Great ‘Cultural’ Spa Experiences From Around The World

Even 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.

Six 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 Hong 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 Kasbah 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, much 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]

Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

No one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]

Disgusting tourists use Uluru as a toilet

The otherworldly red rock of Uluru (Ayers Rock) that rises above a flat expanse of Australia‘s Northern Territory has long been considered a sacred site to the native Aboriginal people. Against their wishes, over 100,000 people climb the rock, which is just over 1100 feet tall, each year. Recently, the National Parks service proposed a plan that would close Uluru to climbers.

There were many reasons given for the proposed climbing ban, including the site’s significance to the Aboriginal people, increased erosion on the rock, and the danger involved in climbing the rock(it is estimated that around 35 people die while attempting to scale it each year). A guide for the Anangu Waai tour company has now cited another reason – people are using the sacred spot as a toilet. After they get to the top, they take a “bathroom break” out of sight before starting their descent. It’s an idea so revolting that you hope it can’t possibly be true, but the director of the National Parks has backed it up. He says that in busy times, the levels of E. coli at the base of Uluru reach dangerous levels as the filth washes down the rock with the rain.

The Northern Territory government opposes the proposal. If Uluru were to be closed to hikers, fewer people might visit, and the area’s tourism industry could suffer. As per usual, environmental and social ideals become tangled with economic concerns and the country’s Environmental Minister will have to consider both when he makes his decision on a 10-year plan for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which he says will be made “in due course”. Looks like it you want to climb Uluru, you should get there now….but please hit the bathroom before you go.

[via Times Online]

Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Aborginial Nature Tour

Many things make Queensland different from the other Australian states, including its tropical climate, the presence of the Great Barrier Reef and the fact that its population is the fastest growing in the country. However, the aspect that intrigued me the most while I was there was its indigenous population. The size of the aboriginal population in Queensland is second only to New South Wales. However, unlike their counterparts to the south, many of the indigenous peoples in Queensland still reside in regional and rural areas rather than urban sectors. Therefore, Queensland offers some unique opportunities to meet aboriginal peoples who have opened their communities to guests in an effort to share their culture and educate others about their land and history.

One such group of aboriginal people, the Kubirri Warra brothers of Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours, offer walks in their ancestral home in Cooya Beach. I walked through the wetlands and mangroves with our guide, Link’s family has lived in the region for more generations than he can track. Many believe that Australian indigenous peoples are the oldest surviving civilization in the world, so Link has more of a family forest than just a tree. As we fished for mud crabs, sampled native remedies and trudged through shin-deep mud, I found myself lost in the natural beauty of both the landscape and the aboriginal culture.


Cooya Beach is located just north of Port Douglas in North Queensland. The still waters and dense mangroves make the region feel even more tropical than the other lush areas of Queensland, and I very quickly realized why we were offered bug spray upon our arrival. Even during the “dry season,” the air (and mud) feels thick and sticky in Cooya Beach. Somehow, though, the quicksand-like nature of the mangroves and the unique flora only added to the sense of adventure that I felt as Link guided us through the land that his people have foraged and hunted for centuries.

As we walked, Link we point out plants that his people have used for medicinal purposes, including berries that excrete a solution so similar to saline that it is used as eye drops. Perhaps the most intriguing example of living off of the land that Link demonstrated was his people’s affinity for licking the rear ends of Green ants. Why lick an ant’s behind? Because they expel a tangy secretion that tastes refreshingly like a combination of lemon and lime. My curiosity piqued, I grabbed an ant off of a nearby tree and followed Link’s simple instructions: “Lick its butt.” It did, in fact, taste remarkably similar to the aforementioned citrus fruits. I’d happily create a line of Green ant excretion salad dressings if it wasn’t for the anticipated marketing difficulties.

We walked down the coastline and through the tidal pools that showed evidence of rays having been in the sand when the tide was in earlier in the day. Within these snow angel-shaped divots often reside mud crabs. Carrying long, slender wooden spears, we followed Link while poking in small pools and holes, waiting anxiously for a crab to grab a hold and challenge us to a game of tug-of-war. A large mud crab makes an excellent addition to any barbecue, and we were all anxious to find one of our own.

Gradually, we approached the beginning of the mangroves. The mud below us began to get wetter, looser and less stable. Our feet sank in deeper and, as we struggled to extricate ourselves from our sinking terrain, each step made the sound of a fork entering a bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese. The mangroves, unlike the tidal pools, were a serpentine maze of trees, above-ground root structures and mud that seemed clingier than some of my ex-girlfriends. Within the mangroves, Link pointed out mussels that, to our untrained eyes, were seemingly undetectable. I stared down at the ground, determined to find one and prove my hunting skills in some capacity.

After 30 minutes in the mangroves, our legs were covered in mud, we had all suffered a near slip and Link had single-handedly outscored us 6-0 in the mussel collection department. I couldn’t help but marvel not only at Link’s aptitude at distinguishing flora and fauna in this ecosystem, but the pride that he exuded as he taught us about fishing and hunting in these wetlands as a child. He explained that he was never formally taught any of the techniques that he was demonstrating for us. As a child, once he was old enough to keep up with his father, uncles, cousins and older siblings, he simply followed them out into the mangroves and mimicked what they were doing. As if through osmosis, he learned how to contribute to his family.

As my mind wandered to thoughts of what it must be like to grow up in this habitat, maintaining a close relationship with the same land that your ancestors hunted thousands of years ago, I was knocked back into the moment quite literally when I tripped on a root and had to grab hold of a nearby tree to keep myself from falling face-first into the mud. Serendipitously, however, that root was sheltering a mussel. As I looked down to see what had nearly caused me to become fodder for a humorous anecdote over drinks later that night, I saw my trophy mere inches from my foot. Victoriously, I grabbed the mussel and showed it off to the rest of the group. I had found sustenance.

We made our way out of the mangroves thanks to Link’s uncanny ability to distinguish differences in seemingly identical collections of trees and roots. One could easily lose themselves in the mangroves for hours, as disorientation seems to be the norm once you get a few feet inside the densely packed mud forest. We walked back down the coastline, poking at more holes in a desperate attempt to find a mud crab before our time with Link was over. Sadly, we would not feast on mud crab that day. I told myself that Link probably didn’t catch a crab the first time he followed his elders into the wetlands. I used that as my rationalization as I struggled once again to remove my foot from the ever-sinking mud below me.

We returned to Link’s home where he showed us various types of boomerangs that were used in different hunting environments. He also had a collection of shields and native artwork that he explained in great detail. There was something about hearing the stories from Link that felt very natural. It dawned on me that aboriginal history is steeped in oral traditions and storytelling. The indigenous people’s ability to speak in great detail about their heritage is magnificent, and we seemed to hang on Link’s every word. As day turned into night and the heat and humidity gave way to a gentle sea breeze, our time with Link drew to a close.

I’ve been on countless tours around the world and few have been as enjoyable as my time in Cooya Beach. This was more of a cultural immersion than a tour, and it is something I would recommend to anyone visiting Queensland.

To extrapolate that point into a more general sense, I would recommend that you always seek out tours that allow you to experience a way of life rather than just observe it. Learn a craft. Shadow a artisan. Or simply walk where people have been walking for thousands of years. Just make sure you don’t lose a shoe in the mud.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.

“The Daring Book For Girls” angers Aborigines

An Australian version of “The Daring Book For Girls” has guidelines on how to play a didgeridoo. This has angered some Aborigines because the didgeridoo is considered a male ceremonial instrument, not to be played by women as it could possibly cause infertility, among other terrible things.

I would have pointed fingers at this Australian faux pas, especially since the book is published by Australians, in Australia! But I can’t because I lived in Australia for 3 years, I have been to Darwin — around where the Aborigines are situated, I have tried to play the didgeridoo, and I even own one; but I had no idea that if a girl plays the instrument she is believed to suffer bad consequences. Never was it even brought up in any conversation about the instrument with native Australians. That’s quite sad and rather inexcusable.

The Aboriginal leaders have demanded the withdrawal of the book. Although Harper Collins have apologized for not being aware of this belief, they have refused to withdraw the book on grounds that there is a “divergence of views” amongst Aborigines. In other words, all of them are not offended.

Despite efforts at educating yourself about different cultures and trying to absorb and accept what you learn, it’s amazing how you can still miss crucially important details.