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Victoria Harbor makes a stunning VIP-suite backdrop

Ancient healing traditions get a luxurious spin at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Spa by ESPA —By Alison Singh Gee
Since 1841, when Hong Kong first became a British colony, this glamorous heart of Asia has been hailed by jet-setters as a sparkling Oz of an island, where East not only meets West, but East also meets East—a place where modern and traditional Asian cultures beautifully co-exist. Nowhere in Hong Kong (which Britain handed back to China in 1997) is this more apparent than at The Peninsula Hong Kong.

Towering over Victoria Harbour, the city’s massive international port, The Peninsula is widely considered the region’s most iconic and storied hotel. And people-watching in the Peninsula’s 1928 lobby during daily high tea promises a parade of chic Shanghai women in Chanel suits and cheongsams, Indian families sheathed in beautiful saris and kurtas, and Japanese couples sporting this season’s Comme des Garçons runway looks.

European visitors are also seen here, feasting on an international spread of dim sum, curried sandwiches and British scones. So it’s fitting that seven floors up, the hotel’s Peninsula Spa by ESPA offers a menu of Oriental, ayurvedic and European treatments.

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Guests are invited to lounge away the day in the gorgeous indoor pool

Open since May 2006, the spa, occupying a former beauty salon and office space, feels both sumptuous and earthy, as if a five-star palace of pampering has arisen in the middle of a bamboo forest. “Bamboo is a symbol of endurance,” says Sharon Codner, the Peninsula’s regional spa director. “It brings luck and success with its rapid growth rate, strength and fortitude.”

As such, the core design features bamboo plants and antique bamboo flooring in a nod to feng shui principles. The spa lobby boasts Ming-style chairs and tables, a glass wall graced by swaying bamboo, a stark rock garden and, most strikingly, a semicircular waterfall sculpture that envelops guests in the soothing sounds of rainfall.

The spa’s treatment philosophy is a fusion of Oriental and ayurvedic influences, evidenced in menu options such as the Holistic Massage (60 min./about $125; 90 min./$175), which includes a fresh ginger foot buff (for “spiritual grounding”); followed by a salt-and-oil body scrub; and then hot volcanic lava stones placed on the client’s chakra points (“to clear blocked energy”). The service is topped off with four-handed, synchronized body work performed by two therapists.

Ancient Indian healing principles are also menu staples. “Many travelers,” Codner says, “are already aware of their own doshas”—ayurvedic mind/body types—”so we offer dosha-specific treatments to make it easier for guests to choose.” While the spa does not have an ayurvedic doctor on staff, all of its 15 full-time therapists have been trained to determine doshas and advise on suitable treatments. (Hailing from across Asia, including the Philippines and Nepal, they’ve also had extensive training in anatomy, physiology and esthetics and receive refresher training throughout the year.)

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The spacious sauna overlooks the boat-bedecked harbor.

Also surprisingly popular are the half-day journeys, which invite spa-goers to soak up the elements in the Thermal Suites, then luxuriate on the deck by the indoor pool (and do a few laps in its bathtub-warm waters) before savoring a nourishing lunch. Guests who’ve booked a Peninsula half-day mustn’t rush. And—unless it’s an exceptionally busy weekend—the staff tends to allow half-day journeyers to idle near the Roman-style pool for hours.

“Before we created the spa journeys, we did extensive research and discovered that Asia—Hong Kong in particular—has a spa-savvy culture,” Codner says, explaining why the multi-hour packages have been so successful despite evidence that spa-goers are increasingly seeking express services. “While the population in Hong Kong works very hard, they’re also conscious about spending time on themselves; it’s considered important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.” In fact, Hong Kong residents make up about half of the spa’s regular clientele (although bold-faced Hollywood names and Chinese movie stars are also frequent guests!).

Today, I’m here to experience the Immune Booster half-day journey (about $250), a package created especially for well-heeled travelers. And, since I’ve just blown into town from Melbourne, Australia, I could certainly use the boost.

After being greeted warmly, and in English, I’m led inside an elevator. “This is where your journey begins,” the attendant says as she draws my attention to a vertical screen on which abstract scenes of bamboo forests flash, as if to transport guests away from the urban jungle and into Asian nature—an artful and intriguing start to my visit.

The women’s changing room, lined with dark wood, bamboo textures and marble floors, embodies the spa’s “Ming Dynasty meets modernity” motif. The amenities include a full range of hair products, hand-care remedies, and skin type–specific toners, cleansers and moisturizers. The VIP suites feature a selection of juices and mineral sea salts. “We want to make sure our guests don’t have to ask for anything,” Codner says.

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The relaxation area offers more sweeping views of the harbor.

I first visit the network of Thermal Suites, which includes a sauna, peppermint-vapor steam room, snail-shaped experience shower and infrared marble ice bath. I start in the darkened steam room. It’s quiet save for the hissing of mint-scented steam, meant to clear sinuses. Amid the steamy haze sits a large rose-quartz crystal. “We believe the crystal imparts a sense of strength, love, beauty and energetic balance,” Codner says.

Next door is the spacious sauna, overlooking the harbor, and then the ice bath, where I encounter an unfamiliar feature: hand towels, immersed in an infrared ice fountain, meant to help guests tighten the skin and stimulate circulation when they use the towels to rub ice all over their bodies.

In my requisite plush robe and cloudlike slippers, I next head to the Asian Tea Lounge for the tea ceremony, where therapists serve hot beverages and conduct pretreatment consultations.

“Before opening, we worked with a Chinese tea master to design the ceremony and select a tea that could assist our guests in reducing internal stress and pressure,” Codner says. My tea is a soothing ginger blend, with notes of honey, cinnamon and lemongrass. I’m told the drink also has powerful flu-fighting effects and aids in digestion and respiration.

My therapist is a beautiful, bird-like Hong Kong woman with perfect English. Throughout the delightful two-hour treatment—which includes a full-body exfoliation, wrap, and aromatherapy body-and-scalp massage—I’m dazzled by the attention paid to every detail. For instance, while facedown on the table, I look below into a glass bowl filled with aromatherapy oils and see that several orchids have been gracefully arranged inside—just so I have something beautiful to look at.

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The Tea Lounge, where guests’ initial consultation take place

It’s clear that The Peninsula Spa by ESPA goes the distance—from the meticulous notes therapists take on guests’ likes and dislikes to ensuring every surface is polished and in five-star order. The carefully edited and maintained environment inspires a feeling of wellbeing and balance.

Codner notes that while the recession was tough—it descended upon Hong Kong in fall 2009—the team managed to weather it by offering seasonal promotional treatments at reasonable rates. One example includes the Two-Weekend Spa Escape package (about $225), an off-season incentive for guests to book two half-day escapes at a time. “We understood that everyone was struggling, so we worked with several credit card companies to create [point-based] promotions, not only to bring in guests but also to show our clients who were going through a tough time that we were all standing together.”

After my treatment, I head to the outdoor pool pavilion and claim an umbrella-covered table that affords an astounding view of Victoria Harbour. As my spa journey’s crowning touch, the waiters bring fresh honeydew juice and selections from the Naturally Peninsula Detox Menu: carrot soup laced with coriander and shrimp, and oven-baked cod with fork-crushed potatoes.

I watch as impossibly good-looking Cantonese movie stars backstroke through the pool, and then turn my gaze to the city and its harbor, filled with modern luxury liners and decades-old Chinese junks. The entire mise-en-scène echoes my day at the spa: East meets East; tradition graces modernity.

Alison Singh Gee is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles.

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