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]

Bathing with strangers: what to expect at a Turkish hammam




In Turkey, one of the quickest ways to break the ice is to get naked in a room full of strangers. I’m talking, of course, about visiting the hammam. The hammam, or Turkish bath, has been around since the ancient Romans ruled much of Anatolia, and flourished during the Ottoman Empire, when baths were built in almost every city to address both public hygiene as well as provide a place for socializing.

Turks today have their own baths and they typically go to the café or çayhane (tea house) to meet up with friends. Modern spas have also edged out hammams. But while the practice of going to the hammam is on the wane, it is still possible – and downright enjoyable – to bathe at a hammam in Turkey. A hammam visit is also an incredible cultural experience, allowing you, in many cases, to see the interior of baths that have been in operation since the 16th century and an opportunity to meet other Turks in a relaxed setting.

Seeing as how going to a public bath is unusual for many travelers, I’ve put together a list of things to expect when going to a Turkish hammam.Disclaimer: These tips hold true for female hammam-goers. I can not speak for the men’s baths. But I understand from male friends who have gone to the hammam that the experience is similar but with naked men instead of naked ladies.

Carry your own supplies. If you’re planning on visiting a hammam when you go to Turkey, consider packing a waterproof toiletries bag that you don’t mind getting wet as you’ll carry the bag and your supplies into the hammam. Suggested toiletries include shampoo, conditioner, bath soap (preferably shower gel), and a loofah or one of those plastic shower puffs. You’ll also want a “kese,” an abrasive cloth that is used to scrub off all of your dead skin cells. These are almost always available for purchase at the hammam for a few lira, but you can also buy them on the local market at textile stores and in some toiletries sections of drugstores. Flip flops or other shower shoes are a must, though the hammams will have (usually wooden and uncomfortable) slippers called nalın that you can use during your visit. Bring a towel with you. A thin, cotton cover-up (peştemal) similar to a sarong, will be provided, but it is no substitute for a towel.

Don’t take valuables with you. When you arrive at the hammam, you will be given a changing room where you can take off your clothes or, if you’re the modest type, change into your swimsuit (preferably a two-piece). Then you will have to leave your belongings behind as you head into the steam rooms of the hammam. Most changing rooms that I encountered during my hammam excursions did not have locks, nor did they provide latches on which to hang your own padlocks. Rest assured, I never had anything stolen in Turkey. But you should be aware that theft in high tourist areas is always possible.

Go with a friend. Taking a friend with you to the hammam is by no means required. But know that for the first half an hour or so, you will sit in what is called a “warm room.” There, you will be absorbing steam, scooping warm water from a perpetually running fountain, and pouring it over yourself to prepare your epidermis for scrubbing. During this time, it’s great to have a friend to talk to and to share the experience with. And, when I say “friend,” I mean someone of the same sex. Hammams are either divided into men’s and women’s sections or they will require men and women to come at separate times.

Respect others’ space. No matter if you are at a hammam in Istanbul or Anatolia, you will encounter others – and don’t expect them to be clothed. Most people who have been going to hammams all their lives are comfortable taking it all off at the hammam and many women that I (gingerly) observed in hammams across Turkey had no qualms about doing personal maintenance, such as shaving, while in the baths. Don’t stare or balk. But also don’t be surprised if the naked woman at the basin next to you tries to strike up a conversation.

Prepare to be intimate with the hammam worker. The moment of truth. When it is your turn to be splayed on the marble slab in the central room of the hammam, the hamamci (Turkish for hammam worker), clad in her hammam uniform (i.e., her underwear), will come to the warm room to fetch you. Once you are in the central room, the hamamci will proceed to scrub your whole body, front and back, with soap. When your skin is perfectly saturated, the kese scrubbing will begin. Note that a hamam attendant armed with a kese is the original microdermabrasion. The hamamci will be able to will rolls and rolls of dead skin cells from your body, the result being, of course, a healthier glow. Endure it. After this portion of the scrub-down, the hamamci will typically give you a coarse massage (unless you’ve paid more for the privilege), wash your hair, and give you another thorough rinsing.

Leave a tip. The price for a basic hammam visit in Istanbul and around tourist centers like Antalya runs near $40 to $50 these days. In Ankara and many other parts of Anatolia where there are more locals than tourists visiting the hammam, you can expect to pay less than $30 for a soap and kese scrub. Most hammams also offer other services, such as waxing, manicures/pedicures, and hair dyeing, for an additional cost. A good rule of thumb is to tip your hamamci approximately 20 percent of the total services.

Photo of the painting Pipe Lighter by Jean-Léon Gérôme by Flickr user Heilemann

Stressed? Soak up some relaxation in a hammam

New experiences make the best presents.

My brother-in-law and his wife gave me and my wife gift certificates to Madrid’s biggest hammam, or Arab/Turkish bath.

I’ve always liked hammams. The ones in Turkey, with their cold, warm, and hot sections, are reminiscent of Roman baths. I’ve also tried them in Iran, where in poorer neighborhoods that lack plumbing they aren’t just for relaxation, but also literally for bathing. Those aren’t as relaxing because most people are just popping in for a quick shower instead of lazing away the afternoon with some steam and a massage.

Last week was the first time I tried a hammam in the Western world. They’re getting more popular, cropping up in many cities as a cheap alternative to a spa. The one we went to was in an old water works that had been remade to look like a Turkish bath, complete with piped music and fake skylights. In contrast to their Middle Eastern counterparts, most Western baths let in people of both sexes. Bathing suits are required, unlike certain Parisian hammams a female friend of mine goes to!The hammam had a warm pool that felt like a bath, a hot pool that felt wonderfully relaxing but made me sleepy if I stayed in too long, and a reinvigorating cold plunge. Supporters of hammams say that making the rounds between warm, hot, and cold baths relaxes and rejuvenates you, improving general well-being and opening up pores to improve the skin.

The attached picture shows a Turkish hammam, where the water is in basins, but the hammam we went to had actual wading pools filling large rooms. Some people even swam laps!

This particular hammam, like many others, also has a steam room and massage therapists. My wife and I both got expert fifteen-minute massages. The whole experience was very soothing and the perfect way to unwind after a hectic holiday season. The only off note was some of the customers. Spaniards feel the need to speak loudly absolutely everywhere, including during movies, an unforgivable sin, and also in hammams that have signs saying “Silencio, por favor” hanging on every wall. In the Turkish and Iranian baths I’ve visited silence always reigned, and the hushed atmosphere added another level of relaxation and otherworldiness to the experience.

Most of the customers were couples in their twenties, thirties, or forties. While this is not a place for picking up members of the opposite or same sex, the warm air, trickle of water, and dim lighting does create a sensuous atmosphere. It’s perfectly acceptable to snuggle up to your partner and kiss, but the guy who was nibbling his girlfriend’s toes went a bit too far in my opinion.

Hammams are getting more popular in the West, so check out if there’s one near you and get your in-laws to treat you. You won’t be sorry.

Istanbul’s hammams becoming more popular

In Ottoman times they were the daily ritual of the wealthy and middle class. Hammams were a place to unwind and socialize while getting clean. But in the twentieth century with the rise of internal plumbing and changing attitudes, the traditional hammam declined. Many decayed or were converted to other uses.

Now hammams are becoming popular again. Turks are once again interested in their Ottoman past, and with the recent death of the last heir to the Ottoman throne, that nostalgia will probably increase. Cagaloglu, built in Istanbul in 1741, is on sale for $16 million. Another one in Istanbul’s Aya Kepi neighborhood, dating to the 16th century and built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan, is on sale cheap for $3 million, but needs extensive remodeling. At the moment it’s being used to store lumber! Hopefully someone will buy this historic building and reopen it as a hammam. There’s also been a spate of new building, with hammams appearing in shopping malls and hotels.

While the big historic ones in Istanbul are impressive, going to a small-town hammam in Cappadocia was one of the more memorable experiences of my month in Turkey. It was so small, in fact, that they didn’t have separate men’s and women’s sections. Men and women went on different days. The smaller crowd made the whole experience more relaxing and the tellak (masseur) sure knew his business. As I lay on a warm stone bench he squashed me into the rock, kneading my muscles until tension fled in terror. The best feeling was when he stopped! It was only then that I realized how relaxed I was.

Lounging around a hammam is a great way to spend a couple of hours. So if you’re headed to Turkey, try a hammam. The small-town ones are more sedate and less expensive, but the big popular ones in Istanbul need support too.