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When burgeoning Fairmont Hotels and Resorts decided to create a signature brand of spa for its upscale clientele, it started from the ground up. After almost three years of research and planning, the $7-million, two-level, 8,000-square-foot spa prototype Willow Stream Spa opened last year at Victoria's Fairmont Empress Hotel -- and launched a new chapter in the evolution of the spa on this continent.

Location

This was the first of the signature spas now installed in a handful of Fairmont hotels and resorts in Canada (at the Banff Springs), the United States (Scottsdale) and internationally as far afield as Mexico, Bermuda and Dubai. Fairmont now plans to unveil three or four new Willow Streams a year, converting its existing spas to the brand or building new ones.

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Victoria's Empress Hotel sits at the gateway to the pleasures of Vancouver Island, which include hiking, camping, sailing, fishing and restaurants known for distinctive Pacific Northwest cuisine.

Clientele

The spa draws heavily from Fairmont's well-heeled clientele -- and does especially well with male guests. It also attracts spa-savvy tourists and affluent locals.

Spa treatments

Fine-tuning is the word: Willow Stream boasts such high-end amenities as a luxury suite with soaker tub and gas fireplace for couples treatments, a Hungarian mineral pool, and duvets on massage tables. The idea promoted is refuge for stressed boomers , who have rendered spa a prime 21st-century growth industry.

But this is no fluff-and-buff factory. Willow Stream takes a lead if only by acknowledging the importance of touch in a society that doesn't feel comfortable with it.

"Our research linked touch and care inherently and intimately," says Anne McCall, general manager of Fairmont spas. "Touch is crucial to us. Children have been known to live longer without food than touch . . . Touch evokes all those feelings of care and nurturing. Yet in North American society, touch is well, almost illegal.

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"We're looking for additional ways to get to the sense of well-being that springs from touch . . . A customer can expect warmth, sensuality and connection."

Fairmont's preparations included input from a cultural anthropologist who produced intriguing findings on men and spa: Apparently, guys aren't fond of the word "nurturing." Nor, apparently, do they like to be caught running around in robes and sandals like ancient Romans. "Men don't feel comfortable entering a realm in which they don't know quite what to do, a realm that may seem like female territory," McCall says. Thus the spa offers "Keep Your Shorts On," a program that clothes men in complimentary shorts and T-shirts.

Part of an overall trend to more layered, feel-good experiences, many treatments at Willow Stream run 90 minutes or longer. Women hit the jackpot with Pure Pampering, a seven-hour, $579 extravaganza encompassing the spa menu from body polish to traditional European facial.

For a mere $729, a couple can have a romantic spa experience for three hours that includes duo baths, massages, facials and freebie robes in the suite.

This is a spa not only in tune with but adept at fine-tuning the trends, thus the Golf Performance Treatment in which massage, stretching and acupressure are orchestrated to improve golf performance and relieve the aches and pains of the game.

Another program takes aim at the stiff and stressed business traveller, encompassing a leisurely soak in the mineral pool, massage, pedicure and a tutorial in stretches and deep-breathing exercises. There are even take-home sandals to help you "find your energy" -- the Willow Stream slogan.

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Food and drink

For more than 90 years, the lobby at the Empress has been famed for its afternoon tea complete with sandwiches and scones. Those in the market for grand hotel dining in the order of smoked sablefish drizzled with truffle oil will transport themselves to the baronial Empress Room, while knowing locals head straight for the celebrated curries in the Bengal Lounge.

Service

"It has everything to do with our staff," says Catherine Swinscoe, corporate director of spa operations and a 20-year spa-industry veteran. "We're about healers . . . We want people who bring warmth with them."

Employees actually sign an agreement in which they promise to eat breakfast every morning. Therapists get a 15-minute break between each treatment to restore their energies. The idea is to create a climate that builds energy for employees and allows them to pass it on to their clients. It seems to work.

Design

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Walls and furnishings bathed in gold, grey, aqua and terra cotta contribute to a calming environment, but the Willow Stream goes further with computerized lighting synchronized to the Victoria sky that changes four times daily to simulate natural light. The property also includes a posh, integrated hair salon, Fiorio's, operated by Toronto-based hair stylist Maurice Fiorio. When he's on site, the charismatic Fiorio is seen wooing staff and clients with Gallic flourish, whirling Dervish-like in a flurry of fingers and combs and scissors. The man's not in the hair business, he's in the transformation business.

Bottom line

While it doesn't quite result in rebirth, Willow Stream gives you a sumptuous, contemplative environment for body-awareness, and in its treatments delivers a seamless spa experience.

Contact information

Willow Stream Spa: Fairmont Empress Hotel, 633 Humboldt St., Victoria; phone: (866) 854-4444 or (250) 995-4650; or visit the Web site at http://www.willowstream.com. Prices range from $99 for a 60-minute European-style facial, or $129 for an hour-long aromatherapy massage to $729 for the 3½-hour couples' Romantic Adventure package.

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