"This is, like, your third eye,” my massage therapist told me as she dripped a mango-based oil onto my forehead, letting it trickle back through my hair, before she worked her fingers firmly over my scalp. The lights were dimmed and a sensual native beat was emanating softly from the speakers. My hands and feet, meanwhile, were lathered in warm coconut milk and wrapped in towels bearing hot stones.
It was a relaxing feeling, don’t get me wrong. But it seemed a bit unmanly. After all, I was a man with mango oil in my hair (not to mention those hot stones). Of course, it was entirely my doing—I had casually mentioned to Caesars Palace public relations I was interested in writing about spa culture and, thanks to their generosity, received a complimentary pass to the hotel’s acclaimed Qua Baths and Spa plus the above “Tops and Tails” treatment.
Vegas is legendary for its “comps,” especially for the big spenders, or whales, as they are called. Terrance Watanabe, the largest whale ever, flew on private jets, resided in a three-bedroom suite, and went fishing in Alaska, all of it gratis. Of course, he did gamble away ap-prox-imately $127 million. But even if to a far lesser extent, an ordinary guest can still get comped (anyone can drink for free while gambling—just be sure to tip).
For journalists, being comped is a bit trickier. I, for instance, am in the awkward position of writing about a spa to which I had free access—over and above my free massage. What am I going to say? That I hated it? (I didn’t.) Esquire food writer John Mariani famously receives free meals wherever he goes but explains it’s all legitimate because he’s not reviewing restaurants—he’s just writing about them. Sounds good to me.
Now about that spa: Despite the economic downturn, according to the International Spa Association, Americans spent $12.8 billion in spas last year, up 4.3 percent from 2009. My massage therapist told me I was the seventh customer of her day, which began at 8 in the morning and ended around 5 at night.
Aside from the massage, I was also interested in the “Roman Rituals.” As a pamphlet explains, “These rituals are based on fundamental traditions of Roman culture, specifically communal activities, where people gathered to relax, tell stories, and free themselves from the common day.” Communal activities? I envisioned scenes from Caligula.
In fact, these gatherings center largely around the baths: the Tepidarium (filled with warm mineral-enriched water), the Caldarium (a smaller and hotter pool), and the Frigidarium (chilled to shrink your, shall we say, pores). The spa is also divided by gender—men to the right, ladies to the left. And when I turned the corner, I realized why: All of the men enjoying the inviting waters were naked. It was a mostly older crowd, to be sure—the kind who no longer care who’s around and are more than happy to, in the words of Eric Clapton, let it all hang down. I, on the other hand, stood out in my flower-patterned Gap swim trunks.
Afterwards I briefly checked out the herbal sauna and then the Arctic Ice Room, where I sat on a warmed bench as snowflakes drifted down from a ceiling vent. A burly man clad in a towel explained his routine of alternating between the ice room and the sauna at 20-minute intervals. “It’s sort of like detox,” he said, following a night of debauchery.
That is certainly one way to relax, although there is another option—the Caesars Palace barber shop, tucked inside the spa. The master barber is Sal Jeppi, a native of Baltimore who’s been at the casino for almost 20 years and has been cutting hair since he was 15.
Following the precision haircut, Sal wrapped a steaming towel around my face while Sinatra at the Sands was playing in the background. He then applied the hot lather and gave me the smoothest shave I’ve ever had. “All with a straight edge,” he proudly proclaimed. There is no other barber at Caesars—there is no other Sal. He said one of the most important aspects of his job is gauging the customer, knowing if he is in a chatty mood or just wants a quiet cut. “And you never want to say the wrong thing,” he added. We talked about the old Vegas and the new, the unbearable traffic, and how Caesars has been mobbed ever since The Hangover movie came out. “Everyone wants the Hangover suite—then they find out it’s $4,000 a night,” said Sal, whose shave and a haircut will cost you $150. It didn’t cost me $150—I was comped—but that’s really beside the point, isn’t it?