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]

Relaxing in China part 1: Massage

Picture a quiet room that smells of essential oils, maybe tea tree or lavender. The lights are dim, and there’s a candle or two flickering in the corner. The background noise is either a small burbling fountain or a CD of monks chanting. A masseuse expertly spreads warm, fragrant oil across your bare back while you accidentally fall asleep….

Cue needle-ripping-off-of-record sound — this is China, baby. Pretty much everything here (dinner, strolling in the park, a visit to the acupuncturist) is accompanied by noise, groups, and fluorescent lights, making what North Americans normally consider “relaxing” experiences worlds away. Massage is no different.

First, toss away that quiet, private room. Oh, and keep your clothes on for goodness sake — there are other people in the room with you. True, your masseuse is likely to be blind, (blind folks are considered disabled and therefore unable to work in very many occupations), but still. They’ll cover your body with a sheet and massage you through that. Next, bring a couple of friends — getting a massage is an excuse to be social, after all. Enjoy your cup of green tea during a foot massage, or maybe watch the big-screen TV while the masseuses gossip with each other.

%Gallery-92547%A massage in China ranges from full-body (they even rub your face down), to my favorite, a foot massage. Generally you can choose what kind you want, though some places are geared towards one or the other. You’ll find a massage joint on every street; because it so cheap (anywhere from $3-10 US) it’s possible for people to enjoy a regular rub-down.

So what can you expect with a massage in China?

First, anticipate the usual bright lights and crowds. I did some spa research for hot springs outside Kunming and saw rooms with 100 chairs for foot massage. Expect noise — whoever is pressing their hands into you will likely be chatting with their friend across the way, or occasionally answering their cell phone. A full-body massage will require the same kind of table you’re used to, with a hole for your face. However, no oils or lotions are used; instead a sheet will be placed over you and the masseuse will work through that.

If you go with friends, you can expect the masseuses to work in unison. It’s odd at first; the massage is a well-timed routine, and you’ll hear rubbing, popping and slapping at the same time across the room. There’s no real individual treatment, unless you ask for it. Everyone is treated the same – you know, kind of like in communism.

A foot massage is a fun, social activity since you can sit next to and chat with your buddies, rather than have a muffled conversation while face-down on a massage bed. My favorite type of foot massage is a medicinal one: you choose a scent from a menu, and a wooden bucket lined with a plastic trash bag is filled with almost-too-hot water. Then a packet of fragrant … stuff … is added, which turns the water into a jelly-like substance (it feels great between the toes). After a few minutes of soaking, a “magic” powder is added that turns the jelly back to liquid (see gallery). After a few more minutes of soaking, your bare feet will get a thorough rubbing. Often your back and neck will get some attention as well.

High-end spa treatment it ain’t, but a thrice-weekly after-dinner activity with your friends it is. Once you adjust your cultural expectations, it becomes a Chinese experience worth repeating.

Read more about my life in China here.

Amazing Race 14, recap 10: Swimming like Michael Phelps isn’t easy

If there was one episode of Amazing Race14 that could get your sympathy genes going, this was it. Certain parts were downright pitiful. “You poor, poor thing,” I kept saying to Jen. I could have cried myself. I was even rooting for Jaime in this episode, even though she has not been my fave from the beginning. And Victor and Tammy, well, they are just stellar people.

Kisha & Jen did have me turning a little against them at the beginning of the airport episode by the way they were acting towards the ticket folks at the Guilin airport and how they talked about people in China as having dumb looks.

After last week’s episode, I didn’t feel that harshly towards them after their run in with Luke and Margie, but their attitude had me changing my mind a little.

But, the truth is, I’ve felt that way about people when I’ve tried to get help and I have been unable to easily–particularly when I’ve been road hashed. I think that the teams have probably used up a lot of their good humor and have arrived at the place where patience is wearing thin. Plus, they can taste that million dollars. At the beginning of the race when people were still yukking it up, a win was possibly a pipe dream.

The episode started out with all four of the remaining teams heading out on the same flight to Beijing from Guilin, and dashing off in taxis lickety split to find the Liangzi Jian Guo Men Dian foot massage spa, the worst foot massage in the planet. If they knew the pain that was to come, perhaps they wouldn’t have been in such a hurry.

Tammy and Victor, of course, were feeling downright pleased that they’d be able to speak Chinese all the live long day which they felt would give them an edge. Plus, they’ve been to Beijing. They know Beijing. They’re comfortable in Beijing. Keep that in mind, because Chinese is not the skill you need most in the Amazing Race–at least not in Beijing. Plus, not all places in Beijing are comfortable.

Jaime and Cara arrived first at the torture chamber, also known as a foot massage parlor. I’ve had a Thai foot massage and it’s heavenly. The Chinese version, like Victor said, won’t “kill you,” but it can make you cry in pain and bite your lips so you don’t scream. The faces on the Chinese women who dug their fingers into the bottoms of the feet of the team members who agreed to the procedure looked almost maniacal. If I were to end up at this foot massage parlor, I wouldn’t be fooled by the soft lighting and I’d be mighty careful what type of massage I ordered up. There’s definitely a difference between the Chinese to the bone foot massage and the Thai version that makes a person feel like purring.

During this part, I felt very warm towards Tammy who held Luke’s hand while he was writhing. You have to like a person who can feel empathetic and reach out to a rival.

After the foot massage, the teams were off to the Guangcai Natatorium for what turned out to be a true test of mettle for two of the teams. Margie & Luke and Cara & Jaime were not daunted by the task of jumping in an Olympic size pool to swim freestyle, or whatever way they could in a relay race. In the swimming task, team members were to take turns swimming 200 meters (up and back the length of the pool) in a medley until each swam two times for a total of 400 meters, one right after the other. The idea of the race was to match Michael Phelps’s individual medley–kind of- when he tore through the water to add to his neck bling.

Although swimming wasn’t a problem for those two teams, no one was thrilled to swim in the Speedo laser suit that was the kind Phelps wore.

Tammy, not the best swimmer, turned out to not be the best high diving board jumper either. She & Victor opted to try the second option which was to do a synchronized jump off two high diving boards. To get a score of 5 which would allow them to move on to the Pit Stop, they had to enter the water at exactly the same time. They almost got it once, but couldn’t manage to come close the rest of their attempts. I’m not sure why they didn’t yell “one, two, three JUMP” and figure out their strategy beforehand. Instead, they jumped willy nilly until they were wiped out and decided to do the Michael Phelp’s swim which turned out to not be all that bad after all.

Then there was poor Jennifer who doesn’t know how to swim at all. First, she decided to try jumping, but found out that she couldn’t make herself jump. Then it was a try at swimming. After she watched Kisha struggle to swim down the lane and back, she decided this was a no go too. So it was back to the diving board. The two sisters did jump in a couple of times which traumatized Jen so much she was in the hall sitting on her haunches crying and saying she wanted to go home. Sister, I’ve had that feeling and it stinks big time.

Finally, in a huge fit of resolve and due to Kisha’s stellar behavior as the best sister in the whole-wide-world EVER, Jen pulled on that skin tight laser suit, slipped on the orange life jacket and headed off into the pool matching Michael Phelp’s style. Let’s say matching Michael Phelp’s style when he as a toddler, perhaps. Still, go Jen go was my reaction. It was almost as good as watching Susan Boyle sing “I Had a Dream.” Imagine if that song would have been playing when Jen swam. I would have been bawling for sure.

In the meantime, while Victor & Tammy and Jen & Kisha were struggling to find the right combination for what would get them out of the water, Jaime and Cara and Luke & Margie were heading for the gorgeous Drum Tower, the site of the Pit Stop. The Drum Tower, built in the 12th century is one more indication of emperor glory days in China. Every hour, on the hour, 24 drums were beat to announce the time of day during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Luke needs to heed the adage, “Pride cometh before a fall,” because he is way too involved in the idea of Kisha and Jen’s life being a living hell. I’m hoping that his heart would have melted a bit if he saw Jen crying, paralyzed in fear and Kisha telling her, “Let’s finish this strong.” Seriously, how can someone not feel moved by that?

The taxi rides across Beijing took awhile which did give the impression that Beijing has a massive sprawl. It is huge and it does sprawl. Other than that, there were shots of the Bird’s Nest, the main stadium of the Olympics and neon. What I noticed missing were the throngs of people on bicycles that I saw in the 1990s. Perhaps this was because most of this episode happened at night.

As for the end of the episode, Jaime and Cara were so wanting to come in first that I wanted them to come in first for a change myself. Jaime didn’t act mean, Cara put up with that foot massage, and the two of them swam their hearts out. But, there was Phil all by his lonesome at the Pit Stop mat. There weren’t any cute older Chinese people eating noodles this time. There wasn’t a congratulations and you’ve won a trip for two to the vacation of your dreams message.

Nope, there was none of that. Instead, there was Phil with a serious face holding out a yellow envelope saying, “Here’s your next clue.”

That was cold. Very cold. And the episode, as it turns out, is “To be continued.” Let’s see next week if Jaime and Cara will ever get a break and if Luke has to eat some humble pie.

As Victor has learned already, the Amazing Race does humble a person.