2016-06-30
"What are you doing at a spa?"

This is my father speaking. I'm on the phone from Canyon Ranch, a health resort in the Berkshires. "Lots of things," I tell him. "I just had a shiatsu massage."

"From a man or a woman?" he asks.

"A man."

Dead silence. I know exactly what he's thinking. My father is of that generation for whom the word "massage" means a seedy room drenched in red light and a wisp of an Asian girl. Finally, I say, "I don't consider massage a.sexual experience."

"Yeah," my father says, "but that doesn't mean he doesn't."

I think better of my temptation to explain further that Canyon Ranch is a destination that makes frank use of terms such as "holistic" and "wellness." Back in his day, in the late '50s and early '60s, my father, too, went to the Berkshires to unwind. He and his buddies stayed at a place called Eastover, remarkable for its Civil War motif. The American Heritage Room, an underground museum filled with artifacts that include a Gatling gun, anchors an array of cottages named the "Lee," the "Grant," and "Jeb Stuart" The indoor pool features portholes for those who enjoy watching people swim. "It's a real hot spot for swinging singles," a local told me when I asked him about Eastover, "where they still drink and dance till dawn."

There are few men at Canyon Ranch, much less pasty-white, thirtysomething guys like me. On my first day, I almost asked at guest services if perhaps I'd booked my stay during a women's retreat. My daily abs class consisted of me and 25 women squatting on exercise balls. The men's stretch class was two other guys and me, plus a staff member limbering up on his break. It's the type of place where my masculinity got an abrupt boost when one of the women at dinner reported seeing James Taylor on the treadmill.

The absence of men is a bit puzzling. Men are as susceptible as women to the status, if not the holistic pampering, Canyon Ranch confers. An off-season stay starts at $1,460 for three nights and goes up to $3,580 for a seven-night package for an individual. Every year, the Berkshire Canyon Ranch vies with its sister in Tucson, Ariz., for Conde Nast Traveler's readers'-choice award as best spa in the world. The resort, on 120 wooded acres in Lenox, Mass., offers more than 40 fitness activities and 75 health and healing consultations daily. The staff-to-guest ratio is 3-1, and the guest capacity is 240. Canyon Ranch has a 100,000-square-foot spa complex, and the first thing you see as you drive past the gate is the spa's architectural centerpiece--Bellefontaine, a mansion built by a robber baron in 1897 as an exact duplicate of Louis XV's Petite Trianon in Versailles.

So were women applauding my "brave decision" to go there? "I've tried to get my husband to come for years," one told me. "But he'd rather go on a golf vacation and smoke cigars." Another woman said her husband thought Canyon Ranch was "too girlie," and that he "doesn't like to be pampered."

Perhaps men don't realize there is a manly way to go about Canyon Ranch: Extreme Pampering. I attacked the ranch like I imagined George Patton would. I signed up for at least one 50-minute massage per day, alternating Swedish with shiatsu. I had two hypnotherapy sessions, which would maximize my mental and physical relaxation and help me achieve my fitness goals. I tried acupuncture and, for the heck of it, had an astrology and tarot-card reading. (The news was all good, even though most of my cards depicted ominous stones or swords.)

I tried things I thought wouldn't appeal to me--Austrian mud therapy, for instance. I was painted head-to-toe with European Moor Mud while my face and feet were massaged. Then I was wrapped in plastic and left under a heat lamp so that minerals released from the mud would help my body release toxins. This 45-minute treatment turns out to be an ingenious form of torture. Halfway through, sweat started dripping into my ears. Finally, I couldn't take the itching any longer and shouted for the therapist to come clean my ears out with a towel. I was only mollified when, after a thorough shower, I was covered with an application of body milk.

Every day, in addition to two or three exercise classes, I ran eight miles on the treadmill and worked out with weights for an hour. After dinner, I would attend one of the many health and nutrition talks. I confess I did skip the Wild Woman Pack Chat ("Come discover the wild woman inside you!"). I also had a night off when, perplexingly, "Healing With Chinese Herbs" was "cancelled due to an illness."

Truth be told, Canyon Ranch was my wife's idea. Apparently, I was showing signs of cabin fever. "Why don't you get away and indulge yourself a bit?" she suggested, handing me a spa guide. "Canyon Ranch has all sorts of fitness stuff you like, but don't just workout. Get pampered, too."

My new rule of thumb is: A massage goes a very long way. On my last day, I scheduled a 100-minute therapy called Euphoria for noon. If my visit to Canyon Ranch could be likened to a fireworks display, Euphoria was the grand finale.

Here's what you get: After a shower, you are deposited on a table in a candle-lit room where soft music is playing. Your face is wrapped in warm towels that have been dipped in sage oil. Then comes an aromatherapy scalp massage with rose-geranium oil, followed by a warm botanical body mask. Once you're gently buffed clean, you soak in a hot tub scented with grapefruit oil. Then you're back on the table for a Swedish massage using rich ayurvedic oils. The woman who performed all this on me said she sees at most one or two men a month for the treatment. I mumbled something back to the effect that other men have no idea what they are missing.

But here's the rub. I had also recklessly scheduled a Swedish massage for 5:00. Stumbling into my Swedish appointment still slack-jawed and cross-eyed from Euphoria, I wanted to tell the masseuse to wait in the hall while I spent the session napping. Instead, I just let the guy knead away at muscles he couldn't have made looser if he pounded them with a meat tenderizer.

While social scientists work on the mystery of why more men don't go to Canyon Ranch, I'll be happy to return someday and have the place all to myself. Not once in my visit did I have to share a whirlpool, sauna, or steam room. The only depressing thing for me were the men's program trainers, who were always available to play tennis or lift weights. Whenever they saw me coming, they'd shout, "Hey, want to shoot some hoops? Go cross-country skiing? Do some snow-shoeing?"

I know what my father would tell them. Take a couple hours off, guys, and go have a few drinks at Eastover.

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