Best Of GT: Spas

Jun 1, 2013
2013 / June 2013

I’ve seen dead people, bathed with naked women and sobbed with intuitive healers — all in the name of research. Since the debut of our Spas column, I’ve made a point of pushing the boundaries to explore therapies beyond traditional massage or salon services. And I’ve encouraged other writers to do the same. The result is a library of spa articles that are often funny, sometimes poignant and always informative.

One of my most memorable spa experiences involved an hours-long couple’s treatment at Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa on the island of Maui. My husband, Kevin, and I checked in for our treatments in a hushed marble reception hall crowned by a sparkling Venetian crystal chandelier before heading to our respective changing areas.

For the next hour, we indulged in the spa’s separate-but-equal, clothing-optional hydrotherapy chambers. The women’s version, an expansive three-room complex connected by graceful archways, featured a Roman-style whirlpool tub with a cold plunge pool, a Japanese furo bath, a wall of cascading waterfall massage chambers and a series of five oversized soaking tubs — moor mud, limu (seaweed), aromatherapy, papaya enzyme and Hawaiian mineral salt. Sufficiently languorous, I donned my robe to meet Kevin for the next phase of our day of indulgence: a hot-stone massage in a private hut set amid tropical gardens.

More recently, I spent three glorious days at Miraval, a destination spa in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. My initial plan was to start each day with an early-morning group hike in the desert and spend the afternoon indulging in relatively traditional spa treatments and meditation classes, but the universe had other plans for me.

I was intrigued by one of Miraval’s signature experiences, the Samadi Healing Ceremony. The sessions with Dr. Tim Frank, a licensed general practitioner and hospice physician who draws on his Cherokee heritage for insight, usually book months in advance: Due to a last-minute cancellation, I found an opening.

Fate? Maybe. What I know for sure is my experience during the Samadi Healing Ceremony was a breakthrough moment in my life. I gained insight and made connections with my past, present and future that even now, more than six months later, I still draw on during challenging moments.

Given my propensity for exploring non-traditional treatments, I’m occasionally amused by reports from writers who are either new to spas or who are taken aback by the personal nature of some spa experiences. I have to admit I’ve enjoyed a few laugh-out-loud moments while reading spa reports by longtime Global Traveler contributor Richard Newton.

Richard’s June 2007 article about Elysium Spa at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport begins:

“I’m close to the check-in counters on the concourse of Terminal 4 at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, wearing nothing but a pair of paper undies. It could be a bizarre dream, but this is real. I can hear the bustle of passengers and luggage carts all around me. I can’t see them, and, more importantly, they can’t see me. I am safely cloistered in one of the treatment cabins of the Elysium Spa.”

Paper undies not withstanding, nudity and its occasionally embarrassing consequences is an oft-mentioned topic in our library of spa reports.

Following her first visit to India in 2007, my colleague, Global Traveler Managing Editor Kimberly Krol, felt compelled to warn modest readers about her experience at the Divya Ayurveda Wellness Spa at the Leela Kempinski Kovalam Beach in Kerala. While Kim raved about her 90-minute Shirodhara therapy session and the Pathra Podala Swedam treatment, she wrote:

“I must issue a warning to the more modest readers (I consider myself a part of this group): The Ayurveda massages are characterized by long strokes, up and down the body. Some patrons may be uncomfortable with this spa’s no-limits approach to all areas of the anatomy. Most of the treatments are performed entirely in the buff. I was quite taken aback at first, but I eased into the treatments as I realized I needed to embrace cultural differences in order to truly enjoy and benefit from the therapeutic qualities of an Ayurvedic spa experience.”

Personally, nudity isn’t an issue. I much prefer being in the buff to donning paper undies. In fact, I was fully clothed during my most challenging spa experience: a Watsu session at Spa Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Watsu, a series of gentle movements performed in a warm water pool (so I was wearing a swimsuit), is based on the principles of Shiatsu massage combined with the theory that working in water facilitates a trust between the giver and receiver. Together in the pool, the therapist guides the receiver through a series of passive movements; rocking, cradling, floating and stretching.

Although it looked good on paper, the reality of giving myself so entirely to the experience was intimidating. A step-by-step description of the process helped allay my fears, and I resolved to embrace the opportunity. Gradually, I succumbed to the warmth of the water and to the gentle stretching. I let myself be in the moment.

Maybe that’s what it’s all about.

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