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]

Sweet New Hotel Trend: On-Site Beehives And Honey Programs

honey Going local, consuming natural products and being kind to the environment is becoming more important to people as they try to lead healthier lives. Luckily, many hotels are recognizing this, and trying to bring this philosophy to guests. It’s for this reason I find myself on the 20th floor rooftop of the Waldorf Astoria New York, wearing a beekeeper’s suit mere centimeters from 360,000 active hives.

“You probably won’t get stung,” assures Andrew Cote, the hotel’s resident beekeeper as well as an advisor for the bee initiative and leader in the NYC movement, who isn’t wearing any protective clothing. “If you do, though, know the poison from a bee sting is very good for you. Some people pay hundreds of dollars to have stingers placed into their skin.”

Not only is their poison good, but so is their honey. The roof has six hives in total. They look like small dressers, containing different compartments and drawers. Andrew sprays the hives with burlap as the smoke calms the bees, which tend to more aggressive in the fall when their hives are dying. One by one, we pull out wooden frames containing honeycombs. They’re tasty works of art, as the different honey varieties, wax and eggs form colorful patterns and designs. To keep the eggs out of the top frame where the pure honey is extracted, a “Queen Excluder” screen with tiny holes is used to keep the queen bee out. The result is pure honey produced from local wildflowers.So, why are the bee hives beneficial?

“It is great for the environment. Bees help pollinate flowers, trees and all kinds of flowering plants helping to further the greenery in NYC and purify the air we breathe,” explains Chef Garcelon of the Waldorf Astoria New York, who is very involved in the program. “… Best of all, it provides great quality honey that we can use in soups, salad dressings, savory dishes, pastries, baked goods and cocktails. In addition we can highlight the source of the honey on our menus and tell the story to our array of guests from around the world.”

beesThe Waldorf-Astoria isn’t the only hotel jumping on this sweet new trend. Hotels all over the United States are employing professional beekeepers to maintain onsite hives and work the delicious product into their dining and amenity programs.

At the Fairmont San Francisco, honey beehives are installed in the hotel’s culinary garden. About 800 pounds of honey is harvested, which is used to make dishes more organic and sustainable. For example, the honey is used in soups, salad dressings, pastries and as an accompaniment to their afternoon tea service. Most recently, the honey has also been used to create a “Fairmont San Francisco Honey Saison,” a handcrafted Belgian beer that infuses the pure honey from the rooftop.

“We were already using the honey in various dishes and our afternoon tea at the hotel, but wanted to offer guests something even more unique,” explains the hotel’s Executive Chef, JW Foster. “… We partnered with the local Almanac Beer Co, which shares a passion for the environment and makes a great product.”

According to the hotel, guests love it. In fact, it is their number one selling beer on draft.

Additionally, the Brown Palace Hotel & Spa in Denver, Colorado, implements a “Royal Bee Initiative” into their hotel programming. Originally a small honey program, it was expanded in order to enhance the food and beverage program, grow the spa menu and educate people about how bees are in peril and how we can help.

The luxury hotel uses their on-site bee colony to offer a number of innovative experiences to guests in terms of food, beverage and relaxation. In terms of drinks, the Brown Palace works with local breweries and distilleries to offer a “Brown Palace Rooftop Honey Saison,” honey-infused bourbon and signature cocktails like the “Brown Palace Bees’ Knees” and the “Honey Brut.” During their high tea, honey is used to sweeten guests’ teas and scones.

spa Their spa also incorporates the pure rooftop honey into treatments and products. The “Queen Bee Body Scrub” combines organic brown sugar and in-house honey to exfoliate, hydrate and balance the skin’s pH levels. Furthermore, “Bee Royalty Signature Products” like lip balms and soaps make for artisanal gifts, and a portion of the proceeds generated go toward helping the Denver Beekeeper Association.

“There are a total of four bee hives, with more than 200,000 bees,” explains the hotel’s resident beekeeper Matt Kentner. “It would be great to continue with the work we’ve been doing – we’d love to continue to grow our hives; but most importantly, we want to continue to educate the public on the importance of bees, and how we couldn’t live without them.”

Some other U.S. hotels with on-site bee hives and honey programs include The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton, The Royal Sonesta Hotel Harbor Court, Baltimore and Ohio’s Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, among others. And, as the trend continues to catch on, more and more hotels are continuing to adopt beekeeping programs.

honey drink Festivals

Along with staying at select hotels, travelers can experience the honey trend by attending honey-focused festivals. From September 29 to 30, the Arizona Honey Fest will debut at the Boulders Resort in Carefree, Arizona. The event will focus on the health and culinary benefits of the product, as well as the history. Cooking with honey demonstrations, honey spa treatments, beekeeper demonstrations, a Gala Honey Dinner, honey-infused cocktails and an outdoor marketplace will be featured.

Also coming up on September 29 and 30 is the annual Honey Harvest Festival in Cockeysville, Maryland. Beeswax candle making, a honey basket raffle, honey wine making and hive demonstrations are all part of the weekend lineup.

Each fall, New York City holds their annual Honey Festival. Honey-themed events are put on throughout the five boroughs, like honey tastings, honey-themed menus and drinks, city beehive tours, film screenings and speakers.

What do you think of the beehive hotel trend?

[Images via Shutterstock]

Luxury Travel: Unlimited spa treatments at Thailand’s Phulay Bay

phulay bay

There are relaxing vacations and there are vacations that take relaxation to a whole new level. Thailand‘s Phulay Bay, the first Ritz-Carlton Reserve property, is offering a new Unlimited Spa package to entice luxury and spa lovers alike – and we are pretty sure it’s working.

The ESPA-branded spa and the property have teamed up to offer a package featuring unlimited daily EPSA treatments along with daily breakfast for two, roundtrip transfers from Krabi Airport by hotel limousine, 24-hour dedicated butler service and a complimentary daily boat trip to Hong Island.


It isn’t the idea of an unlimited spa package that’s enticing, but the relatively low per-day price (starting at $1,165 per day) and the fact that the value increases exponentially with the amount of spa services booked. If you were to truly schedule a week of pampering, for example, your savings could be as much as $1,800 per day.

That’s not saying that the price isn’t still steep, but it’s a dramatic discount given the services offered. We certainly wouldn’t pass up the chance to stay at one of the resort’s 54 villas.

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D.I.Y. facial, courtesy of your hotel’s breakfast bar

A well-done spa treatment, especially a facial, during a vacation can lift a weary traveler straight out of their jet-lagged funk. But hey, lets not be so easily sold here: spa treatments, particularly those available at destination hotels, are expensive. The good news? You can work yourself up a little D.I.Y. facial with the stuff your hotel offers you for free. Call it resourceful; call it low-class. The fact remains: this stuff works.

Gather what you’ll need from your hotel’s breakfast bar and retire back to your room for some You time, courtesy of You.

What you’ll need:

Your in-room coffee maker
A packet of sugar (pure cane is best)
Yogurt
Uncooked oatmeal
Uncooked egg
Lemon or Orange
WaterOnce you’ve completed your hotel scavenger hunt, you’ll be ready for a self-made facial.

1. Wash your hands well.
2. Squeeze the lemon or orange into a cup of water. Using the corner of a washcloth, rinse your face with this mixture.
3. Spread the sugar over a clean corner of the washcloth. Wetting the washcloth just a bit, gently exfoliate your face with the cloth.
4. Rinse your face clean of the sugar.
5. Fill your coffee maker with water, but add no coffee. Turn on the coffee maker. Once the water is boiling, carefully lift the coffee maker’s water receptor so that you are exposed to the steam from the coffee maker. Place your face 5-10 inches from the steam, depending on what is most comfortable for you. Allow the steam to hit your face for a few minutes.
6. Once your face has been steamed, you can treat it with a mask. Make an easy mask by mixing the uncooked oatmeal with the uncooked egg. Spread the mixture all over your face using a cloth. Remove the mixture once it has hardened.
7. On a clean face, gently apply yogurt, focusing on the under-eye area. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes.
8. Rinse the yogurt.

And now? Enjoy. Because you really don’t have to pay top dollar to rejuvenate your skin at a hotel. In fact, skin rejuvenation can be complimentary.

Boozy bliss from coast to coast: Spa treatments with alcohol, perfect for St. Patrick’s Day

spa treatments with alcoholIt doesn’t matter if it’s five o’clock or not because it’s always happy hour when you’re at the spa. In recognition of St. Patrick’s Day, many spas are incorporating alcohol into their treatment menus. It might sound odd, but wine, beer and whiskey spa treatments all have proven therapeutic benefits for your skin.

“Spas with local vineyards or nearby distilleries are taking advantage of what’s around them to create memorable experiences for their guests,” said International SPA Association President Lynne McNees. “Many people might not equate the spa with alcohol, but 23% of spas are incorporating local or indigenous elements into their treatment menu.”

You may not even have to travel to enjoy these unique treatments. Check out a list of our favorite unique treatments from coast to coast. Use them to celebrate that next week’s holiday-o-booze (um, we mean St. Patrick’s Day) or simply to unwind after a long work week:

The Atlantic Resort & Spa, Fort Lauderdale, FL
The Citrus Suds Body Treatment includes a full citrus beer scrub, scalp massage, hair treatment that utilizes a beer extract, six-pack beer bath and an application of citrus lotion. Beer yeast is rich in elements that increase skin elasticity, improves acne by suppressing sebum and has been shown to have antibacterial properties. An 80-minute is $222 through March 31, 2011.

Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, Sonoma, CA
When you’re surrounded by wine country it’s hard not to incorporate a little vino into your spa menu. The Chardonnay Olive Oil Sugar Scrub offers stimulating exfoliation that moisturizes while promoting new skin growth. The invigorating products used in the treatment are all hand made in the Sonoma Valley and incorporate olive oil, sea salt and lavender to awaken the mind, body and senses. A 45-minute treatment is $129.

The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, Washington, DC
Book this “ritzy” hotel’s signature Champagne package for a bit of boozy bliss that will simultaneously infuse your skin with antioxidant-rich Champagne and Chardonnay extracts. Our favorites? The Champagne Indulgence Manicure & Pedicure, an extended spa service that includes a rich scrub and soothing body butter. The 50-minute treatments range from $65 to $95.

The Spa at Chateau Elan, Braselton, GA
The 55-minute Chateau Antioxidant Winery Facial is offered for $90, and uses grapes loaded with antioxidants to replenish the skin by smoothing the tissue and stimulating the circulatory system. Their signature treatment the 110-minute Chateau Winery Ritual offered at $250 features a wine bath that infuses the body with grape seed antioxidants and a De-Vine Mudwrap. The wrap combines crushed grapes and French clay to pull out toxins while moisturizing the skin with vitamins E and C.

VH Spa for Vitality + Health at Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale, AZ
The 90-minute Chardonnay Antioxidant Body Treatment features products made from wine grapes, grape peel and grape seed. The ingredients are full of natural antioxidants that restore vitality to your skin. The treatment begins with a full body Chardonnay sugar scrub followed by a customized massage and finishes with a Chardonnay body butter application all for $185. The spa also offers a Whiskey and Black Pepper Facial for $100 through May 2011. The 60-minute facial features phytomalt, a malt extract from Scotch whiskey, that’s full of sugars, minerals and vitamin B6 giving it excellent hydrating and anti-inflammatory properties.

Abroad in Prague?
We covered this great beer treatment at a The Augustine in Prague earlier this year.

Can’t travel? Recreate the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or French wine county at home:
FarmHouse Fresh® recently introduced their Bourbon Bubbler professional body scrub. The scrub contains coarse brown sugar, Kentucky whiskey and rice bran oil. A 12 oz. jar of the scrub retails for $34 and can be found at spas around the country. Caudalie Paris’ Vinothérapie® Spa in a Bag limited edition kit includes a Merlot Friction Scrub, Vine Peach Shower Gel and a Vine Body Butter. When used together this regimen will help you regain a toned and firmed body. The kit retails for $56 and can be found online and at spas.

[Image via Flickr user e_calamar]