Saturday, April 12, 2014

Spa Day in Chicago at Balance Spa

The other day, I treated myself to a spa day when I received a Travel Zoo email. The coupon - half off a 90 minute massage at Balance Spa at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel and complimentary use of the fitness facilities - seemed like a good deal, and it was local! I bought the voucher and made my appointment for a Wednesday morning.

After taking the Blue Line el train downtown, I entered the Palmer House Hotel from Monroe Street. I was pleasantly surprised. The last time I'd been at this hotel was in the early 1990s and I was unfavorably impressed by the outdated and stodgy feel to it. It seemed like someplace my Dad's friends would like (no offense, Dad!). But the property was completely remodeled in the early 2000s, and when I entered on this cloudy, cold March morning, I was greeted by smooth, ambient music and a beautifully designed interior that fed off the historic lobby - a must-see space which is stunningly gorgeous!
The lobby of the historic Palmer House hotel in Chicago.
 Designed in the 1870s by John M. Van Osdel, the decor is the epitome of opulence. After a bit of gawking, I made my way up to the 5th floor. A few feet off the elevator, the spa entrance is graced with an arrangement of illuminated columns that gradually change color in rythm with soothing, new age music.
Color changing columns of light in the reception area of the spa.
The receptionist was warm and gracious - not at all snobbish. I was offered a robe and some water, then escorted back to the waiting room. The room was like a small living room, with plush white and grey furniture and big windows facing onto the street. I used the ladies' room while I waited and was jealous of the decor. The entire room was tiled with large, marble tiles and the fixtures were lovely and elegant. There was even a steam shower available. The only negative was that the spa was a little on the chilly side, and I shivered a bit in my robe.

My massage therapist game in a few minutes later to get me. Her name was Alma, and I will definitely book an appointment with her again. Her technique was firm but also very relaxing, and I could feel the caring in her touch and manner. The next day, I really felt much less tension and soreness in my shoulder area.

The massage rooms are toward the back of the spa and felt very private. They were quiet, warm and dimly lit. It was very soothing.
The spa and salon space, where you can get a full range of services.
After my massage, I went to the 8th floor and enjoyed the fitness center. There were free classes, a free weight room and an exercise machine room. I felt a little shy about working out because the rooms were pretty crowded with fit 20 and 30-somethings, so I instead decided to swim some laps. I was able to use the nice, small locker room and then was thrilled to see I had the pool all to myself. I loved looking up through the skylight as I did backstroke laps. There were pool chairs, floaty toys, and large beach towels available. All of this was included with my massage. I felt like I'd really gotten a good deal.
The pool on the 8th floor featured a huge skylight. It was not large, but also not crowded, so it was very relaxing.
After my swim, I decided to have lunch at the hotel restaurant, Lockwood. While I appreciated the luxe decor and hush atmosphere, I unfortunately did not receive good service while I was there, and the food was kind of mediocre. Next time I go, I will try one of the many good restaurants within walking distance of the hotel.
Lockwood Restaurant

Since my first trip to Balance Spa, I have purchased three other Travel Zoo vouchers. I almost hate to tell people about it because I really enjoyed having the pool all to myself, but it was such a wonderful experience, and a lovely, relaxing day. Highly recommended, (and ask for Alma!).

A Late Winter Staycation at King Spa in Niles

You know how it goes with wasting time online - one link leads to another that leads to another, and so on and so on. So one Saturday in March, I was reading an article about Korean baths in the New York Times travel section, and it mentioned that they were becoming popular in the U.S. In fact, there was one in the Chicago area. I was so excited! Not only am I fascinated by Asian culture, but I love trying new trends. I decided it was time for a staycation, and I started to plan my day of total relaxation.
Here is the exterior of the spa; photo taken from the parking lot.
As everyone knows, this past winter-going-into-spring has been pretty brutal in Chicago-land. Some days, I just couldn't shake the chill in my bones, or urge to hibernate until it was all over. I read about King Spa and Sauna, and learned that for one low admission fee, guests could stay as long as they liked (it's open 24 hrs!) and use the baths and all the sauna rooms to soothe whatever ailed you. The place was a little bit hard to find because the entrance is off the back of a large strip mall. But once there, plenty of free parking was available. I entered the lobby and paid $30. I received a bracelet to keep on while I was there, and was told to pick out a uniform. The uniform consisted of a tee shirt and shorts: pink for women and girls, and grey for men and boys. (I did however take the grey version, since I am plus-sized and it fit comfortably. Then a staff member took me on a tour of the facility so that I could be familiar with all my options.
This is the room with the pools. Everyone, children included, is naked in here.
My guide took me down the hallway, then stopped me at a line on the floor, where I was instructed to remove my shoes, and put them in a little locker. Then we moved on to the ladies' locker room. My eyes were immediately accosted by a bevy of naked bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages. Uncomfortable! I was told that cellphone use was prohibited inside the locker area (for obvious reasons) and shown to my locker. The room was nice, but no frills. Off to the side were the toilet facilities, a couple of counters with beauty products for sale, an area for people to fix their hair, set up with blowdryers, etc. and then the entrance to the pools. I was told that the pools were in different temperatures. I had to take a shower first, then I would enter the pools, going from coolest to hottest. If I got overwhelmed with the heat, I could hop back in the shower and cool off.
Inside the ladies' locker room.
My guide extolled the various supposed benefits of hot pools, and also recommended I try the V-steam (for an extra fee), which is where you steam your lady parts. The claim is that the steam will cleanse, deodorize, and cure you of any women's issues you may have. But I know enough about the human body to know that those claims are false and that the hot steam could even be damaging to the natural balance of good bacteria present. I passed on the V-steam. There was one poor woman partaking while I was there, and she didn't look very comfortable or happy about it. I felt bad for her.

Next, we walked into the co-ed area of the spa which was a large, cavernous open room with several little huts inside of it. The main room was decorated with chairs and sofas in a faux fancy Marie Antoinette style. It was both tacky and pretty at the same time. There was free wi-fi in this main area and several people were on laptops, tablets or their phone, relaxing in slippers and their uniforms. I could imagine lazing here all day. In fact, I did see a few people napping.
The center room, from which all the mini rooms branch off.
The mini rooms included a movie theater which showed "G" and "PG" rated movies at various times throughout the day. This place was family friendly and children were welcome and encouraged. The movie theater was touted as a place to park the kids if they got bored with the saunas, but parents weren't ready to leave.
After the tour, I got started trying out the different sauna rooms. I skipped the pool area because, frankly, I don't really enjoy being naked around strangers, and I don't really want to be around other naked people. I wished that swimsuits were allowed, because I do love pools in general. But communal bathing seems kind of gross to me. The sauna rooms were co-ed and everyone wore their uniforms and carried a towel to sit or lay on. I tried all of the rooms except for the two that were very humid, like a traditional sauna. I tried to walk in to them, but I was immediately overcome by the feeling of not being able to breath. I much preferred the rooms that were dry heat.
The Base Rock Bath Room contains amethyst crystals, yellow soil and slabs of a Japanese mineral called Siraka.

I started with the Amethyst Room. It was so pretty! Amethyst lined the walls and there was a large rock of it standing in the corner. All the rooms were dim and quiet. People walked in and out at their own pace, and either sat or laid down on their towels. It was very soothing. I could only stay for a minute or two in each room before the heat overcame me and I had to cool off in the Ice Room.
The Ice Room.
The Ice Room was like a walk-in refrigerator, and I was so grateful it was there because it was easy - at least for me - to feel overheated in the hot rooms. I also loved the Pyramid Room. The exterior of this little hut was more angular, not rounded like the others. Inside the room was painted gold. It felt very luxurious and indulgent to lay in there. The gold color was also very cheering.
The Pyramid Room.
Another favorite room was the Ocher Room. On the outside, it was decorated with what resembled Native American petroglyphs. The inside was a warm ochre yellow color and it did not feel as hot as the other rooms. Just soothing, sunny, dry warmth.
The Ochre Room.
The Salt Room was also let hot than the others. I had been to salt rooms before (there are two others that I know of in the Chicago area), and had loved them. I don't necessarily subscribe to all of the health claims attributed to these rooms, but it does feel really good to breath the dry, warm air and get that tang of salt on your tongue.
The Salt Room is lined with salt rocks and has a mat floor. It just makes you feel all glow-y and toasty.
As I said, I didn't use all of the rooms, because some were just too hot and humid for me. I actually can't imagine coming here in the summer, but in the winter, it was wonderful. My body felt very loose afterward. Upstairs, there were nap rooms. There was one for men, one for women and one for families/co-ed. It was a little odd to see people sleeping in public. I also tried the Korean food court, which costs extra, of course. The items I had (a smoothie and some soup) were just okay, but it was nice to have the food there. I also bought a reflexology foot massage. The massage was given by a little old man in a tiny side room, decorated very plainly - not really spa-like. Again, it was just okay. He didn't ask me anything about any ailments or aches I might have, so I don't know how he decided what I needed. Anyway, I was glad I tried it.

Each of the little huts had a plaque on the outside that posted the temperature of the room and what diseases or complaints it would "cure." To be honest, I don't really believe all the hype and the health claims, but I would go again next winter. The price seemed like a good value, and the warmth and peacefulness was very soothing. Next time though, I will bring an ice-cold bottle of water to carry around with me, and a pair of slippers. Both were available for purchase, and there was a drinking fountain, but why spend the extra money?

All Inclusive Resort: Not the Best Choice for Solo Travelers

For the last leg of my vacation in the Riviera Maya region of Mexico, I decided to try an all-inclusive resort. I had never been to one before and was curious about how I would like it. Using the TripAdvisor website to do my research, I chose Grand Sirenis Riveira Maya Resort and Spa. From Tulum, I took another (very cheap) taxi ride to Akumal, which is part way between Tulum and Cancun. As I arrived on the property, I was awed by the sheer size of the property. It went on for miles and miles. The grounds were gorgeously landscaped in a tropical resort style, and very well kept.
Beautiful landscaping on the grounds of the Grand Sirenis in Akumal, Mexico.

Jungle foliage right outside my door.
The main lobby for the resort was enormous and had a cavernous feeling to it. The architecture was inspired by Mayan temples and featured an open-air A-frame shape, all done in white. It reminded me of the Contemporary resort at Disney World.

Unlike the other hotels I stayed in while in Mexico, the staff at the Grand Sirenis had a rushed and harried air about them. This was not a laid-back easy-going place. I imagine dealing with thousands of demanding American travelers every day is pretty grueling. Anyway, I received my room assignment (a bit of a disappointment because it was very far away and did not have a water view, as I had hoped for), and then took a golf cart on over. Unless you want to spend half your vacation walking between relaxation spots, you pretty much have to take the golf carts everywhere on this resort because it is huge. My room was attractive but as soon as I entered, I noticed it smelled strongly of mildew. It's a humid region and being right on the ocean, I'm sure mold and mildew are a common issue, especially in the air conditioning units. I turned off the air and opened my patio doors to let in some fresh air. Later I went to the gift shop and picked up some incense and that helped quite a bit as well.

The ubiquitous towel animal was awaiting me in my hotel room.

Simply and cleanly decorated.

Private patio seating area faced the jungle.
After getting to my room, I decided to make all my reservations for the things I wanted to do while at the resort. These included trying one of the non-buffet style restaurants, and getting a massage on the beach - a longtime fantasy of mine. The reservation process turned out to be quite a bear and took up almost an entire afternoon. The system was that you had to personally go see the concierge for your block of rooms, and wait to speak to him or her. There was an annoying woman taking her turn in front of me and you'd think she was planning an event for the queen of England. She just took so much time and couldn't make a decision about where and when to do the things she wanted to do! I tapped my fingers, hovered menacingly, and sighed loudly several times to express my impatience and displeasure, but she just ignored me and continued with her hemming, hawing, and indecisiveness. Finally, her equally irritated husband pulled her away and I was able to make my appointments. I was bummed that I'd wasted so much time on the "business" part of enjoying the resort. Then I headed out to finally enjoy the beach (after a trek back to my room to change, of course).
The individual blocks of rooms, all centered around a hallway that can be driven through by golf cart. You can see the guests lining up to speak to the concierge on the left.
One of several gorgeous pools, that were very uncrowded.
The resort seemed only moderately full; most of the guests were families with children, or big families on group vacations. My time at this resort was the only time I actually felt lonely on my solo trip. I decided an all-inclusive resort is not the place for single travelers. Being around all the couples and groups made me really notice that I was on my own. Also, I don't think it's a great value for single travelers. You can't really get your money's worth at the all-you-can-eat buffets, and the set-up of the beach and pool areas are not conducive to people who are there by themselves. For instance, when I wanted to enjoy the water, there was no place to put my room key, camera, phone, etc. I ended up asking one of the towel shack attendants if he could watch my stuff for me - not a very secure alternative.
This pool featured a net for water volleyball, and a swim-up bar. It was so lovely, though the cocktail I had tasted cheap and watery. I didn't even finish it.
The beach was really nice, though rocky - bring your water shoes! I wore my new Birkenstocks into the water, which was probably bad for them, but I really had no choice. Not only was there a band of pebbles and dried brain coral between the sand and the water, but once you got into the water, the floor was rocky as well. Super ouch!
Pretty beach, but with a band of rocks and sharp coral towards the water's edge.

This photo was taken on a deserted spot of beach right near the spa building. It was all rocks and coral, so not good for laying out, but lovely nonetheless.

I collected a bunch of brain coral for myself and as souvenirs for my son and my nephew. I found one in the shape of a heart for my son!
It wasn't easy to be lazy or feel indulged at this resort because the size of it made getting around, and getting what you needed, a chore. I never could find anyone to bring me tropical drinks on the beach, but I did get my beach massage - albeit it was not what I'd imagined.
This is the massage hut on the beach, but it's only for couples massages! Boo!
The tropical-looking palapa on the beach front was only available for couples massages (another example of how this resort was not solo traveler-friendly). For single massages, there were cabanas set up on, of all places, the busiest section of beachfront! Although the massage therapist did a good job, I could not really relax because of all the noise and traffic of people tramping by. The cabanas were also open in front, so anyone could look in and see you half-naked! As the masseuse worked away on my tense shoulders, I could hear all the boisterous family conversations of guests sitting right outside my cabana. It was hardly the zen-like experience I imagined, and in fact, I didn't even notice the sound of the waves because of the chatty guests all around me.
My last day in Akumal was cloudy and rainy, but still beautiful. This resort even featured it's own tiny ruin, seen here on that little rock island. I can't deny the natural beauty of the place, but as an introvert, I wished I had it all to myself.

Here is a view of the side of one of the blocks of rooms, this one facing the pool area. There were a ton of staff everywhere, and they did an amazing job of keeping everything looking very clean and tidy.
I wanted to love this resort, but it just wasn't for me. The conspicuous couples and groups emphasized my alone-ness, and yet there was none of that good kind of solitude that is renewing and good for the soul and peaceful. I did get "hit on" in a strange way by a divorced, middle-aged guy who said he was there for his daughter's wedding. He plunked down opposite me while I was eating at one of the dinner buffets, and was chatting me up in a flirty way. I was polite and friendly, but completely uninterested. At one point, he offered to get me another glass of wine (they were set up, already poured, on a tray on one of the serving tables). When he returned, he abruptly set down my wine and then said, "Okay, well see you later!" It was weird! But maybe he had picked up on my "I'm just being polite and humoring you" vibe.

I wonder if all-inclusive resorts specifically for singles would be a better value and more fun for me, and perhaps I will try one sometime, if I can sniff one out that doesn't seem cheesy. My tolerance for cheesy is incredibly low!