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High-End Relaxation in the Presidio

SenSpa, which opened this spring in the Presidio, offers an assortment of skin and body treatments, wellness coaching and Chinese medical healing, in a well-designed 13,000 square foot hideaway. My recent experience there was deeply satisfying.

The décor is Asian-California-tranquil, with warm oranges and corrals, custom-designed fabrics that evoke fire, wind and water, and lush plants. Water constantly falls over a glass partition that divides a tea sitting room from a waiting lounge featuring extraordinarily comfortable lounge chairs. Dried and fresh fruits, dark chocolate, cucumber water and organic teas are provided for all guests.

The Presidio’s strict historical preservation codes prohibited SenSpa from altering many aspects of the building that houses it. That building -- a World War I army barracks -- is essentially a historic white shed. It’s appealingly rustic, not magnificent, with an attractive skeleton of interior wooden beams. The spa’s designers overcame the building restrictions by creating a flowing open space, with several intimate subspaces and fourteen soundproofed private rooms off to the sides. There are two VIP treatment rooms and two couples VIP treatment rooms.

The incongruity between the original function of the building and its current use is mildly unsettling: expensive anti-aging seaweed serums are artfully displayed where munitions were once stacked. At the same time, this juxtaposition creates the magical feel of a Hollywood back lot: walk into this austere shed and you’re suddenly in a tasteful center of high end relaxation.

The design was intended to appeal to both men and women, and lacks the frippery common in many spas. One can imagine a sporty, well-healed young man altering his Saturday morning routine by extending his Crissy Field jog a couple hundred extra yards to the door of SenSpa, washing off in the high-pressure, many-nozzled shower and settling in for a lengthy massage.

The spa has a large menu of facials, massages and other therapies, many of which are rooted in traditional Asian medicine. My first treatment was an Ionic Aqua Detox ($60), which was billed as a nostrum that would remove toxins and balance cellular energy. An affable young woman poured water from a jug over my feet, as they rested in a small plastic tub. Over the course of a half-hour, the water turned a rusty greenish brown. According to the machine’s literature, the transformation of the water was due to the action of a “saline conductor” that was “circulating ions via electrolysis” and “neutralizing free radicals” while “toxic substances” were being expelled through the pores of my feet. The greenish tint allegedly indicated release of toxins from my liver.

Even in such a tranquil setting, I had trouble suspending my disbelief enough to accept the barrage of pseudo-scientific sounding claims. A prominent dermatologist later confirmed my suspicion that the skin lacks the ability to excrete toxins. (That’s the exclusive function of the liver, in conjunction with the kidneys.) To have one’s feet soak in warm water is pleasant enough, but you can do that at home for free.

On the other hand, the 110-minute Sen Signature Massage ($185) was transcendent. After leading me into a private room with dim lighting and tasteful, calming music, my massage therapist asked several questions to assess my needs, while my feet soaked in a basin of warm water. She listened closely to my responses about my lifestyle and sources of stress, then left the room as I placed myself face down under a lovely Italian duvet and sheet on a heated, billowy massage table. When she returned, I was already relaxed. She selected appropriate aromatherapeutic massage oils, and played a beautifully resonant Tibetan singing bowl. I was primed for extreme relaxation.

The massage itself was superlative. The therapist deftly worked the tension out of my body, applying just the right amount of pressure and strength. With perfectly calibrated movements, she focused her skills on the accumulated tensions all over my body. She checked in with me occasionally to instruct me to breathe, and to see if things were going well. They always were. There was no intrusive chit chat to break the blissful state. I particularly enjoyed the attention paid to my hands, head, and back, which made the ninety-minute massage worth the extra expense.

I left SenSpa feeling euphoric, both deeply placid and vividly alive. Since then, the stresses of working have inched their way back into my shoulders and back. I’m ready to go back. I could easily get addicted to this kind of luxury.