Visiting the World’s Spas for Pampering and Immersion in Exotic Cultures, Too


I am lying in a deep tub near a large arched window with no glass, overlooking a winding river in central Bali. The room is lined by mismatched tile and is hardly antiseptically clean. My attendant, a Balinese woman who’s just given me a somewhat inexpert full-body massage, seems bored with her work--though when they say full-body in Bali, they mean it (I’ve never had my derriere massaged before). Occasionally I wonder whether my wallet, which I’ve left in a wooden locker down the hall, will be there when I get back.

But then I forget the less-than-perfect details and sink deeper into the water, covered with a layer of freshly plucked frangipani, bougainvillea and African tulip blossoms. After all, the cost of the two-hour treatment is just $15, and the view out the window is terrific, including a big black spider spinning its sylvan web above the sill.

A few years back, I started visiting salons, spas and baths when I go on trips because travel is hard work that deserves to be rewarded with a little pampering. It’s also fun to explore the ways the body is cosseted in different cultures--from assisted latherings in antique Turkish baths to skin-pinkening wooden saunas in wintertime Finland. Then, when I visit spas in the U.S., with their increasingly sophisticated treatment menus, I know precisely what I’m getting into by signing up for an abhayanga massage.

I had one of those a year ago at the Kairali Ayurvedic Health Resort in New Delhi. Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient Indian science that, among other things, uses herb-scented oil massage for detoxification, strengthening the immune system and curing ills from sinusitis to postpartum depression. The two women who massaged me in unison, for two hours, must have used about a liter of oil, while another attendant kept a flask poised above, leaking more of the stuff on my forehead and hair. I was ready to be sauteed when I finished. The price was about $50. (The equivalent in California could cost $500.) Next time I’m there, I’m going to try a longer course of ayurvedic treatment, one promising “complete fitness without exercise or dieting,” according to the resort’s brochure.


Then there was the time I stopped at a fancy French spa-hotel called the Termes Marin de St. Malo while on a four-day hike along the coast of Brittany. I didn’t think they’d take a none-too-fashionably-dressed itinerant like me, but in the downstairs treatment center they had a half-hour free to give me an algae wrap for $29. Coated in green slime made from algae that grow in bays nearby, I lay en papillote, swaddled in plastic and an electric blanket. Afterward, the attendant hosed me down in the shower, as if readying me for a jail term.

Richard Bird, a treatment consultant at the Golden Door spa near San Diego, says that it’s hard to replicate here in the U.S. a thalassotherapy treatment like the algae wrap I had in Brittany, because its efficacy depends on the freshness of the ingredients and on the availability of briny seawater. But that hasn’t stopped spa directors from roaming the world to sample exotic treatments, which are then adapted for use in this country. Two Bunch Palms, a spa in Desert Hot Springs known for its cutting-edge treatments, got into ayurvedics about two years ago when it was suggested by a therapist there who’d studied in India. People want treatments that aren’t just made up but have “historical depth,” says Two Bunch Palms’ general manager, Dana Bass Smith.

One spa director who’s gone to great lengths to adapt treatments from foreign cultures for use in the U.S. is Deborah Szekely, who founded Rancho La Puerta in Baja California in 1940 and the Golden Door near San Diego in 1958. In the early 1970s, before anyone here had heard of reflexology or would dare touch sashimi, she made an exploratory trip to Japan, staying in 21 inns in 25 nights and getting 21 different shiatsu (deep tissue) massages.

Not only did she incorporate shiatsu into the treatment menus at her spas, but she designed the Golden Door to recall a traditional Japanese inn. “I am totally addicted to massage, every kind of weird massage,” she says. Now she’s into Thai massage--which involves therapists pulling on clients’ limbs and walking on their backs, among other things--and predicts that it will be the wave of the future at American spas.

When I travel I favor hydrotherapies, or to put it plainly, baths. But I doubt that my favorite bathing experiences could ever be replicated. Last month I stayed at an inn near the Heian Shrine in northeast Kyoto and took to frequenting the neighborhood bath, an extremely modest place, with separate facilities for men and women, costing about $3.

Following a float trip on the Salmon River above Stanley, Idaho, one summer afternoon, I pulled off the highway and went down to the riverbank, where a thermal spring bubbled up. Some kind soul had built a wooden tub there, lined by boulders, equipped with a big tin can. So when the tub got too hot, all you had to do was add cold, incredibly clear water from the stream. And how unmatchably perfect it was lying there, watching a hawk circle in the clear blue sky above!

I took another alfresco bath in a frigid stream above a Berber village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco once--and I needed it because I’d been camping for several days. All went well until a shepherd arrived on the scene and sat down on a rock to watch, sending me scrambling for my towel. You just can’t get a treatment like that at a spa.