Angelenos' craving for beauty and health has created an explosion of expensive spas that feature everything from hot river rock treatments to power peels and hydrabaths

Call it the Battle of the Bubbles, or maybe the War of the Poses.

The Los Angeles spa world, once the province of a handful of high-end facilities in Beverly Hills and a few luxury hotels, has become one of the most competitive retail-industry segments in town. Whether it's a function of a strong economy or simply the fact that people are working harder and feel a greater need to pamper themselves, more customers are dropping huge sums on spa treatments and the number of facilities popping up to serve them is growing apace.

The massage gloves are off as these new players compete for regular customers. And as luxury hotels duke it out with "day spas" for high-end treatments, each seems determined to best its rivals by going completely over the top with odd New Age or simply decadent treatments.

Most spas offer the standard treatments including cellular repair facials, oxygen facials, power peels, antioxidant facials, executive men's facials, deep tissue massage, body bronzing massage, reflexology-pedicures, French manicures, paraffin hand and foot treatments, seasonal aromatherapy treatments and hydrabaths. But that's nothing compared to the newer stuff on the block.

Consider the American Indian treatment at the Peninsula Hotel. Spa manager Pat Davis describes it best:

"We take hot river rocks from river beds warmed with essential oils and place them on key meridians and acupuncture points of the body, including the base of your spine and back of your neck and knees, followed by special healing crystals placed on your chakras from below the naval to the head."

Stones are big these days; the Four Seasons spa has a treatment called "The Four Seasons Stone Therapy" that uses alternatively heated and cooled natural stones, while Vera's Retreat in the Glen offers its "La Stone Therapy" for deep-tissue and inflammation problems.

Tequila rubdowns

The Four Seasons recently completed a $3 million spa renovation, and like most luxury spas it is continuously creating unusual treatments and amenities to lure new clients and keep its regulars. Among its other offerings is the Punta Mita treatment, which features a massage using sage oil mixed with white tequila, along with a mud wrap.

"Spas today are no longer a luxury," says Gabriel Reims, public relations manager at The Peninsula Hotel. "Our business clients depend on spa treatments after long international flights, stress-filled meetings and wear and tear on their bodies. Spas have become a necessity for the world traveler."

Most modern spas offer deluxe packages to give their clients hours, perhaps even an entire day, of pampering for a price, of course. Aida Thibiant in Beverly Hills' Spa Sanctuary session lasts for seven hours, with an energizing salt glow, Shiatsu massage, European scalp therapy, hydrotherapy seaweed or milk bath, deluxe facial including hand and decollete treatments, chef's lunch, hair design, manicure and makeup. The price tag: $470. Add $300 to $400 of Aida Thibiant's custom skincare and makeup products, tipping the help and a possible limousine ride, and you've just spent a cool grand.

At Aqua in Santa Monica, the Roman Retreat for $355 includes an herbal bath, Spiralina (sea algae) wrap, holistic massage, facial, manicure, lunch, and a bottle of complimentary facial cleanser.

Burke Williams' day-long Stress Therapy includes a private herbal or seawater whirlpool bath, thermal seaweed wrap, lunch, massage, facial and manicure, shampoo and blow dry for $450.

At the Four Seasons, a six-hour "Escape to Paradise" carries a hefty price tag of $570. It begins with an exotic fruit cocktail followed by a Chamomile body scrub, mud treatment, aromatherapy facial, combination Swedish/reflexology massage and pedicure.

"We don't kick people out, they can stay all day," says Ingrid Peterholm, a customer service manager at Aqua. "In fact, we just had a couple celebrate their anniversary here in their lounging robes with treatments and lunch ending with a candlelit evening massage." At Aqua, couples are encouraged to take their treatments together and are placed head to head in rooms with sliding doors between them, so they can experience Nirvana together.

Nor has the teen market been overlooked; Isis Me in Encino offers a "Sweet Sixteen" three-hour prom-night treatment at $165 and a four-hour prom-night treatment at $245.

Celebrities like Calista Flockhart, Andie McDowell, Angelena Jolie, Sela Ward, James Gandolfini and Jean Claude Van Damme are regular clients at The Peninsula, but then most luxury spas can boast famous customers.

Some are also so exclusive that most regular folks have little chance of getting in. Luxury hotels like The Peninsula and the Four Seasons offer their spa facilities to hotel guests first, and everyone else is plunked on a waiting list. Daisy Tepper, spa director at the Four Seasons, says locals might be waiting a long time.

"Our spa has barely been open a week and already we are completely booked to capacity in our eight treatment rooms with a long waiting list of local patrons," she said. According to Tepper, hundreds await an opening with facialist-to-the-stars Steven Miller, whose specialty is low-intensity galvanic-current facials running an electrical current through the skin.

Relaxing with the tube

The Four Seasons spa has diffusers that emit seasonal fragrances in the relaxation and treatment rooms. Its clients can watch DVD images of mountains and water shown on screens on the lower part of massage tables. De rigeuer at most major spas are television screens in the sauna rooms for those who wish to stay abreast of the news or the stock market while ridding themselves of nasty toxins.

Design and the flow of space in a spa is vital. "These days, how a spa is arranged makes or breaks it," Tepper said. "If a spa is too noisy or if the locker and treatment rooms are not conveniently located, it makes a difference in the client's comfort."

Tepper says the seduction of a client begins in the Four Seasons' waiting area, with wicker ottomans and art. "Our clients can choose from bowls of fresh fruit, imported herbal seasonal teas, and lime-and-ginger detoxifying waters," she said.

The Peninsula Hotel spa starts the process of indulgence by asking clients if they prefer their bottled water at room temperature or chilled.

Despite a raft of competitors, there is big money to be made in the spa business. A luxury hotel spa can service up to 2,000 clients a month, while an independent spa like Burke Williams, which employs about 50 estheticians and masseurs per day with a typical client's tab for treatment and products ranging from $300 to $1,000, can bring in between $70 million and $90 million a year in revenues.

Smaller spas like The Garden Sanctuary in Beverly Hills are doing just fine, too. Co-owned by actress/businesswoman Connie Stevens and her two daughters, Tricia Leigh Fisher and her actress sister Joely Fisher, the spa gets approximately 80 customers a day with a typical tab of between $110 to $400, according to Tricia Leigh Fisher. That adds up to about $38 million a year.

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