Kohler Waters Spa at Burr Ridge
Kohler Waters Spa at Burr Ridge

Battered by northerly winds and sorely in need of pampering, but getting on a plane for a week at Canyon Ranch isn’t in the cards? Create your own mini spa vacation right here. It’s easier than ever, thanks to the openings of several high-profile day spas in the Chicago area in recent years. There’s the ultraposh Spa at The Elysian, for example. The mystifying menu-free Valeo at JW Marriott. And NoMI Spa, a chic refuge with a gateway to a polished lap pool and gym. All that extra competition is great news: It’s prompting the others in town to sharpen their games. “Spas everywhere are raising the glam factor,” says Susie Ellis of SpaFinder, an organization that monitors global spa trends.

Or are they? To separate the spas that make you feel like you’re on a luxury vacation—if only for a day—from those that don’t, we compiled a list of 45 day spas in Chicago and its suburbs, eliminating those that weren’t full service (for example, they offered massages but not facials) or had gotten poor reviews. We called the remaining spas with a list of 15 questions, from whether they offer complimentary access to robes and sandals to whether they welcome guests who want to stay all day. Fewer than 25 made the cut. Then we started booking appointments anonymously, generally choosing the treatment or treatments that each spa considers its signature. And, of course, we spent time indulging in other amenities (gyms, steam rooms, whirlpools, and so on).

We got a few surprises: Some popular spots flubbed reservations or neglected housekeeping. But a full dozen met our standards, from bottomless carafes of cucumber water to virtuosic aestheticians and massage therapists. Five of them were good enough to deserve top ranking. For that elite list—and the rest of the winners—keep reading.

For An All-Day Retreat: Kohler Waters Spa at Burr Ridge

You could travel two hours north of Chicago to Kohler Waters Spa, a retreat in southeastern Wisconsin that consistently crops up on lists of the world’s top destination spas. Or you could drive 20 miles southwest of the Loop for a similarly serene, hydrating experience at its sister location in Burr Ridge.

We were skeptical of the skin-softening claims of the spa’s “remineralizing” water treatments. But we were believers after sampling the signature Highland Fling ($120 for 50 minutes, $130 on Saturdays), a coffee-mint exfoliation under the warm, gentle spray of a custom-made full-body Vichy shower (plus surprisingly pleasant periodic drenchings from buckets of warm water). More than an hour disappeared as we skipped between the sauna, immaculate steam room, and 25-foot whirlpool—with a plunging waterfall that does double duty as an impromptu back massager (see above). Time kept slipping away in the cozy, peaceful relaxation room (where chenille blankets were neatly folded on each reclining seat and we could help ourselves to all the tea, cucumber water, and snacks we could ask for).

Yes, Kohler Waters Spa is in a newly developed massive shopping center. That’s not ideal. But more than any other spa we encountered, we felt this one tug us a little harder each time we thought of leaving—from the baskets packed with magazines near every chaise longue to the luxurious array of toiletries offered outside the showers. In every way, it was so hard to say goodbye. 775 Village Center Dr., Burr Ridge; destinationkohler.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services, pool


Photograph: Bob Coscarelli


For Top Notch Service: The Peninsula Spa by Espa

The lap pool at The Peninsula
The lap pool at The Peninsula

When it comes to five-star pampering, The Peninsula is the reigning queen of hotel spas, thanks in large part to Espa, a renowned UK-based spa company that trains staff for luxury properties around the globe. Espa-approved massage therapist Brenna Bavis instructs The Peninsula Chicago’s crew. A two-hour session with Bavis—or anyone else—will set you back more than $300, but the service feels worth the expense. The Uplifting Mint Experience, offered only in Chicago, begins in the relaxation room. There guests can unwind on a fluffy adjustable bed next to a fire before heading to a private treatment room for a fresh mint foot bath, a full-body exfoliation, and a 60-minute aromatherapy massage. Bavis, an eerily talented massage guru, exorcises every ache from your body, transforming you into a puddle. After you resolidify, head to the steam room or go for a dip in The Peninsula’s Gatsbyesque lap pool. But access to 1920s opulence doesn’t come cheap: Guests must book at least two hours of services to gain entry to the pool and the gym. 108 E. Superior St.; peninsula.com/Chicago

Includes: Men’s services, express services, gym, pool


Photograph: Courtesy of The Peninsula Chicago


For Zenning Out: Allyu

Allyu’s relaxation tent
Allyu’s relaxation tent

Who knew that the old Montgomery Ward distribution center—a huge complex that now houses Groupon’s headquarters—is home to the most spiritual spa in town? Wafts of incense? Check. Sitar music? Check. Buddha statues for sale? Well, it is a business. Allyu’s big draw is its South-American-meets-South-Asian atmosphere, which evokes the saturated colors of Mira Nair’s Bollywood gem, Monsoon Wedding. Aspiring maharajas and maharanis can reserve 30 minutes in a private infrared sauna ($25; $20 with another service), where you can sweat it out, replenish with a provided carafe of cucumber water, and lather up with eco-friendly sage and lemongrass soap in a personal rain shower (no extra charge). Then head to the spa’s pièce de résistance: the relaxation tent, free and open to the public. Weary wanderers can find peace—and silence—while sitting on cushioned chairs surrounded by gossamer curtains. (Think classy hookah bar sans smoke and belly dancers.)

Allyu’s services skew toward Eastern techniques, such as shiatsu massage, eyebrow threading, reflexology, and chakra balancing, but more traditional offerings are available too. Brave enough to give Allyu’s shiatsu a whirl? Not for the faint of heart—or those with shoulder or knee issues—it’s an intense method where the therapist digs in her thumbs, then twists your arms and legs like a merry-go-round ($65 for 40 minutes). 600 W. Chicago Ave.; allyuspa.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services, gym, pool


Photograph: John Faier


For Aesthetes: The Elysian Spa & Health Club

The check-in desk at The Elysian Spa & Health Club
The check-in desk at The Elysian Spa & Health Club

If you’re the type who is never entirely satisfied if the aesthetics are flawed, the three-year-old Elysian is for you. The place is exquisite—all buffed white marble offset by tasteful dark grays and taupes—and the staff is just as polished. The pristine women’s lounge contains every conceivable amenity, including two kinds of footwear: white cotton-waffle slippers and brown rubber flip-flops (a nice touch). The room where you await your treatment is furnished with six velvet chaise longues that ensure you’ll put your feet up. It’s all so lovely that you barely notice the facilities are on the small side. (While there are workout rooms—gorgeous, natch—they’re cramped compared with those at, say, Trump.)
Oh, yes—the treatments. The spa’s signature is the Elysian Cleanse ($335 for two hours), which is costly but gives considerable bang for the buck. It involves dry-brushing of the skin, a citrus salt scrub, a full-body slathering of marine-mud-based lotion, and a wrap in plastic (and a heated blanket—profuse sweating and mild claustrophobia follow), plus a foot massage, mini facial, and body massage, all competently executed. And as long as you get at least a one-hour treatment, you get free access to all spa and health amenities for the day.

The major downside: The relaxation room ceased to be relaxing when a group of women entered and began yakking. If staff were to ask spagoers to keep their voices low, this place would be one step closer to perfection. 11 E. Walton St.; elysianhotels.com

Includes: Men’s services, gym, pool


Photograph: Courtesy of The Elysian


For Custom Treatment: NoMI Spa

NoMI Spa’s manicure station
NoMI Spa’s manicure station

Last June the Park Hyatt raised the curtain on a seventh-floor renovation that included a makeover for its fine-dining restaurant (NoMI became NoMI Kitchen) and a complete 180 for its spa. Tiffani Kim Institute Medical Wellness Spa is out (along with anything resembling Botox). The warmly modern NoMI Spa—and its softly sleek furnishings, attentive staff, and luxurious products, including the French line Carita—is in.
The list of services totals just under 40, and about a third of them involve waxing. But the relatively limited number of facials, massages, body treatments, and nail services leave room for customization—and, notably, the spa’s technicians have the kind of expertise and active listening skills required to pull it off. A “tasting menu” option allows guests to piece together any three of its 45-minute offerings, at a discount of 20 percent. We chose the signature facial ($110 for 45 minutes), the custom pedicure ($65 for 45 minutes), and the premier manicure ($70 for 45 minutes).

Then we spent a blissfully untroubled afternoon tucked inside the birch-wood-paneled rooms—softened by gray knit throws, stacks of thoughtfully selected fashion and health books (for sale, from $20), and filigreed Voluspa candles (also for sale, from $8)—and felt right at home. A home with a steam room, rain showers, and a beautiful new lap pool with an equally beautiful glimpse of Chicago’s skyline. 800 N. Michigan Ave.; parkchicago.hyatt.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services


Photograph: Anthony Tahlier Photography


The Best of the Rest

These seven spas, listed in alphabetical order, may not be at the very top of our list (for reasons ranging from outdated décor to complicated menus). But their service, atmosphere, or amenities still put them above the pack.

For Product Junkies: Bliss Spa at W Chicago–Lakeshore

At Bliss Spa, you’re surrounded by hundreds of the New York–based chain’s cheery blue-and-white bottles, which vow—in writing—to deliver skin-clearing, hydrating, fat-blasting results. Add-ons, designed to deliver extra vitamins, enzymes, and other helpful ingredients, are available for most body treatments, massages, and facials (the spa also offers waxing, manicures, and pedicures), and you get the option to combine services in ways that deliver good value.

An example: The Head-To-Toe Glow ($195 for 90 minutes) merges Bliss’s signature facial, the Triple Oxygen (on its own, $160), with a detoxifying wrap that includes a rubdown in lemon-sage oil and an airtight swaddle in a full-body Mylar sheet. Inside it you’ll feel your sweat pooling during the facial’s parade of scrubs, serums, and creams. After, you may notice a new and genuine lightness as you head for the sauna, then to a steam shower, before admiring the (slightly worn) dressing room’s view of Lake Michigan and your own radiant skin. 644 N. Lake Shore Dr.; blissworld.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services


For A-listers: MySpa at Fairmont Chicago

When you enter MySpa—in the depths of the Fairmont—a circular scribble of its logo projected onto the walls leaves you wondering whether you’re entering a gaudy nightclub. Thankfully, the boutique that greets you with an array of exclusive products from companies such as the botanically based Red Flower calms any apprehension. Guests are led down a long and softly lit corridor to separate women’s and men’s lounges, where they are met with gleaming porcelain and iridescent aqua tiles. Even after four years, MySpa has not lost its sheen, which might help you forget that the changing area in front of the lockers is a little too exposed for comfort. The spa focuses mostly on massage—including a 50-minute foot rub and scrub—and facials.

Clients seeking to replicate Madonna’s age-defying glow flock here to snap up appointments for an Intraceuticals Rejuvenate Oxygen Infusion facial ($195 for 50 minutes), which, while leaving your face feeling baby soft (for about a day), won’t actually turn you into the Material Girl. 200 N. Columbus Dr.; myspachicago.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services, gym


For Fans of Classic Glam: Red Door Spa

A massage at Red Door Spa
A massage at Red Door Spa

Elizabeth Arden’s national chain of spas (with locations in Chicago, Deerfield, and Northbrook) keeps alive the old-fashioned notion that a day of pampering should not exclude a tried-and-true beauty triumvirate: hair, nails, and makeup. The spa houses a full-service salon, where a haircut, blow dry, and finish starts at $80 and single-process coloring starts at $65. It also offers a lengthy menu of nail services, including full-set gel ($95) or acrylic ($85) manicures, and special-occasion makeup applications (from $90).

Which is not to say the sleek Gold Coast outpost falls behind its trendier body-and-soul-centered peers; on the spa side, separated from the salon in quiet quarters, guests can get facials, massages, or body treatments. The Olive-Oil Body Glow, an express service ($60 for 30 minutes), is a whole-body scrub-down with a moisturizing stew of Italian olive oil and coarse sea salts. You get a shower cap to keep your hair from becoming sullied, and upon exiting, you might be politely asked if you’d like a quick touchup of your makeup before you go. 919 N. Michigan Ave.; reddoorspas.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services


For Massage Addicts: Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

It begins in the spa’s richly upholstered lounge. A woman comes in and leads you to a soundproof room lit in low amber light. You crawl onto a womb-temperature massage table that resembles a plush bed. You breathe deeply to inhale eucalyptus-scented aromatherapy oil, and within the first 15 minutes of your deep-tissue massage ($200 for 80 minutes), the tension in your back begins to evaporate under the therapist’s strong, circular kneading. You lose track of time, and then it’s over. (Already?) You consider paying the extra $30 to take a dip in the hotel’s Romanesque pool (the fee includes access to the gym), but you’re too relaxed to swim. Instead, you pad, dazed, into the impeccably clean dressing and shower rooms and come back to consciousness in the spacious sauna.

You can see that certain aspects of the spa’s décor and the steam room’s sanitarium vibe could use an update. But you’ve just gotten one of the most uncannily spot-on, thoroughly tissue-smoothing massages you’ve ever had, and it doesn’t seem to matter. 120 E. Delaware Pl.; fourseasons.com/chicagofs

Includes: Men’s services, express services, gym, pool


For Those Who Think Bigger Is Better: The Spa at Trump

If the ideal day spa offers four things— great treatments, comprehensive facilities, a get-away-from-it-all atmosphere, and a reasonable bill—Trump delivers two and a half. The treatments are top-notch: The spa is the only one in the Chicago area to use Kate Somerville products—justifiably beloved by stars—and our facialist had been well trained. (We had the 90-minute Ultimate Kate, which pumps oxygen into the pores to “plump the skin.”) The pool is large by spa standards, and the workout room seems to go on for miles.

But in the shower, we were greeted by a puddle of water (improper tiling?), a broken metal corner bracket (although the place was built in 2008), and a dollop of lotion on the floor. To get to the relaxation room, you must march past hotel elevators in your robe. And at the end, the damage, with tax and tip (they add a “standard” 20 percent), is $420. In this economy? Donald, we salute you: Charging that much takes real chutzpah. 401 N. Wabash Ave.; trumpchicagohotel.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services, gym, pool


For Spa Newbies: Spa@theWit

Among Chicago’s hotel spas, the contemporary yet serene Spa@theWit is petite (showers for private use are in each of the warmly lit treatment rooms, but the locker room, inconveniently, houses only one). The effect, though, is cozy: You’ll feel like you’re visiting the home of a friend when, as soon as you enter, you’re welcomed with an offer of warm tea. The relaxation room is as peaceful as its name, Whisper Lounge, would suggest.

The spa’s signature massage ($125 for 50 minutes) merges aromatherapy and hot-stone techniques with light bodywork, and therapists are attentive to any injuries, aches, or pains. (Overall, the service is a good introduction for newbies but not recommended for deep-tissue die-hards.) One of the spa’s greatest assets is its location: The nail salon is only four stories above State and Lake, one of the hotel’s restaurants, which will send up any of its meals or cocktails—perfect to sip during a Butter London manicure (from $30) or pedicure (from $40). The room also offers floor-to-ceiling views of one of the Loop’s most lively intersections. 201 N. State St.; spaatthewit.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services


For Experienced Spagoers: Valeo

The spa service menu (or lack thereof) at Valeo, which opened last year in the Loop’s JW Marriott, is not an easy concept. In fact, booking an appointment requires a consultation, and the only price quoted is by time: $25 for a ten-minute block of any treatment. But each one—whether it’s a massage, a facial, or the spa’s hallmark Turkish Bath hydrotherapy and exfoliation session ($100 for 40 minutes)—is customized to a guest’s “unique needs and goals.” This could be a bonus, especially if you already know what you want.

In terms of size and sheer scope of facilities, it’s hard to do better than Valeo. All ten of its “clarity chambers” (treatment rooms) are outfitted with a heated marble-topped table. And in the rest of the spa’s colossal 20,000 square feet, you can hop between the newly opened pool or the TV-equipped relaxation rooms, steam rooms, and infared saunas—all free of charge with most services. Is there a better excuse to stretch out a day at the spa for as long as possible? 151 W. Adams St.; valeochicago.com

Includes: Men’s services, express services, gym, pool


Photograph: Courtesy of Red Door Spa