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]

Letter from Hungary: soaking in the history in the bathhouses of Budapest

For two millennia the citizens of Budapest have nursed a passion for bathing. Far beneath them, in geological fault lines, is a watery cauldron, the source for over 120 thermal springs whose temperatures range from warm to scalding. These waters have produced an obsession. It began as a pursuit of health. It quickly became a pursuit of pleasure.

In Budapest the bathhouse is to the inhabitants what the pub is to the English or the coffee house is to inhabitants of American sitcoms. Stripped off and immersed in communal pools, they come to meet friends, to chat, to read the papers, to play chess, to catch up on the gossip. Rather than a couple of beers or a skinny latte and a blueberry muffin, there are steam chambers, hot pools and a vigorous masseur.

Some people kick-start their day in the bathhouse. Others come after work to unwind. For others still it is the mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I bought a swimming cap, a pair of flip-flops and bath towel, and set off into the city’s waterworld.

In the vaulted entry halls of the Rudas baths at the bottom of Buda hill, I passed through the turnstiles where a white-coated attendant handed me a key and small white apron. The key was for a locker where I left my clothes; the apron was to wear in the bath. It was a fetching garment which just covered one’s privates while leaving the buttocks exposed. Feeling a trifle self-conscious in what could be mistaken for a male stripper’s costume, I proceeded into the main baths, pausing first for the obligatory shower.In the central chamber I seemed to slip through a time warp, perhaps to Rome in the 1st century AD. Clouds of steam parted to reveal men strolling about in their toga-like aprons. An eerie mix of sounds — voices, water dripping and splashing, and flesh being slapped — echoed beneath the dome above us from where pinpoint shafts of light slanted through the steam. In the large central pool I stretched out in water that was blood temperature. It was deliciously soothing.

It was the Romans who began the tradition of medicinal thermal baths in Budapest. Arthritis sufferers from all over the empire came to bathe in Budapest. But the Romans soon realized there was more to bathing than medicinal cures. The slow rituals of hot and cold water, of massage rooms and steam chambers, were a pleasure in themselves, and that pleasure was deemed central to physical and mental well-being. The Romans built eleven bathhouses in the city they called Acquincum.

The Middle Ages was a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

When the Huns invaded they neglected the plumbing, and bathing in Budapest fell into one of its periodic declines. The Middle Ages was generally a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille was able to boast in her old age that she had only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

It was the Turks who reintroduced serious bathing to Budapest. For them cleanliness really was next to godliness. They conquered the city in the 16th century and remained for over 150 years, plenty of time to build elaborate bathhouses and encourage the locals to join them for a hot soak. Three of Budapest’s most important bathhouses are Turkish buildings, and still in use: the Kiraly, the Racs, and the Rudas.

The following day I checked into the Gellert Baths, one of the city’s grandest creations. Opened in 1927, the building — there is an adjoining hotel — is an Art Nouveau masterpiece. The domes, the mosaics, the colored skylights, the statues of nymphs, the fountains trickling, the shafts of light slanting, the strange aqueous acoustics, all conspire to lull you into a kind of watery trance. There is the sense the world has slowed to half speed among the gentle murmur of voices and the soft lap of water. My thoughts drifted with the steam, going nowhere in particular. The Gellert was like one of those congenial cafes where you sit over your half empty cup watching the world go by. Except here the world was in bathing suits.

There were other things to see in Budapest — the Danube, the Royal Palace, the medieval streets of Buda, the crazed drinking habits of the descendants of the Huns — but an hour later, I had hardly stirred. The baths were becoming my drug, and I was becoming addicted.

It helped that the Gellert baths were mixed — the presence of women seemed to lighten the atmosphere — and I was happy to exchange the apron for a normal bathing suit. The next morning I set off for another mixed bathhouse, the Szechenyi Baths, perhaps the most famous, certainly the most photographed, in the city. I emerged from the Metro in the Varosliget, or the City Park. The grand yellow facade of the bathhouse loomed through the autumn trees, a palace of bathing, a multi-domed neo-baroque creation built at the beginning of the 20th century with the overblown architectural aspirations of the 19th.

In the two inside pools shafts of sunlight fell from high windows onto the bathers’ upturned faces. But most people were outside in the courtyard. Szerchenyi’s outdoor pools are to bathing what La Scala is to opera. This is bathing’s grandest setting, an amphitheatre of colonnades and statuary and terraces surrounding a central swimming pool and two large thermal pools. Here, even in the depths of winter, as snow settles in the crevices of the statues, ardent bathers are to be found in the steaming water.

I settled into the 100-degree pool, beneath the statue of a naked woman getting carried away with a swan, and felt the tension in my limbs uncoil. All around the pool other bathers lounged like hippos, only their head and shoulders protruding from the steaming water. Some read newspapers. One man was deep in a Russian novel. Another was smoking a pipe. A young couple lay entwined while at the far end an older couple seemed to be discussing their divorce. A group of men had gathered round two fellows playing chess on a floating board.

For the rest of us we gazed dreamily into the middle distance in the warm embrace of the waters. We might be strangers but we had found a curious communality. We were having a bath together, and it had come to seem the most natural thing in the world.

Travel Notes

Where to Stay: For location it is difficult to beat K+K Opera Hotel (+36 1 269 0222) — next to the opera house and one block from Andrassy utca, the centre of the best restaurant, bar and cafes district of Budapest. Two nights from $230. Or rent an apartment from $40 a night from one of many agencies; try www.budapestapartmentsincenter.com or call +36 30 830 6506.

Where to Eat: The best restaurant in town is Klassz almost opposite the opera house on 41 Andrassy utca. Try the duck breast with grilled foie gras, caramelised apple served with a delicate risotto at just over $10. They don’t take reservations.

Where to Drink: Budapest is full of grand central European coffee houses, all mirrors and gilt and aproned waiters. The Central (235 0599) in Karoly Mihaly utca and the Gerloczy (253 0953) in Gerloczy uta are both atmospheric places for a coffee and a pastry, or for a full meal. At the other end of the scale are the funky bars like Ellato at 2 Klauzal ter or the Siraly (957 2291) at 50 Kiraly utca, where the clientele is bohemian, friendly and young.

Getting Around: To rent a bike contact Budapest Bike at + 36 30 944 5533. You can also find them at the Szda cafe at 18 Wesselenyi Street. Standard bikes are about $15 a day. They also offer guided pub crawls, lasting about 4 hours, from about $30.

Further Information: Budapest, Eyewitness Travel (Dorling Kindersley, $25) is very good as is Budapest (Time Out Guides, $19.95)

The Bathhouses: Admission prices vary but are rarely more than $8. At most baths your ticket is usually checked as you leave and you are given a small refund if you have stayed less than a certain length of time. All offer a range of extra treatments, from massage to pedicure, for an extra fee. Visit www.spasbudapest.com for prices, hours and other info.

Stanley Stewart has written three award-winning travel books – Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven, and In the Empire of Genghis Khan. He is also the recipient of numerous awards for his magazine and newspaper articles. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and now divides his time between Rome and Dorset.

[Photos: Flickr | Omar A.; schepop; schepop; awluter; Yuen-Ping aka YP]