Luxurious rooms lined the hallway ahead of me. A woman or a man stood in each doorway beckoning; each wanted to tell me about a service they could provide.
For a few moments I wondered whether I had taken a wrong turn and wandered into a chichi red-light district somewhere.
No, I was definitely in a cruise-ship spa, I thought, walking into the nearest room, where a woman urged me to try a quartz table massage.
“Warm crystals will mold and shape around your body to release muscle tension,” she said. It would cost only $169 for a 50-minute treatment.
It was the first of several pitches I heard as I explored the spa on Celebrity Edge, a ship that debuted in December.
Some of the world's toniest spas are now located offshore on cruise ships like this one.
Everything about the beautifully designed Edge spa is over the top: 22,000 square feet of space, 124 different treatments, a MedSpa that offers fillers and other therapies that can cost thousands of dollars.
But it’s not all that different from other new cruise-ship spas.
Today every major cruise line offers amazing spa facilities that include dozens of treatments, thermal suites, pools, ice rooms, Turkish hammam steam baths, salons and fitness centers.
In fact, most cruise ship spas are operated by the same Miami-based company, OneSpaWorld, which opened its first facility on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 more than a half-a-century ago. It now runs spas on more than 160 cruise ships, including Edge.
Cruisers love spas, and cruise lines love to provide these moneymakers. Prices usually exceed those of land-based spas, not surprising when you consider there’s no competition in the middle of the ocean.
The facilities are so popular that treatments sometimes book up the day of embarkation, which is why experienced spa-goers rush to register for treatments when they board, even before going to see their cabins.
I was among those who hit the spa early on Celebrity Edge. Eager passengers crowded inside to tour the facility, learn about services and make appointments. Equally eager technicians made their pitches, hoping to book massages and sell products.
After visiting the crystal massage room, I stopped at the acupuncturist’s suite for a consultation. “Stick out your tongue,” he told me. “Oh,” he said, shaking his head when I did so.
“What?” I asked.
“In Chinese medicine, tongue quality indicates a diagnosis as well as symptoms,” he said, adding that he would tell me more with a $169 treatment. I declined.
Next on my tour was the MedSpa room, where I learned about the ship’s aesthetic treatments: injectable fillers such as Botox, Restylane and Dysport to combat wrinkles, CoolSculpting to freeze fat away and Thermage to tighten skin.
I looked closely at the Thermage before-and-after pictures the MedSpa doctor was holding. A woman’s double chin had seemingly disappeared.
“What about this?” I asked.
“That’s not for you,” he said. “You’re beyond the place where Thermage could help.”
Ouch. I tried to make myself feel better by thinking about the money I was saving by not having the $2,750 Thermage treatment.
Later that day I ran into a fellow traveler who had been accepted for the treatment (yes, I was jealous) and paid big bucks for it. My new acquaintance, a 46-year-old woman from Manhattan, had thought the fee was fine but was unhappy about the $400 tip to the doctor. She said she didn’t think she should have to tip a doctor and said she hadn’t been told about the gratuity.
To the spa’s credit, it refunded the money when she complained later that day.
It also responded quickly to me when I asked for a refund.
I’d decided to book a Go Smile teeth whitening treatment instead of a massage. It was $149; the least expensive massage cost $169. Why not try something that cost less and would last longer than the effects of a massage?
After I was seated the technician told me the effects would last only a few days unless I spent $249 more for Go Smile treatment packs that I would apply twice daily to my teeth for a month.
“Then it will last for years,” she said.
I told her no, then I said yes, then I said no again.
I was at war with myself, mainly because I was unhappy about being told I needed to spend more money. On the other hand, why should I go through an uncomfortable dental treatment for results that lasted only a few days? I agreed to spend the additional money.
During the treatment, the technician dabbed something on my teeth, then darkened the room and focused a brilliant light on my teeth. After several minutes she came back into the room, whipped out a hand mirror and told me to look at my teeth.
Wow! They were super white. I was elated.
But my excitement was short-lived. The bright-white look disappeared when I ate dinner.
“The effects of a quick treatment like that wouldn’t last long,” said Dr. Ed Hewlett, a professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry. The combined light and bleach treatment would have caused dehydration that made my teeth appear whiter, he said.
“As soon as you ate or drank, your teeth would have lost that look,” he added.
Hewlett said cruise-ship whitening treatments, like the whitening treatments now available in mall shops, are too brief to be effective and recommended custom-made whitening trays, available from dentists.
Even though my teeth had lost their original whiteness, I dutifully used my $259 Go Smile bleach for two weeks, stopping only when my gums started to hurt. My teeth looked the same as when I started.
When I called to ask for a refund, I was assured there would be no problem.
“If you’re not happy with your service, we refund the money immediately,” said Cristina Sorondo, marketing director for OneSpaWorld. “Our job is to assure that everyone leaves happy.”
She added that the company also has a full-time customer service department to help passengers post cruise. “Whether it’s a massage or a facial or whatever it is, everything is 100% guaranteed,” she said.
A massage would have been the better choice after all.
What to know when considering spa treatments
If you've wondered what to expect from a cruise ship spa treatment, here's a quick Spa 101 course:
►Decide in advance what programs and services interest you, the International Spa Assn. suggests, and how much you can afford to spend.
►Most spas offer treatments such as massages and facials, plus salon services, fitness classes, stress management techniques, yoga and meditation.
►Massages and facials are the most popular treatments (a Swedish massage is a good starting point for beginners), but more exotic services that include the use of cosmetic fillers and cosmetic dentistry are available on large cruise ships. Read the spa menu closely, then ask questions.
►Appointments fill up early. Many people book the first day of a cruise.
►Arrive at least 15-30 minutes before your appointment to have ample time to get accustomed to the spa’s environment.
►You can request a male or female technician. And although most people wear nothing under their robes, you may wear your undies or ask for disposable ones.
►Some treatments may not be safe for you, depending on health issues you may have. For example, dermatologists say people with skin problems such as dermatitis, psoriasis or even a bad sunburn run the risk of infection from germ transmission from tables and baths. Another example: seaweed wraps, which have a high iodine content. Ask your physician in advance if you're thinking about trying something new.
►Some customers says that technicians use high-pressure sales techniques after a treatment to sell products. If you would like to avoid this, tell your technician in advance you don't want to purchase anything and you don’t want to hear why you should.