By Nadine Kam
Nadine Kam photos
By the end of Herbal Spa & Saunas special treatment, I was happy to retreat to the salt cave.
After reviewing Ngon Vietnamese Cuisine this week, I thought, why not multitask? The restaurant is inside the women's building at Herbal Spa & Saunas in Kakaako, so I wandered over to the spa counter to study the menu and the owner explained the three-hour, $100 special (usually $120) she was offering that included Korean-style body scrub, a massage, cucumber and milk and yogurt facial, head massage and hair wash, and unlimited use of hot and cold Jacuzzis, sauna and the spa's Himalayan salt cave sauna. Deal, right?
I was sold and made an appointment right away. If I had thought about it longer, I may have reconsidered. I'd heard from second-generation Korean women how much their mothers love the communal Korean bathhouse tradition and exfoliating scrubs, but they've found it excruciating.
I think most pampered Americans tend to think of the spa experience as being geared toward relaxation, but here, it's geared toward the fix, pain and loss of dignity be damned. Screaming in pain will not deter the non-English-speaking women—stripped down to bra and panty due to the liquid mess and workout this all entails—from their mission to pummel you toward perfection. And, you pay for all of this in advance lest you take up two hours of their time and they find you didn't have the money in the end.
They do have private massages here, but if you go with the package, everything is done in a public area where everyone is naked and the most relaxing moment is sitting in the heated Jacuzzi before "treatments" begin.
After emerging from the Jacuzzi, you're led to a plastic-covered bed where the exfoliation process begins and I was amazed to see all the skin being sloughed from my arms. They approach it with the vigor of taking a Brillo pad to a blackened pot. Once that was gone, I thought she would stop, but she went over every inch of my body at least five times, including very private parts, before taking a pumice stone to my feet.
All the dead skin is washed away with buckets of warm water, then you're doused with mineral oil and the massage, in every which way, begins. There are no long, languid movements and slow kneading here. The women will squat over you and push their knees into your butt muscles, as well as use feet, pinching and slaps to tenderize muscles.
The facial also entailed dousing my face with oil, so much that there was no way to stop it from running into my mouth, followed by a gritty scrub that also ran into my mouth, followed by a layer of cold cucumbers—at least the juice was edible—and that milk-yogurt treatment was merely liquid that was poured into my hand, to splash on my face.
None of this was relaxing or pretty. I was really happy to finish and was glad for the opportunity to decompress in the salt cave sauna. I was so beat up, I ended up sleeping most of the day, but the upside is that my skin is now really, really smooth.
I''ve tried exfoliating myself with commercial scrubs, but I see how aggressive one must be to get this kind of result. I'm not sure how many people could go to the extent practiced at this spa.
The Herbal Spa & Saunas is at 949 Kawaihao St. Call 589-0800.