A Touch of Vanilla

Although individual tastes and fragrance preferences run the gamut, there are a few flavors and scents that have nearly universal appeal. Vanilla, which is cultivated from the vanilla orchid, qualifies on both counts. In fact, it is so widely accepted that even the term vanilla has come to describe things that are thought of as being especially basic, plain, or even boring. However, there is nothing boring about spa products or treatments that incorporate this beloved ingredient. In fact, adding a few vanilla-themed treatments to your menu may just entice your finickiest spa-goers.

Comforts the Soul

According to Kayla Fioravanti, vice president, chief formulator, and ARC registered and certified aromatherapist for Essential Wholesale, there are very few people who don't enjoy vanilla's intoxicating aroma. "It has been said that the scent of vanilla is the closest thing to the scent of mother's milk, which is soothing and makes us feel loved," says Fioravanti. It is that sense of comfort that makes it ideal for use in a spa setting. At The Centre for Well-Being at The Phoenician (Scottsdale, AZ), guests can find comfort with the Vanilla Coconut Body Scrub ($155, 50 minutes) or the Shea Butter Wrap with Honey Avocado Foot Therapy ($155, 50 minutes; $225, 80 minutes), which relies on pure shea butter infused with vanilla and mandarin essential oils. According to spa director Sheryl McCormick, the wrap is by far the spa's most popular body treatment. She attributes the success of such vanilla-oriented treatments to the fact that the aroma is not only comforting and relaxing but also appeals to both men and women. "One should always look for treatments that will appeal to all guests and be easy to sell," says McCormick. "The vanilla scent is a safe choice for any treatment."

Delivers a Sense of Place

Although the vanilla plant is native to Mexico, different varieties are now grown in tropical areas around the world, such as Madagascar and French Polynesia. Vanilla-themed treatments were an obvious fit at Pearl Resorts's Manea Spa in Taha'a, which is also known as the Vanilla Island. There, guests can indulge in the Vai Vanira ($318, 1 hour 50 minutes), which begins with a floral and vanilla bath before transitioning into a full-body massage with vanilla oil and a facial, and the Tane Vanira ($188, 50 minutes; $247, 80 minutes), a massage with a vanilla scrub, a vanilla body mask, and reflexology. "Taha'a is world famous for the quality of its vanilla," says spa manager Terii Salmon. "So, it was natural that the composition of treatments based on such a popular scent came to mind."

Located on Vanilla Island, Le Taha'a Island Resort & Spa features overwater bungalows that offer unparalleled views of the lagoon.
Located on Vanilla Island, Le Taha'a Island Resort & Spa features overwater bungalows that offer unparalleled views of the lagoon.

On the nearby island of Bora Bora, guests can get their vanilla fix with the Tahitian Treat ($266, 90 minutes), a spa sampler; Hoho'a Tiare ($165, 50 minutes), an aromatic facial; or Rouru Manea ($154, 50 minutes), a vanilla hair and scalp treatment. "Each of the five islands where we have a Manea Spa has become known for its particular products or attributes," says spa director Kamala Nayeli. "For example, in Bora Bora, you have coconut palms swaying over white-sand beaches. Moorea is famous for its pineapples, and in Taha'a, it's vanilla. This is why we designed the Tahitian Treat as a spa sampler. Not only do you get an exfoliation, a massage, and a short facial but you also get to take a kind of journey to each island through the products."

Guests needn't leave the lagoon to enjoy Manea Spa's vanilla-themed treatments.
Guests needn't leave the lagoon to enjoy Manea Spa's vanilla-themed treatments.

Guests at the Moana Lani Spa, A Heavenly Spa by Westin at the Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa, Waikiki Beach (Honolulu) have a host of vanilla-themed treatments from which to choose. The Hawaii Clay & Vanilla Facial ($200, 80 minutes), the Hawaii Clay Vanilla Body Ritual ($200, 80 minutes), and the Hawaii Clay & Vanilla Pedicure Ritual ($65, 80 minutes) were all created specifically for the spa in conjunction with M- alie Organics to serve as the spa's signature services. "The reason for adding these services to the menu was to assist in creating a relaxing Hawaiian experience through the use of local products and aromas often associated with the island," says assistant spa director Kayla Emblom. According to her, the scent is one to which most people can relate, as it's generally tied to positive associations in their lives.

Nourishes from the Inside Out

There's no question that the scent provides a host of emotional benefits. Vanilla, by its very nature, is an ideal scent to be used on clients, as they can carry it with them even after they've left the spa. "The aroma molecule of vanilla is strong and adheres to the skin," says Fioravanti. "This allows the subtle aroma of vanilla to linger on the body." In addition to the emotional benefits the scent provides, vanilla also offers some skin-saving benefits. "Vanilla is an inducer of DNA repair and contains enzymes that inhibit cell mutation, thus preventing carcinogenesis," says Stephanie Baresh, director of marketing and public relations for éminence Organic Skin Care. "It is highly antibacterial, considered to be an aphrodisiac, and is also used to reduce fevers as well as cool and soothe burns." According to spa director Tony Nayeli of Manea Spa (Bora Bora), when dried and ground, the vegetal material can be used to gently exfoliate the face. "As an essential oil, vanilla is regenerating and hydrating for the skin," says Salmon. "Also, you can use it as an anti-depressant or for problems such as heavy legs and even bloating. To maximize these virtues, massage and diffusion by air are the most common methods."

Culled from the vanilla orchid, vanilla provides a soothing, intoxicating aroma that is ideal for spa treatments.
Culled from the vanilla orchid, vanilla provides a soothing, intoxicating aroma that is ideal for spa treatments.

Plays Well with Other Ingredients

Another benefit of vanilla is the fact that it blends well with other scents and ingredients. "Vanilla has the luxury of being one of the few fragrances that can complement an array of other desirable aromas," says Baresh. "Fruit and berries are lovely and sweet when paired with the light scent of vanilla, while hints of mint can add a refreshing note to the softness of the pair." According to Kamala, cocoa butter and coconut milk both complement it. "We also use products that have other floral or fruit-based elements, such as hibiscus, kaupe, and tiare flowers; or papaya and mango; even sandalwood," she says.

Vanilla Treats
Vanilla Treats

Should Be Kept Real

Although vanilla may seem the most natural of ingredients, it is important to not be taken in by chemical fragrances designed to mimic its comforting scent. "Most of the vanilla used in personal care and spa products is not from an essential oil or absolute," says Fioravanti. "Vanilla absolute is a solid dark brown resin-like product. It is also insanely expensive—more than $100 per ounce at wholesale—making the majority of vanilla products on the market scented with either vanilla extract or vanilla fragrance oil." While products that incorporate vanilla extract do feature some of the aromatherapy properties of vanilla, Fioravanti cautions that products made with chemical fragrances do not. Tony also stresses the importance of keeping it authentic. "It may be obvious, but there is a huge difference between natural vanilla and imitation," he says. "Some might think that they have a similar smell, but the real thing has hundreds of trace elements that are not present in synthetic elements."

Chances are, if you're like most spa owners, you want your spa to be a warm and welcoming haven. Diffusing the scent of vanilla throughout your spa, offering a variety of vanilla-themed treatments, or even serving vanilla-flavored teas and smoothies can help you and your staff create that comforting environment. "As a general rule, by its use in cooking, vanilla connotes gluttony and pleasure," says Salmon. "Many come to experience such care with this preconceived notion." According to Baresh, for many, vanilla conjures up warm memories of childhood, such as vanilla ice cream. "I think it is like comfort food for your nose," says Tony. "Many people have made positive associations with the scent of vanilla at some point in their lives, so vanilla is at once familiar and comforting." —Heather Mikesell

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