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Novella Spa

Exotic Indulgences

Novella Spa and Imports is one of those places -- you know the kind. As soon as you step in, youíre immediately smacked with an urge to buy the entire store, particularly if your tastes tend toward the exotic and rare. Itís also one of the prime spots in San Francisco for decadent beauty rites to make you feel like a sultana of yore.

The front wing of the spa is full of all sorts of eastern-inspired goodies, ranging from books on ancient Hindu beauty rituals to CDs of Sanskrit mantras over trance beats. Plump, jewel-studded cushions propped atop butter-smooth chaise lounges have a languorous look and seem to entreat customers to plant their bottoms down. Itís a browsing area conveniently situated to set the mood for an impending indulgence at Novellaís luxurious spa.

The dťcor and mood of Novella are a combination of Middle Eastern and South Asian sensibilities: a rich blend of chocolate woods, swathes of gossamer fabric, luminous mandalas on glazed pottery, water fountains that that softly murmur over an infectious drumbeat, and the ever so subtle whiff of incense mixed with cardamom and lavender might make you feel like youíve stumbled upon a foreign palace. The selection of goodies is wide-ranging too, including housewares and bath products from India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Unsurprisingly, Novellaís interior and philosophy are healing, aromatic, and inviting -- even the resident hair salon borrows liberally from the wellness ethos at the center of the spaís treats. The menu, smattered with Ayurvedic offerings and aromatherapy body treatments, reads like the description of a garden of earthly delights. Green tea/rose/seaweed facials and sludgy plantomere treatments (algae-based, with antibacterial properties) flank signature pleasures like the Javanese Beauty ritual: a full-body massage with essential oils and a mask of rice extract and lemon, followed by a slumber-inducing body wrapówhich is especially adored by brides to be. The Moroccan leg and foot indulgence, with its decadent mint tea service and herbal mask with circulation-boosting volcanic clay, is another favorite among seekers of the exotic.

I settle onto a soft, barrel-shaped cushion with a steaming cup of herbal tea, imbibing the lush scents and sounds of my environment. Before long, Iím led into a massage room, where the somnolent darkness and a glowing Buddha statue create an ambience thatís simultaneously cavernous and cozy. I burrow beneath silk embroidered sheets as my therapist slathers me with various herbal aromatherapy oils, and kneads them meticulously into my skin.

The massage is more leisurely than the ones Iím generally accustomed to, which usually have the achy parts of my body fully engaged, but I appreciate my therapistís lighter touch, as well as the opportunity to settle more quietly into my thoughts and let my other senses (smell and sound, for instance) take over. The Novella technique feels altogether more therapeutic, more about centering, relaxation, and total alignment than the mere curative component that most people tend to expect from massage. I feel myself slipping in and out of consciousness as my therapist taps out a rhythm over my entire body. At the end, I am physically and spiritually reinstated, my body covered in a glossy, aromatic sheen of rosemary and patchouli.

On my way out, Iím seduced by a display of rustic teas and teapots from China, and sets of faintly scented note-cards that summon up images of love-stricken Moghul empresses. I opt for pragmatism and pick out an Ayurvedic balancing oil. My pampering session just wouldnít feel complete without a keepsake to remind me of this transformative oasis in the midst of urban ennui.