On Long Island, there is no excuse for imperfect nails. At every corner, consumers will find nail salons, all bearing names that testify to the power of a manicure. Within a few miles of my home, there are more than a hundred cheerful options, including Happy Nails, Happy Nail (I guess the other nine are chipped), Sassy Nails, Joyful Nails, and more.

For routine nail care, my favorite salon is fine. It’s clean, efficient, reasonably priced, and the owners and technicians greet me by name. The salon has soft yellow textured walls, roomy pedicure chairs that are scrubbed between customers, and a wide selection of top-quality polish. Although there is sometimes a language barrier (the staff speaks Chinese; I can manage Ni hao — hello, or Shi-Shi — thank you), one technician’s practiced hands speak the best language of all. Her manicures and pedicures are an anti-stress jackpot.

Unfortunately, she takes Mondays and Tuesdays off. Worse, one of the other techs has developed a heavy hand with the eyebrow wax — and as much as I try to tell her I like my bushy look, I’m often glaring at the mirror when I leave, trying to figure out which brow is smaller this week.

And who needs that kind of stress? Not me. With visions of soothing interiors, aromatherapy-based products, and relaxed, unrushed service, I decide to upgrade my experience — to a nail spa. I may pay a little more, but figure I’m worth it. And certainly the spa staff won’t leave me embarrassed to show my hands and face in public. . . right?

Hooray for Hollywood? Well, No.

Thinking glamour, I surrender my weary hands to the Hollywood Nail Spa. At first glance, there is nothing spa-like about it: a long row of manicure stations, another row of pedicure chairs, with a cramped room in back for waxing. The artwork consists of hairstyle pinups, posters of French manicures, and small signs proclaiming “Jesus is the answer.”

First impressions are often correct — as I wait, I note the stained ceiling tiles, the wallpaper border that ends in the middle of the room, the basket of dusty, decorated nail tips. It’s busy, with every technician working furiously. Polish options include a few familiar professional brands and several I’ve never seen before.

After 10 minutes, I am led to the waxing room, where a capable set of hands sets my eyebrows straight. My spa manicure follows, with Sunny doing the honors. After shaping my nails with a worn emery board, Sunny heats a small pot of cucumber-scented lotion, and stands to massage it into my arms. She seems distracted — and it shows in my results. On eight fingernails, the polish doesn’t come close to the sides of my nails. It looks like a six-year-old has attacked my fingers.

The verdict: $15 spa manicure, $18 lip, chin, and brow wax. Nice wax job, but the manicure and overall atmosphere are neither Hollywood nor spa. As they say on the west coast, don’t call us.

Toe, Yes

Fingers barely dry from Sunny’s mindless manicure, it’s time to do something about my feet. A quick web search leads me to Gerard’s The Spa, which calls itself “the only Italian day spa on Long Island.” Having married into an Italian family, I have visions of my technician yelling mangia and a basil soak.

My arrival at Gerard’s puts me in a decidedly stressed mood. After circling the busy block several times in search of a parking lot, I run into the spa and ask where to park. “On the street,” the receptionist replies. Ugh. But I manage, and settle in the waiting area with a collection of high-end magazines. Gerard’s decor is colorful and eclectic, with pillows, shimmering gossamer curtains segmenting the pedicure area, and a small collection of OPI polish in a glass case. Two magazines later, Madeline greets me with a smile and handshake and informs me that she takes her time to give customers the best experience. Indeed — I don’t ascend the throne until almost 12:30, 30 minutes after my noon appointment.

At Gerard’s, pedicure customers share a raised bench that’s loaded with pillows and bolsters. It’s tricky climbing, but I manage without breaking a limb. Once settled, my spa pedicure begins with a 15-minute seaweed soak in a lovely copper bowl. As Madeline chats with the young client to my left, I relax, eavesdropping and then joining their conversation when I can’t resist. In a flash, we’re laughing and comparing notes on life, men, and the perils of aging.

Madeline addresses my feet, showing me each product and explaining its benefits. She asks if I have any conditions that might affect her work. “Ticklish feet,” I reply, “and diabetes.” She thanks me and promises to be gentle.

Promise kept — and with several extended sessions with a ceramic buffer and a black pumice stone, Madeline turns my lizard feet into soft beauties. She clips, files, and cleans my toenails with gusto, massages my swollen ankles, and polishes each nail with care. I feel thoroughly coddled, even as she prepares the station next to me for her next client.

Her work on my feet completed, I enjoy ice water in a festive painted goblet as my toes dry.

The verdict: Not quite a spa experience, given the location and the constant flow of traffic in full view of the pedicure area, but a treat. Well worth the $35 fee — and two weeks later, my toes are still perfectly pretty.

Star Light, Star Bright, Will I Find a Spa Tonight?

Faith restored, I head to Star Nail Spa. I drive through three nearby towns before admitting I am lost. When I finally find Star in a brick strip mall, I am late for my appointment and flushed. I needn’t have worried — the salon is empty, save for the owner and several technicians.

Yes, I said salon. For once again, I’m in a no-frills nail salon, decorated with posters offering special services (with hilarious misspellings) and the obligatory row of manicure and pedicure chairs. This is bare-bones, with supplies straight from the dollar store. I choose a fresh bottle of Essie’s Café Forgot, a pretty neutral that makes my tan fingers look summery, and give my hands to Linda. “Spa manicure?” she asks with glee. When I nod, she disappears and returns with a plastic box brimming with products. After quickly shaping my nails into perfect ovals, Linda starts the spa treatment. First up: a grainy citrus scrub, followed by a rainbow of lotions, creams, and oils. Although many are packaged in Creative Nail Design’s SpaManicure containers, I’m not sure that’s what is in them. When I ask about products or compliment their scents, the owner looks concerned. Is she onto me?

For more than 30 minutes, Linda smiles and massages my hands and arms with vigor, softly ordering me to relax. Her boss never cracks more than a scowl.

Unfortunately, Linda makes one mistake: After she cleans my hands and arms with a fresh towel from the steamer, she uses it to clean her own hands—and then uses the towel again on me. That’s not my idea of sanitary. Still, her skill with polish is exemplary, and she gives my shoulders a great rubdown as I hold my hands under the UV-dryer.

The verdict: Take the spa sign off the door; this is a basic nail salon. $25 for a spa manicure.

Working On the Chain Gang

Angel Tips Nailspa bills itself as the “largest and most respected nail franchise in the Tri-State area.” Since it’s a busy Friday afternoon before a holiday, I call the nearest location to make sure I can come on short notice. “For what?” the woman barks, and when I reply “spa manicure,” she says, “Pedicure okay, no facials today.”

Uh-oh. I repeat my request, am advised to come now, and jump into my car. Angel Tips is in a large, busy strip mall, and it is a hotbed of activity. “Manicure, pedicure?” is the greeting of choice from the lead technician, as she barely looks up from her current client’s nails. Once again, I’m in a nail salon, not a spa, and this one seems like a haphazardly choreographed ballet. In the middle of a train station. At rush hour. The nail techs, clad in long burgundy aprons, practically run between clients and look sweaty. I am ordered to Lina’s table, where she offers me a choice of three manicures: regular, Spa, or Angel Spa. “What’s the difference?” I ask, and she advises the Angel Spa, for $15. “Very luxurious.”

Oh, why not? Lina’s spa kit is also filled with Creative Nail Design’s SpaManicure line. The colors and aromas are soft and natural — the real deal. After the fastest filing ever (again, with communal tools), Lina puts my hands and arms through the spa treatment. From the moment I sit down to the moment I’m led to the dryer, just 20 minutes pass. My nails, festive in Essie’s Great Balls of Fire, look great (but chip the next day).

The verdict: Who are they kidding? It’s an assembly line nail factory, not relaxing in any way. But it’s great for the bargain hunter — a regular manicure is a mere $5; spa manicure is $10, and the Angel Spa manicure, only $5 more.

Putting the Ahhhhh in Spa

When I turned 40, several friends treated me to pedicures at Bocu Salon and Day Spa in Commack. Bocu offers traditional nail services in the hair salon, as well as a full-blown day spa. I choose the latter, and once past the snippy, disinterested receptionists, am in what can only be described as “spa nirvana.” At Bocu, clients enter a hushed, softly-lit Tuscan fantasy world, with a huge stone fountain, new-age music, gentle herbal aromas, and a multinational staff dressed in white lab coats. For pedicures, I’m seated in a huge, overstuffed arm chair, feet submerged in a huge black bowl of potpourri and warm milk. I am immediately offered herbal tea, which I sip while trying to forget that someone is scrubbing my feet.

There are just two chairs in the pedicure area. Most other clients are mindful of the atmosphere, but now and then, I’m forced to share my space with a high-maintenance Bridezilla. There are other frustrations, too. One technician seems hellbent on dispensing diet advice to me, even when I tell her I’d like to relax. I realize she’s trying to be helpful, but I’m offended. I’m also offended when the receptionist tells me how much to tip at the end of my service.

Yet I go back several times — because my feet cannot deny the expertise of Bocu’s technicians. Perhaps it’s the all-natural products, or the paraffin dips, or the fact that each client receives a fresh set of tools and is ordered to take them home. “I don’t get pedicures,” says Susan Weber, a real estate agent in Commack who recently treated herself to her first at Bocu. “But this was so relaxing. My feet felt so good. Even my granddaughter noticed. I may treat myself whenever I sell a house.”

The verdict: At $48 for a Spa Milk Pedicure (add $10 for the seaweed upgrade), Bocu is an expensive treat. In the right technician’s hands, it’s worth every penny.

Salon or Spa?

Your client’s time and money are precious — here’s how to make sure your spa isn’t a salon in disguise:

Privacy: A spa will offer all its services in a private, or semi-private atmosphere. If you’re in a room filled with technicians and more than two clients, you’re in a salon.

Atmosphere: A spa will put relaxation first — lights will be dimmed (technicians should have adequate working lights, of course), the music should be soft, and distractions like cell phones, loud conversations, and children should be forbidden. Decor should be upscale — no posters, no plastic. Think natural materials, or consider a dramatic theme with rich jewel tones that signify luxury.

Guest comfort: Spa guests expect the little touches. A choice of beverages should be offered before each service begins, at no charge. Extra fluffy towels and robes, all-natural products with soft scents, and roomy seating all help make the experience special. As you create your spa, be certain to consider your older customers or those with disabilities who may have trouble moving around. How can you serve their needs safely and comfortably?

Spa or Salon — Does It Matter in the End?

Yes — and no. Busy women are always looking for little luxuries. For some of us, a basic manicure at a discount salon can work wonders — and there are plenty of talented technicians working at all levels. But when I really need relaxation, the salons that call themselves nail spas just can’t cut it.

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