Journey to the East at Mandarin Oriental San Francisco, an oasis of Chinese medicine secreted away in a downtown skyscraper


Welcome to the spa at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco

I am late for relaxation. My New York stress rises inside me like that foul steam from gotham sidewalk grates. I thought I had left it at JFK, that I had been cured by San Francisco’s hassle-free, tolerant inhabitants, but now I am rushing from one corner of San Francisco’s 7×7 to the other, and I feel it bubbling. My Uber is in traffic, and my carefree driver is telling me a story about his sister who is stuck in the blizzard back east. I politely excuse myself and get out to weave through the business suits towards the Mandarin Oriental on Sansome Street. It is a few minutes before 5pm, in other words, the end of the workday for San Franciscans. I feel dirty from my day of hiking, exploring, and traversing this vertical city, and I regret not showering before my appointment.

All is quiet inside the spa. There are no sounds of traffic, no remnants of the bustling urban noise that I left behind just moments ago. Floors below, San Franciscans are making a mad dash for the BART, or heading into gridlock traffic and surged Uber prices. I am in a secluded, noiseless oasis, where Kristy, the spa manager, speaks to me in a soothing, even tone, and offers me therapeutic rubber slippers in exchange for my worn sneakers. My sensory experience begins with tea from a small Japanese-style cup, and I relax my hands in a warm towel scented with the spa’s signature scent: Quintessence.While the property is genuinely true to its California, city by the bay locale, with its sea blues and pastel artwork, the spa incorporates more of Mandarin Oriental’s Asian roots and traditions.In lieu of creams and neutrals, the 8,000 square foot spa is designed with mocha-hued, textured walls, accented with gold illuminating details, lending a truly transformative aura to the space. As it does throughout the hotel, art plays a key role in the form of statues of spiritual goddesses.

Damien leads me to the treatment room for my Oriental Essence massage. Inside, there is a separate wash room where I can spend ten minutes of quiet time either before or after. Although the washroom has a beautiful rainforest shower, a full set of bath items,and a hair dryer, I would rather dive onto the heated massage bed. Damien is soft-spoken with a friendly face, and he makes me feel comfortable right away. He kneels on a pillow before me while I sit and have a little water. Next to him are an array of soothing fragrances, and we discuss which scent I might prefer. I tell him that I spent the morning at Land’s End followed by a walk in the Presidio, where the Eucalyptus and Pine became my heavenly friends all the way along the outskirts of the city. We decide to bring the scents of San Francisco’s storied landscape into the treatment room, and with hints of pine, I am back on the cliffs of that most spectacular walk.

With essential oils blended specially for the MO Spa, Damien focuses on my spine and pressure points. About twenty minutes into the 80 minute treatment, I am in a dreamlike state. I see roots of old trees, winding pathways, and lapping Pacific waves. I breathe in the pine and eucalyptus, and I feel my muscles giving way to Damien’s knowing hands. Towards the end of the treatment, I feel hot towels on my feet; my feet which have endured countless miles of climbing and have bore the weight of myself and my Mary Poppins bag far and wide across the 7×7. A memorable highlight is the hand massage: my small hand muscles relish this release from texting and google map. My fingers relax from what I thought was a permanent claw and what I call ‘iPhone thumb.’ Damien also works out the nearly-there shin splints and the unavoidable tight calves, products of steep San Francisco grades. The session ends gracefully, and with a gentle tap of the gong, I slothfully open my eyes. I wish I had also booked the Oriental Harmony treatment: one hour and fifty minutes of two therapists working in perfect unison with a soft scrub, or one of the full or half day programs: hours of indulgence and harmony at a very fair rate, considering this is the only Forbes five-star spa in all of Northern California. On the other hand, I might feel spa-separation anxiety upon departure of a full day with Damien and Kristy and the other therapists. I would need many sessions of yoga on the sky deck in order to re-balance my chi.


The entrance room at the spa


A welcome tea and warm towel fragrant of Quintessence

After I enrobe myself, I am invited to rest, sip tea, and have a small fruit snack in the tea lounge. The lounges are deep and plush, and Damien leaves a thick blanket out for me so that I can get truly cozy. I decide that this must be the most unpretentious world-class spa, where guests trust that they will be sealed in a custom-cocoon of refined relaxation. The staff are not overbearing; guests are allowed room to breathe, all the while encased in warmth, comfort, and tranquility. I am back in my San Francisco state of mind; Damien has vanquished all remnants of New York stress, and I decide to do what people are supposed to do in spas: nothing. I deign to relax and not wonder about the time. I lean back with a magazine and relish having the Tea Lounge to myself. I peel a beautiful California orange. The fragrances of my day complement each other melodically: citrus, pine, eucalyptus, and the MO Spa’s original quintessence.

Damien checks on me and we get to chatting. Everyone I encounter at the Mandarin is so friendly and appropriately buoyant, all I want to do is go on a group hike with all of them. I learn that each Mandarin Oriental spa therapist has been an instructor prior to their work on property. Damien in particular recently moved to San Francisco from Tennessee, where he worked at the world’s highly regarded Blackberry Farm. He is enamored with the bay area and all of the magnificent vistas, outdoor activities, fresh food, and sunshine, and we immediately find common ground in all of the above. We share stories of food pilgrimages in the area; trips to farmers market that require a bit of driving but are absolutely worth it. I quite simply love that I have found a city filled with people who readily devote an entire Sunday to visiting a farmers market, or perhaps lunch at Shed Healdsburg– a quintessential Northern California afternoon.

Although I am certain that Damien would have allowed me to linger in the tea lounge for the next 48 hours, inevitably it is time to return to my room. I remain in the cocoon all the way up to the 44th floor, as if the soft spa robe has powers of mood and zen sustainability, or maybe all can be credited to Damien’s therapeutic skills. Instead of a hard break from the calm, like a snapped asparagus stalk, the MO mantra is to carry that peaceful, steadiness throughout the stay.

Service has been by my room; the thick cream curtains have said goodnight to the expansive views beyond them, the relaxing spa music is on the flat screen, and a beautiful, modern, Japanese style tray of fresh California fruit and a large bottle of water is waiting for me. How did they know that all I wanted after my treatment was a quiet evening in my room with a light fruit snack? I sit on the velvet blue chaise lounge with my laptop, researching the next days adventures, listening to the foghorns and not one bit of city noise.Alas, The Bed calls to me, and I relinquish myself to more of MO San Francisco’s transformative powers.


Each treatment room has its own private washroom with rainforest shower


Signature quintessence products in the treatment room.


Another beautiful bathroom inside the treatment room.


The couple’s treatment room is a stunning blend of urbanity and traditional Mandarin Oriental themes


The beautiful couple’s treatment room


The spa shop: a beautiful display with a myriad of brands, a few of which are local favorites


The treatment room


Post-spa fruit tray



The tea lounge, with my blanket patiently waiting


1 reply »

  1. Wow, that really sounds like an enjoyable experience. There a few things that are as great as just taking some time to enjoy yourself in a world class spa. Luckily, all Mandarin Orientals in the world offer such an amazing spa experience 🙂

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