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]

Knocked up abroad: planning travel with a baby

travel with babyLet’s get this out of the way: you can travel with a baby. Many new parents feel that once they have a child, their travel days are over, but many parents will tell you that the first six months are the easiest time to travel with a baby. Is it easy? Not exactly, but with enough planning and the right attitude, it’s not as hard as you might think. Is it selfish? Probably, but so is most travel. Again, planning, attitude and a good amount of luck factor in to ensuring that you and baby aren’t a nuisance to other passengers and that you and your child have a safe and healthy trip. My baby is too young to remember her early adventures, but she’s learning to be adaptable and sociable, and does well with travel, new people, and noise. Is it fun? Your carefree days of travel may be over, but you can still enjoy exploring new places, indulging in great food and wine (it might just be at a sidewalk cafe at 4pm instead of a trendy restaurant at 9pm), and engaging with locals more deeply than you ever did before baby. Given the patience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that I’ve developed while traveling with a baby, I’d say it has made me a better traveler, maybe even a better person.

Living in a foreign country like Turkey puts me at an advantage: I deal with a language and cultural barrier every day and everything is much more complicated and difficult than it would be at home in New York. Because this is not our permanent home and imported items are expensive, we made it through the first few months with little more than a stroller, a baby wrap to carry her, and a portable changing pad, so we already travel light. I say it gives me an advantage because I’m already used to the challenges and unfamiliarity inherent in travel. What makes foreign travel daunting (even without a baby) is the foreignness of it all, which has become my normal (after nearly two years abroad, I can tell you that knowing what’s going on all the time is overrated). The skills I’ve honed as a traveler and an expat — problem-solving, thinking ten steps ahead, and planning an exit strategy — are the same I use as a parent; you can apply the same lessons with a child or on the road.Now with a few trips under my belt with baby both solo and with my husband (and more travel planned in the coming weeks and months), I’ve developed some guidelines to help with traveling with a baby. I’ll be posting some additional articles on how to cope with a baby on a plane and on the ground, travel gear recommendations, as well as some destination-specific info, but first: some tips on planning a trip with a baby.

-Choose a baby-friendly destination. You may find that people everywhere are much more understanding and helpful to people traveling with babies than you imagine, but some places are more baby-friendly than others. In my experience, Mediterranean Europe is full of baby-lovers, even if the cobblestones, stairs, and ancient infrastructure presents a lot of challenges. Istanbul can be a nightmare to navigate with a stroller, but there are always friendly Turks willing to help. I’ve also heard babies in Latin America and Southeast Asia are treated like rock stars. Generally, countries with a high birth rate tend to be friendlier than others, though I’ve found the United States to be the most difficult in terms of other people’s attitudes.

-Prepare to pare down: There are a lot of great things about having a baby in the 21st century, but people managed quite well for generations without wipe warmers (really, this is a thing?!) and baby gyms. There are a few items I use at home every day such as a bouncy seat, a nursing pillow, and a folding bathtub, but I’ve done fine without them for weeks at a time while traveling. I know at some point down the line, I’ll need to pack a myriad of toys, snacks, and diversions for my child, but infants need very little. It may help to wean yourself off of baby gear in advance of your trip to see how well you can get along with less. Let the baby get used to a travel cot if you plan to use one, try getting around for a day with just a baby carrier, and introduce toys that can be easily attached to a stroller and then stashed in a pocket. Think about your destination: will a stroller be more of a hinderance than a help or can you get along with another mode of transport? Do you need a car seat or can you rent one? What can serve multiple purposes? I carry a thin Turkish towel that looks like a pashmina and I can use it as a burp cloth, nursing cover, baby blanket, and a scarf. The less you can pack, the better. Really all you can handle is baby in a stroller, one wheeled suitcase, and a purse and/or diaper bag. Anything more and you’ll regret it. Also, keep in mind that babies are born everywhere, and there are few places in the world where you can’t buy diapers, formula, clothes, or other gear. Pack enough in your carry-on to get through the first day and night in case you arrive at your destination after shops close.

-Schedule travel around baby: Babies are adaptable, but when it comes to travel, especially flying, make it as easy on yourself as possible. My baby generally wakes up early to eat, then goes back to sleep for a few hours, and sleeps through most of the night. Therefore, I’ve tried to book flights for early in the morning or overnight so she’s awake as little as possible. In the six flights we took to and from the US and domestically, the only one we had any trouble with was a 45-minute Boston to New York flight in the early evening, when she tends to be cranky. It’s hard to comfort a baby when you’re standing in line or getting ready to board a flight, so if your baby is already asleep at the airport, that’s half the battle. There used to be nothing I hated more than getting to the airport at the crack of dawn, but traveling with a sleeping, and more importantly, quiet baby is worth getting up early.

-Consider an apartment rental: With the popularity of websites such as AirBnB (even after the home trashing scandal), renting an apartment for even a short stay is an increasingly viable option when planning a trip. It not only gives you more space and a more home-like environment, it can also help you to get to know a place more through the neighborhood and markets when you buy food to cook on your trip. For a parent, an apartment has several key advantages over a hotel room. Having access to laundry while traveling can be a huge help and reduce your packing load significantly. Likewise, whether you are breastfeeding or using formula, having a kitchen with a fridge can be a necessity with a baby. If you’re set on a hotel stay (daily room-cleaning could be a big help too!), make sure your room has a minibar fridge to stash bottles inside and a bathtub if your baby is too big for the sink, and get info on the closest laundromat.

-Do your research: The last thing you want when traveling is to be standing on a subway platform with a crying baby, after hauling a heavy stroller up a flight of stairs, only to discover the train is bypassing your station. Before I travel next week to Slovenia and Italy, I’m looking up everything from how to cross the border by taxi, to what train stations have elevators, to public bathrooms in Venice with baby-changing stations (though I’ve managed many times on the top of a toilet seat lid and a changing pad). All the stuff about a destination you could wait to figure out until you arrived before you had a baby will help you a lot to plan in advance. Here’s some examples of things to research before you go, the more prepared you can be, the better.

Stay tuned for more tips on travel with a baby, in the air and on the ground plus destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

Six ways to enjoy Madison Square Park

Manhattan has a lot of great parks – but a handful tends to hog all the attention. Central Park is what it is; there’s just now way to compare it to anything else. Bryant Park has live performances and exhibitions (not to mention a starring role in Fashion Week) and is only a block from Times Square. And, there are others that would come to mind before you work your way down the list to one of my favorite open spaces in the city: Madison Square Park.

Don’t be misled – this park is nowhere near the “garden” of the same name. It sits between East 23d Street and East 26th Street and between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue, in a small pocket of New York that most visitors tend to skip. So, catch the R or W train to the East 23d Street stop, and get ready to enjoy Madison Square Park in six different ways.

1. Take care of two buildings at once
The uniquely shaped Flatiron Building is right across the intersection from the southwest corner of the park, where Fifth Avenue and Broadway meet. What you may not realize, though, is that the northwest corner of the park (East 26th Street and Fifth Avenue) provides a great view of the Empire State Building. Crowds tend to form, for some reason, during morning rush hour (which sucks for the locals). Also, avoid lunch hour and evenings, as people who work nearby will get in the way of your shot.

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2. Watch some television – live
It’s not unusual to find camera crews in and around Madison Square Park. Plenty of shows shot in New York use the space. So, while you wander through, you may be lucky enough to bump into one of your faves.

3. Go to the bathroom
If you aren’t fortunate enough to spot a celeb, drink some water. This will have the predictable effect and send you to one of only a handful of self-cleaning public toilets in the New York City. It’s on the southeast corner of Madison Square Park, and a quarter buys you 15 minutes. That should be plenty of time to take interior photos of the device that guest-starred on CSI:NY.

4. Enjoy some art
There’s always a public art display of some kind in Madison Square Park. Right now, it’s Markers, an installation by Mel Kendrick, a Boston-born artist who’s now a resident of New York. This project consists of five pieces reflect the “rippling surfaces contain the fossil memory of the actions taken over time.” Like almost all the public art in Madison Square Park, Kendrick’s installation is definitely worth a look.

5. Grab a bite
Sure, it’s tempting to head over to the storied Shake Shack in the southeast corner of Madison Square Park (near the toilet/TV star/murderer). But, if you’re looking for a substantial, enjoyable sit-down meal, go up to Ben & Jack’s Steakhouse, a few blocks north on East 28th Street and Fifth Avenue. Definitely make the ribeye your meal (it was amazing), but you’d be nuts not to start with the seafood platter. Take your time, and rest your feet for a bit, especially if you’ve been wandering around the city all day. The staff is attentive and accommodating, and they will not rush you. This is a great alternative to the long waits and hope-you-can-pull-it-off reservation situations at the steakhouses in mid-town. And, the dark-wooded interior drives home the insider feel that makes any steak dinner in Manhattan complete.

6. Grab a cigar (for those inclined)
For many, the only way to finish a hefty steak dinner is with a cigar. Go local with a stick from Martinez Cigars, a few blocks away on West 29th Street and Seventh Ave. Grab a maduro, and go back to the park (while you can still smoke there). If nobody’s around, chill for a bit on the new pedestrian area just west of Madison Square Park.

Babykeeper Basic hangs your baby close while you pee

I thought writing product reviews couldn’t get any better than Skymall Monday. But then a product comes along that is so patently amazing that it takes my breath away. I stare at my computer screen, mouth agape, and wonder how I ever lived before experiencing such wonderment. I can only imagine that this is how one would feel upon encountering a unicorn in a meadow filled with daisies and trees that fruit lollipops. Ladies and gentleman, I am pleased to introduce you to The Babykeeper Basic.

Traveling with kids is hard. Or at least that’s what people tell me. I’m single and childless (as far as I know), so I just throw some underpants and toothpaste into a bag and off I go to my next exotic destination. But I imagine that when you travel with kids, you can get a tad flustered. You have your luggage, the kids’ luggage, diaper bags, purses, stuffed animals and other nonsense to carry. That’s a lot to handle. And, at some point, you’re going to have to use the bathroom.

Well, you can’t just ask some stranger, or worse, your spouse, to hold your child while you urinate (or defecate, your choice). That’s where The Babykeeper Basic comes in. Simply select the lavatory of your choosing, place the hooks over the stall divider and overcome the stage fright that you will inevitably encounter as your child stares at you judgmentally while you try to relax and let the river flow. Nope, nothing to see here. Just a baby hanging precariously from the wall of a bathroom stall while you empty your bladder and/or bowels.

Look, I’m not saying that you should just put your kid on the bathroom floor while you do your business. That’s foolish. Your child could then easily abscond with your luggage while your pants are at your ankles. What I am saying is that hanging your child from the bathroom stall in some medieval harness might not win you Parent of the Year at your church’s next family fun day.

For our readers in Japan, I have great news. You can save $25 and just use the amazing public restrooms in your forward-thinking country. They have the baby seat built right in.

[Via Buzzfeed]