585.

Meadowood Napa Valley

Meadowood, nestled into a 250-acre property outside the lovely Napa Valley town of St. Helena an hour and a half north of San Francisco, is so beautiful that you don’t really need a spa to feel pampered and relaxed. Its gorgeous townhouse-style rooms with wood-burning fireplaces and treetop views are tucked into private cul de sacs. The property’s two heated pools along with golf course, tennis courts, and hiking trails offer plenty of distraction, and its 3 Michelin Star restaurant helmed by renowned chef Christopher Kostow means you never have to leave the property. But if you want a massage on top of all of this splendor, Meadowood can provide that, too. I indulged in a blissful 90-minute aromatherapy massage, certain to be even more blissful when Meadowood’s brand-new spa facility opens next fall. Right now the spa is in a charming-but-basic building near the pool; the new spa will feature eight treatment suites with men’s and women’s relaxation gardens with saunas, steam rooms, and whirlpools. Meadowood’s focus is on its personally tailored Eco-Fitness program  — an echo of its restaurant’s individually-created menus — which goes beyond the four walls of the spa to encompass the property’s four and a half miles of hiking trails and other sporting activities. And after all that fitness and relaxation, Meadowood is happy to arrange a car to escort you on a wine tasting tour of the area. For the conferenced-out business traveler or the weary San Francisco native, Meadowood can feel like a complete vacation in a single night. 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena. Telephone 707-531-4788.

Pamela Redmond Satran

Pamela Redmond Satran

Pamela Redmond Satran is a novelist and an entrepreneur who lives in Los Angeles.