511 Congress St., Portland, 207-879-7625
By Sarah Stebbins
Reclined in a cushy armchair at Soakology, my feet steeping in a lavender-infused brew as I sampled fruit slices and crostini with bruschetta, chèvre, tapenade, and dark-chocolate toppings, I felt like a modern-day Dionysus. Compare this scene with the way my day started — coaxing two tiny human tornados into clothes and out of the house, followed by six hours at my desk — and the state’s only “foot sanctuary” may as well have been Mount Olympus.
Photographed by Mark Fleming
In addition to the soak, my “Lavender” package included an exfoliating scrub; a 40-minute foot, lower-leg, head, neck, and shoulder massage; and some gentle advice from therapist Sarah Rogers. Correctly guessing that I’m a runner, based on the pronation of my feet, Rogers suggested some deep quad and IT band stretches. As for the writer’s hunch I’ve acquired over 16 years working at computers — well, “strengthening your chest muscles would help,” she said. (Busted: I only do pushups under duress at the occasional weekend bootcamp class.)
Don’t just stick to the pampering: eat the food too. Soakology offers sweet and savory tapas plates and bites, as well as hot and iced tea and tea-laced drinks (smoothies, shakes, lattes, lemonade), milk shakes, and flavored water, all served in a light-filled tearoom or to accompany your soak. Whatever you choose, cap it off with the spa’s signature “four feet of chocolate”: foot-shaped morsels of dark chocolate, melted, sprinkled with sea salt, and served on crostini. Need I say more?
The foot- (and food-) centric spa is the brainchild of Roberta Alexander, who moved to Maine from New York in 2003. Like many who lived through 9/11 in the city, Alexander reevaluated her life after the tragedy. A self-described “connoisseur of my own relaxation,” she’d been teaching and attending yoga classes, getting massages, and drinking tea to de-stress, and she dreamed of leaving her job at Viacom to open a spa. By late 2002, she’d lined up investors and was ready to close on a Colorado location, but the deal collapsed along with the stock market. Soon after, she decided to strike out on her own in Maine, where she’d long vacationed.
Abandoning her vision of a full-service facility, Alexander focused on a more expedient route to relaxation. “I thought about it a lot and felt that doing a foot soak and massage, along with a head-neck-shoulder massage, makes you feel as good as you would if you’d had a full-body massage,” she says. “And I wouldn’t have to have all kinds of private massage rooms.”Tea was also an important part of the equation. Growing up in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Alexander and her siblings gathered on their parents’ bed every Sunday night with a tray of tea, honey, and cinnamon toast to talk about the upcoming week. “It was a very comforting thing,” she says, and it left a lasting impression.
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When Soakology opened in Monument Square in 2004, Alexander offered 80 varieties of red, green, black, white, herbal, chai, oolong, pu-erh, and yerba mate teas. A small open room for soaking and sipping emphasized the drink’s communal nature. Last year, she moved into 3,300 square feet in the Congress Street arts district, where customers choose from 100 brews. Food (a natural complement to tea and a boon for professionals who need to squeeze both relaxation and sustenance into a lunch break) was also baked into her business plan. She and manager Angie Franklin experimented with salads and soups (which proved too unwieldy to eat during a foot massage) before settling on their current menu of finger foods — breads, cheeses, olives, tea sandwiches, cookies — inspired by Mediterranean and European cuisines.
If dining alone while a therapist kneads your feet sounds awkward, I suggest going with a group and sitting in the spa’s common area. (Curtained-off sections are designed for those who want privacy, but nothing prevents outside conversations from drifting in.) Recently, Alexander and Franklin also started offering full-body massages in separate treatment rooms, and beginning this month, customers can book therapeutic facials. All services start with a foot soak, which Alexander says is essential for priming the body for relaxation.
For now, the soak-massage-hors d’oeuvres combo remains most popular among time-strapped clients (so, pretty much everyone). “You can come in, stay in your street clothes or put on a robe, and be back at work in an hour,” says Alexander. That is, if you can find your building. “We have people walk out of the spa drunk with relaxation,” says Franklin. “They bypass the front desk and we have to chase them into the street.”
As for the treatment’s ability to help a harried mom weather the witching hour with her kids? I give it two cabernets.