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Choosing a spa is getting more complicated than ordering off a multi-columned Chinese menu.
Never before have there been so many options. Vacationers can trim, tone, get rejuvenated and rested, medically tested -- even improve their sex lives.
The number of U.S. day, hotel and destination spas has been increasing by an average of 20% a year, the International Spa Association (ISPA) reports. U.S. resort and hotel spas are multiplying even faster. In 1999, there were 473, ISPA says. By 2001, the last year counted, there were 1,150.
Meanwhile, the nation's four dozen or so destination spas have been expanding treatment repertoires. A hot trend: programs to tune up sex lives, offered by such top spas as Arizona's Canyon Ranch and Miraval and The Oaks at Ojai in Ojai, Calif. Anti-aging treatments and in-depth medical testing also are on the rise.
The Tucson Canyon Ranch menu, for instance, covers more than 50 pages and ranges from genetic testing to classes in overcoming fear in the water and mapping self-esteem.
But choosing a spa doesn't have to be a workout in itself. Experts offer these tips:
* First, decide whether you want a destination spa or a hotel, resort or cruise ship with spa facilities. A destination spa ''is a full-immersion spa experience, and everyone is there for that experience,'' says Susie Ellis, who has worked in the industry since the 1970s and now is president of Spa Finder, which publishes a magazine and runs a Web site. Its spafinder.com helps consumers pinpoint their needs and select from about 1,200 spas worldwide.
At a destination spa, ''you go for a lifestyle change,'' says Mary Bemis, editor in chief of American Spa, an industry trade magazine. Days are typically filled with classes and treatments; food may be limited. Some require a weeklong stay; others allow shorter visits.
* Zero in on what you want from the experience, Bemis says. ''Do you want to be pampered? Do you want to get physical?'' Will you be traveling alone or with a partner or friend, or kids?
A beer-drinking husband who plays 18 holes daily and a yoga- and massage-craving wife could find bliss at a resort with a golf course and spa. A mother and daughter might cherish a bonding week at a destination spa or a resort-with-spa such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia. A growing number of spas offer programs for children and teens.
* Consider cost: You can pay $6,000 a week at a jet-set spa, $1,000 weekly at a budget spa, or a few hundred dollars for several treatments or classes at a resort.
* Do research. ''Call the spa and ask about programs and treatments'' to get a feel for whether you'd be happy there, Ellis says. (And book desired treatments in advance to avoid disappointment.)
* Don't forget food, Bemis says. At a resort or on a cruise, you can eat at will. Destination spas typically dish up low-cal but tasty meals that may be portion-controlled. Most don't serve alcohol. But a growing number -- such as highly rated Miraval in Tucson -- allow guests to chow down and have their wine, too.
Spafinder.com makes the search easier via categories such as medical, romance/honeymoon, kosher, even pet-friendly spas. It also features spa deals and is a good resource for a last-minute getaway.
ISPA also helps with the hunt. Visitors to experienceispa.com choose the type of facility they prefer and view ISPA members that match their criteria. Also on the Web site: a guide to the types of spas and treatments and a primer on spa etiquette. Do you have to be naked for a massage? (No.) Do you tip? (Usually, yes.)
At the bookstore, 100 Best Spas of the World, by Bernard Burt and Pamela Joy Price, is an authoritative guide to gold-standard getaways. A future spa-finding tool: Mobil Travel Guide just announced the 2004 debut of America's Best Hotel & Resort Spas. The guide will include a Mobil star rating for each property.
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