When you long for summer, just say the word: spa

A couple gets fireside massages at Topnotch in Stowe. A couple gets fireside massages at Topnotch in Stowe. (Don Landwehrle)
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2009
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Winter in New England has the potential to bury a budding romance or ice an established friendship. While some folks eagerly grab skis, skates, or snowshoes and head for the hills, those who don’t appreciate deep snow and ice-glazed ponds plan escapes to a climate where they can don a bathing suit and soak in temperate waters.

Such divergent desires can stress a relationship, but there is a solution that restores vacation harmony. A getaway to one of New England’s snow-country spas preserves elements of both hot and cold, and while still a splurge, is far less pricey than jetting to Aspen or Antigua.

‘‘Spas are the perfect cabin-fever reliever. You walk around in a robe; you swim; it’s warm; everything is based on comfort and ease. It reminds you of summer,’’ says Susan A. Wheeler, spa director at The Equinox, in Manchester, Vt., one of a handful of spas in northern New England’s ski country that deliver the luxurious extras that make them destinations unto themselves.

Destination spas are places to warm chilled bodies, soothe sore muscles, and pamper faces brutalized by the snow, sleet, wind, and subzero temperatures. They’re also where skiers and shoppers, riders and readers can regroup, relax, and relive their day’s experiences in a pampering —and warm — environment.

Check into a destination spa, and the pluses go far beyond treatments. Relaxation roomswith fireplaces, mineral pools, whirlpool tubs, heated indoor and outdoor pools, waterfall massages and rain showers, saunas and steam rooms are just a few of the indulgent ways to warm the winter weary.

‘‘New Englanders tend to be more practical than those in other parts of the country. It’s harder to get us to treat ourselves to something,’’ says Libby Staples, director of the new spa at the Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, N.H., slated to open Jan. 22. ‘‘A spa is a luxury, but it’s also a necessity,’’ she adds. ‘‘It’s preventive care with proven health benefits.’’

Many of northern New England’s mountain resorts first gained prominence specifically for those benefits. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, city folks would travel to the mountains each summer seeking fresh air and clear, cool waters. Snow-country spas extend these benefits into the winter.

Simply visiting a spa can elevate one’s mood. ‘‘One of the biggest problems with winter is that the days are short and there’s not a lot of sunlight, especially in New England,’’ Wheeler says. ‘‘Spas tend to be happy environments; they’re usually bright, clean, uncluttered spaces with pleasant aromas.’’

The downside of destination spas is that most are located at pricey resort hotels, but it’s not always necessary to be a hotel guest to have access. ‘‘Our spa is for everybody, not just luxury guests,’’ Staples says. Those who can’t swing a night or two at the resort can slumber elsewhere and pay a fee for day use of the spa or book a treatment, which usually waives the fee.

With spa access comes opportunities to stretch and sweat, soak and steam, and relax in a communal lounge, often by a fireplace, perhaps sipping tea or springing for light lunch. It’s even possible to mimic some of the effects of a treatment without investing in one. For example, sitting under a hydrotherapy massage waterfall provides some of the benefits of a massage, without the price tag.

Be forewarned, though: Just being in a spa can bring on treatment envy. One look at the glow of someone who has just had a massage or wrap or facial, and it’s hard to resist coveting one, especially if you’ve skied that morning and your body parts are beginning to complain.

‘‘A massage is great for anybody, but after a long day on the hill, your muscles are sore, and you’re chilled,’’ says Samantha Johnson, spa director at Stoweflake in Stowe, Vt. She advises first spending a half hour or longer warming up in the steam room, sauna, or whirlpool to get the most out of the Stoweflake’s après-ski massage. That treatment, which relaxes muscles by using hot towel compressions, allows the therapist to work deeply using massage oil infused with arnica, evergreen, and mint, which aids in alleviating any residual soreness.

Staples believes the adventurers massage will be one of the most popular treatments at Mount Washington Resort. ‘‘It’s a Swedish deep-tissue combo that focuses on flexibility and stretching,’’ she says. And guests can have hot stones added at no extra cost.

Over at the Spa at Stowe Mountain Lodge at the base of Mount Mansfield, spa and wellness director Maggy Dunphy recommends the signature Pure Nature treatments for couples. ‘‘Each starts out with two therapists for the first half hour of treatment. When guests realize there are four hands working on them, it’s quite a ‘Wow!’ reaction,’’ she says. Each also includes a head and scalp massage and peppermint foot treatment. The latter, she says, helps rejuvenate and bring feet that have been confined to winter boots back to life. One Pure Nature treatment uses a seven-headed Vichy shower to rain warm water down on the client. ‘‘It’s a wonderful way to warm up: four hands, seven shower heads; it’s not relaxing, but invigorating.’’

Winter can really do a number on your skin. ‘‘If you spend the day outside, all the moisture gets sucked from your skin, and you become dehydrated quickly,’’ says Alexandra Robinson, director of the spa at Topnotch, also in Stowe. Whether dodging moguls or simply running from shop to shop, a facial or steeping in a cocoon-like wrap helps restore moisture to parched skin. Her top choices are the délice de peau facial, which restores moisture and smoothes away fine lines and wrinkles, and the Mount Mansfield Saucha, a three-part herbal body treatment combining exfoliation with sea salt to remove dead skin and improve circulation, a wrap in a blend of Vermont herbs and flowers, followed by an aromatherapy massage using an intoxicating blend of sage, lavender, cedar, and sandalwood.

‘‘Skin is the body’s largest organ,’’ says The Equinox’s Wheeler. ‘‘It’s really important to let the skin breathe, to clean it so it can absorb nutrients, and in winter, because it’s so dry, it’s important to exfoliate.’’ She recommends the Spirit of Vermont as a one-stop treatment for the winter stressed. It combines massage, reflexology, and Reiki techniques to calm trigger points and balance energies.

Of course, quips Robinson, ‘‘the second-best part of a ski vacationis taking off your boots at the end of the day.’’ She finds that even those with ‘‘spa phobia’’ tend to enjoy the hammam foot ritual, a soak, scrub, wrap, and massage, and even a pedicure can have beneficial results, such as helping prevent lost toenails from toes jammed into ski boots.

Another treatment catering to the spa phobic is sound therapy, available at the Spa at the Stowe Mountain Lodge. Guests relax in a special chair that has three sound hearths imbedded in it.

‘‘You hear the music through Bose headphones and you feel it,’’ Dunphy says. ‘‘The tone vibrations resonating through the water in your body do the massage. The more one relaxes, the stronger the sensation.’’

To rekindle the romance, consider a couples massage on side-by-side tables by the fireplace, each with your own masseuse. And afterward, wrapped in your robe, if you close your eyes, you might just be able to transport yourself from the snow-covered mountains of New England to a Caribbean beach.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at

If You Go

Mount Washington Resort and Spa

12 Crawford Ridge Road

Bretton Woods, N.H.



Daily spa access fee $25 for anyone, waived with purchase of a 50-minute treatment costing $105 or more; 50-minute massage begins at $105.


4000 Mountain Road

Stowe, Vt.


Daily spa access fee $20 for hotel guests, $50 for nonguests, waived with purchase of a treatment. A 50-minute massage begins at $120. The best deal: Spa Day package, $144 Monday-Thursday, $160 Friday and Sunday, not available on Saturday, which includes a 50-minute treatment, use of facilities, lunch, gratuity, and tax.

Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa
1746 Mountain Road, Stowe



Daily spa access fee $20 for hotel guests, $40 for nonguests, waived with purchase of a treatment. Rates for a 50-minute treatment begin at $125.

Stowe Mountain Lodge

7412 Mountain Road, Stowe



The spa is open to nonguests only if they book a treatment, private training session, or Cooper wellness assessment. Rates for a 50-minute massage begin at $140; 25-minute target massage is $85.

The Equinox

3567 Main St.

Manchester Village, Vt.


Daily spa access fee $42.80 for nonguests, waived with the purchase of a treatment. Rates for a 50-minute massage begin at $115; a 50-minute hands and feet treatment is $85.

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