Great ‘Cultural’ Spa Experiences From Around The World

spasEven if you’re not a spa junkie, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a great massage or other self-indulgent treatment. I’m actually a massage school graduate, and although I ultimately decided not to pursue that career path, I’ve parlayed my experience into doing the odd spa writing assignment. Not surprisingly, I’m a tough judge when it comes to practitioners, facilities and treatments. I also don’t have any interest in generic treatments. What I love is a spa and menu that captures the essence of a place, through both ingredients and technique.

Many spas around the world now try to incorporate some localized or cultural element into their spa programs. It’s not just a smart marketing tool, but a way to educate clients and hotel guests, employ local people skilled in indigenous therapeutic practices, or sell branded spa products made from ingredients grown on site, or cultivated or foraged by local tribes or farmers.

Sometimes, it’s not a hotel or high-end day spa that’s memorable, but a traditional bathhouse used by locals (such as a Moroccan hammam) that’s special. The low cost of such places is an added bonus: think Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and parts of the Middle East.

Over the years, I’ve visited a number of spas and bathhouses that have made a big impression on my aching body or abused skin, as well as my innate traveler’s curiosity. After the jump, my favorite spa experiences from around the world.

ninh van baySix Senses Ninh Van Bay: Vietnam
Located on an isolated peninsula accessible only by boat, Six Senses (near the beach resort of Nha Trang) is a seriously sexy property. Private villas nestle in the hillsides and perch above the water, but the spa and restaurants are the big draw here, as many of their ingredients are sourced from the property’s extensive organic gardens.

The “Locally Inspired” section of the spa menu features treatments like the Vietnamese Well-being Journey: three-and-a-half hours of pure hedonism. A scrub with com xanh (Vietnamese green rice) is followed by a bath in “herbs and oils from the indigenous Hmong and Dao hill tribes of the Sa Pa Valley,” and a traditional massage using bamboo, suction cups and warm poultices filled with native herbs.

On my visit, I opted for a refreshing “Vietnamese Fruit Body Smoother” made with ingredients just harvested from the garden: papaya, pineapple and aloe vera. Other body treatments include applications of Vietnamese green coffee concentrate and a green tea scrub.

Foot reflexology: Hong Kong
Foot reflexologists and massage parlors are ubiquitous throughout Asia, and in my experience, it’s hard to find a bad one. That said, one of the best massages I’ve ever had was an hour-long foot reflexology session in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong. It cost me all of ten dollars, and interestingly enough, it also proved eerily accurate about a long-term GI problem I’d been having that had defied Western diagnosis.

My bliss was momentarily interrupted when my therapist pressed a particular spot on the ball of my foot, causing me to nearly leap out of my skin. He informed me that my gallbladder was inflamed, information I processed but soon forgot. I’d already been tested for gallstones with negative results – twice. A year later, I had an emergency cholecsytectomy to remove my severely diseased gallbladder. A trip to Honinh van bayng Kong for a foot massage would ultimately have been cheaper and far more enjoyable than three years of worthless diagnostics.

Verana: Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico
One of my favorite places on earth is Verana, an intimate, eight-guesthouse hilltop retreat located in Yelapa, a fishing village one hour from Puerto Vallarta by water taxi. Husband and wife team Heinz Legler and Veronique Lievre designed the hotel and spa and built it entirely by hand, using local, natural materials.

Although the spa doesn’t focus on traditional Mayan or Aztec technique, Verana grows or forages all of the raw ingredients for its treatments (the gardens also supply the property’s outstanding restaurant), including banana, coconut, lemon, pineapple, papaya and herbs. Try an outdoor massage, followed by a dip in the watsu tub, or an edible-sounding body scrub made with cane sugar and coffee or hibiscus-papaya.

Morocco: hammams
A staple of Moroccan life (as well as other parts of North Africa and the Middle East), hammam refers to segregated public bathhouses that are a weekly ritual for many. A “soap” made from crushed whole olives and natural clay is applied all over the body with an exfoliating mitt. Buckets of hot water are then used to rinse.

Although many hotels in the big cities offer luxury hammam treatments tailored for Western guests, if you want the real deal, go for a public bathhouse. While in Morocco, I got to experience three types of hammam: the hotel variety, a rural DIY hammam at the spectacular yelapaKasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, and one at a public bathhouse.

In most public hammams, you’ll strip down in a massive, steam-filled, tiled room. Request an attendant (rather than DIY), who will then scrub the life out of you, flipping you around like a rag-doll. Massages are often offered as part of the service or for an additional fee.

Yes, it’s intimidating and unnerving to be the only naked Westerner in a giant room of naked Muslim men or women, all of who are staring at you and giggling. Once you get over being the odd man (or woman, in my case) out, it’s fascinating to have such an, uh, intimate glimpse into an everyday activity very few travelers experience. The payoff is the softest, cleanest, most glowing skin imaginable.

At hammans that accept Westerners, the vibe is friendly and welcoming, and it’s a way to mingle with locals and participate in an ancient, sacred ritual without causing offense. Do enquire, via sign language or in French, if you should remove all of your clothing, or leave your skivvies on. I failed to do this at the public bathhouse, and increased the staring situation a thousand-fold, because at that particular hammam (unlike the Kasbah), the women kept their underwear on. Oops.

Three highly recommended, traditional, wood-fired Marrakech hammams are Bain Marjorelle (large, modern multi-roomed), Hammam Polo (small, basic, one room), and Hammam el Basha (large, older, multi-roomed). Expect to pay approximately $10 for an attendant (including tip, sometimes massage). Independent travelers can easily find a hamman if they look for people of their own gender carrying buckets, towels and rolled-up mats near a mosque. To ensure you visit a Western-friendly hammam, it’s best to ask hotel or riad staff or taxi drivers for recommendations, and enquire about male/female hours.

Daintree EcoLodge & Spa: Daintree, Queensland, Australia
The Daintree Rainforest, located near Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, is over 135 million years old. It’s home to some of the rarest and most primitive flora on earth, muchalto atacama of it traditionally used by the local Aboriginal people for medicinal purposes.

The Daintree Wellness Spa at the low-key, family-owned and-operated EcoLodge has received international accolades for both its work with the local Kuku Yajani people, and its luxe treatments. The spa relies on ochre (a skin purifier) harvested from beneath the property’s waterfall, as well as indigenous “bush” ingredients from the Daintree such as rosella, avocado, native mint, wild ginger, bush honey, quandong, tea tree and spring water. The spa also produces its own line of products, Daintree Essentials (available online).

All treatments integrate traditional Kuku Yalanji modalities and spiritual beliefs, and have received approval from the local elders. I opted for the Ngujajura (Dreamtime) package, which includes a full body and foot massage, Walu BalBal facial and rain therapy treatment (a specialty at Daintree, consisting of an oil and sea salt exfoliation, ochre mud wrap and spring water shower administered tableside … trust me, it’s revelatory). An added bonus: the lodge offers Aboriginal cultural classes that include jungle walks, medicinal plants and bush foods (try eating green ants, a surprisingly tasty source of vitamin C).

Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
This absolutely enchanting adobe property on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro is a slice of heaven, even if you skip its Puri Spa. But that would be a mistake, because then you wouldn’t be able to succumb to treatments and ingredients adapted from what’s been traditionally used by the local Atacameño people for thousands of years.

Atacama is the driest desert on earth, so on my visit, I chose the “Royal Quinoa Face Mask,” made with locally sourced quinoa (for its exfoliating and regenerative properties) mixed with local honey and yogurt. I left the treatment room looking considerably less desiccated.

The real splurge is the Sabay Massage, which uses pindas, or cloth pouches, filled with rice (used here as an exfoliant), rica rica (an herbal digestive aid also used in aromatherapy) and chañar berries (medicinally used as an expectorant and to stimulate circulation, as well as a food source) collected from around the property, which has extensive native gardens designed by a reknown Chilean ethno-botanist. You’ll emerge silky-skinned and tension-free. Dulces Sueños.

[Photo credits: Massage, Flickr user thomaswanhoff; Six Senses, Laurel Miller; Verana, Flickr user dmealiffe]

Archaeologists Discover Key To An Ancient City’s Wealth

archaeologists, Petra, Jordan
A couple of months ago we reported on how archaeologists discovered how the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria thrived in the desert. A complex system of canals and cisterns trapped the sparse but regular rainfall.

Residents of another ancient city, Petra in Jordan, appear to have taken advantage of desert water to support their civilization too. Jordanian and Dutch archaeologists have discovered that an area 15 kilometers east of the city used to be a large oasis. The ancients tapped into it with an extensive network of aqueducts, reservoirs and underground canals cut out of the rock to water their fields.

Petra, capital of the Nabatean Kingdom, was a major trading center in the deserts of what is now Jordan and grew rich off of trading luxury items such as frankincense and myrrh.

The Udhruh Archaeological Project, named after the site, has found evidence that the irrigation system dates back at least 2,000 years. The area was in use for several centuries and the team has also found what may be the best-preserved Roman fort in the world. You can take a virtual tour of that fort here. The tour will show you not only the fort, but also a Byzantine church and a satellite view of the entire site.

[Photo of Petra courtesy Chris Yunker]

America’s baddest badlands

badlands, Death Valley
One of the greatest things about the United States is its environmental diversity. From towering forests of pine to sun-hammered deserts, from snowy peaks to steaming swamps, this nation has it all.

Some of the most compelling places are also the harshest. Take this view of the sand dunes of Death Valley, taken by talented photographer John Bruckman. This is the worst part of the Mojave Desert–lower, hotter, and drier than any other spot in the country, yet it has a subtle beauty this image captures so well. With the majority of us living in cities or suburbs, these open, empty spaces call out to us.

They certainly do to me. When I moved from the leafy upstate New York to southern Arizona for university, I discovered what people really mean when they talk about America’s wide open spaces. They set you free, and they can kill you if you’re not prepared, yet somehow their deadliness only adds to the feeling of freedom.

America’s badlands remind us that life can cling to even the bleakest of landscapes, that the empty places can sometimes be those most worth visiting.

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Cocktails, Chilean style

cocktails pisco sourA few weeks ago, I was sitting at the bar of the very lovely Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, outside of San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile. I’d just returned from an afternoon at 12,600 feet, exploring the Andean Altiplano Lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques, and I was feeling parched.

Small wonder I was thirsty; Atacama is the driest desert on earth. Visually and geographically, it’s like the Southwest on steroids. If the love child of Sedona, Arizona and Abiquiu, New Mexico inherited a chain of conical, snow-dusted volcanoes, the largest salt flat in Chile, and shimmering lagoons full of flamingos, Atacama is what you’d get. Kraig recently wrote a great series on exploring Atacama, which you can find here.

San Pedro itself is a surprisingly sweet little village of adobe walls and buildings, with a whitewashed church and dusty streets. It’s the world’s least offensive tourist-mecca. Alto Atacama is located about a mile-and-a-half outside of town, in the middle of a river valley sided by craggy, brick-red rock.
cocktails pisco sour
Native plant gardens dot the property, there are resident llamas, the small restaurant serves many locally grown foods. But these are mere details. My biggest concern that evening was soothing my dust-coated throat with a cocktail.

I most definitely approved of the pisco sour made by Sebastián, the bartender. Pisco sours are a tricky thing; too often they’re made with old lemon juice or concentrate or too much sugar, and the result is a cloying, flat-tasting mess. But Sebastián squeezed fresh lemon juice (limón de pica, or Peruvian lime, which may or may not be the same species as key lime, depending upon who you ask). The final addition of good pisco made for a smooth, tangy, refreshing libation.

Sebastián raised his eyebrows at my swiftly drained glass. “Was good?” he enquired.

“Delicioso,” I assured him. “Uno mas, por favor.” As we spoke I watched him expertly muddling a mess of quartered limóns with something brown and sticky looking.

He followed my gaze. “It’s a Mojito Atacameño. Invented here at the hotel. You like to try?”

[Photo credit: Frank Budweg]cocktails pisco sourNever one to turn down a cocktail, I nodded. “What’s in it?” I asked.

“It’s made with chañar, a fruit found only in Atacama (I later found out that chañar-the fruit of Geoffroea decorticans-is also indigenous to parts of Argentina).”

“It’s very important. We use the arrope (preserved fruit in syrup) to flavor ice cream and other desserts. But it’s also a medicine,” Sebastián explained. The Atacameño’s– the local indigenous people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years–use chañar as a traditional cure for bronchitis and sore throat.

To further underscore the allure of this little round fruit, I bring you the following passage from author Edward R. Emerson (Beverages, Past and Present, 1908):


Its flavour is beyond description, and the way the Indians eat this fruit best shows in what estimation it is held. Early in the morning all hands repair to the chanares-chanar orchard (for, though wild, the trees grow in immense tracts) and proceed to eat of the fruit until locomotion, except in a crawling way, becomes almost impossible, and as soon as they have arrived at this state they crawl to the river, drink as much water as they can possibly hold, and then crawl back to the trees, where they stretch themselves out at full length and sleep until night, when they repeat the operation.

Sounds like the producers of “Intervention” could have had a field day.

Sebastián passed me a bottle of arrope de chañar to try. After a small taste, I realized that it reminded me, in appearance, consistency, and flavor, of tamarind paste. Tangy, a little sour, with an almost molasses-like sweetness. It was interesting, but not something I’d think of using in a cocktail. Nevertheless, I watched, dubiously, as Sebastián meticulously put together my Mojito Atacameño.
cocktails pisco sour
After muddling two quartered limóns, he added two tablespoons of powdered sugar (I assume because it’s traditionally used in a pisco sour, rather than simple syrup).

To this he added a dash of creme de menthe because fresh mint was out of season; the base was Absolut Mandarin Vodka (“You can use pisco, but I think vodka is better flavor.”).

When the finished drink was set before me, I contemplated it. It closely resembled the last fecal sample I’d had to submit after I accidentally drank unfiltered river water. The mojito had floaty bits of lime pulp and was cloudy from the thick arrope de chañar; It looked repulsive. I sniffed it, and took a cautious sip.

Fantastic. A beautiful balance of tart and sweet, with a clean, citrusy finish. Ass-kickingly strong. Sebastián was looking at me expectantly.

“Uno mas, por favor.”

My trip was sponsored by Wines of Chile, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

How to Make Pisco Sour

A Grand Tour of the American West


I could see the end of my road trip, on the other side of the deserts of the American Southwest, the sun-parched stretch of near nothingness that conceals some of the country’s greatest natural wonders. So after leaving Spaceport America in New Mexico, I prepared for a ironman push to the West Coast, my ultimate destination Los Angeles. Along the way, I’d stop at the Four Corners and the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and probably some dusty, God-forsaken gas station in the middle of a field of rock and scrub and little else. It was going to be a long drive but, weirdly, I was excited.

Traveling the American Road – Road Trip Destiny Made Manifest


I found the Four Corners, the intersection of Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico and Utah, down a short dusty road on Navajo land just outside Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. It is, inarguably, one of the most touristy places I’d seen on the entire trip: There’s next to nothing here but for some trinket stands and a photo op, standing or sitting a paved circular monument to geographic coincidence, the only place in the country where visitors can touch four states at once.

Which isn’t to say people weren’t enjoying it. A group of Italians were riding on each others’ shoulders, getting unique angles for their pictures. A couple was visiting with her parents, each standing in a different state. Young kids were by turns bashful and brash, forced into photos their parents will one day look back on fondly only to be disappointed when the then-teenagers deny any recollection of the time the family went to the Four Corners.

As I walked back to the car, another group of Italians was having a loud conversation when one woman’s cell phone rang. “Pronto?” she asked as she answered, taking a call from the homeland as she photographed her friends standing on the spot we all came to see.

At the Grand Canyon, I worried that I’d find more of the same, a promise of greatness tempered by an ultimately disappointing monument. How wrong I was: Seeing the striated canyon formed by the Colorado river was a multi-layered pleasure, unfolding as I took in the views from the South Rim, stopping at turnouts along the road to take panoramas while standing on the roof of my SUV. One woman asked me to snap a photo for her, as long as I was up there.

The canyon changed not just in space but in time too, as I watched the sunset turn the rocks deeper and deeper hues of orange. As the shadows lengthened, the gorges in the distance turned purple and blue and finally black. Cameras lined the canyon rim, but I was happy to simply enjoy the sunset, trying to mentally catalog all the colors rather than capture them with my SLR. After nine weeks on the road, furiously photographing my trip, it was a luxury to simply enjoy the view.

In the morning, after the haze had burned off, I struck camp and set out for Las Vegas, the final waypoint before the end of my journey. But I was more interested in a nearby sight than any neon magic on The Strip: The Hoover Dam, a man-made wonder from an era of economic uncertainty financed by massive public spending. The art deco masterpiece is less than an hour from the biggest casinos in Las Vegas, but it’s also a four-hour haul through the Arizona desert.

There’s little to see until you speed across the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, when the canyon walls fall away and reveal the concrete monolith. Though walking across the top of the dam is quite pleasant, I prefer the view from the bridge, opened in October 2010 as a traffic bypass. A pedestrian-friendly walkway along its north edge provides a fantastic platform for photography–and contemplation of what extraordinary taxpayer spending and sacrifice can accomplish.