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Massage of a Lifetime

The Spa at Manhattan's Mandarin Oriental hotel offers an etheral path to relaxation and rejeuvenation.

High above Columbus Circle in Manhattan, the Mandarin Oriental has an over-the-top

spa with spectacular views of Central Park. And while raising the bar for service and ambiance, it is also raising the bar on what the market will bear for a simple rubdown.

With the recent surge of affordable qi gong joints popping up all over major cities -- not to mention practically every nail salon now offering to rebalance your chakras for $20 -- you'd be hard-pressed to pay more than $100 bucks for an hour of qualified deep-tissue attention.

Even nearby, high-end day retreats such as Bliss and Sanctuary top out at $200 for a hot stone or lomi-lomi massage. However, in the rarified world of the Mandarin-in-the-sky, a no-frills massage will set you back about a cool $500.

As Ricky Gervais shrieks in "Extras": "Are they having a laugh?"

Nope, not even a smirk. Moreover, in a city where time is always at a premium and results must be not only qualitative but also quantifiable, The Spa at the Mandarin takes itself very seriously.

And here's the surprise: You might very well consider it a bargain, too. The Mandarin, you see, has a secret weapon. It has Wafa (more on that below).

Known for luxury, discretion and, above all, extraordinarily intuitive service, The Mandarin has a style to which we'd all like to grow accustomed. The Mandarin Oriental New York was designed as an integral part of the shimmering new Time Warner Center, and it's as if the hoteliers have taken everything they've learned in the years since opening its namesake in Hong Kong and refined it for the Big Apple.

From the pandemonium of midtown, a private express elevator whisks you up to a world of New York that people dream of when they dream of New York. In the spa, the air is hushed, the flowers extravagant and copious, and marble is everywhere; the ceilings soar, and the carpeted balustrade gracefully curves upward into hidden heights.

And you'll be forgiven for not taking it all in at first, transfixed as you are by the wall of windows looking clear across the treetops of Central Park. Take it all in. It's a Sherman McCoy moment if ever there were one.

The desk attendant at The Spa will take your coat and shoes and deliver a pair of sandals on a tray. It feels a little odd -- socks and sandals -- but go with it; it's hygienic as well as an Asian tradition of leaving the world outside. A warm washcloth and mountain berry tea are then delivered to you on an orchid laden tray.

You should arrive a good 45 minutes early -- more if you can spare the time -- because these premassage rituals are half the fun, especially in facilities as indulgent as these.

A guide takes you into the locker area, sets you up with a voluptuous robe and gives you a tour of the spa's highlights, such as the vitality pool, where you can lie in hot mineral water, suspended on a cushion of air while hydrotherapy body jets massage you (think next-gen Jacuzzi); the experience shower, a funky mix of pulsing lights and water pressure that simulates tropical rain and fog; and a crystal steam room, which blends heat and steam through a giant hunk of amethyst.

Go at your own pace and try what appeals to you. Once you're suitably warmed up, you're ready to meet the high priestess of healing hands.

Transcendent Experience

Diminutive and raven-haired, Wafa met me in the relaxation area. I wasn't fooled, however -- size is an inverse indicator of the power behind this Israeli-born, Miami-raised former actress who counts film legends and Broadway stars among her devotees.

"You've booked time," she tells me, "not a treatment."

And she is right. Though you may select specific treatments in advance, it is highly recommended that you schedule a period of time instead. All of the rooms can accommodate any of the specialty treatments and each of the therapists is versed in them all, freeing you to decide what you're in the mood for when you enter the room.

If you're a spa neophyte, the therapist can guide you through the extensive options; if you're an old hand, he or she can steer you toward something new. Or like many regular clients -- "I just show up and let her save my life," says one devoted regular -- you can just leave yourself in Wafa's hands.

"We're going to start with you face-up on the table," she says. "I don't know why -- I just feel it." And so I go with the flow, breathing in and out as she smoothes on an energizing citrus oil.

There is something deep and intuitive about Wafa's touch, because she finds knots in my neck I didn't know existed in muscles I didn't know I had.

Perhaps you've heard a term that gets bandied about so casually in the spa world: "blocked." Energies can get blocked, meridians are blocked, chakras are blocked. Like those ubiquitous "toxins," you've never really understood what it meant.

Now, however, on the massage table, I understand what it is to be unblocked as my muscles release, feeling much like a deadbolt rolling back into its cylinder. In my back, the therapist finds trigger points that cause you to flinch as she manipulates muscles back into their proper place. My mind floats; my body lets go.

There's no need to apologize for drifting off into unconsciousness -- it's your time after all, plus you've rarely felt safer at the mercy of another person's hands.

The bell tolls too soon (Tibetan chimes, signaling that your time is done). Not to devolve into spa mumbo-jumbo, but I've just had much more than a massage. I've been given a rare gift, albeit one I have to pay handsomely for.

I can feel it coursing through my veins, and I half expect to turn and see Wafa grinning, her hands aglow like ET. Cost at this point is entirely relative.

I reluctantly left the Mandarin Oriental thinking that Wafa, bless her, is cursed. She will never know what it is like to experience her own magic touch. Some things, indeed, are priceless. Or at least worth $430.

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Michael Nassar is an independent writer and theatrical producer based in New York. He is a frequent contributor to Spa Magazine, AsiaSpa and NY Daily News.