We visit spas for numerous visits: To take a break from the outside world; to rejuvenate our minds, bodies, and spirits; to lose a few pounds or tap a new source of energy; to relax and spend time with friends. How about adding cultural experience to that list?
Every place around the world has its own rituals to promote well-being, whether it’s chanting along with a shaman or dipping into curative mineral waters. These spas draw on the indigenous ingredients and customs of their locales, offering the visitor a singular experience that cannot be found anywhere else. Expect unique treatments that have nothing to do with Swedish massages or ubiquitous European-style facials, and may even teach you a thing or two about the place you’re visiting.
In addition, each one of these destination spas is superlative in its own right and enjoys a beautiful, rich setting, from a low-key Italian island off the Amalfi Coast to the verdant jungles of the Riviera Maya in Mexico. We picked spas both big and small; near and far; and at various ends of the cost spectrum.
Trust us, cultural immersion never felt so relaxing.
In 1796, Dr. John Anderson purchased 2,220 acres in the rural Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. He rigged tents and eventually built a hotel to shelter the people who trekked to his land. Why did they visit? Seven natural mineral springs, whose legendary healing powers Iroquois and Shawnee tribes had revealed to Anderson. The resort grew and legions of wealthy clientele, including 10 U.S. presidents, checked into the hotel to soak in its springs and drink pints of the water. Today what’s now known as the Omni Bedford Springs Resort has a sleek new Springs Eternal Spa fed by an eighth spring. The spa is one of a handful in the country to use springwater in all treatments, said to nourish hair, skin, and nails with its minerals and softness. Spa-goers can start with the courtesy Bedford Bath Ritual, which involves hopping between hot and cold pools. The spa’s products are inspired by what grows in the surrounding Allegheny Mountains, including black walnuts (for exfoliation), ginger (to stimulate circulation), and Indian cucumber root (for hydration). www.omnihotels.com
Galiano Island, BC
To step from the ferry onto Galiano, Canada, a slender slip of land no more than 6 miles at its widest, is to sink halfway into a state of deep relaxation. Like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia’s Gulf Islands are fiercely nature-oriented. Galiano seems frozen in time with stands of Douglas fir and sequoias saluting the few hikers and bobbing seals guarding the quiet, shell-covered beaches. This spirit carries over to the Madrona del Mar Spa at Galiano Oceanfront Inn, where the sea is omnipresent – visible through the wide windows and oceanfront cabanas, and audible during massages on the beach. One dimly lit room contains a flotation bath; visitors can float weightless in warm, super-saturated saltwater, a process said to curb stress, insomnia, and symptoms of rheumatism and asthma. Seaweed – rich in iron, vitamins, and trace minerals – figures into many of the treatments, as does British Columbian glacial clay, commonly called “miracle clay” because it is believed to have healing properties. The spa’s staff mingles the clay with organic hemp powder, known to soften the skin. The inn’s modern suites and formal restaurant bring a taste of city slickness, no doubt catering to patrons from Vancouver, less than an hour away by ferry. www.galianoinn.com
As with many European spas, visitors to Le Terme della Regina Isabella can consult with doctors who will then recommend a course of treatment. Set on the volcanic island of Ischia by the Gulf of Naples, the medi-spa uses mineral springs that originate on the slopes of Mount Epomeo and were first discovered by Greeks in the eighth century B.C. When the Romans took over the area, they created a resort that attracted health seekers from all over their empire. A millennium or so later, Marie Curie paid a visit and espoused the waters’ curative effects. The vast treatment menu ranges from the ancient to the cutting-edge (peels, injections, and so forth). But most visitors end up swathed in warm mud extracted from the island’s caves and dunking in and out of various pools before melting into a massage. This being Italy, the adjoining resort has all the elements of la dolce vita lacking at the clinical spa. Indeed, the day may start with an underwater, four-hands massage, but it could easily finish aboard the resort’s boat, skimming the Tyrrhenian Sea at sunset.www.reginaisabella.it
Newcomer hotel Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus in Turkey occupies a converted 19th century Ottoman mansion on the banks of its namesake strait. Its spa channels a hammam, or Turkish bath – the time-honored social and salubrious mainstay of Middle Eastern cultures. The Four Seasons’ spa contains three hammams – one for men, one for women, and one for couples (a first for Istanbul). White columns grandly surround a swimming pool illuminated by skylights. Those seeking a traditional experience can opt for the Ultra Luxury Turkish Bath. Unlike at a public hammam, the ritual is conducted in private and the therapist tells the spa-goer about all the steps beforehand. The treatment starts in a cool room, then progresses to a warmer one where the visitor lies on a heated marble slab. Here the therapist performs a rigorous scrub with a kese (loofah) and then applies a blanket of nourishing bubbles. Next the guest pauses at the qurna (washbowl) for hair washing and a head massage before returning to the cool room to decompress.www.fourseasons.com
The coca is a controversial plant. On the one hand, alkaloids found in its leaves are a key ingredient of cocaine. On the other hand, the leaves play a major role in various Andean cultures of Latin America, with people using them to treat everything from depression to altitude sickness. Visitors to Peru‘s UNU Spa at InkaterraMachu Picchu can experience the traditional Andean cure firsthand. The eco-lodge’s tile-roofed casitas fan out over 12 lush acres of cloud forest teeming with birds, butterflies, orchids, and all the spa’s botanicals. A spa visit usually starts in the traditional Andean sauna, made of native eucalyptus branches. For the 3-hour Inkaterra Therapy, a therapist performs a massage with lotion made from coca leaf, oil, and cream and then applies a body mask of blended coca leaves. The leaves are said to detoxify the body, increase circulation, and stimulate the lymphatic system. www.inkaterra.com
The stately, British-inflected elegance that pervades the Half Moon resort in Jamaica is perceptible from the moment one sets foot in the sprawling marble lobby. Crystal chandeliers drip from the ceilings and portraits of past guests – Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, the Kennedys – adorn the walls. Yet all signs of the Commonwealth fall away upon entering the 2-year-old Fern Tree Spa, a verdant oasis dappled with pools and hidden lounging spots. Helming the operation is chief spa elder Stella Gray, a Jamaican who has worked at the resort for 37 years. Guests can consult Gray for advice about traditional remedies incorporating herbs and plants from her on-site garden. These include soursop leaf, aloe vera, leaf of life, and cerasee, a particularly potent plant that Jamaicans use to treat everything from cramps to colds. Other unique ingredients include Blue Mountain coffee, plantains, rum, and coconut, all of which turn the spa experience into an olfactory heaven. During treatments inside over-the-water cabanas (which involve seawater, algae, sponges, and salt) guests can gaze at the turquoise Caribbean rolling back and forth between the wooden floor slats. www.halfmoon.com
Located just outside Playa del Carmen on the Yucatán Peninsula, the spa at the Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya takes inspiration from the ancient Mayans, whose architecture still stands nearby. The experience starts beneath an open-air palapa, where guests sip juice made from vitamin-rich chaya (Mayan spinach). All around, the jungle reaches in with verdurous fingers. A cornerstone of the spa is the temazcal, an intimate, half-buried clay structure heated with lava rocks doused with herbal water. Dark, peaceful, and warm, the space is meant to feel like a womb. Inside, a Mayan shaman leads the visitor through an hour-long purifi cation ritual involving blessings, herbs, mineral-enriched mud, and meditation. Equally stirring is the Mayan Tzolkin Ritual, which starts in a medicinal garden where the spa-goer plucks botanicals such as Mexican marigolds or chacá leaves based on intuition. The therapist then incorporates the ingredients into a footbath, scrub, and poultice designed to treat areas of tension. A massage follows, intended to align the body’s energy with the cycles of the tzolkin, the ancient 260-day Mayan calendar. www.mandarinoriental.com
This Sedona spa blends Native American rituals with New Age ideas and southwestern ingredients. Though it routinely tops spa lists and wins awards, Mii Amo is not for everyone – such as those averse to healing crystals or phrases like “daily intention.” The most distinctive feature is its location among the red buttes and cliffs of Arizona‘s Boynton Canyon, which the Yavapai-Apache nation has long considered a sacred place for healing. Local tribe elders bless the therapists who lead spa-goers on Inner Quest sessions, incorporating sweet grass smudging (intended to eliminate “negative energy”) and a special blanket to simulate the warmth of a Native American sweat lodge. Therapists with 10 or more years of experience conduct Soul Seeker treatments using guided imagery, reflexology, and breath work. After attending to the spirit, the therapists can wrap guests up in detoxifying Sedona red clay or scrub them down with a mixture of blue corn, salt, and oil. www.miiamo.com
The goal of a stay at Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali, similar to the intent of any destination spa, is holistic wellness. This spa on the unspoiled northern end of Bali offers several routes to achieving it. Upon arrival (and after a welcoming shoulder rub), guests can select one of several Discovery Paths, each combining treatments and activities with nutrition. The Balance path calls for Balinese dance lessons and squid fishing during a new moon; Creativity entails a tour of artisan workshops and instruction in traditional weaving. Spa therapists create all the balms fresh for each session and use only local fruits and spices. The Campur-Campur treatment blends Thai and Malay massage while pouches of steamed lemongrass and pandan leaves rest on the body. A hair revitalizer incorporates coconut oil, fried candlenuts, and hibiscus leaves. Before any treatment, guests engage in a ritual aimed at eliminating “bad energy” by digging their feet into the black volcanic sand at the resort’s beach. In the end, a Spa Village experience is all-encompassing, but not rigorous. The 31-room spread is thick with honeymooners, the menu is more fresh seafood than juice fasts, and guests can pick from the predesigned programs or just make up their own. www.spavillage.com/tembokbali
From a spa standpoint, India is synonymous with Ayurveda, a system of medicine thousands of years old. Strictly Ayurvedic spas in India call for following a rigorous treatment regimen and a monastic lifestyle for two to three weeks. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Taj Lake Palace, a former royal residence on a 4-acre island in the middle of Lake Pichola. For some travelers, the resort might be that once-in-a-lifetime destination they aspire to visit – even just for one night – no matter the cost. Rich, colorful silks and elaborate frescoes of Rajasthani nobility adorn the opulent Jiva Spa. Ayurveda inspires the ingredients and treatments, but the execution veers toward sybaritic splendor. The Mewar Khas, a scrub and massage modeled after bygone regal wedding preparations, provides a majestic start. Like Indian cuisine, Lake Palace’s treatments involve a mind-boggling variety of ingredients – kewda, mustard oil, sandalwood, frankincense, turmeric, and so on. One wrap relies on 22 different local herbs. To truly feel aristocratic, take advantage of the new spa boat, an ornate vessel modeled after traditional ceremonial barges. Onboard find a double spa suite, a steam shower, an on-deck dining area, and a hot tub for two – strewn with rose petals, naturally. www.tajhotels.com