Looking for the cure? It's just off the highway

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Looking for the cure? It's just off the highway

At first, it's a paradox. "Dry water environment," reads the Marquis Spa Therapy Center brochure.

It raises my curiosity, so I book an appointment for a float wrap at this spa, one of Seoul's most luxurious. The treatment is three in one: exfoliation, wrap and then relaxation in the "dry water environment." It costs 180,000 won ($150).

The word "spa" brings to mind sandy beaches, idyllic days, white cotton robes and amazing massages. But this spa is right off the freeway in southern Seoul, near soaring concrete bridges and shopping centers. This is a city spa in the lower level of the Marriott hotel.

For almost three years, the Marquis has welcomed people wanting to be pampered in a serene environment.

Three years isn't long, compared with established places like the Dogo Spa Resort which opened in Matsuyama, Japan, in 1894 or the Aman Resort in Phuket, Thailand, which opened in 1988. But the luxury spa culture has only recently started booming in Korea.

Two spas, Marquis and Boon Spa in Cheongdam-dong, paved the way for the luxury market here.

The Marquis, designed by Wilson & Associates of the United States, opened with a New Age "ocean and nature" concept, offering chromotherapy (using colors and lights to center the body) and chakra therapy (using beads to balance a person's spiritual energy). But Korea wasn't ready for New Age. So Marquis changed focus to wraps, masks, aromatherapy, oxygen therapy, water-based massages and hand massages. A popular offering with travelers is a six-hour course that includes a meal.

I book an appointment five days in advance. I'm curious and prepared to indulge, as any woman's self-help book recommends. Stressed out? Take a time out. Feeling blue? Pamper yourself. In this case, Marquis would be pampering, genteel-style.

I enter the spa through double glass doors. There are separate men's and women's facilities; 15 rooms total in a 265-square-meter (2,850-square -foot) setting.

The hallway's carpet is a calming beige with gray swirls. Dim lights illuminate doors on each side. Korean masks hang on the occupied rooms. No one is in the hallway. The staff speaks in whispers. Discretion is the operative word.

"Follow me," a therapist named Hwang Yeo-won says in a soft voice, leading me to a changing room with six lockers. A plush towel, robe and slippers, all white, are in my locker.

Ms. Hwang brings me to another room. A large shower and sink are tucked to one side. In the middle is a white, heated cot, covered with a plush white towel. Yiruma's "First Love" album is playing.

She mixes a gritty powder for exfoliation. The process cleanses the body, preparing it for the wrap. She also massages my body with a glycolic acid solution to open the pores.

Next is the seaweed wrap. Ms. Hwang brushes on the green, muddy goo and then starts the dry water environment device.

This is a tub with a bottom that slowly drops. I lie on my back and the warm water gurgles in. The tub's bottom slowly sinks so only a thin layer of plastic keeps me suspended above the water. It feels like a soft, heated waterbed. I hear and feel the water, but stay cocooned and dry. "Many guests fall asleep here," the therapist says.

I float for 20 minutes engulfed in 40-degree centigrade (104 Fahrenheit) water. It's very relaxing, like I'm back in the womb, with Window's "Windham Hill's 25 Years of Piano" as a relaxing backdrop.

I finish fully refreshed. After a foaming oil finish, the spa offers a courtesy oxygen treatment. I strap on a mask, a bit like the ones that drop from overhead compartments on jetliners. The mixture I breathe for 10 minutes is suffused with sweet orange essential oil. My head feels pleasantly fuzzy. Another guest sits in the dimly lit room, in another of the four leather chairs, awaiting her turn.

The oxygen therapy is followed by green tea, water and fresh fruit.

I'd gladly return to try out the other treatments, like the Vichy treatment, theratherm room or the blitz shower. But I'd be sure to take them on a light day, when I can let the feeling linger long after I walk out the door and back into the city.

by Joe Yong-hee
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