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Spa wars: Vero hotels vie in luxury rejuvenation

(Week of March 3, 2011), Photo top to Bottom: Costa d’Este’s spa. Tanja McGquire of the spa at Disney. Tracy Harris, Chandra Castanza and Heather Howle of the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa’s White Orchid Day Spa.

Their goal may be to de-stress and rejuvenate. But there is nothing laid back about the ambitions of three Vero businesswomen going showerhead to showerhead at what is suddenly a trio of luxury oceanfront spas.

Bringing a new treatment-oriented customer to their host hotels, the spas represent sizeable investments in an amenity that could redefine the Vero Beach resort experience.

At the same time, all three spas are open to the Vero public. Like the hotels’ bars and restaurants, the spas expect to draw in affluent residents looking for the bliss of the best-known resorts: a high-end spa experience right in their own backyard.

The latest to open is White Orchid, a spa that at last puts veracity to the name of the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa, now 3 years old. The spa opened its exotic wood doors two weeks ago to a 5,300-square-foot facility.  With a bent toward medically-based procedures, it has a full-time nurse practitioner on staff and an affiliation with an Orlando-based plastic surgeon, Roger Bassin, known for multiple appearances in the media including the Dr. Oz show.

Besides Botox and a range of dermal fillers, the spa offers laser services including hair removal and skin tightening, along with various levels of treatment for wrinkling and pigmentation problems, including medical-grade peels performed by  Meredith Harris, the nurse practitioner.

If the concept takes hold the way she hopes,  says owner Kelly Donovan, the hotel could one day draw clients to the spa for a medical peel or laser treatment, and then host them in a luxury suite for their  “downtime,” as the period of recovery (read: seclusion) is called.

“Maybe they can’t go out in the sun,” she says. “But at least they look at the ocean through their window. That’s not so bad.”

Down Ocean Drive to the south, Costa d’Este’s spa has existed since the hotel opened in June 2008. But for the first time, perhaps in response to Vero Beach Hotel’s spa opening, the facility is being marketed to the public, with free valet parking and an option to use the adjacent fitness room for a $10 per day fee.

Smaller than White Orchid, but equally luxurious, Costa’s spa has co-owner Gloria Estefan’s  imprint. Long a fan of massage therapy after a near-fatal tour bus accident left titanium rods in her lower back, Estefan gets her treatments regularly beneath a thatch-roofed pagoda in her Star Island backyard.

Here, her spa is minimalist and modern yet unpretentious, with a body-conscious South Beach sensibility. It offers steam rooms, massage treatments and hair and nail care. Items off the menu at Oriente can be delivered to the spa’s relaxation area, which includes curtained enclaves for post-treatment napping. 

And to the north, at family-friendly Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, a former storage space has been turned into a lavish facility overseen by local spa entrepreneur Tanja McGuire. McGuire, owner of the boutique spa A Pampered Life on Ocean Drive,  and the mani-pedi lounge Polished on Cardinal, set up her own spa management company last year and beat out stiff competition for the new space at Disney.

The spa opened in late October. Already, it is developing a local clientele of residents of the nearby northern island neighborhoods. As for the guests at what is known as a “family resort,”  McGuire, herself a mother of two, understands the sometimes oxymoronic aspect of the term, and  offers  respites like maternity massages  and Mommy and Me pedicures. Her “Tween Package” includes a massage, a facial and an “Ice Cream” manicure and pedicure.

For the Spa at Disney, the hotel chef developed a calorie-conscious spa cuisine menu that includes anti-oxidant cocktails, which can be served in a relaxation area inside the spa – no changing out of the terry robe.

The same is true for food or drinks offered off the regular restaurant menus at the other two hotels, bridging a day’s worth of treatments with lunch.

Together, the spas are doing their bit to boost local employment as well. Both Costa and the Spa at Disney have staffs of about a half-dozen full- and part-time people. White Orchid at the Vero Beach Hotel has twice that, with six massage therapists, plus six more employees trained as aestheticians, hair stylists or nail techs.

It is nurse practitioner Meredith Harris who sets the more clinical treatment-driven tone for White Orchid. Prior to joining the spa team, Harris worked locally with Dr. Clark Beckett, a vascular surgeon.

With two bachelor of science degrees, one in physiology and neuroscience and the second in nursing, Harris went on to earn her master’s in science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is certified nationally in women’s health and has board certification as a lactation consultant.

Harris was recruited by White Orchid’s owner Kelly Donovan, who worked in advertising in Manhattan for 17 years before moving to Vero Beach to raise a daughter, now 5. She and her husband Kevin bought the old Aquarius Hotel in the summer of 2004, while developer George Heaton eventually turned the Doubletree next door into the luxury property that now occupies those sites, the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa.

“The city put us together,” says Donovan, who was investigating turning the Aquarius into a spa first.  “I saw the need here and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. This has been six years in the making.”

The spa bears Donovan’s touches throughout.

While she worked with an architect and spa consultant, it is she who picked out touches like the recycled leather flooring, the Schonbek crystal sconces, and the vast hand-wrought stained glass panels of crashing waves illuminating the dramatic tunnel-like entry.

‘It took basically four 2-bedroom hotel units to create this,” she says. Construction has been underway since April 2010.

While a stunning interior that includes damask sheets on the treatment beds does not stint on sensory fulfillment, the spa’s orientation goes beyond the usual range of massages, mani-pedis and facials to include Botox, injectable fillers and laser skin resurfacing.

The crown jewel in the non-medical, more pleasurable part of the spa (vanity notwithstanding) is a couple’s massage room that opens onto a tiled wet room with two side-by-side benches recessed into the wall.

As each client takes a seat, a warm waterfall descends, while six jets of water pommel the back. Afterwards, the couple moves to a Japanese soaking tub of lemon-scented hinoki wood.  The wood is believed to have healing properties.

And what doesn’t, in this sort of luxury? At Disney, it’s the Vichy shower, an extended shower head that swings out laterally over the prone be-toweled client, while the massage therapist works with scented exfoliants and moisturizers. Think 80-minute hot shower lying down.

Not to be outdone, the spa at Costa d’Este never strays far from the stress-relief theme, offering pre-and post-service mojitos in its relaxation area. Its signature treatment is a massage with a heated shell or a hot stone.

“Full service spas can be addictive,” says White Orchid’s Donovan. “They come in for a haircut and end up with a massage. All we need is bodies in the door.”