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]

5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

milky wayIf you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%alto atacama observatoryExmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.
mauna kea
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.
aurora borealis
Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

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 chanareschanar 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

Five classic Chilean foods

chilean foodChilean food doesn’t have the glamour and romance of the cuisine of its neighbor, Argentina, nor the complexity and exotic Japanese influences bestowed upon the contemporary dishes of its other neighbor, Peru. I just returned from my second visit to Chile, where in between consuming epic quantities of manjar (dulce de leche) and pisco sours, I found more substantial food to love.

Chilean food is of humble origins; a combination of indigenous influence, simple technique, and hearty, regional ingredients designed to sustain and nourish the body despite limited means and harsh climate. Today, Santiago is a glossy, metropolitan capital of seven million, and there’s no shortage of high-end dining with regard to various cuisines. But travel beyond the city limits, and you’ll see tweaks on Chilean specialties depending upon what part of the country you’re visiting.

Northern Chile is largely high-altitude desert, while Central and Southern Chile have more of a focus on seafood. The following is a very simplified list, but they’re five of the most classic dishes to be found throughout the country.Try them for a taste of Chilean culture and history.

1. Empanadas
Not to be confused with the Argentinean variety, which are essentially a culture within a culture, the Chilean empanada is usually baked, larger and flatter in composition (either crescents or rectangular in shape), and less varied in variety. But what’s not to love about a tender, flaky pocket of dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef, hardboiled egg, and olive; roasted vegetables, or melted, stringy cheese? Not much. Find them at panaderias, shops, markets, or restaurants offering “comida typica.”

2. Curanto
This is a specialty of the lovely island and archipelago of Chiloe in Chilean Patagonia’s Lake District. Curanto is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau via Easter Island (Rapa Nui). It’s traditionally cooked in a pit that is covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. The potato flatbreads, milcao, and chapalele (the latter flavored with pork cracklings), are delicious street foods in their own right that can be found in coastal towns throughout this region. A curanto is a must-see if you’re visiting Chiloe.chilean food3. Pastel de choclo
Sort of an indigenous shepherd’s pie, this comforting dish is composed of ground corn (choclo) mixed with hard-boiled egg, olive, and usually ground beef and/or chicken. It’s baked and served in an earthenware bowl called a paila, and it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

4. Caldillo de Congrio
Okay, I confess that I have a particular dislike for the congrio, or conger eel, which is an obsession in Chile. It’s not that it’s bad; I just don’t care for most fish as a rule (for the record, it’s fairly mild, white, firm, and rather dry and flaky). But I would be remiss to not include it, because it’s such a classic. Whether fried or served in a caldillo, or brothy soup seasoned with cilantro, carrots, potato, and fish stock, it’s hearty, rustic, and very representative of Chile’s culture of subsistence and commercial fishermen.

5. Chupe
This is a somewhat generic term for a creamy seafood stew enriched with milk or cream. Depending upon where you are (or what country you’re in, because it’s also found in Peru and Bolivia), chupe might contain shrimp (thus, it would be called chupe de camarones), fish, chicken, beef, or lamb. It also contains vegetables, potatoes or yuca, and tomato, but the magic is in the addition of merquen, an indigenous (via the Mapuche people) spice mixture made with smoked, powdered cacho de cabra chili. The end result is fragrant, complex, and delicious.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Tierra Atacama: luxury base camp for desert adventures

The Tierra Atacama, a luxury resort in Chile's northern desertFor the past few days, I’ve been sharing stories about my recent travels to the Atacama Desert, located in northern Chile. I’ve mentioned several of the highlights of that destination and even wrote about my climb to the top of an 18,000-foot volcano. Hopefully those stories conveyed a sense of the adventure that can be found in the Atacama, which is amongst the most beautiful and diverse places that I’ve ever visited.

While visiting some remote destination, adventure travelers often find themselves huddled inside tents and making do without their favorite creature comforts. I’m happy to report that that doesn’t have to be the case in the Atacama however, as San Pedro has a number of options for nearly any budget. Options range from youth hostels all the way up to all-inclusive luxury resorts, with a number of options in between. During my stay in Chile, I had the pleasure of staying at the Tierra Atacama, a resort that falls on the higher end of that spectrum.

We first told you about Tierra Atacama last summer, when it was awarded a Juli B style award for “Best International Resort.” At the time, it was lauded for mixing both adventure and luxury in a fantastic natural setting. Now, having visited the place first hand, I can appreciate that combination even more.
The Tierra Atacama Resort and SpaI arrived at Tierra Atacama after more than 24-hours of travel that included four flights, three layovers, and an hour long car ride from nearby Calama. Needless to say, I was quite exhausted, but upon my arrival, the resort staff were extremely accommodating and within minutes I was checked in and whisked off to my room. The accommodations were spacious, comfortable, and featured a large comfy bed, indoor and outdoor showers, and free WiFi Internet service that was far better than I had any reason to hope for. The room had no television whatsoever, but one glance out the sliding glass doors, which led out onto a comfortable, private deck, explained why. The view off of my room was nothing short of spectacular, with snow-capped peaks dominating the horizon in all directions. Who has time for television, when you have that to look at?

As you would expect in an all inclusive resort, your food and drinks are part of the package at the Tierra Atacama. But what I didn’t expect was that that “all inclusive” also meant that adventure was part of the package as well. The resort has quite an extensive list of excursions available to its guests, and within 30 minutes of my arrival, I was sitting down with a staff member to plot out my own adventures for the duration of my stay. We came up with an excellent scheduled that allowed me to see as much of the desert as possible, in an efficient manner, while also keeping me plenty active, at the same time. Excursions can include everything from desert hikes and mountain bike rides, to day trips to visit the local salt flats and challenging high altitude climbs up local volcanoes. Each excursion is led by a friendly and knowledgeable, bilingual guide, who have forgotten more about the Atacama Desert than most people will ever know.

After a long day of exploring the desert, you’ll definitely want to refuel in the resorts dining hall. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served on a regular schedule, and the food was always excellent. The offerings varied greatly from day-to-day and meal-to-meal, ranging from classic gourmet fish and beef dishes to more traditional local fare. The chefs never ceased to impress with their creative and tasty combinations, which often included liberal uses of fresh fruits and vegetables as well.

Meal times at the Tierra Atacama are something to look forward to, and not just because of the great food. The atmosphere at the resort is one that is conducive to being social, and the dining room made it easy to gather around with your fellow travelers and swap stories about your daily excursions while enjoying the fine food or a cool beverage. Other communal areas, such as sun decks and observation lounges, were regularly occupied by guests as well, with visitors from around the globe sharing the Atacama experience with one another. It was not uncommon to walk past a table and hear multiple languages being spoken in excited and jovial tones.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the resort also has a full service spa, but alas it was not something that I took advantage of. It seemed very popular with the other guests however, many of whom were visiting the Atacama for a little rest and relaxation. I did take advantage of the hot tub on my final night at the hotel however, relaxing in the hot water, while a blanket consisting of a billion stars twinkled overhead.

While I made my visit to the Chile solo, couples looking for a romantic, yet adventurous, getaway, should consider making the journey as well. Tierra Atacama is a fantastic destination for a romantic escape, as you’ll spend the days exploring a unique destination, unlike any other place on the planet, only to return to the resort in the evenings for a comfortable and relaxing night around the fire or sitting out under the stars.

The resort also sits right on the edge of San Pedro, the town of 4000 inhabitants that serves as the unofficial capital of the Atacama. It is close enough to easily stroll into town for a little shopping, sightseeing, or to simply enjoy a Pisco Sour while watching the tourists and locals go about their day. The proximity to San Pedro adds a healthy dose of local color to your trip, as the town has plenty of character to spare.

In short, a stay at Tierra Atacama offers travelers adventure, luxury, romance, and culture. What more could you ask for on your next journey?

The Tierra Atacama sits on the edge of San Pedro in the Atacama Desert